Kissing Doom’s Arsenal

I’ve been replaying Hexen II, a game in my game pile for which I had an enormous erection if you asked me about it any time from say, three weeks ago to when I was about sixteen. Like some sort of Matryoshka doll of nostalgia, though, as Hexen II‘s hair started to come out in my hands, I began to think back on the original Doom, comparing Hexen II‘s failings to just how good Doom had been at handling some of the same issues. On the one hand, I think it’s justified that I compare Hexen II to a game that came out four years earlier. There are other things about modern gaming that I miss as I play it, but it seems a bit of an unreasonably dickish complaint that Hexen II failed to properly emulate Half-Life.

I’m not about to review Doom, let’s move that on. The game gets stick for being primitive while even as we speak, new videogames are coming out that fail to have learned the basic lessons that Doom laid down in monstrous concrete blocks to serve as the bedrock for the genre. Then, some asshole came along and developed Halo in order to tap a massive money vein, and in the process wound up tearing up all that good design foundation, and replaced it with well-planted Shithead Bushes.

In Doom you supposedly had seven guns, if you ignored the two extra hidden special guns, a number that is odd and prime and also odd in a totally different way. Why seven? The interface had room on it for more than seven, and Doom II, they even introduced the possibility of a number representing an additional gun under the same key as another. These seven weapons weren’t even part of some sort of clever kabbalistic imagery, because that sounds like Tom “Read Commander Keen’s Help File” Hall’s style of thing, and for those of you who don’t remember their FPS History 101, Tom Hall’s contribution to Doom was writing the design document, having it ignored, and then being locked into a box in the corner of the room until such time as he quit in a fit of recognising passive aggression. The art direction by Adrian “No Relation” Carmack was praised by John “Utter Chimpanzee” Romero, who compared it excitedly to things he drew on the back of his schoolbooks in the eighties, which should tell you everything you know about the level of deliberate symbolism and character that got into the game by the end of things.

No, you can point squarely at the utilitarian soulless game fine-tuning mind of John “Codes With A Biro” Carmack, a man whose impossible space brain is so large that he could be considered the patron saint of self-diagnosed highly-functional autistics as long as they can ignore the fact that he’s brilliant as well as antisocial. Seven guns, really nine guns, with nine purposes.

My father and I played Doom both cooperatively and separately for something in the district of six to seven years, with him holding onto it far longer than I did thanks to the eternally available supply of .WAD files being released on BBSes that used the same nine methods of death and ten bad guys that brought in new levels of challenge as well as positively fiendish secret design, and yet he was completely blown away at some point around year five when I, like a Boddhavista with words from heaven script upon my palms, walked into his bedroom to the sound of him dying, yet again, on No-Save-Nightmare-Run e3l2, and spake unto him: “Cacodemons can’t beat the chaingun.”

“What?”

Some context for those of you who were sperm back in the 1990s, but the Cacodemon was basically a flying, floating howitzer, signifying that it had noticed you with a hiss that inspired genuine horror, and whose slow-moving fireball attacks arced through the air and on the difficulty that we played could make any player character history, or, more likely, geography with one or two hits. Worse, the game couldn’t let you look upwards for fear of giving your computer’s arithmetic logic unit the vapors, and so when the room you were in had a nice high ceiling, there was a non-zero chance that one of these monsters could be killing you from directly overhead while you frantically searched for a thing to hide behind. They triggered an immediate ‘kill it now’ reaction, which for us had always meant pulling out the gun that had a highest number and shooting it as many times as it took before it made the unpleasant gribbling sound that signified its death. This usually meant the rocket launcher, and rocket ammunition was both low in supply and couldn’t easily be stockpiled from level to level. The chaingun, on the other hand, could stockpile hundreds of bullets of ammunition which were about as common as unanswered prayers on Sunday morning, and never got used because it didn’t seem to have any special kick compoared to the shotgun.

This revelation transformed the game for me, personally, and I swear I spent another year playing the game anew approaching every single room or sequence of rooms trying to work out the best tool for the job, with weapon swapping becoming a skill just alongside circle-strifing and target priority.

In order of the button they lit up on your display, the weapons Doom gave you were

