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noisebloom

Doom Review: Episodes I - V

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I decided to do a review of episodes I - V of Doom (Knee Deep through Sigil) after playing through them again.

 

I'm sure a lot of you will disagree with my opinions, but these are my opinions nonetheless. I'm not a great Doom player by any means, but I will always love the game. The review of E1 is essentially a review of Doom itself, as its our first experience with the game we all love.

 

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25 years later, Doom remains extremely playable. Incredible theme, heart-pounding action, and inspiring level design make it a marvel of gaming that has stood the test of time.

 

John Romero bolstered this very notion with the recent release of Sigil, a fifth episode to follow the original Ultimate Doom series.

 

While there are many different opinions about the five Doom episodes, and no predominant consensus, the opinions below are my own.

 

Without further ado:

 

Episode I: Knee Deep In The Dead

Spoiler

The Union Aerospace Corporation (UAC) has been performing experiments with dimensional travel between Mars’ two moons, Phobos and Deimos. Inexplicably, all hell breaks loose (literally), and the bases are overrun by satanic forces. Sent to Phobos to investigate, you realize that every human soldier is dead, and things have gotten completely out of hand. Your only hope is to fight through Phobos and get out of dodge.

 

Knee Deep In the Dead combines science fiction with hellish horror. It’s an incredible juxtaposition of pulp storytelling that is made a reality through gritty action and disturbing set pieces.

 

It’s unbelievable how satisfying the combat in this game still is, given that it’s been two decades. Throughout the episode you’ll have to tear down gruesome zombies (former humans), fireball-wielding imps, and beastly, charging demons (some of which are partially invisible, yikes), with a variety of very different weapons. The incredible sound effects make the gunplay continually rewarding; the sound of a full-sounding shotgun blast that results in a demonic death yowl never gets old. Besides the shotgun, you have a fast-firing chaingun, a devastating rocket launcher, an obliterating chainsaw, a trusty pistol, and your own fists.

 

All of this action is set to a MIDI soundtrack that is thematically horrifying, infectious, and wrought with perfectly paced attitude. These tunes will stick in your head long after your gaming experiences, and there’s some incredible composition here.

 

The dreary, computerized tech bases you shoot your way through provide a daunting and often labyrinthine feeling of desolation. Pulsating lights, sickly slime pits, and high-tech terminals litter the levels, leading you to dark, unsettling corridors and traps, all which make the episode incredibly immersive and adequately nerve-wracking. Windows and secret doors give you a glimpse into the outside world, areas explored that only increase the feeling of hopeless isolation.

 

Though there’s a distinct flow to the maps which helps you proceed to the next area, the UAC facilities grow larger and more complex, which adds to the awe factor. Occasionally, the levels become a tad too confusing - it can feel overly repetitive when you’ve gone back to the same area of the facility again and again, trying to find the right way out, e.g. Computer Station, but in most cases, the game flow is very satisfying.

 

Not only are you forced to navigate staircases, corridors, and lifts to proceed through the maps, the episode throws puzzles pretty frequently at you. These are usually not too difficult, but they break up the linearity and elevate the game beyond “dumb action”. Even after playing the episode many times over the years, I still come across the occasional “what do I need to do again?” moment.

 

Almost every level in Knee Deep in The Dead has several secret areas hidden away. These are usually given away by some context clue, e.g. a different texture on the wall of the secret, and they can be a challenge to find. They almost always reveal some sort of treasure, e.g. extra ammo/health or an awesome weapon (like the demon-gutting chainsaw). In general, there’s quite a bit to do in each map, and that makes the episode more replayable and fun. There’s even an optional secret level that can be accessed via an alternate exit in one of levels - that’s dedication!

 

The final map features an incredible battle between two enemies not featured previously: Barons of Hell. Witnessing these for the first time is an awesome sight, and the battle is exhilarating. After the level is complete, you walk onto a final teleporter that will finally transport you off the base…?

 

Instead, you’re transported to a dark room in which you’re mauled by your demonic comrades. You’re now on Deimos, Mars’ other moon, which is even more hell-infested and happens to be floating above hell itself. A breathtaking and almost unsurpassable gaming experience overall.

 

Rating: 10/10

 

Episode II: The Shores of Hell

 

Spoiler

After the first few moments of The Shores of Hell, it’s clear that this episode is going to be anything but more of the same. Deimos Anomaly initially looks like a point A-to-B level, but it throws it some disorienting teleporters to keep you on your feet.

