Excessive Brutality

Brutal Doom is all about feedback. You are free to do almost everything, you have more control over your body, you can kick, you can do a combat roll, you can flip off enemies, rip their heads off with your own hands, the guns fells more alive, animations are smoother, and monsters are not just some vectors that throws projectiles on you until you can bring their health down to zero. They behave and look much more like demons from hell wanting to tear your arms off, stomp on your face, and have your guts for dinner. They also want to stay alive, a Lost Soul and a Cacodemon can try to dodge your rockets, Zombies and Pain Elementals, which can’t engage in melee combat, can notice if you get way too close to them and will fall back to a safer distance, a Baron of Hell is more aware of his surroundings and can use the body of dead enemies as a weapon against you, and monsters will react differently to the damage you cause to them depending of the weapon and where you hit them.

Marcos “Sergeant Mark IV” Abenante

Gear up, space marine. There’s demons running loose. Bigger, badder, and deadlier than ever. Only one way to resolve this: excessive, mindless, and brutal force. In a previous entry, I discussed at great length what makes Doom great and how well it has aged. Here I will discuss the Brutal Doom family of mods in more detail. I only gave a capsule overview of them in the last post. Brutal Doom is so different from vanilla Doom – and has so many customizable features – that it qualifies as a separate game. This – along with Brutal Doom creator Marcos Abenante’s infamy in modding circles – has made the mod extremely controversial in the Doom world. That being said, Brutal Doom got a shoutout from no less than John Romero himself and has racked up awards. I think that the biggest signal of its value is how influential it has been. Many new indie shooters on Steam have traces of Brutal Doom. Some say that Brutal Doom influenced the official Doom reboot, but I think that’s a bit far-fetched.

More importantly, it has influenced other Doom mods such as Project Brutality, Ali’s Brutal Doom, Brutal Doom Black Edition, Johnny Doom, the 555 Project, and Call of Doom. It has also spawned numerous unofficial forks of the core BD experience. This post will dissect what that core BD experience is and how it changes in Project Brutality and Ali’s Brutal Doom. Then I’ll conclude with an overview of how to customize the mod with add-on mods. Despite the title – and the undeniable way in which the level of violence and destruction in BD becomes comically exaggerated – gore splatter is actually Brutal Doom’s least interesting or innovative feature.

You see can see this in how Abenante implemented locational damage in a game engine that originally did not support it:

As a way of illustrating just how deep Brutal Doom’s gore system goes, and how Sergeant_Mark_IV hacked a hardcoded form of physics into a 23-year-old game, we can look at what happens when you kill an imp with a shotgun. When you click the mouse button, the game sends out a hitscan – traced lines between the player and where they’re facing – to see if it intersects with an object. So far, so vanilla Doom. But when a vanilla Doom monster is just one big rectangular hitbox, Brutal Doom’s have three, the body joined to smaller boxes at the head and legs. So let’s imagine the shotgun has hit the imp’s legs. The imp’s hitbox spawns small explosions, which are set to only harm the monster that spawns them. The resulting damage is calculated and applied to the imp. If it’s enough to kill it, and the blast is from short enough range, it will jump to an animation frame in which one of its legs is cut off, and then randomly to one of various different sets of frames which include dropping to the floor dead, hopping on one leg for a few seconds before collapsing, or kneeling in agony until it either bleeds out or the player finishes it off.

Torso shots and headshots similarly have both divergent mechanical consequences and separate animations. But the purpose is not just gore. If enemies receive different damage values depending on where they are hit, there is greater incentive for the player to aim accurately. This is just one of the many new features Abenante either implemented himself or incorporated from other previous mods. In sum, there are enhanced sprites and animations, more interactive environments, more (but reloadable) weapons, alt-fire modes, frag grenades, modernized takedowns (which range from tactical to Mortal Kombat-like), locational damage, better enemy bot intelligence and new enemy behaviors, spruced up fluids (lava flows and splashes), the ability to temporarily transform into demons, friendly bots you can rescue, optimized lighting, aiming down sights, and much more. Accordingly, many describe Brutal Doom as a “bridge” between 1990s FPS games and modern mil-tactical FPS shooters.