  1. Your bare knuckle fisticuffs, the sign that everything had gone utterly tits up and you’d somehow run out of ammunition or were somehow flush only with rockets in a close-quarter environment.
  2. Your starting pistol, which used the same ammunition as the chaingun, which piled up in huge heaps because one of the lowest-level mooks drop them and they’re military ordinance so the game will happily scatter boxes of the bloody things all over to make it seem more official. This gun is shit, and it’s meant to be shit, and as soon as you have alternatives, you jump on it. Yet it’s still there and it still behaves properly when you shoot it, which means when you first start the game and don’t have alternatives, you’re still getting to learn how the other guns work in the broadest sense, without needless shit like scatter or recoil.
  3. The shotgun, your all-purpose death cock, a gun that becomes your best friend as an it’ll-do killswitch with ammunition consistently available. It does a standardised output of damage, meaning you start to think of various bad guys in terms of how many shotgun shells they take to drop, and its nice reassuring chk-thnk reloading animation serves as a nice post-orgasm cuddle for the task at hand, and also serves to limit the gun’s universal utility in sequences where you have enormous squadrons of bad guys to cut through – that pause between shots is time you’re not killing.
  4. The chaingun, your industrial replacement for the pistol, designed to turn all those bullets you picked up earlier into something useful, firing rapidly to chew through the large stockpile fast, and yet hitting only about as hard as the pistol does on a per-bullet factor. This change in delivery method therefore makes it at its best at hitting certain enemies that recoil in pain, and have big slow attack animations, creatures like the aforementioned big red airstrike.
  5. Our rocket launcher, the hardest-hitting gun the shareware game gave you, whose projectile hits quite hard (as is appropriate, since 5 is a bigger numbenr than 4), ammunition can only be piled up to a fairly small amount and most importantly, shows you an actual projectile moving through the air in a straight line towards the thing you pointed it at. In other games, a rocket launcher is pretty much the same thing as any other gun, but in Doom, with its rocket-skates wearing marine, shooting the rocket while you circle-strafed around an enemy let you create what is basically a zone of exclusion, where enemies that chase too aggressively wind up triggering the explosion and if not just flat-out dying, softening himself and all his buddies up. You really appreciate the way this gun works when you encounter the boss fight that uses one, with Doom II deciding that sort of pants-shitting hell was best made into a regular enemy that could also punch you into unconsciousness in three hits.
  6. The plasma cannon, which is really more of a long-range, animated-projectile chaingun, rather than anything that deserves the term ‘cannon,’ which does half the job of the chaingun and the rocket launcher bolted together. It’s good for enemies that need a high rate of fire to prevent them messing up your lunch, but it also does double duty when dealing with large squads of soft targets.. The two main ways it differentiates itself from the chaingun is that the plasma gun’s ammunition is only plentiful in the late game, and its actual shots are individually much harder hitting. Doom at its finest could give you huge packs of bad guys to work through and with a plasma gun, you’d be best off circling them into position while taking minimal fire like a well-armoured collie dog, with the plasma gun shaving off the outsides of the group and leaving nothing but demons with PTSD in its wake.
  7. The BFG 9,000, a ridiculous penis extension whose actual use was positively arcane, but had the word ‘fucking’ implied in it, which made it seem more desireable. In addition to doing enough damage to one-shot the toughest class of non-boss monsters, the BFG’s rate of fire was embarassingly slow, with a wind up, and when it lands, it then explodes outwards, flushing out targets in a weird radial pattern around you. You can move while it’s firing, too, so you want to jockey around keeping it trained on its target, before it eventually turns your target into wallpaper paste. It consumes a huge amount of ammunition per shot, as well, which it shares with the Plasma Cannon.
  8. The Chainsaw, the first alternative weapon, which replaces the fists (unless you really want to use them, because you’re crazy) with a rapid-fire melee alternative, an alternative that hits hard enough and quick enough to put down cacodemons if you’re somehow lucky enough to find yourself in closed quarters behind one. Lucky being variable in this case.
  9. The berserk fists, melee range, consuming no ammunition. Now, you might imagine with the chainsaw, you’re pretty much set for melee options, but in several levels there’s closed quarter warehouse sections, where you have to fight enemies that either damage you on contact or hit harder in melee, meaning that dealing larger amounts of damage in short bursts is better. Imps are a key example.

What this means is that each gun is designed to have a best purpose. While each gun is set up to have an enemy that it bests easily, paper and scissors, things get hairy and confusing when you break out the enemies in groups. There’s one room in Doom II, memorably, where a large open-air part is flanked on both sides by narrow windows through which chaingun-toting human soldiers can blast away at your gribbly bits while a squadrom of cacodemons – each one of which is a rough enough problem on its own – occupy the center line. With the fear of the cacodemon in us, both dad and I handled this room by frantically dodging cacodemon projectiles, while sticking our noses up to the windows whenever we could to try and take out the protected gunners. Now, in hindsight, the tactic should have been to ship out the chaingun, pull back so the frontmost cacodemon covered you to the others, then chaingun through them while out of sight of the gunners. Then you can pull out the shotgun, stick it through the windows slits and pop the tops off the gunners and restock your chaingun ammo, walking out of the room with almost no lost hit points and your ammunition almost completely intact.

Similarly, you have bad guys who close with you faster than you can withdraw, making the splash-damage attacks like the rocket launcher, or the BFG more like threading a needle, because if you shoot them wrong, they’ll make something explode up close to you and get your ass killed, or take one for the team to protect everyone else’s asses. The way these games play out stops being a shooting gallery of pop-up pop-down wooden-duck shooting galleries, but rather an integrated sliding puzzle of disparate pieces that a level designer can spend literally years fiddling with and still finding new ways that the game can play out.

The reason I’m bringing all this nostalgic bullshit up is because while Doom is now in hindsight something that a teenager can program on his graphic calculator (seriously) is because Doom was really well designed. Not just really good in general purpose terms, but just plain out well designed, with the level design, monster design and gun design all working together really well to create an experience where a player’s skill has a direct impact on the way the game plays out. It may have been a byproduct of a truly exceptional lunatic working together with a tight team of assholes whose very existence was made miserable, but the end result is fantastic, fast-paced and a truly excellent game. Right now, most modern games want to embrace some feeling of realism in their firearms, or the emulation thereof, and I really think that the unreliable behaviour of the guns reduces the experience the level designers can create. Levelling mechanics and upgrade systems sound like they add something, but in order for them to have a meaningful impact on the game, the baseline experience of shooting, gunning and running gets worse, much worse in those crucial parts of the game where you should be having fun.

Don’t worry, I’ll probably break out Doom to replay it sometime soon, and find inside that particular doll a nostalgia aching within me for Catacomb Abyss or somesuch bollocks.

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