One does not simply ease back into Doom Eternal. A month after publishing my review earlier this year, I tried playing through the campaign again on the Nightmare difficulty and was met with shameful, repeated deaths in the first level. I figured playing the game a second time on Ultra Violence wouldn’t hurt since it was still challenging without being ridiculously punishing; however, I’d lost something. My aim wasn’t as precise; my movement was off just enough to cost me precious glory kills and escape routes; my multitasking didn’t take full advantage of the Doom Slayer’s inventory. All of this was a result of failing to reach what game director Hugo Martin calls “the fun zone,” a flow of consciousness state achieved by internalizing the ins and outs of the game’s rules, tools, and ghouls. I initially experienced the same roadblock in the expansion titled The Ancient Gods – Part One. Once I had played for a couple hours, I realized head knowledge alone isn’t enough to enter the fun zone. I had to slowly feel and earn my way back into it, and once I did, I remembered why Eternal is one of the best first-person shooters. When I didn’t, I realized it was not only due to my own incompetence, but also new yet puzzling design choices. Because of that, The Ancient Gods – Part One is Eternal at its best and worst in a complicated tangle of ways.
title: Doom Eternal: The Ancient Gods – Part One • developer: id Software • publisher: Bethesda Softworks • release date: 10/20/2020 • platform reviewed: PS4 (played on PS4 Pro)
From the start, you’ll notice the expansion is drop-dead gorgeous with one of the game series’ most breathtaking places: a sprawling facility built out at sea, both above and below its surface. As you explore its bowels and flit among its open skybridges, a gritty, more industrial version of Kamino from Star Wars will come to mind, not to mention the titular battle from the Clone Wars once the facility is gradually destroyed by the Slayer’s sabotage; flaming flotsam fills the ocean to contrast with the grand, stormy expanse. You should expect the unexpected with yet another biome in the form of a foggy bog in Hell, as well as a return to the Giger-inspired biomechanical metropolis of Urdak, newly corrupted by demonic influence with its skybox, fauna, and enemies. Just as Eternal stretched the art department’s creative muscles with environmental diversity, the expansion leans further into this with pleasing results that had me oohing and aahing all the way.
The same satisfaction extends to the level design. You’ve got more multitiered playgrounds to jump around, swing across, and teleport within, all while avoiding their environmental hazards. Familiar yet well integrated ones return like errant flames and floors of electricity, but there are new hazards as well like exploding spore pods mostly intended to keep you moving rather than be used against demons. More interesting hazards are found in singular encounters, such as one with a circular arena shrouded in thick fog, a battleground with about a dozen pillars that change in height and are electrified, and a long Dagobah-like pathway filled with poisonous gas where you’re forced to stay inside safety bubbles as demons pour in from all sides.
Doom Eternal never failed to have breathtaking views, and The Ancient Gods is no exception.
Like Eternal, the expansion finds a nice balance with half of the encounters being straightforward yet challenging, and the other half being characterized by the aforementioned novelties in level design that limit sight and space. If I had to generally differentiate the expansion in this regard, I’d say levels are tighter and narrower with more hallways and walkways that make you think more about not getting sandwiched between demons, which manages to be both exciting and annoying with unpredictable results despite strategic movement.
I have no ambiguous feelings over how new enemies adversely affect gameplay. The problem emerges early on with eye turrets, which pop in and out of these pedestals to blast you with purple energy. Then, the Blood Maykrs (a demonic version of Maykr Angels, who I wish had been introduced in the base game!) come along with staffs that shoot out energy balls and electricity nets that slow down movement; their only weakness is a single headshot with the Heavy Assault Rifle, akin to their lesser kin. Lastly, the Spirits—vengeful ghosts of Summoners from the first game—enhance the power, speed, and health of demons twofold, and these apparitions can only be eliminated by the Microwave beam. There are also cloaked Whiplashes as well, but they don’t really feel like a new addition and are easily exposed by setting them on fire or freezing them for visibility.
What all of these have in common is forcing the player to momentarily slow down and even stop. Both the turrets and Blood Makyrs require this approach with the Tactical Scope attachment. While those on PC may not relate to and scoff at this, it’s not friendly to console players. The latter must center their aim and turn on Target Snapping out of necessity to avoid standing in place to adjust their aim after zooming in. Even then, Blood Makyrs make this hard to pull off since they’re only vulnerable while firing those paralyzing nets at you, which often made me eat health and armor while standing still for a second or two to get rid of them. However, Spirits are the greatest offender to Doom’s DNA by requiring the worst attachment in the game. Why’s that? The Microwave beam brings you to a snail’s pace for a cursed five seconds as it does its underwhelming magic.
Support Runes have been added in as well, but they don’t impact gameplay in any substantial way other than being nice bonuses like this one.
When all of these enemies are combined, The Ancient Gods introduces antithetical elements to Eternal by prompting the pumping of brakes on movement, which made me die plenty of times since I had to risk killing these new foes to prevent encounters from being any harder or longer. In one case, my inability to eliminate a Spirit made an encounter last for more than 10 minutes since I had little to no openings to use the Microwave beam. Most enemy-specific weaknesses rightly require general accuracy with quick solutions, even the Marauders, who I’ve come to tolerate more since my Eternal review with my discovery of properly using weapon switching to bypass reloading. They’re still a nuisance to handle amid hectic frays, but they always made me appreciate how near-perfectly airtight and consistent the game design is to foster thrilling, multilayered, fire-and-forget gameplay. The Ancient Gods made this gulf of appreciation more apparent since the expansion fumbles with Eternal’s essence by adding foes unbefitting to its roster.