 

The level eventually leads to an extremely claustrophobic room which I would describe as a “death attic” that contains a new menace, the Cacodemon. The Cacodemon may very well be one of the most disturbing creatures I’ve ever set eyes upon, a spinoff of the Beholder from D&D. You’ll need a lot of firepower to take these guys down. Luckily, the first level also features a secret that contains a plasma rifle, a new weapon that allows you to zap enemies at an extremely fast click.

 

The Shores of Hell is far more disorienting than its predecessor. Deimos has been warped by its proximity to hell to an extent that could not be conceived: its UAC facilities are a mesh of techbase and hell, and frankly it can look pretty ugly. However, the jarring feel of this episode is very fitting; the universe as you know is it falling apart, and you can start to feel your mind lose it when you play through this episode.

In addition to being much harder due to enemy count and variety, the levels here usually dwarf those of Knee Deep, and the episode has more tricks up its sleeve, such as ammo starvation, doors that aim to crush you, and sillier puzzles that almost seem to poke fun at you. Some of these tongue-in-cheek moments foreshadow Doom II, a game that frequently went over-the-top with level design.

 

If there’s an aspect of episode two that is inferior to episode one, it’s the overall architecture of the levels. The natural flow of the first episode is largely absent here. This can be justified by the hellish warping of Deimos, but you’re apt to get more frustrated by the maps of Shores. Part of me wants to groan when replaying Halls of the Damned, a level that is maybe too maze-like and confusing for its own good.

 

Make no mistake, however, there are plenty of incredible levels and moments here. Containment Area is absolutely gargantuan second level, ultimately satisfying after a lot of potential struggle at the start, and Deimos Lab is twisted beyond belief.

 

Perhaps the best moment in The Shores of Hell is its final boss battle, Tower of Babel, an incredible shootout with the Cyberdemon, a fleshy, satanic enemy that towers above all others, capable of wrecking you with one hit from its rocket launcher. The memory of this epic gaming encounter is likely to stay with you.

 

The Shores of Hell does an incredible job of upping the ante in terms of theme, gameplay, and intensity, even if it isn’t super pretty to look at and can feel uneven at times.

 

Rating: 8/10

 

 

Episode III: Inferno

Spoiler

Ahh - Hell at last. Inferno begins with you staring at a disturbing closed eye sewn into a wall, foreshadowing the utterly awesome weirdness of this episode.

 

The UAC is nowhere to be seen now, and you are literally making your way through the fiery inferno of Hell, complete with strange environments, jarring textures, and an onslaught of enemies.

 

Inferno gives The Shores of Hell a run for its money when it comes to strange and disorienting level design. The very first level contains a fake wall that you can run through - huh… The aesthetic in this episode is divisive, and for good reason. What is Hell really supposed to look like? It is supposed to have a strangely two-dimensional wall like in Hell’s Keep? Is it supposed to have a jagged maze like in Slough of Despair?

 

At a high level, I think the aesthetic vision here is pretty strong, and menacing, strange-looking areas prevail. Whether that improves or detracts from the level design is another story. There’s a mix of amazing, questionable, and confusing moments in Inferno.

 

Slough of Despair is an interesting level, as it’s a maze-like outdoor level with a lot of surprises. It’s completely non-linear in the sense that you really have no idea where to go to progress. Pandemonium is beautiful, disturbing, and intense. Both of these levels are likely to put you in the uncomfortable position of needing ammo, which adds to the constant feeling that you’re really not meant to be here.

 

House of Pain has some questionable level design, but has a mystical quality that turns tense towards the end; it’s delightfully weird. Unholy Cathedral is a really cool concept that makes use of teleporters, but I’m not sure I love the execution. Inferno contains a lot of levels I might consider experiments, a motif that one could argue forms the basis of much of Doom II.

 

Warrens, the secret level of Inferno, is positively brilliant, and will almost certainly mess with your head.

 

I feel constantly alienated playing Inferno, and I like it. If I have an issue with the episode, it’s probably the difficulty and pacing. Early on, the episode introduces the BFG9000, an insanely powerful laser weapon that is capable of leveling multiple enemies in a single hit. The rest of the episode can be fairly easy because of this. In general, actually, the ammo starvation from the beginning of the episode is non-existent in the latter half. There are also some levels (I’m looking at you, Limbo) that have a curiously low enemy count, but the interesting level layouts and ambience make up for it.

