(Xbox 360 Review) Doom II

Developer: id Software / Nerve Software
Publisher: Bethesda Softworks
Genre: First-Person Shooter
Players: 1-4
ESRB: Mature
Reviewer: George Damidas

Overall: 8 = Excellent

It’s hard to believe that DOOM II is 15 years old. It’s even harder to believe that so few games have come close to matching the intensity of id Software’s demonic duo. DOOM II and its predecessor set the mold for run-and-gun gameplay and, save for Painkiller and id’s own offerings, no games have come close to matching their mixture of high speed, gunplay, and platforming. Amazing to think all of this was done in the days of the 386.

The arrival of Half-Life certainly changed the landscape of the genre. A narrative-driven first-person shooter wasn’t entirely new, but Valve’s execution was such that the run-and-gun style was relegated to has-been status. While that might have been true for the marketers, it wasn’t necessarily true for gamers: Painkiller and Serious Sam proved that there are plenty out there who love fast-paced action with big guns and wild enemies. But neither they nor any of DOOM’s contemporaries could match the series’ gleeful mixture of ‘80s death metal, hokey science fiction, and pure awesomeness. And that mixture has most certainly stood the test of time.

The Live Arcade port of DOOM is fantastic, and its arrival meant reliving the golden days of PC gaming, when you could actually find more than five games on a retail shelf and when you weren’t cutting edge if you weren’t on a floppy. DOOM II rekindles that feeling while also introducing a new generation to just what made it the game of its day – the fast pace, level design, and attention to flow. What I’ve always enjoyed so much about the series is what I also enjoy in Joust, and that’s the moment when you size your opponent up and wait until just the right moment before committing to action. With no crouching, jumping, or leaning, your Marine is left with walking, running and strafing. The limited options lead to some tense scenarios: strafing through hallways, dodging fireballs, rushing up to get a one-shot kill because you’ll need the ammo for the 10 other monsters behind the next door. Each section of each level are filled with such encounters, all producing the same adrenaline rush as you prepare for a ridiculous fight with gnarly monsters that require the attention of the newly added double barrel Super Shotgun.

Of course, it isn’t always a showdown at high noon when you run across a wandering Imp or two; sometimes you just have to spray a hallway with a chaingun. While I think the original’s level design has a slight edge over the sequel, there is still a great flow to DOOM II that encourages the player to be both reckless and conservative. Many of the levels offer just enough ammo to make it through yet not enough to get too great of an advantage for the next level; unless, that is, you explore all of the nooks and crannies and use the game’s geometry and unique versus system to your advantage. It’s a credit to John Romero’s clever design, heavily influenced by platformers, that many items and hidden area entrances are placed on elevated platforms and are still accessible without a jump button. By using the various ledges and walkways in combination with the run button, players can uncover all sorts of hidden (and destructive) goodies. This platforming element is unique to the series, and is one of its more subtle charms.

Time marches on, though, and what were once design conventions are now seen as archaic and lame. And of course, I’m talking about the find-keys-to-progress method of design. To be fair, everyone thought it was dull at the time, but it’s hard to fault id and other developers for using it: as a way to prod players forward through the next hallway or hub, it works great. It just also happens to be unimaginative and restrictive. While id did an admirable job working around the limitations of the day, newcomers still might wince a bit.

The Live Arcade port also introduces No Rest for the Living, a new nine-level chapter from Nerve Software. They should definitely be played after the initial thirty-two as they can be quite difficult, with a near total adoption of the DOOM III ‘monster closet’ system that I didn’t really mind but was a source of irritation for some. They do offer a bit more show, though, in terms of variety and effects, with outdoor courtyards, more sophisticated use of lighting, and some decently replicated structures. They are also playable with the core game in co-op and versus multiplayer, locally via splitscreen and online through Live. In all, the new chapter is a nice bonus, and it offers a solid end-cap challenge for those who don’t mind a little icing on their cake.

As good of a port as DOOM II is, it’s not perfect. In one room I noticed a barrel floating through a wall. Exiting for a second, I walked back in to confirm that I wasn’t crazy and, yep, sure enough, a barrel from the next room over found its way through one of the corners of the ceiling. I also ran into a considerable amount of lag when playing online. I tended to fare better than my opponents, but I was still subjected to the occasional hiccup; however, it’s enjoyable when everything is running smooth. Local splitscreen multiplayer was great, of course, making the problems with the netcode all the more of a bummer. Still, after all these years, those pixelated monsters and muffled shotgun blasts still manage to get the blood pumping like few other titles.

DOOM II is more DOOM and DOOM is (still) awesome. Nerve’s new chapter adds a bit of kick to bring a jolt of energy back into the 15-year-old title, and it’s always fun to kick back with some friends and go head-to-head or tromp through a few levels together. Unfortunately the netcode isn’t quite up to snuff, resulting in some serious bouts of lag, which happens to put a damper on one of the most beloved aspects of the series – online multiplayer. At 800 MS Points, even with the (hopefully temporary) temperamental online play, DOOM II is a nicely priced treat for newcomers and fans alike.

(This review is based on a copy provided by the publisher.)

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