Doom Eternal (2020) Review: No Girls or Trans People Allowed
This review is for Doom Eternal. It strictly covers the game’s single-player campaign, not the game’s lore or multi-player.
Update, 4/13/2021: With the release of part two of “The Ancient Gods,” I’ve revisited this review, rewriting the introduction and adding a DLC section at the end.
To hear my final, updated thoughts on Doom Eternal — especially speedruns of it — check out my longread, “Spectating FPS Speedruns: Potential Pitfalls Exemplified by Doom Eternal.”
Introduction; Gender Trouble
In these latter days of nostalgia mania, Doom Eternal shamelessly panders to an older audience. I don’t mean that in the sense of gore and violence; I mean it’s literally made for an audience that craves an older time. Not just demons and castles (though it has plenty of those), but those from 1980s and ’90s. Those decades were a time of fixed gender assignment, where men were heroes and girls were damsels-in-distress.
Not always. Consider Ellen Ripley, but also Samus Aran, her videogame counterpart. Though central in Gothic works like Alien and Metroid, these warlike, phallic women weren’t the industry standard; they were the exception. I’d say this standard has come home to roost in Doom Eternal. However, there are no damsels in the game. In fact, there are no women period, save the Khan Maker, the Whiplash and Dr. Ellena Richardson.
Unfortunately the whiplash is neutered — having her breasts removed (for “marketing reasons” according to Hugo Martin) — and Ellena is completely off-screen. There, she renounces her position as a scientist to essentialize the Slayer as a god — one whose strength is necessary for the survival of civilization. This is hardly “neutral.” Instead, traditional roles are reinstated through times of imaginary crisis. In Doom Eternal, the one human female character is an invisible cheerleader lusting after the protagonist while enforcing traditional gender roles. She might as well be an uneducated housewife kissing her husband on the cheek before he marches off to war.
Maybe women don’t want to that?
Alas, in a world where men are kings, no woman can apparently enjoy Doomguy’s exclusive luxury of masculine nudity or heroic power. The physical rights of the male action hero are denied to them (despite Red Sonya being a Marvel comics Amazon staple since the early 1970s). Meanwhile, if someone like me, who loves Metroid, wanted to be Samus or some other “doomgirl” alternative to the classic male hero in Doom, I couldn’t because girls are, from a traditional standpoint, heavily regulated sex objects. Attempts to adopt the same position for female characters are generally sexualized* for men. There are exceptions — of “butch” or masculine depictions of doomgirl — but these hardly represent the norm.
*For more information on sexism in games, consider reading my piece, “Borrowed Robes: The Role of ‘Chosen’ Clothing.”
I’m not against sexiness, nor spiritual Conan adaptations (John Milius’ 1981 is pretty great, especially the music); I am against sexism, or compulsory roles for men and women. At the very least id could make the protagonist optionally female, but they didn’t; they went out of their way to exclude women from any powerful role in-game… except the Kahn’s role of Archaic Mother*, a type of patriarchal boogeyman for the hero to slay (thus preserve and maintain order).
*For more information on Archaic Mothers and powerful women in videogames, consider reading my piece, “War Vaginas: Phallic Women, Vaginal Spaces and Archaic Mothers in Metroid.”
To grant women similar positions of power introduces a problem for developers obviously catering to the traditional, default norm. Judith Butler calls this problem “gender trouble,” and it’s precisely what id doesn’t want. Their solution is to make trans people vanish, and for women to be of a singular position: damsels, with no mind of their own, or desires divorced from the Slayer’s pointedly Conan the Barbarian physique.
That’s precisely the issue with Doom Eternal — it’s a game “for men” when it doesn’t need to be; girls and queer people like metal, fantasy violence, and demons too. Historically these areas have sexualized components. The lack of sexuality in Doom Eternal explains why women and trans people have been excluded. In the traditional sense, women are sex objects and trans people don’t count.
This feels like a broader, worrying trend. As a AAA title, Doom 2016 felt much less singular in its audience base; after Trump’s election, however, id pandered to male gamers with a Marvel-esque vision of the world, replete with traditional gender roles tied to binary images of conventional war. Is Doom Eternal explicitly political? No, but politics and popular media are seldom directly linked in America. Instead, media is sponsored by those with political views, regardless if that cash comes from corporate or consumer pockets. And traditionalists pay for media that supports their attitudes, regardless if the authors publicly state their intended audience. The content and the purchase adumbrate these ties nonetheless.
