Written by: Stoo

Date posted: December 9, 2010

Minigun is slight overkill against these guys, but gratifying.

Doom was one of the most important PC games of all time. It established the fledgling first person shooter genre as a staple of gaming. It advanced shooter technology. It brought us deathmatch. It was hugely influential, spawned a legion of imitators and indeed the whole genre was referred to as its “clones” for a few years. It showed the world that the PC was a serious contender for gaming. Here’s our review.

Er no, wait. That’s a fancy 3D demon leering at us from the screenshots, not a murky sprite. And this is Doom 3. Despite extensive coverage of 90s gaming, including many shooters from that decade, and in fact almost everything from iD before and after Doom, we’ve still not covered the original one itself. What can I say; there’s not some secret anti-Doom agenda here, we’re just kind of disorganised here. Next year is our tenth online so I suppose that would be a good moment to go salute the old classic. For today though I felt like dipping into “relatively recent oldies” bucket; that is, the kind of title you might see knocking around for £10 at your local gaming store.

So here’s the quick overview: Doom: very important as stated, a key milestone in gaming. The first sequel was then basically a standalone expansion. Then iD went and made a bunch of Quakes, of which we acknowledge their own importance but are still a bit ambivalent about. Each brought a new engine, upholding iD’s position as leaders in the technology behind shooters, but the gameplay never seemed to advance much. And they were a bit brown. Also we’re not big multiplayers so Quake 3 was never on the radar. Then several years later for their next major event, iD went back to Doom.

Storywise, this is a reboot of the original. Well, as much as the original had a story to actually retell, amounting to basically a .txt file as I recall. Anyway in the near future, advanced experiments on a research base on Mars go horribly wrong, and and all hell breaks loose. Quite literally. Having utterly over-run the base the demonic hordes turn their attention towards earth and only one thing is left in their way. One chisel-jawed space marine with eight guns and approximately half a ton of ammo in his backpack.

As much as we love the original game, it was of course a somewhat mindless experience. And, well, so was their last single-player game before this, Quake 2. Fortunately, in the years since that they’d learned a few lessons about immersive environments, involving the player in events, and integrating a narrative. Well okay let’s say from the start that this does not the deepest of games; it’s not Deus Ex. Still it makes an effort to be more than a mid-90s fragfest with a facelift, aiming for a tense, gripping action-horror experience. We’ll mention some of the ways it aims for this, but for a start the game doesn’t just begin by dropping you in a room with a pistol and some baddies.

Rather, we get a several-minute non-combat section, very much in a Half Life style, with you arriving at the base just before it all goes wrong. You step off the shuttle, and go find someone to report to. The situation is already a bit tense and gloomy, amidst the ill-lit metal corridors of the UAC base. Technicians mutter to themselves, no-one is all that pleased to see you. A grizzled Sergeant growls some orders at you. Oh and a government official is stamping around, also newly arrived and clearly unhappy about something.

You head off to an outbuilding to find some scientist who’s apparently locked himself in a room and gone crazy and – apparently that’s been happening a lot lately. When you reach him, well, that’s when the disaster hits. Explosions, scary flying skull effects, the lights go out and there’s lots of screaming and gunfire. The base is plunged into chaos, most of the staff become murderous undead, the Sergeant is yelling over the radio at all survivors to come find him. Get your gun, marine!

Dark games are tricky to get good screenshots of. But trust me, this is bad news.

So let’s talk about typical experience once into the meat of the game. It’s certainly all seriously atmospheric, for one thing. There’s a real feeling of claustrophobia, locked in a metal warren with the walls pressing in, beneath the martian soil. Lights flicker and scientific machinery whirs away, keeping you jumpy. Use of light and dark is a key feature – Corridors immersed in shadow look seriously uninviting, the kind of place you creep down cautiously, scanning every possible feature for what might be lurking behind. Well lit rooms are a brief refuge before you have to plunge on.

Sometimes you come across something extra disturbing sights, like tortured bodies strung up from the ceiling. Just to keep you unsettled. Later on signs of hellish weirdness start to break through – floor tiles floating over a cavern of churning lava. Or thick tendrils of flesh pushing through the walls. Which is all quite appropriate and helps build the sense that you’re in over your head, up against supernatural powers.

Anyway the Tech 4 engine brings some impressive new tricks to enhance the realism of these environments, which I’d love to tell you all about but this isn’t a tech blog and to be fair I don’t really understand the details anyway. But a quick read on wikipedia fills in a few of the advances made. For example this was iD’s first engine to use bump mapping which is a trick to make polygon surfaces look more rough and, er, bumpy. Also we got realtime, per-pixel lighting instead of the simplified types seen before. So it’s all pretty fantastic, at least to us retro types who spend a lot of time with the hard-edged polygons of 1998.

So, what about the action, right? Well let’s say you step through into a new area. A bunch of health packs and a shotgun are propped in a corner. It’s a trap, you think. Of course it’s a trap. A hatch opens and an demon pops out, roaring and ready to charge As you whirl to deal with him then bamf – an imp teleports in, screeches and through a fireball. So you back off, possibly cursing and firing wildly as the first monsters jumps at your face and claws you, sending your view all skewed (nice touch). You run for the door you came through except bamf, here’s another guy cutting off your retreat.

