Doom Warrior: first impressions

[It’s been suggested that I include a warning that some images in this article might be considered NSFW. There’s some nudity, albeit ridiculous digital nudity. Consider yourself warned!]

Doom Warrior face off

I have known a number of people who have bemoaned the loss of a time ‘when men could be men’. This tended to come up in discussion of old films, particularly action films of the 80s, in which muscled heroes waved swords or assault rifles about, occasionally punched out camels and definitely got the girl at the end of the film. How could they not get the girl? After all, girls exist to be got, and these heroes were the paragons of heterosexual masculinity, icons of male virility, and symbols of the righteousness of the power and violence that is the birthright of men.

The 300 was brought up as a recent example of just such a film, and could we please stop making fun of it already. Personally, I thought the irony was hilarious.

All of this brings me, in a very roundabout way, to Doom Warrior. It is the fruit of the creative loins of Neil Yates, aka. Creaky Corpse, the UK-based developer who found success with zombie MMO Dead Frontier. Apparently Dead Frontier recently passed ten million players. It’s unclear how many are active but regardless ten million in about five years is impressive for a small developer. No doubt Yates hopes to replicate this level of success with Doom Warrior.

For this new game the zombies have been set to one side – not a moment too soon, frankly – and inspiration has been sought from fresh wellsprings. The clear inspiration here is Conan the Barbarian and works of its ilk. Doom Warrior’s setting draws on the visuals that have come to be associated with Conan via various comics, films and art, but also the bleakness and nihilism in which Robert E. Howard’s original stories laid the seeds of epic heroism. Each player’s character in Doom Warrior begins as a slave, thrust into the arena to prove their worth in combat, and there are suggestions of the same sense of savage honour amidst the barbarities of civilisation that drove the Conan stories thematically.

On the other hand Doom Warrior is a multiplayer game. Not everyone can be a Conan, surely, as if everyone is destined to rise through the slave ranks, gain their freedom and ultimately triumph over their enemies the possibility exists of worldbuilding being undermined by all those busy Conans. Regardless, Doom Warrior does a pretty good job of establishing a strong tone. From the very first moment of launching a martial, tribal drumbeat backed by distant war horns is heard. Characters move with a gait that suggests weight and power in their bodies. Weapons are huge and wicked in appearance, whilst armour is… well, armour is sparse, especially if a character is female.

Doom Warrior is not intended to be a funny game, but it has made me laugh on numerous occasions. For example, on launch you’re asked if you want to have nudity on or off. I’m a grown man who writes about video games, so obviously I chose to have it on. And thus, when I came to set up my character, this:

Doom Warrior female

Doom Warrior female

Nudity just means that all female warriors have their tits out. Perpetually. None of the armour you can later buy covers a female character’s chest, so it’s heroic nips forever! Meanwhile, the men get chunky protective chestplates. Naturally the nudity on/off toggle does not affect the leather strap starting male characters have, presumably to restrain their rippling pecs and/or justify the homoerotic intro I started this piece with.

You have to laugh, don’t you? Or ruminate with a degree of sadness on what this suggests about the intended audience of Doom Warrior. I’ll let you fill in the blanks there for yourself.

Meanwhile, after switching nudity back off because while it’s entertaining to watch victorious female gladiators jiggling their blood-soaked bodies about, I figure that a leather sports bra at least provides some protection. And, frankly, after a few hours of play with Doom Warrior I need all the help I can get.

Here’s how the game plays: you select an opponent and both characters enter the arena. At present opponents are AI characters or AI representations of other players; the game is currently in beta and player-on-player combat is promised later. Combat itself is based around strikes and blocks, each in four directions. The heaviest and slowest blow is an overhead smash; the quickest but weakest a forward thrust. Left and right swipes occupy the middle ground. Combat concerns watching your opponent for tells, blocking when appropriate, and timing your own strikes at moments of weakness. Each character has a recharging stamina bar which dictates their ability to strike and the effectiveness of their blocking. Being struck halts your stamina recharging as well as wounding you, so blocking – or interrupting an attack with one of your own – is very important.

It’s a simple but surprisingly entertaining system. Characters can gain levels and add points to different stats – strength, toughness, agility, blocking and stamina all have the effect you’d expect them to – but it’s possible to punch above your level if you’re proficient. Watching for tells and quickly moving to block accordingly can be tougher than it sounds, and it’s satisfying to emerge victorious from a fight – each of which lasts a few minutes at most.

Sadly after winning a series of battles at the game’s first arena, and being treated to a cutscene about being freed from slavery for my troubles (a nice touch, actually, is that the cutscene voiceover appears to match the gender and ethnicity of my character), I found that where I had previously won the majority of matches, I was now struggling to win anything at all. All opponents seemed to have fantastic equipment that boosted their stats far beyond mine; enough of a gap that I could often be killed after missing just one or two blocks. The game shot from fun to face-desk interaction literally overnight.

Doom Warrior fight

It turns out, though, that I’d failed to notice a UI element in the bottom left corner of the screen. This tells you which direction to block in when an opponent attacks. While I’d been watching for tells and often suffering for misinterpreting them, the game had been trying and failing to get my attention regarding the same.

I’m ambivalent about this UI element. It takes the main part of the game – watching your opponent and reacting to their moves – and essentially chucks it out of the window. Perhaps this UI element will be removed post-beta, or will only be present for low-levelled players, but it’s a shame that it undermines Doom Warrior’s only really significant gameplay element. Perhaps I’ve simply been playing too much Dark Souls recently, but where’s the fun in a game that tells you exactly what to do?

Outside fights the metagame allows players to gain temporary stat buffs by resting, enjoying the affections of a slave girl (all girls – clearly there are no male pleasure-slaves in Cimmeria), or travelling to a temple. And, yes, here we go: there are free to play elements. You can engage in up to twelve fights before you need to wait for a timer to tick down again, and there’s the usual metagame currency. It appears that what’s purchasable with real money is focused around small buffs, so I hope it won’t unbalance fights, but it’s a little early to make a judgement call on that – particularly in the absence of player vs. player combat. Otherwise, I’ve not found the free to play elements at all intrusive and of course a developer wants to make some profit on a free game over and above the costs of development and running its servers.

Excitingly, it also appears possible to fight non-human enemies to win items (or, you know, whatever. Loot!). The first opponent is a gruesome sandworm. I really want to take him on, but I can’t get to level fifteen without using the UI cheat, and I don’t want to play the game using the UI cheat. A tragic catch-22. The trailer, at least, shows some of the other beasties players can expect to encounter.

Doom Warrior is already a well-polished game and has the potential to be an entertaining title for short blasts: at lunchtimes, before or between lengthier sessions with other games, or in other moments of downtime. Like all free-to-play games caveat emptor applies in an unusual manner; the game’s thoroughly playable without spending money, but screens like the one shown below may provoke displeasure in players of a certain disposition.

We’ll continue to monitor Doom Warrior as it develops. Hopefully something can be done about the abrupt transition in difficulty concerning opponents between the two early arenas, and a more elegant aid to blocking techniques can be found than a visual guide that hinders gameplay challenge.

[Doom Warrior was played on a desktop PC with everything turned up to max. The game’s also planned for release on Mac, iOS and Android later in the year.]

Doom Warrior victory

She just hacked my head off and didn’t even have a top on. Honestly. This town has gone downhill in recent years.

Doom Warrior shop

“Most Popular”? I suppose I feel less antipathy about stuff like this when it’s a game mostly made by one man, rather than EA. Conceptually, though, I’d rather just… buy and own a game?