The name Doom carries a great weight of expectation in video game circles. One part technical showcase, one part genre-defining milestone – with a giant dash of adrenaline for good measure – the series is rightly feted as one of the cherished elders of gaming. What it never had much of a story to tell, with a back-of-a-napkin premise that was ample support for the on-screen carnage. In recent years, it’s the story of the studio that Doom built that ‘s taken the spotlight, especially in VR circles where ex-id alumni John Carmack and Michael Abrash have become prominent figures. Then of course there’s the matter of the rather public multi-million-dollar spat between Zenimax and Oculus—but we won’t get into that. Independent from this dramatic backdrop, can Doom VFR live up to its heritage?
DOOM VFR Details:
Developer: id Software
Available On: PlayStation VR, HTC Vive, Oculus Rift
Reviewed On: HTC Vive
Release Date: December 1st, 2017
Can you remember the terror of the original Doom? Inching toward a corner, you hear the collection of beasts in the next room that all want to claw, blast, or pummel you into mush. Can you remember desperate retreats, with just a sliver of health left, heart pounding in your chest? Can you remember the chilling effect of a looming Cacodemon passing ahead, and the panic of a Pinkie rushing toward you? Did you try the 2016 reboot that recaptured the frenzied spirit of the original and reinvigorated it to its now resplendently modern glory? Because I do. Does the first VR entry for the franchise capture that same spirit? Well, sort of.
You won’t be playing as ‘Doom Guy’. You’re just some random staffer who comes off second best with a charging monster in the opening moments of the game and finds his consciousness transferred into a cybernetic body. What follows is a fairly insipid, though impressively-rendered trek through a greatest hits collection of locales from Doom 2016.
Not to mince words: Doom VFR is a bit of a mess at the moment.
The developers have flirted with a variety of VR controls and interactions, but haven’t really polished any of them to the same level as their contemporaries. My list of gripes are are follows: you have inconsistent teleporting, a halfway-to-full locomotion scheme called ‘dash’ that handles forward/backward and sideways movement, the glitchy interactions with things in the world, the out-of-whack sense of scale, listless gunplay, and clipping that renders close-up combat impossible.
In its quieter moments it almost feels like a museum, or one of the companion VR experiences you get around big Hollywood movie releases. There is a hub area with models of all the enemy units that can be picked up and examined, but you can’t tilt or turn the model because it stays resolutely facing in the same direction. It’s a small thing, but indicative of its mouse/joypad roots and possibly that PSVR was the lead platform. It’s also representative of the many instances where only the bare minimum effort has been applied in the transition to VR.
But, let’s face it, you’re not playing Doom VFR to look at some models or for a story or for character development. This is still Doom, and it enjoys many of the benefits of being in that world. The bestiary, for a start, remains a collection of some of the best bad guys ever to grace a shooter. Everything that was good about Doom 2016’s monsters is good in Doom VFR – the combination of movement styles, attack patterns, and armaments is thrillingly dizzying in a busy encounter. Spinning round to see a Hell Knight coming right for you will nicely trigger a spike of adrenaline and a fight or flight (mainly the latter) reaction.
The upgrade systems for the player and the weapons comes across in modified form for this VFR outing. Health, slow-motion, and ammo can each be upgraded in three stages, and the weapons can be modified to either improve their effectiveness or unlock alternate fire modes that are triggered by the right hand controller grip button. Many of these feel far more satisfying than the base modes of fire, and it’s worth seeking out some of the hidden upgrade stations to make sure you get to try them all out.
Not everything makes a smooth transition into VR though. The weapons lack the heft you feel in the flat screen version – here there’s no real difference in feel from a shotgun to a pistol to a gauss rifle. The lack of impact reactions from the bad guys really sticks out like a sore thumb in VR, a constant unwanted reminder that they’re all basically just bullet sponges waiting for a health pool to empty before exploding into bloody geysers of gibs. But oh, what gibs they are. The viscera and particle systems in particular stand out in Doom VFR, with the handsome rendering of the the game world in general coming over to VR with surprisingly few compromises. A drop in poly count here, a carefully curated lack of long view distances there, and a general reduction in headcount of the bad guys.
As with the 2016 reboot, combat encounters become an exercise in constant motion and triage: whittle away at some of the Imps, take down a Cacodemon, scour the floor for armour pickups, whittle away at some Possessed, go toe-to-toe with a Hell Knight, dodge around the Revenant, find some health… The downside of this – and the choice to use teleportation as the primary control mode on the Vive version – is that the encounters become abstract things in your mind. They’re not visceral any more, they’re just puzzles to unpick. Should that particular switch be flicked in your brain, a lot of the majesty of the setting and the horror of the bad guys somewhat diminishes. With a few upgrades under your belt, the encounters suddenly become much easier, and you will find yourself deftly teleporting out of the way of a charging enemy without the spike of fear such a sight might previously have induced.
The added wrinkle of VR locomotion makes earlier encounters tougher than they might otherwise be – the inability to reset the camera by turning or re-centering is particularly galling in the busier encounters, as is the dodgy teleporting – but if you surrender yourself to flinging about in a room-scale setup, you can grow into the rhythms of the combat and your own need to be very nimble in spinning around to line up kill shots. People playing with a front-facing VR system like the default Rift setup or the PSVR may well find themselves very easily overwhelmed. Some encounters can last for quite a while, and death will take you right back to the start which can grate if it’s the controls at fault rather than one’s own reactions.
