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The Lost Legacy of Doom’s Hitscan Enemies

I’m dancing. My feet follow no pattern and make no sound as I glide effortlessly over the terrain, but the rhythm of the Super Shotgun guides my every move. I weave to and fro among the soaring fireballs and scything claws, spotting opportunities, darting near and far, catching hellspawn in efficient point-blank bursts of scattershot. Boom, click, ker-chunk. Boom, click, ker-chunk. Boom, click, ker-chunk. Somewhere in the back of my head, I’m dimly aware of the familiar noise of a pneumatic door sliding open, barely audible above a tinny MIDI rendition of ‘Fear Of The Dark’. It’s catchier than you’d think.

Somebody roars. I’ve heard the sound enough times to recognise it as a ‘somebody’. Startled, I pivot to catch sight of the new assailants: two heavyset bald men, cradling imposingly large guns, furious piggy eyes as red as their bulky chestplates. Chaingunners. Before I can close the distance, they open fire, tearing an abundance of new holes in my circle-strafing, road-running backside. I put them out of action, but the damage is done. Was that a fair exchange? It’s not as if I could’ve outpaced their shots. Are they a fun enemy design in this, the most famous of all famously fast-paced first-person shooter? My kneejerk response is ‘no’, but Doom—because of course, it’s Doom—is a lot smarter than it seems.

Few games can claim to have lived as long and as healthily as Doom. Of course, it’s had the unwavering support of a community on its side, constantly tweaking and touching-up and doing everything in their power to stop the wrinkles under its eyes from showing, but its simple formula and flexible combat were always going to hold up well against the test of time. Doom has influenced the design of the modern first-person shooter in more ways than I could possibly articulate, with a little bit of DNA in everything from ARMA to Ziggurat, and yet… I feel there are one or two lessons from it that never quite caught on.

See, the concept of the ‘old-school’ first-person shooter, while not especially formally defined, is very much a thing. We’ve seen bits of it in the likes of Painkiller, Strafe, Tower of Guns, Dusk, Desync, Devil Daggers, and yes, even Doom 2016: games that buck dominant design patterns to focus on swift, streamlined, evasive movement, and a host of enemies that force you to make the most of that movement. Out of style, but by no means out of their depth, these games take after Doom more than most, but no matter how much they borrow from it, there’s one particular feature that many seem to skirt around. Something regarded almost with a kind of hushed, ‘we don’t talk about that’ shame, like the uncle at the family get-together who isn’t allowed to leave the country for reasons that nobody’s quite sure of. Hitscan enemies, a regular staple of Doom’s encounters, have near-vanished from the contemporary games that bear closest resemblance to it. What happened?

Well, at a glance, they do seem to clash with the desired experience. Doomguy can outrun a lot of things—many of which need at least fifty supervised hours logged before you can operate them independently—but he cannot outrun bullets, nor buckshot. You can’t dodge a hitscan enemy’s attacks by just going fast; the nature of Doom means that they take no time to pivot and have impeccable aim, other than the inherent spread patterns of their weapons. Your only recourse, it would seem, is to get out of range—a bit of a tall order, in most scenarios—or to take cover, which sounds like it would go directly against the fast, exciting experience of running around with the wind in your hair and a rocket launcher under your arm. ‘Cover’ is a dirty word; one that brings to mind hunkering behind a chest-high wall, plinking away at a succession of targets and crawling out only when a grenade gets tossed into your lap. To be in cover implies one is at rest, without any of the spatial analysis, fast-paced action or thrilling escapes that characterise the rest of the combat. You can see this stigma manifest frequently in retro first-person shooters, which often come hand-in-hand with the attitude that cover is for babies, and charging blindly into battle with your enormous, impenetrable testicles hanging out on display is the only acceptable combat strategy for ‘real men’. You could probably write a hefty tome about how unhealthy pulp action-hero masculinity has seeped through various layers of media and eventually pooled, like a discarded half-finished McDonalds’ thickshake, in nooks and crannies of gaming obscurity, but that’s a discussion for another time.

The thing is, Doom itself doesn’t actually work that way. In fact, it does a number of things to ensure that hitscan enemies don’t stifle the player’s movement, but instead add an extra set of considerations and trade-offs, forcing them to look at the play space—and when and where they position themselves in it—in a more nuanced manner. Like most of the ingredients that go into a first-person shooter, the way Doom’s hitscan enemies work is subject to its encounter design—a surprisingly diverse field, as custom WADs frequently demonstrate—but there are a few qualities to them you can count on in every sensible encounter.

Let’s break this down, piece by piece. Of the five enemy types in the first two Doom games with hitscan attacks, the three most common ones by a large margin are the ‘former humans’: undead soldiers who utilise conventional firearms—provided your definition of ‘conventional’ extends to a portable belt-fed chain gun, I suppose—and have all the durability of a cardboard cutout of Master Chief that somebody left out in the rain overnight. Upon noticing the player, they give a suitably enraged bellow and enter their attack routine: move, pause, shoot (if possible), repeat.

