Heads up : I will frequently be referring to Doom 2 and Doom 1 as simply “Doom” for this article.
When John Carmack, the embodiment of id software’s last shred of credibility, goes on stage at QuakeCon 2012 and says "We all know what Doom is about - shotguns and demons", he is met with rapturous applause from the audience. Doom 3 had at least one shotgun and one demon (if not more) and yet has failed to secure the lasting appeal of its forerunners, interesting as a tech demo and little more - so clearly this isn’t the case.
But this fits in well with what people claim Doom’s strengths are. None of this story silliness, no characters, no cutscenes, just some silly hyper-masculine, ultra-violent action. Just type “games like Doom” into a Google search and you’ll get games that fit this bill perfectly. The same old names appearing, Serious Sam, Painkiller. Old-school FPS games like they don’t make any more. Doom is mindless, brainless fun. It’s old-fashioned but lovable and can be thought of as “manly”. Right up there with viking hats, concealed carry and bacon.
Brutal Doom, then, is Doom taken to another level. To quote the description of a particular Youtube video, it’s "The only mod which makes Doom even MORE like Doom." And it’s all there to see. More gore, punchier sounds and animations. Monsters crawl around with their guts hanging out as others are torn apart by your chaingun, Doomguy turning from a player self-insert of sorts to a wise-cracking sadistic testosterone freak. All done with the power of modern sourceports. The language used to refer to it reflects the notion that this is Doom “turned up to 11” - Gameplay enhancement. Improved animations. Better gore.
But the mods which make Doom more like Doom have been out for years before Brutal Doom’s inception. Alien Vendetta. Scythe 2. Deus Vult 2. And none of these see fit to mess with weapon feel, gore effects or animations - the last of the 3 adding sunglasses to Doomguy’s head as a small stylistic touch. They’re just custom level packs, a few custom textures here and there. A custom enemy or two patches a hole in the bestiary. Nothing more.
This simple, old-fashioned, mindless shooter has entranced level designers for going on 20 years now. The Cacowards run every year to pick out some standout favourites, and thousands of wads are available to download and play. Most of which require little in the way of advanced engine features bar some limit removals and optimization.
While Doom was no doubt the product of a bunch of nerds doing what they love, the game offers a more intelligent gameplay palette than just about any other pure FPS in the world.
Doom’s bestiary is a far cry from any of those supposedly inspired by it. By having a combat system based on projectile avoidance and enemy infighting instead of cover or target prioritization, different enemies control the playfield in different ways and offer different options to the play. Pinky demons and their flying Caco-flavoured counterparts exist to enclose the player, possessing more than enough health to soak up punishment while restricting options (Try Romero’s E4M2 for a textbook example of smart cacodemon usage). Chaingunners and Revenants are highly dangerous, annoying and perhaps not as tanky as other enemies - but on the other hand there are few easier ways to put the severe hurt on the enemy and distract them than to get them riddled with holes or smacked by a rocket from one of these guys. Mancubi and Arachnotrons cover wide and far ranges respectively in blankets of devastating firepower, but both are trivially stuffed in close quarters. Arch-viles and Pain Elementals force the player’s hand unerringly, passively punishing the player for inactivity with consequences that go beyond “you died”.
A simple, satisfying arsenal of weaponry gives the player tools to handle threats of all variance. With about 10 frames of animation and a couple of kilobytes of sound data, the super shotgun remains one of the best-loved weapons in video games. Firing rocket after rocket into an enemy is a pleasure we are rarely afforded these days (except perhaps through a veil of irony). The BFG9000 is a weapon with a surprising amount of nuance - the quirkiness of its firing has inspired many an unconventional fight, and just about any map in the “slaughter” subgenre of wads (Less emphasis on traps, more emphasis on crowd control and fight choreography) has its climax with the discovery of the BFG. 7 weapons allow the player to handle fights with more punch and more panache than all the hundreds of assault rifles, wacky joke weapons and mindless gibbing machines seen in modern games (or even the neo-retro style of games developers and players alike seem to be turning to).
Doom perfection is achieved where the visceral meets the intelligent. It’s no coincidence that the creator of Deus Vult 2 (one of the most-loved wads of all time) is an accomplished chess player and is happy to discuss that relationship at length in a readme :
Chess had a huge influence on my thought process, and this carried over to creating DVII. The order and method of building an attack and defense in Chess affected the way many of the DVII maps were laid out. Certain concepts in Chess like balanced position, Zwischenzug, Zugzwang, interposition, space control, pressure, discovered attack, and forced combination were considered and applied when choreographing DVII fights.
Furthermore, the chess games that I played in the past were very much part of my thought when I constructed DVII’s maps. Recalling the Ruy Lopez, Maroczy’s Bind, King’s Indian, Sicilian Dragon, Queen’s Gambit Declined, and the Hedgehog Defense, I constructed Doom Maps with Chess in mind. Many of the maps’ layouts are pervaded by dynamically balanced designs that is learned through studying dynamic balance in Chess.
It’s not artificial intelligence you fight in Doom. Most enemies have behaviour, no matter how diverse it is, that you could sum up in a sentence or two. But Doom’s simple tools and smart toolkit (as well as a graphical style allowing for highly abstract environments) allow level designers to set up encounters and environments around that behaviour, providing surprise, challenge and delight for players in equal measure. It’s not artificial intelligence you fight when you’re locked in a room full of Barons of Hell and Revenants and voicelessly asked to pick a side in the resulting infighting (It’ll take more ammo to finish off the barons, but revenants are more likely to give you a nasty right hook or slap you with a rocket in the process) - it’s human intelligence.
And now we come back to Brutal Doom1. Layers on layers of obsessively-researched and sourced gore sprites, about 100 times more unsettling gurgling and pitiful screams from your enemies. Doom’s hardly the cleanest of games, but it has a boyish charm to it - Doom is Eddie winking at you on the cover of an Iron Maiden album, Brutal Doom is a screaming face being pressed into a meat grinder on the cover of a Cannibal Corpse album.
Weapon “rebalancing” means hitscanners hit harder and revenants are pathetically frail, headshots add a completely unnecessary and confused element to the game, “fatality” animations quickly turn from shocking and visceral to stale, played-out and overlong. The BFG no longer has its quirks that require a blend of timing, elegance and aggression, being replaced with what can only be described as “a big dumb green rocket”. Brutal Doom is Doom with the intelligence taken out and all the viscera turned up to 11. Fine in small doses, the definitive experience it ain’t. And it will easily ruin most wads not designed with it in mind.
Doom is much more than a mindless demon-blasting experience to be fondly remembered and perhaps brought out for its quaint charms now and again. Some people want you to think it is - these are the people looking forward to unnecessary reboots of old IPs like Rise of The Triad, Wolfenstein and bizarrely Shadow Warrior, forever falling back on weapon inventory space and player run speed as indications of game quality.