It may have received a lukewarm reception upon its initial release, but we can’t help but think that Doom 64 has only gotten better with age.
Whereas many N64 games are now a struggle to play due to crippling frame rates and clunky controls, Doom 64 remains highly playable. It holds up on the gameplay front too as a result of its intelligent and complex design. Fast-paced combat is interspersed with exploration and puzzle solving to deliver a campaign that frequently surprises and challenges you.
Doom 64 is set after Doom, Doom II and Final Doom, but nevertheless portrays a similar scenario. The demons of Hell have once again passed through a portal into our universe, killing everything in their way. It’s up to you, the famous space marine, to single-handedly battle your way through 32 levels — all unique to the N64 version — and enter Hell itself to halt the invasion once and for all.
Making your way through the underworld, however, is far from straightforward. Levels often sport a non-linear design, requiring you to work out where to go and in what order you need to do things so that you can get to the exit. The environments expand and even transform as you unlock doors and activate switches, not to mention they also vary quite drastically in terms of size and layout. One minute you’re cautiously tiptoeing through a tight corridor, the next you’re engaging in all-out war, circling the enemy in a large open area.
Exploration in Doom 64 is so fun due to the risk/reward factor and uncertainty it involves. There’s a heavy emphasis on uncovering secret areas that dish out all sorts of goodies, although the only thing you may find is a quick death. Sticking to the beaten path isn’t necessarily any safer either. Levels are laden with deviously placed traps that can catch you off guard, quickly shifting the focus to fighting for your survival.
And staying alive in Doom 64 is arguably the most challenging aspect. Even on the game’s easiest difficulty setting, enemies still pack a wallop and frequently appear in considerable numbers. Dying sends you back to the beginning of the stage, which may seem a tad harsh in contrast to modern games and their regular auto-saving checkpoints. The traps, while devilishly clever at times, also have a habit of sometimes being unfair, resulting in some cheap insta-death moments that are difficult to avoid on your initial playthrough. Thankfully, each of the game’s levels is generally short, rarely lasting longer than 15 minutes, and so it doesn’t take too long to get back to where you were.
Moreover, the marine you play as is certainly no pushover. Movement is very quick, enabling you to strafe enemy fire and keep moving around the enemy as you hit them with a powerful array of weapons. Learning which gun to use against particular enemies or in certain scenarios will make a big difference in how you fare throughout the game. There’s no reload mechanic, which suits the fast and frenetic pace of play and allows you to unleash a relentless of wave of firepower, regardless of whether you’re using a shotgun, chaingun or rocket launcher.
Doom 64’s control setup takes some getting used to if you’re more accustomed to modern console shooters, but it’s much simpler than that of most other first-person shooters on N64. You can’t, for example, aim vertically; instead you simply shoot in the direction of the enemy and the shots magically line up. That’s not to say that this makes the game any easier; enemies can absorb a lot of firepower, dish out plenty in return, and often outnumber you.
A lot can be happening on screen at any one time, and yet Doom 64 virtually never breaks a sweat in terms of technical performance. The game almost always runs at a solid 30 frames per second, and the only time we experienced any slowdown was during the final level, which features a massive number of enemies fighting you at the same time — even then it was only ever so slight! 2D sprites are used for characters, items and some in-game objects, which no doubt help the game to maintain its consistent frame rate. These sprites look dated, but then so do the low-poly 3D models found in most N64 games. And the fact that this makes Doom 64 a smoother, more playable experience compared to most other games on the system is, in our view, a lot more important nowadays.
Doom 64’s environments may look a bit basic by today’s standards, but they still manage to deliver a creepy, hellish atmosphere that’s punctuated with some great audio design. Skittish voices, growls and shrieks can trick you into thinking an enemy is nearby when you’re alone or, more worryingly, lead you to think the opposite. Admiring the aesthetics is difficult, however, because Doom 64’s visuals are so incredibly dark. Even when configured to maximum brightness it’s often hard to see where you’re going. The display you use makes no difference either: we tried the game on a CRT, an LCD/LED TV and even an UltraHDMI N64 with its fancy gamma boost option, and encountered this problem every time.
Doom 64 remains an absolute joy to play 20 years later thanks to its superb, tightly crafted level design and exceptional technical performance. It’s a consistently smooth experience, which helps ensure the game’s frantic, energetic combat always looks and feels the part. It’s just a shame that even with the brightness turned all the way up, Doom 64 is too dark, making it difficult to see where you’re going at times. That one minor gripe aside, this is a highly playable, albeit challenging game that delivers an ideal blend of first-person gunplay and puzzle-solving exploration.