Hands-on: DOOM Eternal is exactly what you want, plus jumping puzzles

DOOM Eternal's development team is pitching the game as their Empire Strikes Back. They didn't really go into too much detail about what that means, but the basic assumption might be enough: DOOM 2016 was very good. Eternal is going to be even better.

Other phrases used at the media event before our three hours of hands-on time with the game's first three hours included "combat puzzle" and "earned power fantasy."  That's all fair. Eternal is an absolute blast right from the start, offering a high-adrenaline campaign mode that keeps you moving, shooting, and strategizing on the fly. It's an incredibly violent FPS combat experience lightly dusted with jumping puzzles and complex worldbuilding.

Dismantling heavy enemies

Across its first three hours, DOOM Eternal does a good job of gradually introducing new enemy types across the spectrum of challenge. New grunts require slight adjustments of your tactics, especially since these low-level enemies - zombies, gargoyles, and more - are critically important to "farming" health and ammo as you run around, dealing with the game's more challenging foes.

DOOM's "heavies" are likely to provide many of the game's most challenging and memorable battles. Aranchotrons, Hell Knights, Cacodemons, and others require different tactics, and (new for Eternal) they all have distinct weakpoints that can be targeted to make fights against them easier. Cacodemons will swallow grenades fired into their mouths, for example, staggering them instantly. Against aranchotrons you'll want to target fire at their tail gun, since you can disable that and make them a lot less effective at long range.

Different weak points can be targeted more effectively with different weapons, providing an incentive for players to keep their arsenal stocked with ammo, and to internalize the right weapon "key" to fit the different enemy "locks."

Online features and replay value

DOOM Eternal's interesting asymmetrical multiplayer isn't the only way the game is going to leverage an online connection. Playing through the game's single player campaign, you'll encounter "Empowered Demons" in the form of heavies with enhanced abilities that drop greater rewards.

These more powerful demons are enemies that have killed other players in their own separate campaigns, and come complete with the player's name above their heads, identifying who it is you are looking to avenge. It's a fun and unobtrusive way to provide a little bit of variety to the campaign experience, and taking out an enemy that you know proved deadly to a fellow player has a little bit of extra meaning and satisfaction to it.

This most recent demo also revealed that Eternal will have weekly challenges that will provide experience points. These challenges are separate from the purely offline level challenges the game includes, and look like they will rotate for all players of the game. The challenges will include defeating certain enemies, using specific weapons, etc., but it isn't clear what the XP will be used for yet.

There are also a ton of secrets to be found in every Eternal level, which unlock both game-changing power-ups and other bonuses that are just for fun, like cutesy toy versions of all of the game's monstrous enemies. The game's enhanced movement abilities (more on those in a moment) mean that secrets and optional pickups can be hidden in a wide variety of hard-to-reach locations. Though many of the game's levels will feel fairly linear (and you'll rarely be at a loss about where to go next), secret-hunters will find that they are complex packages, packed with hidden corners and destructible walls.

Jumping puzzles

DOOM Eternal ramps up the mobility powers introduced in the previous game to a new level. With air dashes, wall climbing, grappling hooks, and horizontal bars to swing on, controlling the Doom Slayer can feel downright acrobatic at times. And you'll need to master these skills to make your way in a world of falling platforms and spiked, flaming chains. Right from its first few hours, Eternal has sequences that feel like they're adapted from a 90s sidescroller, where you're double-jumping over lava in order to reach a glowing optional power-up.

These jumping puzzles are a surprising inclusion in a modern FPS game, and they're likely to be one of the more controversial elements of the new title, but they have also felt well designed and genuinely fun in my hands-on time with the game. It seems likely that the really brutal and challenging platforming puzzles will only be necessary for those hunting for every secret and collectible, while those on the main critical path through levels will be a bit more manageable.