Most of the bosses aren’t so much fought in themselves as they are indirectly through their demonic legions. The second boss is the most compelling one, being a more hardcore version of Kalibas, but the final boss only has one attack for the first half of the fight, and then becomes entirely passive as he relies on summoned Spirits to do his dirty work. In other words, he has a bland, active role at the start of the fight and is then taken out of the equation with two standard encounters turned up to 11 with two Spirits empowering heavy demons. Since they respawn instantly after death, this made focusing on any of them almost pointless, making prioritization of the Spirits’ demises necessary, which—as stated before—largely depends on luck based on where other demons are in relation to the Spirit so you can use the Microwave beam without dying in place. id Software, for the most part, stays on brand with boss fights that could do with more complexity, even more so than those in the campaign.
There are some wide stretches of platforming in the first level similar to The Cultist Base from Eternal, but I found the latter had a more compelling array of navigational challenges.
That’s not to say all of the encounters aren’t up to par. Playing on the next difficulty down after the campaign feels just right, whereas maintaining the same level would feel like a leap to, say, Nightmare if you played the campaign on Ultra Violence. It’s commonplace to see multiples of super heavy demons, sometimes buffed by Spirits that will have them right on your tail until you rip and tear them for good. This expansion’s Slayer Gates are an absolute treat to test your mettle, and the makeup and length of encounters all steadily increase in intensity right where you left off in Eternal. The platforming, however, doesn’t receive the same treatment. It was fun and adequately engaging in between the carnage with the campaign but never quite reaches or goes beyond that in the expansion. It has every opportunity to do so, especially with platforming races and multitiered puzzles with the aquatic setting of the first level, but the level designers don’t leverage the potential of these possibilities.
It would’ve been fun to see a new weapon or type of grenade introduced, but the Slayer’s inventory is already robust enough, as exemplified in my struggling to remember everything while completely forgetting I had freezing grenades and the Unmaykr! It would be like expecting a new weapon from the new God of War with a hypothetical expansion—it wouldn’t be necessary since there is so much that can be used from Kratos’s existing toolkit by creating new purposes for certain parts of it, which the expansion attempts to do but mostly in the wrong ways.
The Slayer makes some shocking decisions that made me wonder if his demon-killing obsession is leading him to a grand failure, or if he’s seeing the bigger picture of what he must do.
Eternal’s ending and teases through writing left some threads loose. Is Samuel Hayden the Seraphim? What was up with VEGA saying he’s the Father? Is The Dark Lord (good ol’ Satan himself) or some other force related to the voice crying out after killing the Khan Maykr? The expansion answers all of these questions with a series fetch quests that advance the plot in surprising ways that point to a definitive closure to the overall story. It’s a little heavy on the self-seriousness and deep lore just as the campaign was, but I can’t help but love the universe and how the expansion elaborates and expands upon opaque characters and details. It’s hard for me to guess how the story will develop and what alliances will be forged in Part Two. Still, I look forward to seeing what will come from it, and hope someone like the Betrayer will play a part in it, let alone the amicable audience surrogate known as the Intern.
It should be mentioned that Mick Gordon didn’t return to compose for … professionally improper reasons, which is a shame since his work is considered part and parcel with Doom for its special kind of electronicore. Instead, id Software’s sound engineer David Levy and composer Andrew Hulshult (who has worked on appropriately similar games like Dusk and Quake Champions) took the reins. Their combined efforts result in tracks that seamlessly blend into each other depending on the level of action going on. The score also skews toward metal rather than Gordon’s more experimental work with synths and distortion and glitch sounds. That is, up until you return to Urdak, which has music heavily reminiscent to Gordon’s UAC facility jams. They often involved settings with experimentation on demons, which fits Urdak’s corrupted landscape. There aren’t any riffs that stick out as often as Gordon’s work does, but considering the big shoes being filled, his replacements have done a superb job matching and complementing his style.
The Ancient Gods – Part One is exactly what it should be where it counts: a sweat fest of gory rampages through fantastic, larger-than-life locations built with superb, compact, and sometimes unexpectedly creative level design filled with wild enemy pairings aplenty. The platforming and music are just below the threshold of what Eternal established, but the enemy design works against the tried-and-true formula with artificial—or perhaps misplaced—difficulty, putting road bumps and signs in the fun zone that can’t be ignored. Even still, this expansion is only brought down slightly since its built upon a near-perfect foundation. For anyone who enjoyed Eternal, I still highly recommend the expansion because of its substance and length, which reminds me of favorites like Wolfenstein: The Old Blood and Destiny: The Taken King. There may not be so much that’s new or different, like in Assassin’s Creed: Freedom Cry or BioShock Infinite: Burial at Sea, but here, there’s largely more of the same with the ante upped across new places. When it comes to Eternal, that’s a prayer answered, even if not fulfilled without flaws.