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‘DOOM Eternal’:  Perfecting the Action FPS Chess Game

Original Photography by Sam Dirkis

Doom: Eternal, brings this idea of the perfect strategy game into the 21st century with mastery that no other video game is yet to match, and refines it down to a biting and brutal point.

Move and Counter Move

So how does Doom: Eternal actually make good on the idea of move and counter move? In two words… Sandbox design. Keeping the chess analogy going, there is an ideal way to use every piece you have on your board to deal with all the pieces your opponent has. Eternal uses pretty much the same formula, just with more blood and guts.

Eternal will never put an enemy in your path that you don’t have the tools to overcome. Much to the annoyance of some, Eternal will even go so far as to straight tell you how to use the tools you have at your disposal to best deal with this demon. For example, the first time you encounter a hell knight, there will be this little pop-up that tells you the best way to combat this demon, and you go on to fight them pretty much on their own. However, the next time you encounter this demon it might be paired with say an arachnotron, a demon that you have previously learned how to fight. Now the move and counter move of combat that the game has diligently taught you has to evolve. The onus is then on the player to figure out how the pieces they have been taught to use to best overcome this new challenge.

Of course, that is only the simplest of encounters. As the game goes on things get more and more complicated as the demons the game throws at you get more challenging tool kits for you to overcome. I could spend 1000s of words describing the pinpoint precision of how every piece of your tool kit interacts with every enemy you face, but you get the idea. 

This is the brilliance of Eternal. Much the same as a game of chess, you have all the information and tools you need to win. The victory lies in how you apply those things. Although Eternal might hold your hand in the first instance for the most part it’s up to the player to figure it out. Leaving you with a genuine sense of satisfaction when it all clicks

Stop Thinking and Start Feeling. 

Eternal brings this formula into the context of a 21st-century first-person shooter by dialing the speed up to 11. That is to say that the move and counter move that I just described happens incredibly quickly and in such a way that forces the player to never standstill. Due to the density of enemies in every encounter, the second you stop moving you find yourself overrun by demons.

It’s this pace that keeps Eternal’s combat feeling like an edge-of-your-seat thrill ride. It’s not just chess but speed chess where you only have just enough time to plan out your next attack before it’s game over. The need to always be repositing, combined with the move and counter move style of combat work together to create a system that eventually you start to just feel in your bones. The encounter outside of the super gore nest is where this happened for me. The fight happens in this super wide open area with pretty much every demon you’ve encountered up to that point and puts you in a position where you have to use every trick in your tool kit to make it through the fight. Eventually, once Mick Gorden’s brilliant score kicks in, you stop thinking and start feeling.

This almost transcendent experience is something I never felt in a video game before or since. It’s something that is hard to put into words, you reach a point where you know every trick you have in your arsenal, and you’ve mastered the flow of combat. You stop thinking about the next move and just feel the flow, the pace, and the rhythm of combat. It’s almost like a dance, one set to hardcore metal music and full violence and blood, but a dance all the same. 

The Queen

So everything I’ve mentioned is all well good and creates genre-defining gameplay until you come across the marauders. Keeping the chess analogy going, marauders are the queen, they are far and away from the most powerful piece Eternal has to deploy against you. They are so powerful and have so many things in their tool kit they never feel like they naturally fit into the chess game the way a queen does. 

As mentioned earlier, all the demons in Eternal have tools in their kit and there is always a way to counter them that fits into the flow of combat. Arachnotrons have a long-range turret, but you can snipe it off using the sniper attachment for the machine gun, things like that. Marauders, on the other hand, have; a long-range attack, a short-range attack, a shield that blocks most attacks, not in a specific window, they summon minions if you don’t engage them with enough, they’re the only demon in the game that can cross areas faster than you and to add insult injury the two highest damages weapons in the game don’t work on them. 

Marauders have so much stuff in their kit that more often than not I’ll find myself just doing my best to ignore them. Until I’ve worked through everything else and I fight them one on one. To that point one on one they’re great, they have a specific rhythm to their attacks that once you can tune in to they feel great to fight.  But in group fights tuning into that pattern takes so much focus away from everything else that it never quite fits into the rhythm of the rest of the game. again going back to chess queen should be an integral part of your strategy, not an inconvenience that you are largely ignoring.

Once More, With Style. 

As I mentioned earlier, every time you encounter a new enemy or get a new piece of gear Eternal will give you a little rundown on how best to fight that enemy or what said piece of gear is useful for. I’ve known people that found this quite irritating. They would rather figure that stuff out themselves. Look sure I get that but by tutorialising itself in this way, Eternal can push the player harder. 

That is best represented in the doom hunter boss fight. The whole level beforehand is to build up the doom hunter as a creature purpose-built to kill you. And the boss fights with the doom hunter and delivers on this. I would rather not admit how many times the doom hunter killed me. But it’s all part of the learning process the Eternal is pushing you through. As in the very next fight, you are against two doom hunters, at the same time, I didn’t die once. Because Eternal has spent the time to ensure I know how this goes. After that what was once a boss will not just pop up in-stock standard fights. 

In lesser games, this would very quickly be tiring. Because of Eternal’s militant tutorializing, it can push the player harder and harder. you’ve spent enough time getting you to fight the same enemies again and again until Eternal is sure you’ve got it. This is why in the late game you can be against everything Eternal has to throw at you and it’s always challenging, but never overwhelming. Most games struggle to achieve that balance. 

The Brutal Point 

All of this combines to create a game that is brutally difficult, but never unfair. This is the thing that sets Eternal above the rest. I can’t think of a game that genuinely gets more rewarding the harder you make it. This is something that I can’t think of any other that has achieved.

Most games reach a point towards the end where you can switch off your brain and coast through. Either that or you find some broken combination of abilities that breaks the whole game. Eternal on the other hand continually finds new ways to engage the player. Whether it be by giving you new tools, a creative arena to fight, a unique set of enemies, or a combination of all three. The master levels that were added fairly recently this is on display best. I’ve never managed to beat any of them but I always feel like I could. If I had the time to dedicate to the running level again and again I feel confident that I would eventually get it. More importantly, I would be having fun the whole time.

All the elements in Eternal combine to create an experience that is always engaging. I never felt like the game is unfair or boring. Because Eternal has spent so long showing me how to use all my abilities in the move and counter move flow of combat, and I’m always being presented with a new challenge. Those things are ultimately what put Doom Eternal in a league of its own. Eternal isn’t doing anything new, it’s combining old ideas with expertise that ensures it’s never unfair or boring, and always puts the onus on the player to get better. This is something that I can’t think of another game that achieves anything close to.

For all things video games, follow the author on Twitter: @DirkisSam