1993's Doom isn’t the first shooter, but it is the one that truly kicked off a genre. Heavy weapons and bloody demons ignited controversy, while stellar level design kept players engaged. A 2016 reboot updated the series for modern times, but those left craving classic Doom can now hop into Sigil, a new collection of levels from one of the game’s original creators, John Romero.
Doom’s modding community is a dedicated one, churning out tons of levels and modifications ever since the game’s release. Sigil is what’s known as a “megawad,” or a mod nearing commercial size, and it’s some of the most punishing and devious Doom I’ve ever played.
Romero, who is working on a new FPS called Blackroom, stitched the project together in his spare time throughout 2017 and 2018. The result is an unofficial sequel to Doom’s fourth episode featuring nine new levels and music crafted by the eccentric guitarist Buckethead. I’ve been playing it all day, even streaming it on Kotaku’s Twitch channel, and it owns.
Playing Doom kicks off the highly specific level design observation node in my brain, and Sigil’s reveal some great tricks for making not just good Doom levels but great first-person designs in general. Romero delights in labyrinthine levels, some of which transform as walls open up to reveal spacious outdoor areas and hidden enemies. His flavor of Doom design has a lot in common with Zelda dungeon design, tasking players with making a mental map of the area and remembering where to go once they pick up keys or weapons. Sigil’s levels invariably loop on themselves or otherwise feature literal mazes for players to dissect.
What makes Romero’s designs work so well is how unabashedly excited he seems to be about them. Levels are teeming with enemies, including many tougher ones like the beefy, energy hurling Barons of Hell. Each new maze is punctuated with fights that mix and match Doom’s precisely-designed enemies. Pits feature side walls where projectile-spitting cacodemons and rushing floating skulls force players to dance in the tightest of spaces. Thin walkways span over chasms, doors waiting at the end. Open them, backstep, and you’ll find demons and zombies guided into the most perfect funnels.
The result is a challenging experience that manages to add bloody moments of triumph. Hell, the opening level starts with the player surrounded by fireball-spewing imps, inches away from a shotgun. There’s a real giddiness here, a sense that a master is excitedly returning to his favorite tools. (That said, this WAD only uses original Doom 1 assets and enemies, meaning it can occasionally feel less complex than other, fan-made projects.)
Sigil has a problem, but it’s the same one that many Doom modifications and WADs run into. This is a tried-and-true game, and Sigil presumes your familiarity with the original. There’s no slowly ramping difficulty, no miniature set-pieces meant to teach you to handle new monsters before they become commonplace. You’re in the thick of it, and if you happen to be a fresh-faced player for whatever reason, Sigil will kick your ass. The default difficulty is tricky; higher levels feel like borderline trolling. Screw it, let’s just toss a few cyberdemons at the start of this level. You know how to dodge, right?
In the old days, we used to call all first-person shooters “Doom clones.” But there’s nothing else like Doom. There’s a particular, nearly impossible to describe playfulness that even the 2016 reboot sometimes misses. A single run through Romero’s new levels feels positively joyous, a chance to see fantastic level design in action and observe a master at play. It’s hard, and I feel guilty admitting that I’ve been hurt plenty, but it’s Doom. Sigil gets it. How could it not?