Bethesda’s fall preview tour reached New York yesterday, and while it boasted new looks at the publisher’s VR experiments and big holiday-season releases, I was most curious to check out a game I already played to death when it came out last year: Id Software’s excellent Doom reboot. This wasn’t just any version of Doom, though. This was one of the first chances anyone had at seeing the game running on the Nintendo Switch. This re-release for Nintendo’s new console was announced just last week, and the reveal was a shock to many people who were suddenly confronted with the idea of a game this fast and visually rich coming to what’s essentially a really awesome tablet. How in the hell could they make that happen, and how would it compare to the original releases on the Xbox One, PC, and PlayStation 4?
Well, they did make it happen, and the conversion works out just fine, for the most part. The visuals are noticeably less detailed, but that’s hardly a problem for a game that prizes motion and a fugue-state-like stream of ceaseless violence above all else. More importantly, it felt like Doom, with all the speed and physicality intact despite the Switch version’s downgrade from the silky smooth frame-rate of the original release. The Switch held up pretty well throughout my session with the game, with the action only slowing down a few times during the opening level’s most hectic moments. This could prove to be a much larger problem later in the story, as the environments become more complex and the hordes of angry demons become larger and more diverse. The game is still in its final months of development and undergoing “optimization” at its developer, Panic Button—a Switch specialist who’s also handling the console’s new version of Rocket League—so things could improve even more before release.
The bigger problem is with the Switch itself. When I got to the demo station, I immediately went to yank the system out of the little stand Bethesda had set up, so I could play it like a handheld. A rep quickly came over to introduce the game and mentioned I might want to try it with the Switch’s Pro Controller, which hues more closely to a traditional controller design that the utilitarian Joy-Con that slide onto the sides of the screen. So I set the system back down, picked up the Pro and yes, it played like Doom on a console: functional and fun, if not quite the transcendent experience of living the perfect Doom guy life with a mouse and keyboard.
Bu there’s a good reason why Bethesda had those Pro Controllers handy. The Joy-Con are just not up for the task of handling a first-person shooter, especially not one that demands as much as movement as Doom. Its convex, bubble-like analog sticks aren’t suited for the sudden changes of direction and precise aiming you need, and wrapping your index fingers up to those awkward, clicky little shoulder buttons was a pain, especially if you map the jump button to one of them so you can leap and aim at the same time (which you absolutely have to do). One other downside of playing in handheld mode is, naturally, having to play the game on the smaller screen. Going off TV has been my preferred method for Switch games, but with something as chaotic and monochromatic as this, the orangey tones of Mars and demon flesh started to blur together when confined to the Switch’s otherwise beautiful little screen. It’ll be nice knowing you can play Doom on the go (although a PR person’s comment that “you’ll want to keep the Switch plugged in” has me worried about just how damn hard it will suck away at battery life), but this is still an intense game that really ought to be played on a TV with a real controller.
It has its issues, but it’s worth repeating that this is a modern, big-budget game making the leap to Nintendo’s little console that could and largely sticking the landing. The fact that it’s up and running as well as it is seems a little miraculous when you first lay your eyes on it. Bethesda is following Doom up with a Switch release of Wolfenstein II next year, and I imagine that game will fare just as well, since both titles run on the same underlying technology. The bigger question is, what does this mean for the future of major non-Nintendo releases on the system? Doom is proof that these kind of games could work, assuming the developers behind them know the ins and outs of the Switch and the software that makes the games run is able to scale down to its more modest horsepower. The more concerning issue is the limitation brought on by the physical design of the Switch. The Joy-Con work fine for lengthy sessions of more contemplative games like Zelda: Breath Of The Wild and Mario + Rabbids, but they’re not built for the prolonged frantic action of something like Doom. If Bethesda’s Switch experiment is successful enough to get more publishers on board, and we start seeing more competent versions of blockbuster games making their way to this system, those quirky controllers might become more of a sticking point than they already were.
This is really just a new, very odd incarnation of the same handheld vs. console game divide that’s existed ever since Sony attempted to enter the market with the PSP and its bevy of high-end console-style games. Sure, it allows you to play Ratchet & Clank on the go, but you have to deal with so many compromises that, at the end of the day, maybe you’re just better off booting up something simpler like Lumines and saving the bigger stuff for when you get home. Of course, the beauty of the Switch is that it gives you both options in one. Just make sure you’ve dropped that extra 70 bucks for a Pro Controller.