In many ways, Final Doom never had a chance. The name itself was even something of a joke on release; we knew Doom had about as much chance of staying dead as Jason did in the fourth film. The problem, of course, was that this was going on the third straight year of Doom mania – an eternity in gamer time – and the consensus then was that it was past time for Doom to retire. Duke 3D had already surpassed it, and even id themselves had moved on to true, polygon-based 3D engines with the development of Quake.
Another issue was the Internet. The very aspect that made Doom II not just a great game, but a brilliant investment (endless, free, fan-made levels), was also contributing to over-saturation and the sheer pointlessness of another official Doom release. While it was true that reliable, cheap Internet was still proliferating in the dial-up days of 1995, you were still covered – the terms of Doom’s user license made it possible for companies like WizardWorks to package and sell thousands of fan maps on a CD in retail stores. There were more Doom maps available than anyone could possibly play, or would even want to.
Really, the only group that really wasn’t ready for the sun to set on new Doom releases was its publisher, GT Interactive. Since id themselves weren’t even interested in making another Doom, they decided to mine the modding community for potential gold. The Master Levels release was the first attempt at this model, featuring 20 specially commissioned levels. With Final Doom, GT and id doubled down. id bought the rights to an upcoming fan campaign from the venerable Team TNT, as well as commissioning brothers Dario and Milo Casali (former TNT members themselves) to bang out a second campaign for a total of 64 levels.
In theory, the suits got cheap content they could sell, the mappers got industry exposure from an official release, and the consumer got the most Doom levels in single title; all officially vetted out of the endless deluge of (usually) crap maps off the Internet. Everybody wins.
The theory didn’t quite pan out. Quake released the same month (d’oh!), which is enough alone to take the wind out of Final Doom’s sails. Fairweather fans following TNT’s episode were furious when they found out it had been picked up for official release, and under all the complaints of “selling out,” were really just mad that they were no longer getting free shit. On top of which, consumers were a bit wary of paying for a collection of maps not created by id – even if they were packaged together as a proper Doom 3.
All of these factors led to much pooh-poohing of the entire attempt, and little actual examination of the episodes themselves. Lucky for you, I have a borderline illegal lust for Doom and a website where I can bang on about it. I beat both campaigns on the hardest official difficulty (Nightmare being more a gag than a real challenge) back in college when I had more time than sense. As detailed in my Doom II review, my initial article was pretty dismissive, so I loaded the campaigns up again to do it right. Is Final Doom all the final Doom it’s cracked up to be?
TNT’s Evilution campaign is the most balanced of the two, and the most like Doom II. It follows similar beats, and a similar clustered progression of themed levels (research facilities to industrial zones to Hell). These levels are sharp, though, and even slyly reference its predecessor. The first level, for example, calls back to the opening levels of both Doom and Doom II, with a clever play on the final exit switch. Others introduce some great new ideas – “Wormhole” contains a quasi-secret dark world version of itself, which is pretty neat (and a little spooky) when you find it. “Heck” is arguably the best Hell level in the 90’s series. There’s some cool architecture and ideas going on here, while weapon and ammo placement always feels fair. The challenge is tough, but manageable.
While most levels are smartly designed, Evilution is also almost expressly just for people that want more Doom II. You will find no new weapons or monsters, no new engine tricks, and nothing beyond the new levels. New artwork is extremely limited. Aside from new sky graphics and a new switch type, the most common changes you’ll see are hacks to place “TNT” on every monitor, crate, and some walls. Still, tagging their own levels with virtual graffiti is really the only unprofessional point you’ll find in this episode. There are certainly some levels that feel weaker or poorly paced compared to the others, but Doom II had its down points too. Overall, Evilution does feel like a set of levels in the style of id’s own team – which would be a compliment if it weren’t for all the reasons laid out at the top of the page.
The Plutonia Experiment is a different story.
Plutonia was specifically made for Final Doom after Evilution had been acquired. It was knocked out in just four months by the Casalis. About the only point where this astoundingly accelerated development schedule shows is in the general blandness of most maps. The lighting is often strong and moody, but the texture work is fairly plain and without much variety or decoration. There’s a few interesting visual twists (like an invisible bridge early on), but architecture isn’t the point here. Plutonia is entirely about challenging combat, and the most insane odds and situations in the series.
