Mapping Hell and Mars – A Look at the Level Design of the 2016 Doom Game
A new Doom game is here. They say it's a return to the roots of the series. So how does its level design compare to that of the original games? A long time Doom mapper (me) sets out to investigate.
Having designed many levels for the original Doom and Doom 2 myself, I was curious to see how the level design in the new 2016 reboot of Doom would look like, especially since the tendency in modern fps games is to take away freedom of movement in order to better tell a story. The original Doom's levels on the other hand are prime examples of good level design, as they give players a huge degree of freedom to explore their surroundings, with plenty of hidden places that reward exploration.
And here's the good news – should I call it a pleasant surprise? – for all fans of the original two Doom games. Not only has id software brought main elements of old school game mechanics back (health that doesn't replenish magically, no weapon reloading, use of key cards). The level design of the new Doom shows that the designers indeed played a lot of Doom 1 and Doom 2 and used the old games as an inspiration for their new level designs. The levels on Mars show a huge complexity with a lot of interconnectivity and plenty of exploration that is clearly influenced by John Romero's original "Knee Deep in the Dead" episode.
The exploration is dampened a bit by the fact that not only do secret areas show up on the automap, but the main bonus items hidden in them do so, too. So essentially you only have to find the way inside. At least though, we do have an automap in the new Doom, which is not exactly common in modern games. The automap feature was lost once game engines rendered a "true" 3d world, in contrast to the quasi 3d of the original Doom. The Doom reboot's automap is a bit confusing at first, but still works well.
Back to the actual level design. Unfortunately, the good level design that can be seen in the Mars levels is not kept up throughout all of the game. While the first hell map (Kadingir Sanctum) is one probably of the best in the entire game, with paths twisting back to places that you've been before, but which are now altered by new flying platforms and the like, the second hell map (Titan's Realm) is basically just a sequence of more or less simple rooms with arena fights and little interconnectivity. And in fact, many of the later levels in the game put a strong emphasis on arena fights, to the point where you kill all monsters in a room, proceed to the next room, kill all enemies again and repeat as before.
I am still not a fan of the concept of arena fights in general, as they tend to unnecessarily interrupt the flow of the gameplay. The best original Doom levels (and many of the user made maps from the Doom community) manage to keep you on your toes all the time. I've seen maps that literally pull you through the level as if you're a fish on a hook, simply by clever enemy placement. Doom 2016 does this as well in some cases, and sometimes the game also organically slows down the action to give you time to explore and pick up items.
But with the area fights, the questionable procedure goes like this: enter a room, see a gore nest, take all the time you need exploring the room to pick up all necessary items, spot power up locations and get acquired with the room's layout. When you're done, walk up to the gore nest and press the use button to start the fight, in which waves of enemies teleport into the room. Slay 'em all, then pick up ammo and items after the fight, leave the room, and in the worst case, repeat the same procedure in the following room. Of course, the original Doom games used this procedure as well, but not as frequently as the new game. It's a design choice that, when used excessively, feels forced and separates an otherwise coherent level into tiny chunks instead of creating a nice flow of gameplay. Using this formula every now and then is okay, but sadly, the further you proceed in the game, the more emphasis it puts on this type of level design. Compare this to the maps that do succeed in creating a good flow and it almost feels like you're playing two different games.
Still, the game does many things right, and so does the majority of the level design. All in all, the game indeed captures the feel of the old games, and the frantic action as well. Not quite as fast as in the 90's, but still much faster than the fps standard these days. If you liked the original legendary Doom games, you are well advised to play the new one. You most probably won't be disappointed.
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