Thought technically well-made, Doom Eternal feels like a nostalgic old boys’ club. Everyone’s a male beefcake flexing at each other. To draw from Umberto Eco’s 14 features of fascism, it’s action — specifically strength — for the sake of itself. A perpetual casus belli that grants men total power in society and abroad. This imperium regulates everyone, though, including men. The biggest regulation is that which is absent: women, trans people, and sex. With its purified, ’80s violence, Doom Eternal is masculine, bellicose and chaste — with obligatory male butts plastered all over the place: “It’s not sexual; it’s masculine!”
Gothic stories have existed for centuries, including inside fascist cultures. Despite its savior complex and unstoppable, manly hero, is Doom Eternal Gothic?
Well, sort of.
In Britain, the Neo-Gothic movement initially focused on the return — of a Romanticized past, imprinted on the Catholic faith as demonized during the Reformation. By visiting Hell on Earth, Doom Eternal returns an “older,” devilish religion to the mortal plane: the Hell priests. These robed outsiders announce themselves with gaudy icons, skulls and yawning spires; also an outside, the Slayer belongs to an order of medieval knights called the Sentinels. It’s all highly Romantic from a visual standpoint; deliberately antiquated.
Doom Eternal ignores many of the other ways a Gothic space can function. Its levels aren’t mazes to lose yourself in; they’re scenic, and have only one direction by which to move: forwards. Gaze upon torture chambers, abandoned castles, and lakes of fire. Alas, there’s little fear and awe. Just colorful images. Likewise, the lonesome, 2016 chorus is gone, replaced with dubstep and nu-metal — anathema to the thrash crowd of the 1980s.
For a longtime metal fan like myself, Mick Gordon’s second Doom entry feels like a solid “B,” but hardly a magnum opus. Nothing comes close to rivaling “Rip and Tear” or “BFG Division.” Instead, the new material works best to complement the action. I’d kill for some Bobby Prince. Give me some Mercyful Fate, or better yet, Aubrey Hodges!
Returning to the levels, they remain visually varied, but there isn’t much visual progression. The areas in Castlevania (1986) and Metroid (1986) sit inside a larger eponymous structure; Doom Eternal is all over the map. You’re effectively a tourist, skipping from place to place. If it were open-ended, or selected from a map screen a la Mega Man (1987), perhaps it would have worked better. But it’s not. It’s just an unbroken sequence of different locales with seemingly no relation to one another, a colorful Rubik’s cube of combat.
With its floating 1-Ups and obvious item roster, Doom Eternal feels unapologetically retro. So does its in-game cache of nerdy secrets — floppy discs and vinyl record repressings. Unfortunately the game’s cultural attitudes are equally dated. Its target community is effectively an all-boys club, filled to capacity with men who loved Doom (1993) in the good ol’ days. The game plays like an ultraviolent, “Saturday morning” cartoon, worshiping the bulging bicep, not the bosom. There’s no sex, and no women. I couldn’t shake the feeling of a didactic series of action figures brought out of the closet for les enfants terrible to reclaim their lost childhoods.
And honestly this would be fine if that past wasn’t so sexless, so ostensibly “neutral” and male-centric. 2020 is more than a nostalgic Pax Deorum for ’90s kids; it has girls and queer people in it, and open-if-optional sexual preferences. None of these things exist in Doom Eternal. All we’re left with is the outmoded, homosocial worshiping of the Doom marine by a largely male audience: the giga-Chad admired by Real Men everywhere. He’s too cool for sex, though. Not when there’s demon bros to kill. Devilman Crybaby (2018), I hardly knew ye.
Optional, but available.
Doom Eternal is made for the Twitch crowd, a tough-as-nails game aimed squarely at the best of the best. These exhibitions are a blast to watch; they also fill chat rooms with men obnoxiously shouting “DOOOOOOOOOOM!” I love a good bloodbath; I just don’t feel the same surge of euphoria by posturing that some obviously do. And I feel like I should: I played Doom (1993) throughout the ’90s, and consider myself a fan. I also think the original series wasn’t nearly as overt in its singular camaraderie as Doom Eternal is. That came later.
It can be exciting to know that something was lovingly made, and just for you. I just hate to feel alienated from a franchise so near and dear to my heart because of its staunchest flag-wavers: “This is ours; it was made for us!” And maybe it was. It also misses the beauty of its predecessor, Doom 2016. That game steered away from a specific persona for a wider appeal, and worked better for it. Minimal but elegant, it rescued “rip and tear” from an infamously bad Doom comic, creating a badass slogan in the process. Doom Eternal mostly reneges on these innovations, valorizing the meme its precursor subverted so deftly.