This is true. But it’s worth noting that Abenante is very selective about what to modernize. For example, using bigger weapons or aiming through sights/scopes does not slow down your movement speed. This allows for a fusion of the “bunny hop or get gibbed” frenetic action of 90s Quake games (more powerful weapons than Doom) with the way in which modern FPS games encourage players to aim down sights instead of fire from the hip. Visually there is also something marvelous about the game that is difficult to put into words. You have the horror/science fiction 2.5D graphical atmosphere of the original Doom – heavily optimized by Abenante and the modders whose work he reuses – combined with gameplay more characteristic of modern games. The excessive gore, the high speed, and the reliance on melee combat and heavy weapons makes the game feel like a playable version of animes like Hellsing/Hellsing Ultimate.

Another feature of the mod gameplay, of course, is how difficult it is to actually describe what it means to play it at “default” settings. The mod comes with a manual that explains in great detail how to customize the various options. In addition to the base mode, you can play a “purist” version with original Doom weapons mechanics or a “tactical” version where player movement is more like a COD/Battlefield-esque FPS. You can start with a pistol, or a rifle. And so forth. But for me at least the biggest difference is between playing on Ultraviolence vs playing on Black Metal. It’s often said that playing Doom on Ultraviolence is the best way to get the core Doom experience. I happen to agree, but there’s some caveats here. To explain Brutal Doom something similar could be said about the distinction between Ultraviolence play and Black Metal – the new mode that is introduced specifically for Brutal Doom.

Playing Brutal Doom on Ultraviolence can be very challenging on harder levels simply due to the combination of old and new threats. On Ultraviolence in vanilla Doom there are tougher enemies and more enemies than usual. Make things Brutal and, on top of that, the enemies have enhanced intelligence and a wider range of combat behaviors. Still, you have some significant advantages. Your weapons and attacks are upgraded and as in the original Doom you move absurdly fast relative to the enemies. So far, so good? Black Metal throws you for a loop. First, as in the old Vanilla Doom uv-fast setting, enemies are dramatically faster and more aggressive. You move 25% faster yourself and the enemies have 20% less hit points. However, each enemy attack deals 50% more damage than base. Oh…crap. It’s worse than uv-fast in some ways because enemies that can leap, pounce, and even in some cases (Project Brutality has built-in support for climbing enemies but you’ll have to enable this with add-on mods in Brutal Doom) traverse walls and ceilings suddenly become able to dodge attacks and outmaneuver you. So this is what it feels like to be one of the hapless redshirts that get taken out by fast monsters in science fiction and horror movies/tv series. Dang.

This gameplay variance is a point of departure for successor mods to Brutal Doom. Project Brutality’s basic experience is akin to playing Brutal Doom on ultraviolence, except with more of everything and everything becoming much crazier. There are far more enemy variants, many of them having more sophisticated attacks and behaviors. You can do far more things yourself and your arsenal is dramatically upgraded. Ali’s Brutal Doom doubles down on the Black Metal experience by making enemies, attacks, and weapons dramatically faster. Enemies have enhanced aim, attack quicker, and will bear down on players and eviscerate them in the blink of an eye. You are much tougher but this barely compensates for the tougher and faster enemies. Granted, the difficulty experience in both are also customizable. You can make Project Brutality as fast and merciless as Ali’s Brutal Doom (keep a close eye on the unofficial updates in the Github version). You can also make Ali’s Brutal Doom much easier, especially in light of the new difficulty options in the latest release.

