Occasionally on this blog we’ll look a classic game from a unique and novel angle. The focus will often be on expansion packs or enhancements for the games I love. Hopefully I’ll introduce you to something obscure and interesting which will make you want to return to a game you’ve not played in a while and experience it from a new perspective. This month, we’re playing through the first chapter of the original Doom… but with two epic twists!
Links are at the end if you want to play for yourself or do an even deeper dive into the topics discussed.
Doom is one of those games which fires the nostalgia neurones in my brain in a big way. Back around the time it was released, I didn’t own a PC but I have fond memories playing it with my PC owning friends. As a Mac owner, I was delighted when Doom finally came to my platform, albeit long after Doom 2 had come and gone on the PC. The dark corners and constant scares kept me entertained for hours and I remember going back to each chapter many times to fully explore the maps and uncover all the secrets. And I was also a fan of Bobby Prince’s memorable soundtrack which just added to the atmosphere.
I’m not the only one holding a candle for Doom after all this time. The community is massive, and has led to more maps, scenarios and mods than I can count. When one of the game’s creators, John Romero, announced he was releasing some new levels, it once again prompted me to return to this classic. I’m still a Mac user, but these days there are many more options for playing Doom on any platform, and I wanted to use this as an opportunity to go in search of the ultimate 2022 Doom experience.
We’ll review Romero’s new levels in a bit, but to start with I want to focus on choosing the right tooling to enjoy Doom in 2022.
There’s a plethora of ways to play Doom these days. The most authentic way is to dig out an old PC and play the original version, but that’s not an option for most people. You can emulate the original engine with a DOS emulator such as DOSBox which runs on all platforms, or Boxer for the Mac. Classic Doom is available on any of the current generation of consoles as well. But the most common way is to find a modern Doom port which will not only run the original game files (known as “WADs”) but will add some amazing current generation features to the game.
For many years, I’ve used the Doomsday Engine for all my Doom needs (and also to play other games based on the Doom engine such as favourites Heretic and Hexen). It’s a great engine, incredibly stable and supports a good variety of plugins. Not only that, but it also has a really nice UI.
The main alternative to Doomsday these days is GZDoom, which isn’t as user friendly but has a much more advanced engine under the hood and supports some pretty edgy features. This is crucial for supporting Brutal Doom, which we’ll discuss next.
Brutal Doom was clearly made because the original Doom engine just wasn’t violent or bloody enough for some people. This engine modification takes the gore level of Doom and turns it up to 11.
It adds updated higher fidelity sound effects, additional sprite animations and improved monster behaviour. For example, in classic Doom, the imps just spit fire at you from a distance. Now they leap at you and try to rip your face off. Violent battles decorate the walls with blood, and there are multiple death scenes if you get killed. It’s incredibly violent for a game based around sprites.
If you enjoyed the sensation of fear the original Doom engendered back in the day when the engine was cutting-edge, but have become desensitised over the years by more modern survival games such as Resident Evil, Brutal Doom will meet your needs.
Nothing fancy in terms of hardware here. Just my trusty Intel MacBook Air from 2017, a Keychron K2 mechanical keyboard and a really old mouse. GZDoom runs perfectly well on older hardware, although the newer more complex levels do stutter just a little bit on my older Mac. Using a mechanical keyboard rather than the MacBook’s built-in flat keyboard definitely enhances the gaming experience by making things feel that much more tactile.
So, now we’re set up let’s play through the legendary shareware episode of Doom, “Knee Deep in the Dead”, but with John Romero’s level replacements. I’m not going to focus much on the seven levels which Romero originally designed as they’ve been left unchanged here, and if you’re a seasoned Doom player you probably know these levels well. Instead we’ll look at the two replacement levels: Phobos Mission Control and the brilliant Tech Gone Bad.
This level replaces the original E1M4 Command Control map with a completely new environment.