Maybe I’m an outsider and always was (my preference for Midway’s PSOne port may speak to this). It’s still jarring to see the sequel to a clean-slate revival backtrack so abruptly tone-wise. Doom Eternal shamelessly panders to a fan base the 2016 reboot largely ignored. Yes, the Doom community is quite real, but is there any room for an old Doom fan like myself to enjoy the same game for my own reasons? Yes, but not through its dated treatment of gender and sex. Apparently that’s my problem, not theirs.
Doom’s original tone borrowed a lot from the Evil Dead franchise, especially Evil Dead II (1987) — a series that aptly demonstrates how the balance between humor and horror is tricky to manage. Generally in flux from title to title, the wrong blend of scares and laughs can alienate certain members of a larger fan group. Imagine my disappointment, then, in seeing Doom’s latest reincarnation being so flippantly dumb. Yes, they include an official port for Midway’s Doom 64 (1997). That feels like a hand-me-down toy on Christmas: It’s the one I like, but I already own it.
The game’s overall presentation is largely transparent, and would have benefited by trusting players to imagine and learn, rather than spelling out every last detail. To be generous, the story in Doom Eternal is pretty disposable, a grand space opera with debatable contributions. The game also color codes everything — items, cracks in the walls, the traffic-light signpost system. With so much visual data to work with, an obtrusive tutorial system seems superfluous. While you can turn that off, you can’t disable the narrator or the multiple, chatty load screens. Cut scenes and lore dumps are frequent, but add little more than corny jokes (see: “mortally-challenged”) and sanguine, WWE-style schlock.
The game’s calling card is over-the-top ultraviolence and it achieves this well. Doom 2016 was effectively “Move, shoot.” There was no reload. Not so, with Doom Eternal (2020). In it, you’ll need to manage three key resources: health, armor and ammo.
The chainsaw “reloads” ammo. You’ll have to use it often: every single fight. The same goes for flame belch and glory kills, but also all of your weapons. Ammo counters are precariously small and discourage weapon bias. The game is designed to be played in a very specific manner, especially on the harder difficulties. There’s some wiggle room with weapon mods, Praetor points and runes. Likewise, every fight feels special. Despite following the same rules, everything occurs inside a solid, consistent combat loop.
Another plus were the choices concerning charge-based moves like the chainsaw and blood punch. The latter cannot be refilled without performing two glory kills and the chainsaw can use up too much fuel if used on the wrong demon. It pays to prioritize the right demons with the right tools at the right time. Using the wrong tool can be dangerous, if only because it’s a waste of ammo. The game isn’t survival-horror. Even on Nightmare, rebounds are possible. Just be prepared to go back to school; the learning curve is steep.
While the combat in Doom Eternal is impeccable, its parallel movement schemes — combat and exploratory motion — don’t mix. Platforming sections give the player something to do outside of fights. However, the game should have melded the two schools into something more cohesive. I say this because its combat movement is the core gameplay experience, and is actually dangerous to perform, thus exciting to watch. Generally isolated, the exploratory movement is tedious and dull for everyone involved.
Another complaint involves the berserk power-up. Doom 2016 featured the Slayer flying through enemies like a tornado and punching larger foes to pieces; in Doom Eternal, Doomguy has one kill animation per foe — an oddity considering how many glory kills he can do by comparison. This includes the chainsaw. Despite this dearth of carnage, Id Software removed my favorite glory kill from 2016: the belly slash for the mancubus. His kill animations, and those for the cacodemon’s ill-fated eyeball, are far too repetitive.
The boss fights are frequent and varied. However, the late-game additions to Doomguy’s arsenal overpower them. Given the obvious strength of the Crucible, I would have put it behind the Slayer Gate paywall and cut the Unmaykr from the game. Giving the player a “bad ending” option by defeating the final boss without it would have been cool, too. I also think the Crucible should have been powered by killing demons instead of ammo placed around the map. There’s way too much of it, considering how strong the weapon is. Sure it doesn’t kill trash, but does it need to? Behead the Baron and his cronies scatter pretty fast.
Cleaving through “super heavy” demons also cuts the dance short. This may be to encourage speedier end-game fights, but from a design standpoint feels a bit checkered. In-game, I’m torn between watching the Slayer kill enemies, or speedrun. These are two very different schools of thought, and should be cooperating instead of competing with each other for the player’s attention (which I write about, here). I can’t help but feel that Id Software is juggling. It does a good enough job, until the two areas are suddenly at odds.
The guns in Doom Eternal are beefy and loud. However, I wanted to feel in awe — even afraid — when firing a Hell-forged rocket launcher. Instead, I remembered I Am Ninja’s warning to would-be weapon buyers: “Sure it says, ‘Forged in the belly of a pooka-werewolf…’” Doom 2016’s arsenal was sleek, legit — the sort a futuristic company like the UAC might actually use; Doom Eternal’s stockpile is somewhat cartoonish and toy-like.
