Developer: id Software Publisher: Bethesda Platform(s): PS4 (PS VR), PC (HTC Vive) Review copy purchased
Doom in virtual reality is something that should be really straightforward: here’s a gun, here’s some demons; unleash all of your real-life stresses. At its core, Doom VFR accomplishes just that, but it’s a therapy session that’s over before you’ve even really started to exorcise your demons.
There’s a definite distinction between VFR and its infinitely refreshing reboot from last year. You aren’t Doomguy, rather a random scientist who finds himself resurrected after Hell caused hell at the UAC facility on Mars. It’s strange to play as a mild-mannered and relatively normal guy in a Doom game, but it’s understandable here – Doomguy wouldn’t exactly hold your hand through a VR tutorial. Sadly, the protagonist is little more than a tour guide with a very bizarre physical impairment.
The first time you take control in Doom VFR, you are probably going to laugh. For some reason, the protagonist’s arms are extended out of his chest as if he was an extra on The Thing, resulting in me being totally taken out of the game. I eventually got over it once I was sucked into the chaos, but it’s still an utterly alien design choice.
Most of my time with Doom VFR was spent using a Dualshock and it felt like the best way to play it as it more or less controlled the same way as last year’s effort. I had worried that I would be hamstrung by the game’s teleporting mechanic, which was seemingly introduced as a way to reduce nausea, but once I could combine free (if fairly slow) movement with the left stick, I was flying. I dabbled quickly with the Move controllers, though the finicky movement and somewhat unpolished tracking of the devices left me cold. That being said, I only typically like to use Moves for shooting galleries and “static” games, so your mileage may vary.
If you’ve played Doom before, you know what the aim of the game is: kill the demons. id Software have done a great job of replicating that simple but joyful principle in virtual reality, especially when Mick Gordon’s already classic soundtrack kicks in. Against my better judgement as someone who suffers from motion sickness all too easily, I was shrieking like a banshee and bobbing like a deranged demonslayer along to the heavy riffs of Rip and Tear and Bfg Division for minutes at a time with little nausea. As I wanted to eat a grenade after the very first scene of Here They Lie, I was pleasantly surprised to be able to play without much fuss, though chewing gum and ginger capsules –the saviours that they are– helped.
I was so shocked that I didn’t become nauseated from playing Doom VFR because it is absolutely frenetic, featuring all of the demons from the main game in great abundance for you to shoot your way through. Rooms quickly fill up with enemies and the game won’t let you progress until you dispose of them all, so you better grit your teeth and unleash mayhem. Stay on the move, never stop firing, and dash as much as you can and you might leave encounters breathless but intact.
To make Doom work in virtual reality, grenades always appear in your left hand (before later being dispersed from a launcher) and ammo seems far more plentiful, perhaps so as to not pull you too far out of the gripping carnage too much while you clumsily look around on the floor for pickups. It’s incredibly satisfying to teleport up to an imp, give them a bit of attitude with your shotgun before dashing away and laying down fire on the rest of the room with rifles. Unfortunately, a concession had to be made with Glory Kills in that they’ve been replaced by Telefrags: simply exploding a demon when they’re vulnerable instead of showing off a wonderfully visceral animation. It’s a shame that id couldn’t find a way to keep Glory Kills for Doom VFR as something so basic was such a large part of what made the reboot so sadistically appealing, but perhaps these aggressive movements might have been too disorientating through a headset.
When Doom VFR is in full swing, it’s only second to Superhot VR as the most exhilarating first-person shooter I’ve played in virtual reality. It’s when it hits lulls, however, that it really lets itself down with some rather uninspired moments of downtime in the “hub” as the protagonist works out his next move, explaining what he needs to do in big capital letters to the player. In the early goings, there’s a lot of menial and bland busywork to contend with, such as collecting a fire extinguisher, that just seems really out of place as well.
There’s also a myriad of technical issues and blemishes that hold Doom VFR back from being absolutely essential. As I played on a vanilla PS4, text was as legible as porridge and there was considerable blur on environments and enemies to the point of it just looking downright ugly. These might improve on a Pro, but considering most still play on the base PS4 console, it’s not quite up to snuff. Granted, this is the price you pay for playing with a less robust headset compared to its peers. As is so often the case with games that require plenty of physicality on PlayStation VR, the cables are major hindrances and the tracking is simply below par if you need to turn drastically, instead making turning with the stick the best option. Considering how enemies come from all sides, it feels far too lethargic.
And it’s all over so soon, just as Doom VFR threatens to gnash its way into your heart. It’s so absorbing, despite its flaws, that once its three hours of gameplay are over, you’re left wanting more. I’ve played more than enough “brisk” virtual reality games and had hoped that Doom VFR would be different, but it was just as anticlimactic as so many others. Experiences like Skyrim VR are the way forward, offering fully-realised showcases of how special virtual reality can be, whereas games like Doom VFR continue to feel like concepts and parlour tricks rather than the finished article.
If it’s demon-killing you’re after, Doom VFR is going to scratch a virtual itch, but some unappealing textures coupled with its bland story and a miserly playtime length seriously hold it back.