The FPS landscape changed significantly after Quake II. Most noticeably, id was no longer the dominant player. Valve showed a flair for storytelling with Half-Life, the Unreal engines proved to be an effective competitor to id’s own tech licensing business, and a brief infatuation with multiplayer-only titles (Quake III and Unreal Tournament) threw the venerable single-player FPS momentarily off balance. Thus, when Doom 3 was announced, it was highly anticipated as id returning to the genre it created. Unfortunately, all the excitement only resulted in the most contentious game id has released so far.
Doom 3 is essentially a reboot of the series – a ground-up revision of the original Doom rather than a graphical remake, with a new focus on story. You play as a silent, nameless marine arriving for his first day of security duty at the Union Aerospace Corporation’s laboratories on Mars. On the shuttle with you is a UAC executive arriving to do a full review of both the base and the head researcher – the cantankerous Dr. Betruger. There apparently have been numerous staff complaints and fatal accidents in the previous months. Betruger blows off the exec and promises “great things” are about to happen. Meanwhile, you’re issued a lowly pistol and sent to find the latest missing scientist when… cough… all Hell breaks loose.
That hell is issued forth by an overall plot that is Half-Life nearly verbatim. Teleportation experiments reveal an “in-between” dimension, and in this case, it just happens to be honest-to-goodness Hell. To be fair, original Doom’s scratched-on-a-napkin story did involve teleportation experiments and alien artifacts, which this game expounds on. The Doom novels reinforce this, so I’m not suggesting id ripped off Valve’s debut tale. Not to mention, it’s not exactly a unique concept – Event Horizon treads much the same ground, and Stephen King’s short story “The Jaunt” predates all of the above with its concept of eye-gouging terror existing between teleporter pads. What’s unfortunate is that this – supposed to be id’s grand entrance to the world of actual storytelling – tells a story that’s stale before you’ve even installed the game.
Doom 3 also takes a page from System Shock by introducing collectable PDAs scattered around the base. You can pick these up to read emails or listen to audio logs detailing the deteriorating backstory. Some of these are serious, discussing gruesome accidental deaths, hallucinations, or failed experiments. Some are not, such as the company “Martian Buddy” parodying every spam email ever sent, or the base Social Committee trying to get the haggard staff excited about an ice cream party. Many of these PDAs act as authorization keys required to proceed, or provide codes for weapons lockers, so you’ll need to seek them out. Thoughtfully, you can still play audio logs when you exit out of the PDA interface, so you can continue searching the base while you listen. Also, some impressive tech makes most computer panels interactive, so you can approach one and click around to unlock doors or cycle airlocks – very cool.
And so, you’ll steel yourself to traverse the base and respond to radioed orders from your Sergeant. These always move you forward into new areas, and directly into conflict with redesigned versions of Doom’s classic monsters. Everything from the previous games gets face time here (except the invisible Spectre), and most everything can be recognized behind its new look. Unsettling new additions range from Thing-inspired head spiders to mechanical baby-flies, along with a few new boss monsters challenging you in restricted arenas. Luckily, you’ll also have all of Doom’s classic arsenal to fight with. The double-barrel shotgun is out and a new machine gun is in, but everything else is just about as deadly as you remember it, and a welcome inclusion to your toolset. Limited ammo aside, there’s always a gun for the job.
But the star of the show, unquestionably, is the base itself. Specifically, the lighting. Carmack’s id Tech 4 seems built from the start with lighting in mind, and what’s on display here was (and still frequently is) breathtaking. Doom 3 represents the first commercial game engine where every light source was generated in real time – no tricks, no pre-made fakery. Shadows are dynamic, shifting light sources (like swinging lamps or alarm strobes) cast realistic, moving glows on the surroundings. Enemies themselves can be lit up by their fireballs, creating a new glow on both their models and the environment around them. Even your flashlight casts shadows relative to your position, and can make peripheral shadows even worse at the right angle.
It is primitive, in the sense that shadows all have hard edges with no gradients or blending. They’re also a touch binary – areas in shadow are draped in the blackest of black. This does, however, allow for excellent moments where zombie’s hands reach out of the dark after you, or the spinning lights of some high-tech machinery highlight a demon waiting in the eaves between strobes. It’s easy to see why id went back to Doom with this tech, as the lighting really does make for a magnificent high-tech haunted house.
Unfortunately, it leads to the first of the game’s controversies – the flashlight. The F key toggles your torch, which is held in your hand in lieu of a weapon. You will not be able to shoot and see at the same time. Critics lambasted this as stupid design (and the first flashlight mod was snarkily titled “Duct Tape,” as I recall), but it’s really no more convoluted a gimmick than the “self-recharging flashlight” that only worked in spurts, which had been the popular gimmick prior. It forces you to appreciate those fancy shadows, picking out enemies lit only by motion or the flashes of your gunfire, and while some resented the artificial nature of it, it was encouraging dread. Without being forced to take quick peeks with your light before adjusting your aim, you absolutely would just run around with the light always on, which does indeed ruin the mood (for reference, see the BFG Edition).
