The Ancient Gods – Part Two wants you to know that the stakes are high.
The highest, in fact. The Dark Lord is free and all of existence is in peril. All of it. You would agree that it doesn’t get much higher than that. Unless of course you count my waning interest in the franchise, brought to the brink in the fun but clunky first instalment of the DLC duology.
In the face of that the so-called ‘Dark Lord’ doesn’t amount to a whole lot, no matter how much he narrows his eyes and declares that I will burn, burn, burn.
The problem goes back further than Part One, though. It started in DOOM (2016), when id chose to forego a compelling narrative in favour of revolutionising the core gameplay. I didn’t mind then. The brutal, frenetic arena fights told a story of their own; not since Halo: Combat Evolved had the first-person shooter seen such a radical take on combat. It was one of the most exhilarating experiences I’ve had in years.
But encoded within its DNA was a fatal flaw that would only become more prominent with time.
When Eternal landed last year it came laden with a far more complex (if appreciably weird) cosmology that told of a war between Heaven and Hell—here depicted as essentially highly advanced alien races—that had finally come to Earth. I wasn’t invested in any of it, saying “no thank you” to the tedious lore entries that gave it all context (as a rule, if you’re having to write reams of text in order to explain your world and story, you’re doing it wrong).
I wrote then that “[if] the game wanted me to care about its world, it failed. As it is, I’m not sure it does! It rarely, if ever, acted as impediment to enjoyment.” Well, having just finished Part Two I can say that is no longer the case. It’s clear the developers do want me care about their over-written and absurd cosmology, and that desire near enough breaks the entire series.
Because the resurrected DOOM franchise has no story or characters to speak of. There’s nothing here but lore, which is a word that functions as a pejorative in my vocabulary. You can’t invest solely in a world; you need something to cling to beyond Khan Maykrs and Sentinels warriors.
DOOM Eternal, and by extension The Ancient Gods Part One and Two, seem unaware of this. Unaware they’ve woven an ersatz tale of cosmic warfare that signifies nothing.
Arriving in “the most ancient part of Hell” to confront the Dark Lord, the Doom Slayer stands alone against an impossible army of demons and monsters. It all seems too much for a moment, even if these games have taught us the Slayer is capable of damn near anything. But then portals bubble open behind him and out spill the forces of good to lend a hand.
As the Slayer pushes on towards his enemy, sentinels and demons clash over a ruinous backdrop of rock and lava. You’d be impressed if it meant anything, but it’s a hollow moment that reeks of contrivance. It hasn’t earned any of what it wants.
The Ancient Gods says that all existence is at stake, but what does that matter when there’s no one in it who we actually care about?
The reason this is important now is that the gameplay is getting tired. I am weary of the endless arena fights. Often I opened the map and groaned when I saw there were several more standing between me and the exit. That wasn’t the case before. I relished the fury of conflict, of creating a kind of inelegant choreography in which to survive.
The combat hasn’t weakened at all, but nor has it really changed. So I looked for something else to invest in, but of course there was nothing there. Ultimately DOOM can write as many lore entries as it likes; it is still screaming into an empty void.
There are some new gameplay additions which try to shake things up a bit. The Armoured Baron of Hell is probably my favourite—a fairly simple enemy whose armour you need to break in order to deal damage. The catch? That armour will regenerate, which means there’s only a small window in which to act. We also have Stone Imps and Cursed Prowlers and a couple of other things, but they’re introduced so quickly that I never felt like I was getting to spend enough time with them before moving onto the next.
I should say that the exhilaration factor that made me fall in love with DOOM is still there. I may have become fatigued by the formula, but a couple of the more intense and challenging arenas got my blood going again. There’s something raw and visceral about the dance of death id has forced players to learn that’s operating on a different level to its competitors.
But left to stand alone it can no longer bear the weight of the series.
More frustrating is the DLC’s continued embrace of Eternal’s less appealing elements. There’s more platforming and more jumping, something I feel like a lot of players reacted negatively to. It’s expanded here with the ability to use the super shotgun’s chain to swing from designated points, which is just ugh.
There have to be better ways of breaking up combat arenas than having a heavily-armoured killing machine perform feats of acrobatic fancy.
It’s the doubling down on the weakest bits that sticks in my craw. Didn’t like the platforming? Prepare to jump longer and higher! Weren’t sold by the stodgy mythology? Well, if you want to have even the slightest notion of what’s happening, then here’s a deluge of jargon-riddled text to make even the mightiest Warhammer 40k tomes blush!
It’s a weird thing to ask of DOOM, but could it maybe stop smelling its own farts long enough to lighten up a bit?
The DLC concludes with a strangely misjudged finale, where all the principles upon which the combat is based are jettisoned in a terrible and prolonged boss fight. Worse is that the battle is punctuated with cutscenes that try to make the entire cosmology fit in one bowl.
And it expects you to care.
I did beat it eventually, but I had to ask myself more than once why I was playing when I had long stopped having any fun. That’s the opposite of how I felt with DOOM and Eternal. But with a sad inevitability that inbuilt flaw finally manifested itself in full. id have a problem, and it won’t be solved by digging their heels in any further.
DOOM needs to find its sense of fun again—this is not it.
Verdict: Off target
Platforms Available – PC, PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Xbox Series X/S & Xbox One
Platform Reviewed – PC
Review based on Steam media account copy. Please read this post for more on our scoring policy.