 

The finale of Inferno is Dis. Instead of facing off against the Cyberdemon, you’re forced to battle the Spider Mastermind to get out of Hell. While its visage isn’t quite as intimidating, it can be a lot easier to be utterly obliterated by this guy, and there are some clever tactics that will need to be employed to beat the level (assuming you don't still have BFG cells). It’s a satisfying ending that may not quite live up to The Shores of Hell, but I enjoyed it nonetheless.

 

Of the original three episodes, Inferno is easily the most uneven. However, its creepy, strange atmosphere and willingness to make bold design choices makes for a very fun and intense experience.

 

Rating: 8/10


Episode IV: Thy Flesh Consumed

Spoiler

 

After Inferno, the stage was set for Doom II: Hell on Earth, as you finally escaped the fiery depths of Hell and made it to the motherland.

 

However, Ultimate Doom added a fourth episode to to game in 1995, so the original trilogy’s ending is effectively retconned to you arriving at the corridor between Hell and Earth (a notion that is ostensibly verified by the existence of a fifth episode, Sigil), from what I understand.

 

The idea of an episode halfway between Hell and Earth brings back memories of The Shores of Hell, a beautifully tangled mess of two worlds colliding. Unfortunately, Thy Flesh Consumed looks… wooden, for the most part. Wooden doors and walls are used exhaustively throughout the episode, with some marble thrown in there for good measure.

 

The fourth episode of Doom doesn’t look bad by any means, but it definitely looks plain, especially after just completing Inferno. There’s little in the environment to really marvel at here. It repeats the textural homogeneity of Episode I, but it’s nowhere near as exciting or clever.

 

However, even if Thy Flesh Consumed’s maps look boring, they certainly do not play boring, especially at the start of the episode. To put it simply, the first two maps of this episode are incredibly difficult. If one wishes to maintain the same difficulty as the original trilogy, they almost certainly need to knock the settings down a notch when starting Episode IV. Hell Beneath, while a brilliant start to the episode (a better design than E2M1 or E3M1), is sadistically punishing. Ammo is scarce and enemies plenty, in a pretty cramped but elegantly constructed map. On harder difficulties, you are forced to face several Barons of Hell, which is a tall order given not having built up a weapon or ammo supply at this point.

 

The second map, Perfect Hatred, is a phenomenal puzzler that is also brutally difficult. Precision platforming combined with an orgy of enemies makes for an intense experience. There’s even a Cyberdemon thrown in to make you jump out of your seat. Despite the overwhelming difficulty, the flow of this level is absolutely fantastic. The map is cleverly designed as a series of repeated attempts that steadily progress further and further. Doom doesn’t get much better than this.

 

Some of Ultimate Doom’s finest level design makes up for the bland look of Thy Flesh Consumed. However, after E4M2, the difficulty drops sharply and inexplicably. This jarring change-up ruins the pacing of the episode and frankly is a bewildering choice on the designers’ part that makes no sense to me.

 

I would enjoy this episode a bit more if most of the easier maps were also interesting, but it’s really a mixed bag here. Unruly Evil, although easy to a nearly insulting degree, is a solid map with an interesting concept. However, They Will Repent is a bit boring by comparison. Against Thee Wickedly is a lot of fun and recalls Unholy Cathedral from Inferno, though the implementation here is much more intuitive. The design disparities in this episode seem pretty large, which contributes to its overall unevenness. There are also no new enemies or weapons in this episode, which could have possibly added some freshness to the maps.

 

One solution to the difficulty ramping issue with this episode is using a mapinfo modification like the one here for a more natural progression:

 

https://forum.zdoom.org/viewtopic.php?f=43&t=57970

 

While a fix like this is likely to make the episode a more enjoyable experience for most, I feel compelled to review the episode as it was released. It completely bewilders me that Romero and co. released Thy Flesh Consumed in the order they did - surely the strange difficulty progression was noticed while playtesting?

 

The finale, while offering nothing radically different from those of the previous episodes, is well done, and superior to Episode III’s, in my opinion.

 

Ultimately, Thy Flesh Consumed is somewhat of a disappointing follow-up to the fantastic original trilogy, even though it does contain some of the best maps and moments in the series. When the design and difficulty go south here, there’s not even a pretty or hellish environment to look at - just wood.

