Genre: First-Person Shooter
Reviewer: Nick Stewart
Overall: 9 = Must Buy
P4 1.5 GHz / Athlon 1.7 GHz, 384MB RAM, 64MB video card DirectXR 9.0b comp.
(Originally published on August 11, 2004)
Martian research stations. Portals to Hell. Armies of unholy monsters. Among it all stands a solitary nameless Marine, armed to the teeth and knee-deep in the dead. Any gamer worth their salt already knows the story behind the original Doom titles, which, despite having been released some ten years ago, still stand as the benchmark for first-person blastfests. With their non-stop action and prodigious body counts, both Doom titles carved an unholy, bloody and truly distinct mark in the gaming landscape, one which players today still look to as the be-all, end-all of the genre. It’s then no major surprise that the release of Doom 3 has become the gaming phenomenon of the summer, with a flurry of hype and a decade of anticipation powering it along.
Surprisingly, very little has changed in the last decade. In fact, Doom 3 isn’t so much a new entry in the series as it is a re-imagining of the original game, smoothed out and glossed up for a new generation of gamers and a new generation of hardware. The story remains the same: you, as the infamous nameless Marine, are newly stationed at a Martian research facility when, in very short order, things go very, very wrong. The forces of Hell suddenly and inexplicably overwhelm the station, brutally destroying half of the inhabitants, and converting the remaining half into bloodthirsty undead monsters. As one of the few survivors, it’s your job to grab whatever weaponry you can find and blast your way to the source of the problem. Sound familiar? The difference here is that, while all of this was merely a page of text in the first game, Doom 3 actually allows you to witness this chaotic transformation first-hand in a Half-Life style of slow-and-steady introduction sequence. It’s incredibly immersive, and not only does it explain things much more coherently, it also helps to give you some sort of personal investment in the bloody events that follow. However, the fact that it’s at least five to ten minutes before you’re even handed a gun should tell you that, for this Doom, immersion and atmosphere are much more important than they’ve ever been.
It’s interesting to note that the first two Doom titles were all about throwing colossal amounts of enemies at the player – a trend that seems to be picking up lately with the likes of Serious Sam and Painkiller – whereas a considerable portion of at least the first half of Doom 3 is focused wholly on creating an atmosphere of increasing and almost tangible dread. Given, you’ll square off against your fair share of baddies, but not in ridiculous, nearly epic quantities – not at first, anyway. No, Doom 3 is more like a suspenseful horror movie, content to drag you slowly through its dark passages and claustrophobic hallways, gradually building upon its initial unsettling feelings of “Something’s not right here”, where you’ll occasionally come across a couple of zombies, or an imp. In these earlier stages, the premium is on cinematic feeling and atmospherics, and the point is not necessarily to toss you into combat, but to scare the pants off you.
With the lights off and the sound up, the scare factor rises fairly high (if you’re prone to that kind of thing, that is), thanks in no small part to one of the major characters in the Doom 3 universe: complete and utter darkness. Only in the rarest of circumstances will you not be engulfed in pitch black, the flickering and failing lights of the doomed Mars research facility forcing you to use a flashlight throughout the vast majority of the game. This omnipresent darkness does a fantastic job in heightening the tension, and breeds a definite sense of dread; after all, you never know what manner of hellspawn might be right around the next corner, waiting to chew your face off. What’s more, the dull, intermittent lights of the station will occasionally highlight a monster creeping down an elevator shaft, or briefly highlight some indefinable thing in your peripheral vision, which, by the time you turn and look, is obscured by darkness. As a result, you’ll come to cherish the small beam of light emitted by your flashlight and the tiny amount of comfort that it brings. In little time, you’ll be nervously flicking the beam around every corner, searching every new room for whatever hidden enemies may be there.
However, what little confidence it brings is often dashed by the fact that you cannot wield both the flashlight and a weapon simultaneously. This means that, should you manage to throw some light on a nearby enemy, you’ll actually have to put away your precious flashlight in order to be able to put a few rounds into him. This works well in terms of making it that much more nerve-wracking to maneuver the station: if your flashlight was the only thing illuminating your foe, then you’re going to be firing at it practically blind, with only its unholy growls and occasional glowing eye to guide you. It does wonders for the atmosphere, but logically, it makes absolutely no sense. Why would the Marine’s high-tech suit incorporate such things as a limited oxygen supply and armor, but no infrared or light sensor? Why would you be sent to a remote, off-planet station with pre-existing lighting problems, armed with little more than a flashlight? This is nitpicking, of course, but it’s a design choice that defies any sense of logic – in either the game or real world. As a logical decision, it makes absolutely no sense; however, as a gameplay feature, it works incredibly well, and ultimately, that’s what truly matters, as off-putting as it may sometimes be.
As previously mentioned, the early bouts of slower, cinematic-style tension are somewhat unlike the Doom that gamers have come to know and love, which isn’t to say that it’s unwelcome. The storyline has always lent itself particularly well to this kind of approach, and it’s great to see that the developers have taken full advantage of this opportunity. What’s more, the survival-horror style that’s so prevalent in the first half of the game is done exceptionally well; from the pervasive darkness to the ominous nearby growls to the endless string of creepy emails and voice logs, you’re left with a richly textured impression of a distant facility gone horribly, horribly wrong. There are also any number of small scripted sequences which act as cheap but effective scares, which are but a few of the numerous small details that make up the experience, which is as rich and full as one could ask for. However, without giving anything away, any number of these elements appear to have been inspired by other, more recent “survival-horror” type games, such as Undying, System Shock 2, and Aliens Vs. Predator 2. Fortunately, the sheer quality of the presentation itself and the strength of the atmosphere are often more than enough to carry through any sense of déjà vu that experience players may have.
