Rip and tear. That’s the enduring promise of Doom. The armies of hell stand before you, and you have one mission — destroy them all. That simple premise belies the complex balancing act of making big, dumb action not just compelling, but satisfying for the more primitive lobes of the brain. Bethesda’s 2016 reboot of the 90s classic first-person shooter deftly walked that high wire: In Doom, you have the ability to blast demons at high speed, and feel immensely powerful for doing so.
Which is what makes Doom VFR, developer Id Software’s arcade-style VR adaptation of the recent reboot, so surprising. The things that are great about Doom, generally speaking, do not translate to VR very well. Even at normal speed, VR game developers routinely struggle with the basics — like not making their players sick. Moreover, the technology, while impressive, still requires a miniature super-computer (which we totally have) to run well on high settings. Even then, you’re limited to a ten-foot-square-ish area in which to play — not exactly a grand stage for your rampage through Hell.
Doom VFR mostly works in spite of those limitations however — though some issues endemic to VR persist here — delivering one of the best virtual romps available. With top-notch action, and thrilling set pieces, it succeeds in offering the kind of bombastic spectacle VR was made for. Now venture with us, to the depths of hell, in our review.
Why run when you can teleport?
A spinoff of the 2016 Doom reboot, Doom VFR plops you onto the same demon-infested base on Mars. While that alone would probably make for a really cool game (who wouldn’t want to traipse about the surface of the red planet?), you’ve got a date with destiny. The second you step into the base, though, a demon whips around to face you before rushing over to shred your supple flesh.
Drop a grenade and zip back to where you were to watch two bewildered monsters marvel at their sudden lack of arms. And faces.
Not one to be stopped by death, you awaken to find your consciousness has been transferred to a mechanical body. You press on, learning all the tricks and tools the new body comes with. First and foremost, that means teleporting. Movement in VR — especially contiguous movement — is well-known to cause motion sickness in … most people. Our brains aren’t equipped to handle feeling like we’re moving even we aren’t, so the traditional “press up to move forward,” doesn’t quite work here.
Instead, you click a pad and drag your finger forward to select a place to teleport to. Alternatively, you can “dash,” double tapping in a direction to micro-warp yourself accordingly. Both can be a bit jarring, but even after hours of play, we didn’t experience any motion sickness (and we are plenty susceptible). What matters though, is how these conceits work together as the underpinning for this hyper-aggressive gore-fest.
After a bit of tutorial to introduce you to the basics of maneuvering and weapon-handling, you’re immediately thrown into a room full of demons to kill. Handling guns and grenades is effortless – your VR remotes’ triggers are triggers, and you use your arms to point at (and hopefully kill) whatever you’re aiming for. But, combined with the dash and teleport abilities, you have unprecedented mobility in this virtual space.
Should you, for instance, spot two grizzly Ghoulies down a hallway, you can warp behind them, drop a grenade and zip back to where you were to watch two bewildered monsters marvel at their sudden lack of arms. And faces.
Doom doles out these vignettes in small doses at first. Movement is useful, but still doesn’t feel natural. Teleporting isn’t something we tend to do on a daily basis, and while it can forestall sickness, it’s still a bit bizarre. It doesn’t help that, on the Vive (the set-up we used for testing), dashing and teleporting are mapped to the same directional pad. You double-tap to dash and then hold and drag to set-up a teleport location, then release to instantly jump. Even without baddies swarming, it can be tough to keep the two separate. We were able to adapt to that awkward scheme, but it took an hour or so (almost a quarter of total play-time).
Once you get the skills mastered, though, the experience is unparalleled. Hallways packed with low-level fodder offer up plenty of practice dummies for your new skills, but every 45 minutes or so, you’ll hit a larger, multi-level arena that will ask you to put all that training into action. In the first, a hulking mancubus stumbles out of a portal and immediately begins pelting you with white-hot plasma bolts as swarms of telekinectic force you to keep your focus on the whole battlefield — and not solely the giant, man-eating monster lobbing energy beams.
Run ’em ragged
While last year’s 2D Doom offered similar thrills, VR ups the intensity by making you really feel like you’re there. You can duck and weave between demons — Warp up to them, unload with a shotgun, then blast away to safety. To that end, each foe has a special instant-kill that you can start by whittling their health down with gun blasts first. Then, once they start to glow a telltale blue, you can pop into them, causing a meaty, bloody explosion and replenishing your health. It’s not quite as rich as Doom’s brutal “glory kills,” which allowed you to tear stunned demons to shreds, but their pacing and rhythm feels natural in the shift to VR. The visual pomp of 2D Doom’s gratuitous gore is supplanted with the feeling of blood and guts plashing into view from all directions.
These moments really shine because the constant movement dovetails well with the in-your-face action on offer. It’s common, for example, to teleport to an upper floor on a compound, thinking you’ve found a second’s respite, only to have another demon pop up and scream not two inches from your eyes. Corny as it might seem, it truly is an incredible feeling — having the sudden relief of safety ripped away and replaced with lizard-brain terror — that isn’t available anywhere else. At least, not in a form that allows for the immediate and gratifying revenge-by-way-of-plasma rifle Doom sports. Developer id software embodies its namesake, and delivers a primal experience that left us awed.
The complaints are minor enough, but they definitely show VRs continued struggle to capture a holistic experience.
It’s a shame, then, that the rest of the experience drags even at its best moments. When you aren’t in combat, you’re still teleporting/dashing about, but without that chaotic combat spurring you on, you’re left to navigate boring, straight-forward maps with the bizarre control scheme. Even worse, outside of its set-piece arenas, VFR relies heavily on narrow corridors: The levels definitely look like part of a Martian military outpost, but Doom VFR‘s movement options just don’t work well in these kinds of claustrophobic conditions.
These complaints are minor enough, but they definitely show VRs continued struggle to capture a holistic experience. Then again, Doom’s plot has never been a focus, with last year’s protagonist, simply referred to as “Doom guy” dropped all the pretension and self-importance for a gruff “eff this” approach. It’s a shame the same tongue-in-cheek derision doesn’t come back here, as it’d go a decent way to bridging the gap between play and narrative with one, irreverent middle finger to all, but alas.
Still, we got to jam rockets into the belly of a cyberdemon. That’s pretty damned cool.
Just make sure you have a Vive or PlayStation VR headset, as the ongoing legal trouble between id’s parent company, Zenimax, and Oculus make it hard to imagine a Rift port is coming any time soon.
Doom VFR is among the best VR experiences currently on offer. Unfortunately, the state of that niche market being what it is, that’s not saying much, but it still easily places Doom near the top of the list for fans of action.
Is there a better alternative?
Not really. In the VR space, there aren’t many high-octane action experiences that offer this level of refinement. Think of it as Space Pirate Trainer with a lot more structure. If that’s what you’re looking for, this is your best option.
How long will it last?
Our run took a little over four hours, but we immediately wanted to go back after finishing. It’s hard to say how often you’ll want to revisit some of these set pieces, but it’s definitely worth a couple rounds.
Should you buy it?
Yes. If you have a Vive or PSVR, DOOM VFR offers some of the best action you can get in VR — a must-have, even if only as a reminder of what VR could become.
We reviewed DOOM VFR on the HTC Vive using a retail code for the game provided by the publisher.