With five difficulty settings—two available only after the game has been beaten on earlier settings—players of every skill level should find a challenge that works for them; On the ‘Hurt Me Plenty’ setting I needed a good few attempts to clear the larger encounters but it felt challenging and fair in the main.
The largest factor in making victory in the hectic combat possible is the addition of slow motion/time dilation as a game mechanic. This really pays off when the combat environments give the player room to dart around. While it could do with cribbing a few more lessons from Robo Recall (2017), it’s a sensible choice given the rapid pace that Doom VFR’s encounters play out at. When the bad guy headcount ramps up, being able to dip into slow-motion to change weapons or relocate is absolutely essential and feels like exactly what the Doom combat in VR needed.
There’s also a crowd-control blast that pushes enemies away if you find yourself surrounded, which is a neat workaround for the clipping issue with weapons and up-close bad guys. It’s attached to the Vive’s left grip button however, which isn’t the easiest thing to trigger, and in the thick of battle often didn’t quite work out for me.
In fact the controls in general were just a little too glitchy to ever gel. The lack of full locomotion will be an instant black mark to a certain set of players, but the combination of dash and teleport worked well for me… when they worked. The Vive trackpad (or mine at least) has a strange habit of ignoring some trackpad clicks unless very carefully executed, which makes retreat more fraught than it needed to be and often triggered a dash when I wanted a teleport and vice versa. The teleporting – which zooms you to the next location rather than blink you there, which is a nice variation – has a destination marker that has a habit of phasing in and out. One second a destination is reachable, the next it isn’t. Given that the best way to get health in the game is to stagger an opponent and then telefrag them, this can have serious consequences to the flow of battle. Many’s the time I’d staggered a massive enemy, but couldn’t execute the telefrag before they came back to life.
It’s a shame that the real Doom VFR doesn’t really reveal itself until the second half of the game. At around three-and-a-half hours for a complete run-through, including time to hunt down some collectibles, the earlier areas really are the poorest in the game and somewhat tarnish the package. Once I had a few upgrades, had grown competent with the vagaries of the teleporting, and the game had finally opened up into larger combat arenas – with interesting verticality and sight lines – you could see the DNA of Doom 2016 dragged kicking and screaming into the VR realm. The price at least isn’t at the upper end of the spectrum ($30), and if you feel you might get some replay value from the higher difficulties you can probably double the run time.
At its best Doom VFR really is a very exciting and incredibly fast-paced experience, with thrilling moments of heroism against seemingly insurmountable odds. There is a lot to be said for standing at the feet of a Baron of Hell and looking up at its multi-storey frame and fighting back a shudder. At its best Doom VFR deserves to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with its forebears. Unfortunately for Doom VFR, its best is fleeting, its flaws many, and just as it shows its quality, it’s all over.
You can kill immersion in VR in many ways, and 45 seconds spent failing to press a button in a lift was the low point for me with Doom VFR. The motion controller tracking didn’t seem to know where I was pointing inside the game; the laser pointer wouldn’t actually appear unless I stood in a particular spot but the game’s teleport didn’t want to play ball.
There’s also an odd sense of wrongness to the scale of the world and the things in it. An early example comes in one scene where you have to use a handheld fire extinguisher to calm a raging inferno (because nothing screams “Doom” more than observing the fire safety regs). Despite the flames appearing to be quite a way down a central shaft, in the ill-fated complex the small handheld extinguisher appears to blast out an improbable cloud of foam that easily reaches the flames. Perhaps it’s a Future Space Fire Extinguisher™, I’m not really up on the Doom lore as it applies to hazard equipment.
It isn’t until the game reaches (spoiler warning) “the hot place” that it manages to elicit a sense of awe and a sense of place, with its eerie otherworldly outcroppings and demonic aesthetic. Prior to that, the nondescript corridors of a science complex don’t offer the most evocative of settings.
Doom VFR is at its worst when it tries to be a VR game – with all the trivial non-Doom interactions some developers feel they need to shoehorn into it – and at its best and most immersive when it remembers to be a Doom game.
Despite my gripes with inconsistent teleporting, it ultimately does the job comfort-wise. It’s not a blink, but the rapid transitions from point-to-point were very comfortable as they were always moving in the direction I was looking. The lateral dashes threaten to be uncomfortable – and I’m sure individual tolerances will vary – but I was not unduly affected by them.
There are some moments (like standing on jump pads, or getting punted by a Hell Knight) where you might be suddenly thrust on an arcing backwards trajectory and that can make the stomach heave a little, but they’re rare moments and mostly predictable. There are also a handful of glass lifts, and a selection of vertiginous drops, that might rattle those susceptible to such things.
Lefties might struggle with the hard coded functionality – teleporting on the left hand controller and shooting on the right. You can just swap the controllers in the real world over if you don’t mind the hands being the wrong way around in the game, but you would think this is something that might be patched in.
Not unique to Doom VFR is the room-scale issue with trailing cables. Without the ability to re-center the view, you will spend a lot of time getting turned around and tangled if you haven’t developed a ’sixth sense of stepping’ to avoid the cabling.