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The Doom reboot is a great game, but Doom 2 had better map design

A few weeks ago, we covered the Doom reboot and its against-all-odds single-player mode that captured what people loved about the original game and gave it a worthwhile and enjoyable update. As a Doom sequel, it was far more faithful to the original title than Doom 3 ever was (at least in my personal opinion), and it updated the classic gameplay from 1993/1994 with an emphasis on speed, vertical play, and a new array of weapons (with nods to some faithful classics).

Given the vast differences between Doom 2 and the remade Doom, it might seem absurd to compare them in any particular — but after beating the rebooted Doom, it seems to me that there’s one issue where the original Doom games had it beat: Map and level design. I’m not just referring to the fact that Doom leans way too heavily on the whole “Kill all the monsters in the room to unlock your next objective” concept, though it definitely does. No, the problem with map design in Doom 2016 versus Doom Classic is that game design itself has become beholden to realism in a way that 1993 and 1994 could scarcely have imagined.

No, I don’t mean to imply that Doom 2016’s version of Hell is actually realistic for any meaning of the word, though the Hell levels all use the same 1980s heavy metal version of hell (which is its own issue). But the one flaw in Doom 2016 is the way the level designers clearly sat down and said: “Okay, we want the Mars base levels to look just like a Mars base, while the Hell levels should look like our particular vision for Hell.” As you traverse the Red Planet, you’ll move through research labs, warehousing, medical research areas, storage facilities, tram stations, and the like.

Doom 2 couldn’t lean on most of these conventions, because they literally didn’t exist yet — we’re talking about a game that didn’t have jumping, aiming, or complete mouse support implemented yet. As such, most of its levels make only token acknowledgement to whatever they’re actually supposed to be. Sure, some levels, like Downtown, feature some primitive attempts to model buildings, but they don’t actually look like buildings in more than the most primitive sense. Later levels that take place in hell are “hellish” mostly because the sky texture is meant to look like an early 1990s heavy metal hell and there’s an increased use of skulls and pentagrams as compared to UAC logos.

Paradoxically, this seems to have given the original Doom map authors more freedom to innovate. Levels like Barrels o’ Fun and Dead Simple were apparently designed with the overriding motif of “Let’s see them handle this” as opposed to any overriding visual theme or map-to-map consistency.

As game engines became more complex, games themselves gave players the ability to do more things and sought to model the physical world in more complex ways. I don’t fault the new Doom for trying to build a Mars base that made some nods to what an actual Mars base (or any scientific outpost) might look like, but I wish the level designers had been a bit more willing to challenge the status quo with something a bit more gonzo.

I’ve been replaying Doom 2 via Brutal Doom, and in some ways, this reboot of the original Doom franchise (with grenades, mouselook, and a few new weapon types) is even better than the 2016 version. When a flood of bad guys pours out of a building, you won’t have to worry that the room’s exit just closed — instead, you may find yourself running across the entire level to find health packs you left behind, or extra ammo that you suddenly need now that you’ve killed your thirtieth imp without locating more bullets. For all the strengths of the Doom 2016 engine, huge open areas and fights with 10-20 enemies on the screen simultaneously aren’t its strong point, and the maps aren’t designed for this kind of play.

There are, of course, reasons for all this. The game was designed to run smoothly on all consoles and PC platforms and to prioritize fast movement above anything else. By and large, these bets paid off, because Doom 2016 really is a great game. But I think Doom 2 was better off for the fact that it wasn’t really possible to create in-game environments that looked like what you’d expect to find in the real world. It gave the developers freedom to innovate without worrying that players would ask why there were so many pools of acid or lava traps on supposedly earth-bound levels, or why a starport would have a level named “The Crusher.”

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