Doom Eternal: The Ancient Gods Part 1 feels like a thrilling action movie occasionally interrupted by a game of I Spy. You want to keep watching John Wick’s balletic slaughter but your impertinent host won’t unpause the Blu-ray until you spot the ficus in the background.
It’s also tough as nails. If you haven’t played Doom Eternal since it launched back in March, the first moments of its new DLC, The Ancient Gods Part 1, will feel like a kick in the teeth–n a good way, mostly. Once you get back in the demon-slaying swing of things, it’s exciting to have more high-level Doom Eternal to play, unconstrained by the need to reintroduce you to the basics. But, still: Be ready.
The Ancient Gods Part 1 picks up right where Eternal left off. After an opening “previously on” text screen and a cutscene that will remind you that Doom Eternal focused way too much on story and Proper Noun-riddled lore, the DLC tosses you back into the action. Your entire roster of weapons–save the Crucible, that overpowered glowing red sword Doom Guy scored toward the end of the vanilla game–is unlocked right from the start. The Ancient Gods also throws the big bads of Eternal’s late-game roster at you right out of the gate. I had my first fight with a Marauder less than an hour in.
The Ancient Gods doesn’t take the time to re-tutorialize you on Doom Eternal’s mechanics. You need to remember to blast the Marauder with the super shotgun when his eyes flash green, that grenades belong in the cacodemon’s gaping mouth, that the mancubus must be pelted on his arm cannons. It’s a lot to remember! Doom Eternal, at its best, is a chaotic, frenzied, tactical, bloody dance, and I realized as soon as I started The Ancient Gods that I was foggy on the steps.
Doom Eternal: The Ancient Gods Part 1 is a direct continuation of the base game’s campaign, and where it succeeds, it does so on the basis of what Doom Eternal already did well. The Ancient Gods maintains Doom Eternal’s strong roster of enemies along with the Doom Slayer’s matching arsenal of weapons. Fights still largely take place in multi-tiered arenas, with platforms to hop on, portals to dash through, and monkey bars to swing from. It’s an acrobatic game that requires fluidity of motion and chess-like tactical thinking, roughly in equal measures.
But just as The Ancient Gods succeeds on the strengths of the base game, so too does it falter in familiar ways. Eternal is as story-heavy as a Doom game has been, and for players, like myself, who come to Doom for ripping and tearing, that focus doesn’t work. Doom Eternal’s story fails because it goes all-in on self-serious lore, a pairing that feels out of step with the inherent goofiness of its gory kills. The Ancient Gods is no exception. The Doom Slayer is scouring the realms of demons and angels and mortals for McGuffins and little time is spent establishing the necessary stakes to get you to care. The base game constantly expected you to know who an important angel or demon was, but didn’t take the time to introduce them. The Ancient Gods, thus far, has the same problem.
The Ancient Gods’ non-combat platforming is a slight improvement over the traversal in the base game. In Doom Eternal, it was often difficult to tell where to go, and sometimes–as in the Arc Complex level, which covered the floor in movement-halting purple sludge–the game actively slowed your progress in frustrating ways. In this expansion, however, the platforming is less extensive and mostly straightforward, allowing for a greater focus on the combat. And when the platforming is the focus, it works well. I especially enjoyed one section, which tasks the Doom Slayer with punching trees to make and move bridges. It’s brief, but it plays to Doom Eternal’s strengths, refashioning a platforming puzzle into an excuse to punch something new for novel results.
This DLC alternates uneasily between the all-out speed that Doom Eternal does so well and slower, careful sniping that stops the dance in its tracks.
The three new levels that comprise The Ancient Gods’ 5-to-10-hour campaign are well designed, with a variety of interesting play spaces. The multi-tiered arenas of Eternal are still prevalent, but they’re broken up by varied objectives and level hooks. One section, where you’re tasked with following a ghostly dog through a miasma that hurts you if you get too far away from your companion, is a welcome break from the typical fights, just forgiving enough that it doesn’t get frustrating, and just long enough that it doesn’t get boring. One late-game battle has you hopping among platforms to avoid damage as they catch fire. Then, when the platforms raise up above your head, you find yourself skirting the fiery hydraulics that lifted them. The Ancient Gods Part 1 has a few interesting setups like this, but even when the arenas are more standard Doom Eternal fare, they’re great fun to fight through. The environmental art is strong, too, and each level, whether it’s a stormy military base or a foggy swamp, is visually distinct from what comes before and after.
I mentioned the Marauder above, and the devilish warrior seems to have influenced the direction id moved in with The Ancient Gods Part 1. The axe-wielding, shield-bearing, fire dog-commanding demon felt more like a Dark Souls enemy than the kind of opponent you would expect to see in a Doom game. Marauder fights require an intense focus, careful timing, and vigilant measurement of the distance between you and your foe. While I like the Marauder for the vicious change of pace it provides, The Ancient Gods Part 1 adds multiple new enemies that function in similar ways. The Spirit, which can possess and empower enemies, must be hit with the plasma rifle’s microwave beam in the brief moment after you kill its host and before it possesses another. The turret, which looks like a candlestick with a purple eyeball where the flame would be, plays peekaboo if you look its way and must be shot quickly in the eye before it disappears again. The Blood Maykr needs to be shot in the head with the heavy cannon in the short window after it completes a heavy attack. All of these enemies require precise aim and timing, and you will need to watch them closely to hit their weak spots at the right moment. The result is that The Ancient Gods often feels slower than the base game. You spend less time in the dance of combat and more time waiting for an opening. Over time, I got accustomed to this change of pace, but I don’t think that makes it a good one.
That’s especially true because accuracy and high damage output are required to quickly dispatch the turret and Blood Maykr. As a result, I ended up leaning on the heavy cannon, Doom Eternal’s assault rifle, which also functions as a sniper. It’s a powerful antidote to both enemies, which means that in certain sections of the game, you will have little need for the rest of your deadly arsenal. In one late-game fight I noticed that I had hardly used the rest of my weapons at all. The Doom series is one of the few FPS holdouts that continues to reject aim-down-sights design in favor of speedy strafing. But The Ancient Gods Part 1 feels like it was built to showcase the Heavy Cannon–the one gun with a traditional scope. As a result, this DLC alternates uneasily between the all-out speed that Doom Eternal does so well and slower, careful sniping that stops the dance in its tracks.
Despite some new and enduring weak spots, Doom Eternal’s frantic combat (mostly) continues to shine through. Once you get back into the swing of the action, the rock-paper-scissors design philosophy still results in a great time. I just wish Doom Eternal could get out of its own way.