Without oversight or opinions from others, this is very much a pack made by and for the two Casalis. What they clearly wanted to make was a series of maps that would challenge themselves (and by loose extension, other Doom pros). They alone were both the designers and playtesters – and would admittedly tweak the map to be even harder if they could play through it too easily. This is where you get situations like an Arch-Vile in the very first level, rows of chaingun guys at the end of hallways, or a level start (“Neurosphere”) that gives you just seconds to escape before being overwhelmed by enemies teleporting in on all four sides. And while id would never lock you in an inescapable position – such as at the bottom of a toxic pit with no escape elevator – Plutonia has no such qualms.
Granted, id themselves started down this road with the extra episode in The Ultimate Doom, and Plutonia is very much in the spirit of these tricky, ambush-heavy levels with monsters aplenty. What makes it even more difficult are the copious mid-level monsters from Doom II, on top of masses of weak demons and the frequent appearance of boss monsters in the course of regular levels. You definitely get the sense that you’re expected to trigger and rely on cross-monster fights more than ever before, which tend to be a little tricky and fiddly to pull off on command.
Most of all, Plutonia LOVES teleporters. In general, monsters will teleport in so often you’ll think you’re playing on Nightmare mode. Specific situations make outright evil use of this as well. You’ll frequently be trapped at the end of a hallway, without cover, while enemies teleport in behind. You’ll fight one Baron of Hell while another pops in directly behind you just a few seconds into the fight, pinching you between them. Or, take the level “Hunted,” where the final teleporter drops you into a tiny room with four Arch-Viles, and you’re meant to stumble into the exit portal before you die.
In most of these cases, it’s not about tactics, adaptability, or smart planning as it is just flat-out knowing what’s coming. There are countless moments I can think of that are just like the ones above, and all pretty much guarantee that you’ll have to play levels over again more than a few times before you can beat them. I will grant them that the difficulties are balanced well, and lower difficulties do indeed provide fewer and weaker foes to tackle – but this still won’t negate the kinds of ambushes and level-programmed traps that litter these maps. It’s “gotcha!” design that’s outright intended to trick and trap you, and it’s up to you if you’re going to find that fun or not.
Like Evilution, Plutonia also limits its new art to new skies and the occasional texture. The most apparent one is a green camouflage texture, which helps give early levels a unique jungle vibe. Evilution does feature some new music, while Plutonia does not. However, Plutonia also brings in themes from Ultimate Doom, so it’s not entirely a rehash of Doom II’s track list. Also, don’t expect a new boss fight – both of the episodes reuse the Icon of Sin battle from Doom II, so you’ll still be firing rockets into John Romero’s head. The difference is in Plutonia, which throws a Cyberdemon in there as well. Because, fuck you.
Overall, Final Doom’s legacy is divisive. Critics were tired of Doom and wanted to move on. Consumers still had plenty of free levels, and shiny new distractions (Quake). Die hard Doom fanatics can probably give you a long list of fan maps far more worthy of inclusion in the package. It was the wrong product at the wrong time, but that hardly means the episodes are bad. Evilution has bright, shining moments where it surpasses Doom II (along with a handful of levels where it very much doesn’t). Plutonia is rock hard and you shouldn’t expect to beat it, but it’s undeniably a fresh challenge for the Doom faithful.
In short, Final Doom is more like a stand-alone expansion to Doom II. If you know exactly what you’re getting into, i.e. more Doom II, then it’s worth playing. It’s Doom 64 that really twists the basics of the original series, making Final Doom – as was a surprise to no one – hardly the epic swan song implied on the tin.
Under all the drama, there’s some good maps here. Evilution is an excellent continuation of Doom II. Plutonia is a serious challenge for people who want that, and I can personally vouch that it’s totally beatable on Ultra-Violence (whether you want to bother might be a different story…)
Bluntly, came out at a time when people were no longer willing to pay money for more Doom. Neither campaign represents the pinnacle of design you might hope for or expect. Plutonia’s hard enough to turn away casual players, which then cuts out half the value of the pack.