Second, and more crucial, was the overall feel of the game itself. To a lot of people, Doom and Doom II represented high-octane fun – the kind of 90 MPH frantic action that “throwback” FPSes like Painkiller or Serious Sam glorify. Naturally, this crowd resented a slow-paced, plot-focused spook house using the Doom name. Yet others lambasted the “outdated” game mechanics, citing the linear hallways and blatant “monster closets.” I again argue that these elements were always in the originals, and creeping through strobing corridors on the lookout for ambushes was certainly how I played them. What I will agree with, however, is that Doom 3 doesn’t give you the choice of two playstyles. If you think of the originals’ easier modes offering reckless killin’, while Ultra-Violence forced tactical caution, then you see that only one of those games made it over to Doom 3.
I can’t say that either of the complaints aren’t valid, and I absolutely see where they’re coming from. At the same time, I can see why id did what they did, and I personally am quite on board with the experience Doom 3 offers. I’ve never been scared or afraid in a game – not once – but a part of me still likes trying. And Doom 3 sure as shit has a great mood to it. Most of the base looks legitimately functional (with plenty of PR videos laying around explaining many of the whirring gizmos), and you can tell a lot of thought, time, and care went into creating this base a real (and real scary) space. Doom was no longer just monster mazes holding keycards, and I appreciated that.
That’s not to say that I don’t have some personal grumbles. For starters, like your mom without her makeup, this game looks best in the dark. The inky shadows do a tremendous job of setting the mood, but also in hiding the engine’s graphical deficiencies. Basic bump mapping quickly falls apart at close range, revealing textures to be uniformly flat and low-res. Models don’t have enough polygons, so everything from an Imp’s limbs to Betruger’s bald head (they hadn’t quite figured out hair tech yet) all feature awkward sharp points. Even decorations are revealed to be sparse with all the lights on, and reused textures become noticeable. Most terror gets stripped away when you switch on your torch, and all the blemishes become apparent.
Doom 3 introduces physics, but its implementation is a bit off. Not every object can be moved, but those that can will tumble and roll realistically. There’s also some nice ragdoll effects on zombies, sending them collapsing down stairs or slumping realistically upon receiving a fatal blow. However, rag dolls turn on at an enemy’s death, and the physics treat that new corpse differently than it did the snarling monster it just was. Take the giant Hell Knights for example. These formidable beasts will shrug off rocket after rocket and keep coming – but the last one that does them in will suddenly send them spinning comically through the air. Takes a bit of the piss when they’re flailing around like deflating balloons.
Also, a petty complaint, but I don’t understand the phantom scares. As you travel along, you’ll undergo similar hallucinations to the ones the base’s doomed staff discuss in their PDA logs. Invisible babies will cry. Voices call at you from down an empty hallway. Bodies or other objects lift up and fly through the air. I have to ask, what’s the point? Again, I don’t get spooked by games (part of me wishes I did; seems more fun) so I could just be jaded during these scenes. But why am I going to be worried about a body mysteriously dragging itself across the floor when motherfucking actual demons are actively crashing through stairways to eat me? That seems way scarier.
Sound is sparsely used, and the only actual music is found in the main menu theme. The rest is ambient machine noises, ghostly howls, and shuffling announcing nearby monsters to the alert. A common complaint is that weapons sound tinny and underpowered. While it’s true that the machine gun sounds like a popcorn maker, the shotgun and chaingun at least do have some “oomf” to them. Voice acting is also frequent thanks to the PDAs, and most of the recorded extras do a great job at injecting some personality. I actually thought it was the primary characters who were the weakest. Though that may be the result of some pretty terrible lines (“The devil is real. I know… I built his cage!”) rather than their actual performances.
Overall, Doom 3 handily accomplishes exactly the kind of scary story id set out to achieve. Unfortunately, it was a game style not everyone wanted. Without the outrageous movement speed and death metal riffs, it only catered to a portion of the classic Doom audience. The engine was brilliant at using lighting to create the kind of atmosphere Doom 3 needed, but was perhaps a bit too specialized – you won’t see Tech 4 appear in too many other games, while Unreal’s usage grew exponentially. A chilling game if that’s what you’re out for, but maybe not quite the Doom you were expecting.
Amazing, groundbreaking lighting tech for the time. Thoughtfully designed complex with constant reminders of being isolated on Mars. PDA logs are well written and acted. Good sense of progress and updating objectives (and stakes) throughout.
Ditches the idea of Doom as a rock n’ roll shooter. Nothing new to add to the story. Completely forgettable multiplayer.
“You’re the control… and if that fails… I’m the damage.” — Swann’s bodyguard