This pattern gives us time. Like a fireball whistling through the air, it gives us a chance to handle our predicament by reacting and moving quickly. It only takes an undead sergeant a few tenths of a second to level his shotgun barrel at yougive or take a bit of bumbling around, as they are wont to do—but in the world of Doom, it’s enough to at least start on a decisive manoeuvre. Doomguy runs quickly enough that you can very likely put something between yourself and your foe before they fire—it doesn’t even have to be a wall; other monsters serve perfectly well—and since the poor daft AI has no concept of suppressing fire, you need only be behind it for the split-second it takes them to return to their ‘move’ state. Consequentially, cover is less about clinging to the warm, comforting bosom of a solid wall and more about rapidly, momentarily repositioning yourself when the situation demands it; diving around corners, circling pillars, making use of the nearest solid thing in a pinch and immediately darting back out again. Taking cover is every bit as much about clever, well-timed movement as circle-strafing a pack of imps, and to be honest, probably demands far more split-second decision-making.

Another quality that’s critical to the success of the former humans is their relative squishiness: you can usually count on a single shotgun blast to put one out of action, and even glancing shots are likely to interrupt their routines long enough to buy some extra breathing room. A crowd can be swiftly dealt with by just raking a chain gun across their ranks—conveniently, the exact weapon dropped by the strongest former human, the Chaingunner—and pointing anything bigger at them is usually outright wasteful. This is key because it means that they’re only a very short-term threat—or, in larger battles where they’re mixed up with other enemies, only a threat for as long as you ignore them. Ducking behind a pillar once to evade a sergeant’s buckshot is a rush, but having to go through the same motion two or three times is stagnation. By letting you remove the former humans from the fight almost as quickly as they appear, Doom lets you quickly lift the restrictions they impose and expand the space where you can freely move, ensuring you’re never tied to one piece of cover or trapped in some godforsaken alcove.

But not every hitscan enemy in Doom goes down so easily, does it, hmm? I’m going to gently refuse to acknowledge the Spider Mastermind—a rare, highly-situational boss that squats unpleasantly at the end of the first game like a cane toad under the wheels of your dad’s Hilux—and instead concentrate on the notorious Arch-vile, whose pale, emaciated, lanky form is enough to set off half a dozen panic alarms in any Martian marine’s head. It’s everything the former humans aren’t: fast, durable, and capable of suddenly blasting half your health clean off from the far side of a munitions bay—to say nothing of its ability to revive fallen monsters, unravelling your work more and more the longer you leave it standing. Crucially, however, while the Arch-vile makes for a more persistent and punishing threat than the former humans, it also gives us much more time to work with. It takes about three full seconds of dramatic posing for an Arch-vile to wind up its hitscan attack—a pillar of infernal fire that explodes around its target—and once again, you are only required to actually duck behind something for the split-second when the attack connects to avoid taking damage. 

Consequentially, while our vitamin D-deficient friend does rather firmly, briefly force players into hiding, it also affords us the opportunity to stretch our legs and take nontrivial actions in between its attacks, giving it a distinctly different effect to Doom’s other hitscan enemies. Between every Arch-vile’s attack, there’s time enough to dart around the immediate area, change cover, take care of some lesser enemies, or—most likely—run up to it and empty both barrels into its repulsive mug. At an abstract level, the Arch-vile clamps down on the player by forcing them to be out of certain zones at certain times, but doesn’t make those zones inherently damaging to cross, like a crowd of former humans does.

Putting everything back together, Doom’s hitscan enemies are designed not to eliminate movement, but to carefully squeeze it; to force the player to take action, moving along vectors towards positions of safety. Restrictions on where in the combat space you can safely be are what make Doom’s fights engaging, and the restrictions that hitscan enemies provide are every bit as important to your positioning as a Revenant’s homing rocket or an Imp’s tossed fireball—they just take a different approach. Yet they’re also designed to ensure you’re never required to linger at your destination a moment longer than necessary, either by being easy to remove from the battlefield, or by only periodically applying their particular brand of pressure. Like every enemy in the game’s toolbox, they can be abused and used outside of their ideal roles—take a peek at The Plutonia Experiment, half of Final Doom, for some truly breathtakingly rude Chaingunner placement—but their basic principles are every bit as valuable as their peers.

Doom will force you to move, but it will never force you to stay. And that’s the philosophy that every first-person shooter should be built on, really.

Griffin: Avi is just white as a sheet, he’s paralyzed in fear.

Travis: I slap him.

Griffin: He doesn’t respond to you, he’s just. Paralyzed.

Travis: I slap him again.

Griffin: … He doesn’t move or respond to that ‘cause he’s- he’s paralysed.

Clint: I slap him.

Griffin: Okay you just take turns slapping Avi. He doesn’t move because he is literally paralyzed.