The demons themselves are, while not 100% stylistically the same, recognisable as inspired by those old sprites. And they’re suitably evil. We’re not talking aliens, or genetic experiments or anything like that, these are sent from hell to eat hope. And they look it. Cacodemons are floating ugly head-things that spit fireballs, and the massive stomping Hell Knights exist solely to smash puny mortals into a pulp.

As for weaponry, the old favourites are back to further uphold a doomy feel. The shotgun takes man-sized targets down at close range, the plasma gun is an all round friend. The chainsaw makes no damn sense on a mars base, but the game acknowledges this with a wink (same as it does all the explosive barrels). The most important new addition is the Soul Cube. Like something out of a Clive Barker novel it’s a flying box of blades, powered by killing enemies with other weapons.

Cacodemons: a bit scarier than the old tomato monsters.

One feature that proved controversial is that you can’t use your torch and a weapon at the same time. It’s hard to rationalise as you’d think a resourceful soldier could find and use a roll of duct tape. Still I get the idea – it encourages further suspense in the really dark parts, by making you choose between being able to see what you’re doing, or quickly respond to a threat. So it’s kinda contrived, but forgivable. To me the more annoying thing is the lack of a lean feature. Really that should have been standard by 2004 in anything that wasn’t Serious Sam. If i’m scared of a monster i’d like some cover to peer around from.

For another broader criticism it does all get kind of repetitive by the end. While not wanting to contradict what I said about atmosphere, I hope you don’t mind boxy metal corridors and rooms of assorted plasma reactors, cos you’ll be seeing an awful lot of them. Now in case Doom veterans reading this are wondering, there is a trip all the way to Hell itself, which is awesome and certainly a change of scenery. It’s utterly dread-inspiring, and convincing as the otherworldly home for the forces of soul-chewing evil. Strangely though it’s not the climax but rather an interlude ⅔ of the way through. After that… more metal corridors.

Also there’s is a heavy reliance on surprise attacks. Especialy encounters using either teleportation or “monster closets”. That is, little sections behind hidden doors for monsters to lie in wait. You have to wonder what they do in there, practice scary faces? What’s more in some obvious “trap” rooms you’ll probably end up savvy enough to run in backwards just to catch the “boo behind you!” guy. Such sudden encounters and the close proximity are where most of the threat comes from. Enemies aren’t hugely smart and If you can keep your wits about you, you’ll find old school circle strafing and dodging is more or less enough to handle them.

So there’s not a huge amount of variety here. Still what Doom 3 does, it does well – fear and tension punctuated by scares and bursts of action. While oldschool Doom was sprinting around at 30mph to midi renditions of slayer, gunning down roomfulls at a time, this is a slower, more tightly focused action horror. Play in the dark with headphones and I’m sure you’ll find yourself intensely focused, listening for every little noise. Then either panicking when monsters emerge, or steeling yourself and firing in short, controlled bursts if you’re a hardened shooter veteran. Possibly muttering “bring it on” or “hurt me plenty”.

Also i’d like to return to Doom 3’s attempts to be at least a bit story-driven. You have mission objectives, radio chatter and some brief cutscenes, which although they don’t amount to a lot do at least move on events for the few key characters. The interesting bit though, is the use of text and audio logs, written by staff before the disaster that you find scattered around the base. Now this was a device used by the System shock games, the first of which was a peer of the original doom. It would be ironic if iD ha were indeed looking to Shock for ideas; while Shock was in some ways a greater game than Doom, iD’s work ended up by far the more famous.

On the shores of hell...

Anyway these logs retrospectively tell the backstory of how things started to go wrong on the base. First you hear about equipment malfunctions, and psychological problems amongst the staff. Then you start to learn about the teleportation experiments, and what exactly happened to those who took part. It’s not as effective a dramatic device as it was in Shock, where you could become attached to the voices you heard and feel angry about their fates. There just isn’t the emotional weight and no one is memorable. Still it does lend some signficiance to events. And provides an explanation as to why we’re here shooting demons in the first place, instead of just relying on “for the hell of it” or a token bit of text.

You could also point to the game’s human antagonist, a disembodied voice mocking and taunting you as you grimly fight through his minions, as kind of shock-esque. It is after all reminiscent of SHODAN. Except not as scary, due to a lack of any clear motive for his hell-binding ways and some pretty bad lines. “I’m waiting for you… waiting to KILL YOU”. Seriously, I pictured some of the imps facepalming at their evil summoner for that one.

So let’s sum up. For sure, this isn’t as important an event in shooter history as its revered ancestor. It didn’t lead the genre into a new age, apart from marking the next step in ever more realistic 3D engines, and isn’t single biggest yardstick against which games of 2004 are rated. Maybe you could argue no shooter will be that important again, unless one does something really radical. Still Half Life 2 perhaps led the pack back then, and Far Cry And Fear did great things back in that generation also. So against that lineup, I couldn’t call this one a clear superior.

Still… this is another review where I find I’m listing a load of criticisms but overall have a positive impression, just not a 5-star one. Maybe it’s just my inclination to hold a big name to high standards. Anyway iD had clearly been giving some thought on how to make a compelling single-player shooter experience. Also they seem to have been happy to take inspiration from other quality titles, that had proven to offer more than just mindless blasting. It’s approach to plot might be shock-lite but certainly, it’s several steps improved on the Quakes. So for its flaws, Doom3’s approach worked well enough to have me hooked for a several evenings, grimly making my way through hellspawn-infested tunnels and wondering what horror would come for me next. So no it’s not a milestone, but it’s definitely worth a shooter fan’s time.