Managing these platforming sequences is going to be critical for the game's pacing overall. DOOM can be a relentless experience, but the sequences of intense action are even more satisfying and impactful if they are broken up with small breathers: bits of story, simple puzzles, and now elaborate jumping puzzles. Giving players a jumping challenge that will lead to a handful of falling failures (with very minor penalties for each failure - far short of the frustration of a true death) will be a nice diversion between blood-soaked battles, but it'll likely be inevitable that for some players, some jumping sequences will be a bit too demanding, and will cross that line into frustration.

It'll come down to how well-balanced the jumping difficulty is, in the end. Regardless, all the new movement abiltiies are going to make for some absolutely incredible speedruns.

Home base: The Fortress of Doom

DOOM Eternal is absolutely packed with upgrade menus, covering your weapons, armor, abilities, and a whole lot more. You get points for these upgrades in a variety of ways, though most of it comes down to just playing the game, more or less. Some upgrade points will come from items you interact with in the world, while others will be found by completing challenges. Every level in the game has a certain number of "weapon points" that can be earned through a combination of boss battles, exploration, and other core gameplay experiences.

But the upgrades don't stop at the Doom Slayer himself. New for Eternal is an upgradable home base, "The Fortress of Doom," which you'll visit in between missions. This is a multi-layered satellite floating in orbit around Earth, and you'll teleport back to it after completing each new level. At the start regions are locked away, waiting to be powered on as you progress through the campaign, but within the first few hours of the game you'll gain access to the "Demon Prison," an arena area in which your objective is to "punish demons."

What this demon punishing means in practice is that you'll be able to trigger fights against waves of enemies that you've previously encountered, giving you a chance to practice with weapons and abilities and refine your tactics without actually using up your lives or ammo. It's a nice option to have in a game that will be loading you up with combat options early and often.

There's lore, if you want it

DOOM Eternal has plenty of lore to enjoy, if that's your thing - but the game also clearly understands that many fans will just be looking to run fast and kill demons without too much talking getting in the way. Aside from what you see in the campaign's story cutscenes, you'll gradually build an extensive codex of information in the game's pause menu as you explore and pick up burning pages scattered around the world.

As DOOM: Eternal opens, Hell has begun a full invasion of earth, and billions of people are dead. The Doom Slayer observes things from his satellite fortress, teleporting to missions on earth and elsewhere. In just the game's first few missions you'll travel far and wide - including to the realm of "Exultia," which seems to be connected to the Heavenly scenes shown off in the game's trailers. It's a little disappointing that you'll be encountering an extradimensional species of ancient alien beings that just happen to look like Western conceptions of God and angels, rather than literally taking the fight to Heaven.

The robotic angel seen in the game's latest cinematic trailer is known as the "Khan Maykr," and the relationship between this antagonistic figure and the Doom Slayer seems to be complicated. It's implied that the Doom Slayer owes some sort of ancient allegiance to "the will of the Khan Maykr," and in the short story cutscenes in the game's opening hours there are a lot of people telling the Doom Slayer he should just forget about Earth, since it's not his problem anymore.

Exploring the ruined landscapes that make up DOOM Eternal's levels, you'll also have the chance to encounter the wreckage of gigantic mechs that look a lot like the Doom Slayer himself. Powering up the weapons on these mechs is a minor part of early level exploration - but it also feels very likely that you'll have a chance to take one of these behemoths for a spin against the forces of Hell sometime before DOOM Eternal wraps up.

As a final bit of lore that's relevant to long-time series fans: the Doom Slayer is referred to repeatedly as "Doom Guy" via in-game lore (though it's an unofficial name that seems to have become popular among Earth survivors). Exploring the Fortress of Doom also reveals a room containing an ancient armor set that looks very similar to that worn by the original DOOM marine.

So there's plenty of lore to be found in DOOM: Eternal, if you want it. It's good to take a break from stabbing spider-brain aliens in the eyes with their own arms, now and then.

DOOM: Eternal will release on March 20th.