 

Rating: 6/10

 

Episode V - Sigil

 

Spoiler

 

In December 2018, John Romero announced that he was making a fourth episode for the original Doom game, an announcement which dropped more than a few jaws.

 

First of all, it's unheard of for a game designer/developer to add new, “official” content to a 25 year old game. Second of all, John Romero is one of the most respected game designers of all time.

 

Episode V was thus followed by massive amounts of hype, as expected. Many a Doom fan was left wondering if John Romero was capable of designing to the amazing degree that he was known for.

 

In May of 2019, Sigil was released. The episode picks up right where Thy Flesh Consumed left off: after Doomguy defeats the Spider Mastermind and enters the teleporter to Earth, he finds himself back in an even darker and more dangerous area of Hell. Baphomet, a hellish horned God (referred to previously as the “Icon of Sin”), glitched the teleporter to Earth, and now you have to battle your way out of yet another fiery inferno. Only Ultimate Doom assets are used: nothing from Doom II, and no new enemies or weapons.

 

When you first leave the red, surreal starting room of Sigil, it’s apparent that the fifth episode of Doom is by far the most gorgeous. Dark granite pathways highlighted by glowing red cracks make for an incredibly creepy and hellish experience. The contrast in textures, lighting, and color is masterful, and this latest version of Hell feels a lot more real than the abstract, over-the-top look of Inferno. Your surroundings rarely look bland during the episode, and old-school Doom fans will be in awe.

 

Another spectacular treat Sigil offers is a soundtrack by the electric guitar virtuoso, Buckethead, which is quite possibly the most intense, atmospheric music ever to grace an official Doom game (except for D_RUNNIN, of course). I personally enjoyed it quite a bit, and it made the gaming experience all the more immersive. However, for fans that aren’t into a soundtrack that deviates a little too much from classic Doom fare, there’s a solid MIDI soundtrack that comes with the free WAD, as well.

 

Thy Flesh Consumed was pitched as an episode of Doom for those players who wanted a challenge, and a small handful of maps from the episode were incredibly challenging. However, many of the maps were extremely easy, which was frankly a let down.

 

Sigil, on the other hand, is hard - really hard, especially in comparison to the other Ultimate Doom episodes. The first map, Baphomets Demesne (my favorite Ultimate Doom “intro” map since Hangar from Knee Deep), is no Hell’s Beneath by any stretch of the imagination, but the difficulty quickly starts ramping up afterward. Ammo starvation, cramped corridors, and running the gauntlet scenarios all pose a significant challenge, and you're frequently just straddling the line between life and death.
 

However difficult Sigil may be for the casual Doom player, the challenge rarely seems unfair. The fifth episode of Doom is constantly teaching you lessons, and it does so with utterly spectacular level design. Romero’s mastery of game flow is on display here, with the various levels teasing and funneling you in the right direction when you need it, despite some pretty non-linear map layouts.

 

Despite having a very different look and feel from the previous episodes, Sigil constantly reminded me of previous Doom experiences. Paths of Wretchedness is like a Slough of Despair with a nervewracking puzzle element. Abaddon's Void is a darker, more sadistically punishing Mt. Erebus, with a Perfect Hatred tease thrown in there. As much as some of these moments reminded me of the past, I can't help but feel that Episode V does most of everything better than previous episodes.

 

A few moments do falter, though: Nightmare Underworld exceeded the line of frustration for me towards the end of its map, with a precarious cliff-hugging section followed by an overwhelming and cramped narrow staircase battle. The finale, Halls of Perdition, was phenomenal until the boss fight, which had a strange layout and was pretty easy considering a recently provided weapon (hint hint: it’s a big f***ing weapon) and a realization regarding the actual requirement of ending the level.

 

Regardless, most other moments in Sigil are gut-wrenching, claustrophobic fun. Every environment begs you to sit back and enjoy it in awe, but you're too busy fighting for your life to do so. This is the episode for those that like great Doom puzzles, those that like precision movement, and those that like being surprised by the opposition.

 

If you've never played Doom before and are interested in Sigil, I'd wholeheartedly recommend playing through the previous episodes first. In all of its beauty, elegance, and cleverness, Sigil is quite difficult… and a more worthy Episode V than I could have hoped for.

 

Rating: 9/10

 


 

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