Eventually, Doom 3 moves on from its slower, tenser beginnings to reach a shrill, fevered pitch, where every corner hides some new batch of horrors, and every bit of progress you make is marked by death and destruction. Good thing, then, that the game’s monsters are brilliantly conceived. Just about every enemy from the first two Doom titles makes an appearance here, re-tooled and re-invented. No longer are imps mere blobs of brown pixels that simply emit balls of flame; they’re now slavering, agile masses of incredibly detailed demon flesh that climb on walls and ceilings, in ventilation ducts, and lob their signature fireballs with the fluidity of a professional baseball player. This kind of creative change has been applied to every monster in the game, and longtime fans of the series will gain just as much joy from recognizing the updated creatures as they will from turning them into smoldering heaps of ash.
The infamous Doom arsenal also makes a comeback, but unlike the monsters, there’s no re-invention here: just the same, straight-up tools of destruction you’ve come to know and love. Everything from the shotgun to the plasma gun and even the chainsaw will find its way into your hands at one point or another. What’s more, each one possesses the same general advantages and disadvantages as it did in the original titles, so series veterans may already be aware of how to use them in their combat strategies. Strangely, the weapons don’t seem to have nearly as much visceral “oomph” as they once did. Sure, a shotgun blast to the head will wipe out nearly anything on two feet, but it doesn’t feel half as satisfying as it should. This is arguably due to the lackluster weapon sound effects, which feel rather underpowered and are a definite letdown, failing to make you feel that you are truly an avatar of demonic destruction. The poor muzzle flashes aren’t exactly helpful either, barely illuminating a foot or two in front of you. Grenades are equally questionable, in that they’re easily the bounciest projectiles you’ve ever seen in any game. It stands to reason, given that the lightweight grenades are being tossed onto metal floors and walls, but it’s an off-putting phenomenon nonetheless, and hurts the general effectiveness of the weapon. When you’re in pitch darkness, surrounded by enemies, and relying upon little things such as these to help you along, these types of things matter.
In an interesting throwback to a simpler time, none of the weapons in Doom 3 have an alternate fire mode, leaving you with a singular straightforward option: point and shoot. This simplicity is symptomatic of the game as a whole, which eschews virtually all of the revolutionary interactivity and complexity of first-person shooters of years past for an incredibly basic approach. This means no leaning around corners, no complex manipulations of your environment, and no creative solutions to problems. Just run, gun, and collect PDAs, which are this Doom‘s equivalent of keys. That’s it, that’s all. This design decision is almost definitely an homage to the legacy of previous games in the series, and while some will argue that this stripped-down gameplay leaves Doom 3 as little more than a big, fat demonstration for John Carmack’s beautiful new engine, but the enjoyment derived from the game isn’t exactly ruined by its uncompromised simplicity. Given, it’s a little distracting at first, which is to be expected when later generations of shooters have incorporated all manner of innovations and interactivity. Within the framework of the powerful atmospherics and amazingly glitzy presentation, however, the basic gameplay flat-out works. Now, the reliance on tension and scare tactics could potentially mean that the game might not hold up quite as well in subsequent playthroughs, but it’s such a fantastic, breath-taking experience that you’re not likely to care.
Finally, no discussion of Doom 3 could possibly be complete without discussing the graphics, which, quite frankly, leave this game as the single greatest graphical achievement ever. This is no hyperbole: John Carmack and his team have put together a thing of such intricate visual beauty that it will be years before anyone manages to catch up. Texture, depth and shadow work together to create an unparalleled graphical experience that often makes you feel as though you’ve stepped into some sort of cinematic, an experience that comes as close to advancing the genre towards true progress than anything that’s been seen for a long, long time. Words and even screenshots can’t possibly begin to do justice to the full effect; you have to see the game in motion, with the fluid animation of the various monsters proving to be every bit as dazzling as the tricks of the light that play off the bloody shoulders of the superb character models. It’s a gaming reality that previously could only have been dreamed of, and it’s a reality that can now be seen and lived within Doom 3. What is every bit as impressive as the visual aspect of this feat, however, is the sheer accessibility of it. The optimization is so astoundingly good that, when set to low quality, the game can run and look fairly good on 64MB video cards with almost dinosaur-age processors. Even a moderate P4 2.4Ghz with a Radeon 9800 Pro can play at medium quality; with an 9800 XT, that same processor can even touch upon the drool-inducing high quality, albeit with a frames-per-second range of 20-30. With the newest video cards, players can expect to achieve framerates that double even those numbers, making Doom 3 not only a fantastic graphical experience, but one that’s accessible to virtually everyone. Simply amazing.
Doom 3 is a landmark phenomenon, no matter which way you look at it. In terms of sheer graphical brilliance, the game is simply unmatched, and will likely continue to be the reigning king for some time to come. The incredible level of detail is jaw-dropping, and the ability to scale it for playability on even the lowest of the low-end systems is a glorious miracle of optimization. Thankfully, this graphical beast is used to its full potential, creating an incredibly dark and appropriately creepy experience that truly does justice to the Hellish nature of the storyline. The gameplay may be stripped-down and simplistic, but this is Doom, where all you can ask for is an arsenal to wield and demons to kill. Doom 3 gleefully provides both, and in so doing, pieces together one of the most impressive and entertaining action-oriented FPS titles in years.
(This review is based on a retail copy provided by the publisher.)