This being said, I loved the revamped plasma rifle. I always hated how it appeared in classic Doom, but Doom Eternal makes it look and sound awesome.
Remember the “ultimate demon” from Doom 2016, how he sounded like the Cookie Monster? In Doom Eternal, everything sits in his shadow, pandering to players who couldn’t care less about gravitas. I found myself remembering the mysterious old man’s causus belli from 2016: “Brutal, without mercy. But you… you will be worse. Rip and tear, until it is done!” Wouldn’t a full campaign of that be cool? No such luck. The combat in Doom Eternal is exhilarating. Attached to something substantial and tremendous, it could have been magnificent, too. Instead, it’s really dorky.
The monster design isn’t terrible. However, 2016 wore “uncanny” on its sleeve. Here, the mancubi aren’t cyclopean; the hell knights have eyes; the cacodemons have pupils; the possessed have normal faces, and so on. They’re also strangely expressive, sounding almost human-at times — less H. R. Giger and more Don Ivan Punchatz.
Doom Eternal is effectively a game of puzzles: the monsters, and the ammo you kill them with. But it’s more complex than it sounds. Generally easy, the classic games are hard when played as fast as possible. Doom Eternal is tough by default; it will be harder still if the combat cannot be skipped by speedrunners trying to go fast. I love how Doom Eternal caters to Twitch speedrunners. No matter how a game is designed, a speedrunner can find ways to break the rules. Some categories will still require a healthy dose of combat, hopefully.
Is the game perfect? No. Is it fun? Sure. Doomguy is like the Predator — not just in appearance, nor how Mick Gordon rips off Alan Silvestri, but in how the Slayer skins his enemies alive (not only is the gorehound in me pleased; it’s another strategic layer to the game)! When the game is stripped of its own cartoonishly big muscles, we’re left with a cleverly designed skeleton. It holds up rather well.
What doesn’t hold up so well is the “made for boys” attitude — the Marvel-style endgame that will keep sexist, toy-hungry comic book nerds coming back for thirds. Consumers can buy whatever they want. The problem is, Doom Eternal ignores demons and videogame violence as a realm for everyone, especially women and queer people. In Doom Eternal, they simply don’t exist.
Thoughts on the DLC
This new section comments on the game’s DLC. “The Ancient Gods, part 1,” or “TAG 1,” deserves special praise. The level design is more claustrophobic: More hallways and ceilings mean the player cannot fly around like Superman to quite the same degree, and the increased monster count all but requires the player to use AoE attacks. Some of the visual hang-ups remain, but the music is more forceful and heavy. “TAG 1” is also more difficult* and balanced.
*Correction: It was, until id decided to nerf the DLC five months after it came out.
Unfortunately “TAG 2” frequently reverts to flat, empty platforming sections and wide-open battlefields. There’s nothing to jump on — just these floating objects the player can use to meat hook into the sky with. It’s the epitome of cheap, lazy level design, the entire budget focused on pretty visuals. These areas feel strangely empty at times, the kill boxes themselves having the lion’s share of prey. Even those feel wrought from rude interchangeable parts: platforms, jump pads, and monkey bars. It makes the recent maps by John Romero in Sigil seem Byzantine by comparison (to be fair, his work in that megawad was incredible).
On a bittersweet note, the player in “part 2” no longer has the Crucible. As a result, this fight with two Tyrants becomes a bit more challenging and mobile; the player can’t simply kill them with a mouse click. Instead, they must jump and platform while avoiding the Tyrants’ attacks. The whole game should be like this. It’s not, granting the Escalation Encounters an oasis-like feel, drip-fed when it should be full blast. Worse, the hammer has its own design flaws, stunning groups of demons outright and showering the player with maximum resources for minimal effort.
Simply put, the hammer’s totally busted. This, and other “nerfs,” have split the community in two: Casuals love it; so-called “elitists” hate it. Such factions appearing in Doom Eternal community discourse reflects an unfortunate trend in the game’s “live service” model. The game was arguably unfinished at launch, but the live service approach through the DLC means id can be swayed by public opinion. Who do they appeal to — a continuous stream of one-time casual players; or a smaller, more dedicated base of hardcore players who want to play the game more than once?
I think the community’s response speaks for itself. Players are attacking each other en masse, with words like “toxic” being applied to other consumers instead of criticizing those in power — id studios, but especially Bethesda and Microsoft. These kinds of AAA clusterfucks are generally the fault of the publisher trying to push their content creators around. I certainly don’t want to go after id, since they very obviously made a hard-as-fuck game right out of the gate, and Bethesda and Microsoft have been dumbing it down ever since.