Going back to what I said earlier, this really makes Brutal Doom far more than just a bridge between two worlds. It is a qualitatively different experience in and of itself. One that demands just as much mechanical skill as regular Doom but far better reflexes and instincts. So now, how does one play Brutal Doom? The first issue is requirements. For 60 frames per second gameplay you will need at least a dual core CPU or better, 2GB of RAM or better, and a graphics unit (discrete GPU or integrated graphics) with 256MB of video memory or better available. These are incredibly modest requirements given modern PC games but also are much more than the base requirements of the 1993 Doom (minimum 486 CPU with at least 66MHZ clock speed and at least 8MB RAM). All things being equal, if you have weaker rather than stronger hardware you may experience slowdowns on maps with lots of enemies. Thankfully there are performance settings (resolution, filtering, blood/gore amount, etc) that can be used to rectify this. I presume you’ve already set up a source port as per the previous entry.

Project Brutality and Ali’s Brutal Doom (as well as some others I mentioned) are separate mods even if they are built on top of the base Brutal Doom components. If you want to play them you will need to load them as stand-alone mods – you can’t load them and the base Brutal Doom at the same time. So this will just talk about how to load Brutal Doom. Brutal Doom requires either GZDoom or Zandronum. To keep things consistent I will assume GZDoom because it was used in the last entry. First, install a mod launcher. Brutal Doom is very difficult to customize effectively without a way to organize mod components, much of which are sensitive to the order in which they are loaded. Here are a few launchers:

I will use ZDL as an example, as I have ZDL compiled for Linux. It’s cross-platform so you can grab builds for Windows and (maybe) Mac. To use ZDL, you will have to specify (graphically) the location of the source port you have set up, your IWADs (again see last entry), and any other launch parameters you want. There is a left pane where you can add or remove external files. This is the major place you add PWAD and PK3 files that the game loads. Pay very close attention to instructions about launch order. You can save particular mod configurations as .zdl files and then load them as need be. Now, what should you mod Brutal Doom with? There’s general cosmetic improvements such as

For me there are three things – beyond music WADs – that make Brutal Doom much more fun to play. Let’s start with different weapon sounds. This sound mod makes ‘regular’ guns (pistols, submachine guns, rifles, chainguns, etc) sound louder and more intimidating. It may seem like a minor difference but it definitely doesn’t feel like it when gunshots thunder. Next, and more importantly, monster randomizers. BD21 XVME does two critical things. First, it adds many more new monsters – some of which include creatures that might properly be described more as mini-bosses than regular demons. Second, it randomizes their placement within levels. This dynamic makes even the most desperate battles of Brutal Doom more intense. Former human enemies now will show up with heavy artillery like rocket/grenade launchers, railguns, and flamethrowers. That is, when they’re not attacking you with chainsaws. There are far more demons than before. And you never know when you might encounter a weak enemy or a really strong one.

Lastly, there are weapon mutator packs that give you more weapons and/or change the weapons you already have. The major two are Tomtefar’s Extension (if you want to use it with the aforementioned monster pack there is also a Light version) and the Enhanced Weapons Mutator. Which one to load is really a matter of personal taste. But having either can really enhance the base experience. What isn’t really up to taste is the technical matter of load orders. Let’s walk through a case in which all we are loading is the base Brutal Doom mod, a weapons mod, and then the monster randomizer pack. The base mod is loaded first, followed by a patch appropriate for the base mod version and whatever additional mods you are using. Next comes the weapons mod you chose and after that are two monster randomizer files. This is why I mentioned at the beginning that using a proper launcher is critical. Otherwise you would have to manually drag and drop the mods onto the GZDoom executable or type all of the paths in on the command line.

I should mention for honesty’s sake that I was initially not a big fan of graphical mod launchers. They seemed too slow and clumsy for me. For a while I relied on a command line program I wrote for customized management of mods and map packs but I quickly came to see how unwieldy anything except an actual GUI would be for this task given how many possible IWAD + mod + map combinations there are. You really do need a graphical launcher frontend even if it sometimes can be clunky. That being said, I’m also not leaving out the possibility that at some point I’ll learn enough about DevOps tools to be able to actually make a usable command line launcher at least for my own purposes. It goes without saying that also making sure your desktop files are neat and tidy is critical for not losing track of all of the add-on content. In future entries, I’ll probably cover other mods/gameplay options in more detail as well as third-party map packs. For now, enjoy the modified Doom experience. In all of its (cartoonish) brutality.