Roguelike column thumbnail ['@ Play' is a bi-weekly column by John Harris which discusses the history, present and future of the Roguelike dungeon exploring genre.]

DoomRL is a game I did not expect to like.

As you may have guessed by now, I have pretty strong ideas as to what constitutes "roguelike," one that is more in line with the term’s original sense, as seen in games like Moria, Larn and especially Hack. These are all games with random areas and random items, where melee combat is the norm and distance attacks are fairly limited, where optimized exploration strategy is fairly important to survival. DoomRL has none of these things.

In case you missed the throwaway link last time, DoomRL is a roguelike game based on the classic first-person shooter Doom. Not based as in "inspired by." Based as in, if you ignore the overhead perspective and turn-based play, "pretty damn close to." It seems like it would be a quickie throwaway game, but the goofy premise hides rather a lot of interesting play.

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Is this gimmicky? Oh brother, of course it is. But so is that new-fangled "Wii" thing the youngsters are fussin’ about. A good gimmick can get you pretty far, if it really is good. And DoomRL gimmick is.

Fortunately, there’s more to this than just a good gimmick. DoomRL's primary addition to the genre is that, while it still has walk-into-foes melee attacks if it should come to that, missile weapons are what players will use 99% of the time. Lots of monsters can also use missile weapons, changing the dynamic from the game from managing melee proximity to range and line-of-sight. Like in Doom itself, cover matters for a lot; facing down a small horde of soldiers will probably get you slaughtered, but if you retreat behind a wall, and put a bit of distance between you and that corner, you can keep yourself out of danger surprisingly long. It helps that most monsters are stupid enough to instantly forget about you the moment you leave their vision.

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Also like Doom, it is important to learn the secret Art of the Reload: shotguns may be powerful, but it takes an extra turn to pop another shell into its chamber. More specialized shotguns can be found, like double-barreled, or combat shotguns. The combat ones have a limited automatic reload while you’re fleeing, enabling a thoughtful player to use them nearly as effectively as a pistol.

One thing that DoomRL does not have, which I consider to be necessary for a true roguelike, is an item identification system, but where it lacks there it makes up for it with a rich tactical game, and a limited, but well-designed, bestiary. All the monsters come directly from the original games, and their abilities line up pretty well with that much-admired spawn of Carmack and Romero. They’re tough, tough in a way that brings to mind fond memories of running from Trolls and Griffins, which is to say, almost unreasonably tough. Just tough enough that there are times that fleeing for the stairs makes more sense than sucking down a tough monster’s experience points. Tough enough that the high score list means something.

DoomRL’s item system does have room for special equipment and multiple weapon types, which is more than Doom had, but it does suffer a bit for giving players many more pistols and shotguns than he’ll ever need. There are only so many They aren’t strategically useless, but since their ammo cannot be salvaged, to gain proper use of them requires lugging about a lot of extra guns just to drop them when their bullets run out. DoomRL enforces a very strict inventory limit, even more strict than Rogue’s, and it is easy to fill up much of that with stacks of pistol and shotgun ammo. There are also items that work like Doom’s powerups, in that instead of entering inventory they activate the moment they are collected, which is a fairly significant innovation for a roguelike. And Doom’s fairly clever health system, where players can supercharge their health over the normal maximum at the cost of it slowly draining until the surplus is gone, is copied unchanged.

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Probably the coolest thing about the game, though, is its approach to "user deformable terrain." Many roguelikes contain things like pickaxes and wands of digging, but in DoomRL changing level layouts like this becomes almost a first-class play mechanic. Most walls can be destroyed with a rocket launcher, or by pushing an explosive barrel up next to it and shooting it. Barrels, properly utilized, can greatly harm many monsters who would ordinarily outclass the player. Monsters can destroy walls too, and their explosive shots can set off barrels, providing a nice balance of risk to shoving those things around a level. One way to measure a roguelike is by noting how foes can be harmed through methods other than basic attacks, and those barrels make DoomRL very strong in this area.

One of the more entertaining things about the game is that, while the graphics are ASCII and the gameplay is turn-based, the sound comes directly from the original game. MIDI-based music that sounds pretty close to Doom’s soundtrack plays throughout each screen-sized level, and it is difficult to avoid grinning when mowing down a horde of ‘h’s, and they make the same sounds as the original game. Especially interesting is that the sound effects are not only same, but they serve the same purpose as Doom. While games like ADOM and Nethack play messages when something important happens out of sight on the level, DoomRL actually plays the sound, and adjusted in volume depending on how far the foe is from your angry little @-sign. The sounds only play after each move however, so it makes sense to play the game with the volume up.

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While its lack of complex item play means the game will always lack in the greater scheme of roguelike strategy, it says a lot for the game that its inclusion would arguably dilute its play. DoomRL is, ultimately, an awesome little game that sets out to do one thing, and do it well. There is certainly room enough in the genre for something like that.

DoomRL
http://doom.chaosforge.org/index.php?module=downloads