The situation sucks because id is beholden to their bosses, who change fairly often. First, id butters up hardcore players in October 2020 with “TAG 1,” pissing off casuals. Then, Bethesda is purchased by Microsoft in March 2021. A couple weeks later, “TAG 2” debuts, but id nerfs “TAG 1.” Ostensibly the company can’t make up their mind and are trying to please everyone. In reality I think larger forces are calling the shots.
These decisions are generating some pretty serious waves in the Doom community. So great is the tension that Under the Mayo felt compelled to take down his own review of the game despite critiquing it openly and honestly. This is completely absurd; I feel that id, whether intentionally or by accident, have divided their own fan base, alienated critics, and papered over speedrunners (actually I feel like id have deliberately patched the game to make things harder for speedrunners, despite speedrunners not effecting how casual people play their product).
All id would have to do is wait until they have a solution that pleases both sides, instead of appealing to one side then the other by constantly rushing things. They don’t, and the end result is strife — with two groups more easily put to heel by pitting them against each other. Casual players are catered to, and hardcore players are left with a promise: We’ll make you single master levels. The quiet part of that promise is “We’ll make them one at a time.” Seems like kind of a minimalist concession when fans can already make master levels themselves, and those made by id are notoriously infrequent and buggy.
This kind of oscillation and “live service” approach seriously hobble the larger game’s raw content. In particular, “TAG 2” signals a return of the empty platforming sections from the base game. This platforming sequence has no monsters at all, just a basic puzzle to solve and some standard-fare, AAA fantasy visuals. The common argument is that areas like these add variety from the monster combat. But it just feels empty and tacked-on.
All in all, “TAG 1” and “TAG 2” suffer the same issues seen in the base game — the ones mentioned above, but especially starter areas meant to acclimate casual players, instead of shoving players in headfirst. To this, my partner made an interesting point: “Casual games don’t need tutorials. I want to sit down, play for a bit, and then leave.” Super Mario Bros. is a successful example, encouraging casual play that anyone can do — all without a single tutorial. “Pick up the game and play it on your home entertainment system.” In 1985, this concept single-handedly revitalized the international gaming market following ‘83’s video game crash.
Whether or not the player needs the tutorials in Doom Eternal is beside the point; they’re still there, and the player must play through them no matter their skill level. Then, after 4–5 levels, the base game gives you the Meat Hook, which completely changes the way the game plays. So why not just start with it instead of wasting time? This issue is compounded in the DLC, whose “filler” early portions delay players the very things they want from the DLC: new monsters, combat mechanics and items.
I wouldn’t be so critical if the DLC were free, but it’s not. You buy the Deluxe Edition or the season pass — in other words, you pay extra money above the cost of the base game — and you get the DLC. It’s not free at all. And it doesn’t improve my issues with Doom Eternal. Even if it did, those fixes only exist inside the DLC, not the main campaign. It feels gated, hiding the best aspects of what Doom Eternal could be behind paywalls, but also pay-spaces: little, unsatisfying VIP rooms where the Real Fun™ happens.
I really dislike how the DLC straight-up panders to a single group — casual players. According to id themselves, they have to make DLC that newcomers will play (translation: they’re using the DLC to cater to a larger and more lucrative group). Unfortunately they’ve done this by making Nightmare mode so easy it’s not fun for hardcore players — odd, considering they targeted the hardcore playerbase through an arduous base campaign.
Granted, said campaign frontloads the player with far too many obstacles and not enough gear. I don’t want to give id too much credit there, because Cultist Base remains the hardest level in the base campaign, a year later. Even so, the DLC is just all-around too easy. Has id ever played Dark Souls or Bloodbourne, with the hidden bosses and optional content being far harder than anything in the base campaign?
Until “TAG 2,” the DLC felt short-but-sweet. Now the whole DLC program feels tone deaf, but also rushed, formulaic and lazy. Stranger still, many who play it swallow their criticism, aiming for solidarity within the fandom while venerating id. For me, that feels far less important than Doom Eternal successfully appealing to multiple groups as an FPS product. Historically id have a pretty good track record in this respect (aside from Doom 3, I suppose). Though far from perfect, even the base game in Doom Eternal offers a demonstrable challenge to FPS veterans when playing on Nightmare. Why take that away in the DLC?
My name is Nick van der Waard and I’m a Gothic ludologist. I have my MA in English Studies: The Gothic from Manchester Metropolitan University. My blog is about horror, but also sex, metal and videogames.
Originally published at https://www.nicksmovieinsights.com on April 1, 2020.