Not to put this celebration of all things Doom on a right downer, but as we find ourselves in 2013, the hard work and influence Doom put in to the first person genre twenty years ago is all but gone. There was a time, just after its launch, where every single game that had you play as a dude with a gun was labeled a ‘Doom Clone’. Not in any derogatory way at all, for ‘Doom Clone’ was the name for the genre! The term ‘First Person Shooter’ was yet to be coined, and whenever a game was released, it usually represented the next big benchmark in terms of technology and that all important ‘wow’ factor. Doom, Quake, hell, even the recent Battlefield, all examples of cutting edge technology.
One of the big things Doom had that surpassed its market leading tech was its genius level design, largely due to their staff of genius level designers. Memorable, individual levels that were filled with their own secrets, tricks and traps, each loaded with their own personality. Unreal, with maps by a young Clifford B, impressed with some fairly open areas and an emphasis on exploration. Duke Nukem 3D took it to a whole new level, with a load of interactivity and verticality, creating even more varied levels to blast your way through. Despite all of this new stuff, they shared that one common trait - brilliant, interesting maps. It was a time where map designers became weird celebrities to even weirder people and those who were really into the games could see the designers personality stamped on their respective levels. Romero, Sandy Peterson, ‘Levelord’, Cliffy bloody B. All had their own level design manifestos that you can see in each of their individually crafted maps. I’m not denying anyone any talent, but who knows or even cares who designed the latest war-torn city street full of burnt out cars and knee high walls?
My favourite Doom map is probably E1M2: Nuclear Plant, created by John Romero. It varies nicely between close combat and some larger, open bits, has loads of secrets and the level balances nicely between being almost horror tension and the out and out action you’d expect from Doom. I know it better than I know the streets around my house! I think my favourite map of all-time is Death Row from Duke Nukem 3D… or maybe Hollywood Holocaust… or MAYBE even Hotel Hell. Anyway, eventually - Half-Life happened, it was exceptional, and everyone fell in love with the single, linear narrative. The days of the map were numbered.
I’ve recently been playing Call of Duty: Ghosts and although it is completely inoffensive in terms of gameplay the stages are absolutely lifeless. Sure, they look really nice, with the next-gen versions having a few genuinely quite stunning looking moments, but in all honesty I couldn’t even tell you what I did during level two with any detail, even though I played the thing LAST NIGHT. It is easy to pick on Activision’s mega-selling ultra-franchise, as it is kind of the figurehead for uninspired design hidden by spectacle, but it is everything, these days. Look at Midnight Resistance favourite, Singularity. A grand old romp it might be, with really fun weapons and firefights for days, but you’re still trotting around a fairly linear path, with little in the way of exploration or secrets to be found. FPS games have become the big ‘Summer Blockbuster’ of gaming, and they’re all so keen to get their billy big bollocks story across to you, the actual level design and gunplay seems like a bit of an inconvenience.
One place where great map design still lives is in the multiplayer world. Take the aforementioned Call of Duty, a game notorious for its ‘corridor, cutscene, repeat’ approach to single player. The maps available in the multiplayer mode are, for the most part, amazingly well thought out play areas, with a focus on where the action will be drawn to and a counter for every ‘sweet spot’, as well as a counter for that counter… and so on. Like a great fighting game, there’s a balance to it all. A great map feels fair, and by using the right combination of weaponry, area knowledge and ability, you can turn the tides and win no matter what the odds. A tradition continued from classics such as Unreal Tournament and Quake 3, where learning the ins and outs of a map was just as important as being able to one-shot someone with a railgun from a mile away.
Unfortunately, the map-based single player FPS seems to be dead and gone at the time of writing. The most popular games in the genre sell absolutely millions, and everyone is desperately trying to be one of them rather than be one of these supposed relics of the past. iD Software’s own RAGE was a bit of an eye-opener in this regard. I actually enjoyed it thoroughly, but a lot of people were put off by the empty open world vehicle sections and watered down RPG stuff. However, once you got inside an area where a mission was set, it became the closest thing to classic Doom we’ve had in quite some time. Excellent, satisfying weapons, enemies aplenty and that wicked, weaving map design, geared towards providing a platform for the excellent action! They can clearly still do it, but to put out a game made up purely of those sections doesn’t seem like something that is going to happen in the current market.
What I’d love to see is a fast-paced action shooter that harks back to a time where a great map was king. Make the core game a decent enough shooter, and you could release level pack after level pack as additional content. An easy to use editor and you’ve got a near instant community. Much like Little Big Planet, eventually some decent stuff will rise to the top.
What I’d love is for that game to be Doom 4, but we all know that isn’t going to happen, don’t we? Bummer.