The level is a fractured landscape of toxic spills and deep chemical pits. In classic Romero style it’s full of traps. Each footstep taken through the level risks a hidden platform descending with nasties ready to sneak up on you from behind and drain your ammo, or letting loose demons onto a nearby ledge to start sniping at you. The upper floors consist of ledges and winding corridors which tack the edges of the larger open spaces of the level.
The main puzzle of the level is a dark and claustrophobic computer data centre which juxtaposes well with the lighter and more open sections of the main level. With a raised path through the middle of the data centre, you have to open up by hitting floor switches. Traversing the raised path leaves you vulnerable to sniping when each switch opens not only the path, but lowers platforms full of enemies. This makes you have to strategically jump off in order to take down the enemies, before starting again from the beginning of the path. Like I said, lots of traps.
Throughout the level, large numbers imprinted on the floor in various placed guide you towards your eventual goal.
One of my favorite level design patterns is to see a level open itself up at the end, giving the player free reign to retrace their steps, explore further and discover missed secrets. This particular trope is implemented brilliantly in games like Hexen, but it’s refreshing to see it here where it invites you to spend a little more time before heading through the exit portal.
This level is a lot of fun, and mostly fits the aesthetic of the original chapter, and although this level feels more organic than the others it still maintains that feel of being part of a larger military base.
To be honest, I was always luke-warm on the original level this one replaces – just called Command Control. It used to feel a bit like a filler (and that’s no reflection on the the levels of Tom Hall, the designer of the original Command Control, as he contributed to some outstanding levels in Doom’s second and third chapters).
Overall, this level improves the Doom experience, although if you’ve played through the original levels many times you may find the subtle change in design style a bit jarring.
This level is an utter nightmare… In a good way.
The original E1M8 Phobos Anomaly was a simple affair, which lead you to collect some weapons and then face the Barons of Hell, the boss-fight of the episode. All in all, Phobos Anomaly would take only a few minutes to run through provided you had a rocket launcher.
Whilst you perhaps don’t expect much from a boss level besides a good boss fight, I felt the original level was deliberately left sparse to keep you wanting more so you’d purchase the second and third chapters of the game.
In Tech Gone Bad, we’ve gone to the other end of the spectrum. This is a massive level which is very spread out and from beginning to end it’s challenging and unforgiving. And you’ll still have to face the barons of hell at the end. I mean, just take a look at the map.
Right from the start, the floor is littered with fault lines which drain your health, which means even walking around this level is a risk in itself.
I spent over an hour to complete this level alone, which was longer than it took to run through all the other levels in the chapter combined. Granted, I was playing with Brutal Doom which automatically increases the difficulty, but still it was a case of saving early and often to survive this level of deliberate infliction.
If you’re not planning to play this yourself, take a look at the creator playing through his own creation with commentary, but if you do plan to play yourself I’d advise avoiding the spoilers.
Combining the new maps and the features of Brutal Doom, this makes for a premium Doom experience.
The levels alone feel like a “director’s cut”; The version of Doom’s first chapter Romero envisioned. The other bells and whistles elevate the episode and brings it kicking and screaming into the modern gaming era, whilst still preserving everything that will generate those warm feelings of nostalgia.
If you want to keep things pure, you can still play Doom on a modern DOS emulator, to get that genuine 386 Pentium experience. Unfortunately, E1M4b and E1M8b won’t work work with the original Doom engine due to the number of polygons in the map.
But personally, whether you’re revisiting Doom for nostalgia’s sake, or you want to experience this classic game for the first time, I recommend going all in with all the bells and whistles covered in this article.
Overall, these new levels help remind us why John Romero is one of the undisputed masters of level design, and whilst his new levels now compete with the thousands of user made levels which have been made in the nearly two decades since the original release, it’s a reminder that amazing level design is a special skill to have.
I’m looking forward to returning back to this blog in the near future to report on Romero’s complete new fifth episode for the original Doom: SIGIL. Until then, as FPS gamers used to say in the 90’s, happy fragging!