Doom 3 Review
Developer: iD Software
Reviewed on PC
Windows System Requirements: Pentium IV 1.5GHz or Athlon XP 1500+, 384MB RAM, 8x CD ROM, 64 MB DirectX 9.0b-compliant video card, 2.2 GB HD space, Windows 2000 or XP
The trip to the Union Aerospace Corporation (UAC) research facility on Mars has been a long one. You are an experienced Marine in the service of the UAC, and at first your mission seemed routine – replace a Marine on Mars whose tour of duty has been completed. Upon arrival, everyone is twitchy, on edge, and frightened of things that go bump in the night. The other grunts speak of voices that call from dark corridors, and the UAC board has dispatched Counselor Elliot Swann to investigate the head of research at UAC's Mars base, Dr. Malcom Betruger, who makes incessant demands for more funds, more staff and more energy.
Mere minutes after landing at the UAC base and receiving your first assignment, but before even finding your bunk, all Hell breaks loose. Literally, the denizens of Hell have begun streaming through a portal in the depths of Mars. And there are hints that it has happened before...
Launch Doom 3 and you are immediately plunged into a dark and gritty world. In the first few seconds you might accidentally knock over a few boxes,
demonstrating the game's physics model; converse with a grumpy but stunningly rendered soldier dealing with a cargo manifest; and discover how flexible and intuitive the interface is, especially starting a conversation or interacting with in-game computers. As soon as you get past the opening cut-scene, you'll notice the two things that characterize Doom 3 – the graphics are amazing, and the game is really dark.
Doom 3 delivers exactly what fans have been expecting. It's proof that computer gaming has reached a new technological plateau, with stunningly sophisticated graphics that make Doom 3 the most technologically advanced game that you've ever played. It's also one of the most involving first-person shooters you'll play this year. But its dramatic leaps are about the graphics and interface: the story-telling and game play are the usual fare. Doom 3 is an amazingly vivid, simulated haunted house with unbelievable visuals. It's Mars, with zombies and demons.
The graphics and the environment are absolutely the highlight of Doom 3. Your experience in the UAC Mars base begins with industrial and deeply detailed corridors that begin to unravel as the forces of Hell intrude further into this world. The game is extremely dark, but the darkness, in conjunction with superlative sound design, builds tension. But more important than the darkness are shadows cast by the disintegrating base and the creeping horrors that stalk you. They can become more real than the solid scenery.
As you get further into the game, organic growths take over and demolish levels, as badly sutured, intestinal-like tubes of Hellish flesh slither through openings and ducts. Hellfire and Satanic runes illuminate walls and ceilings with a flickering reddish glow, and dying monitors light staggering zombies with their snowy broadcasts. As your battle nears its conclusion, the expanses of Hell themselves open rifts between what were once claustrophobic corridor walls.
Of course, with so much darkness, you need something to navigate the shadows. To that end, iD has provided you with a flashlight. Especially as the game begins, the flashlight accentuates the creepy atmosphere, illuminating only what you look directly at, and creating shadows from which horrors can leap.
Unfortunately, you need to put down the flashlight to use any part of your arsenal of weapons. Horror elements aside, Doom 3's graphics are its most impressive aspect, and the Hellish creatures that you shoot are both detailed and impressively animated. Putting down the flashlight means not seeing the best part of the game, except for the occasional splatter of gore illuminated by a gun's muzzle flash. You might find yourself using the plasma gun or BFG-9000 simply because their ammunition gives off more light than the shotgun, giving you a shot at seeing your foes.
After the first few minutes of play, it's clear that the flashlight idea needs some rethinking. Games such as Aliens Versus Predator 2 offered multiple vision modes, each with its own strengths and weaknesses. If each mode can only see certain types of enemies, there is a need to constantly switch between them, creating a more dynamic feeling of paranoia. In fact, the inability to hold the flashlight in one hand and a weapon in the other led to the creation of a modification shortly after Doom 3's release that allows players to "Duct Tape" the flashlight to your weapons.
When you do see monsters, you'll discover how amazingly detailed and lovingly crafted they are. Many are re-envisioned from the original Doom: formerly pixilated and goofy looking characters (such as the marine with a tentacle for a right arm) have become truly horrifying creatures. The imps (Hell's foot soldiers) are grotesque, plasma-hurling bipeds with a spider-like visage, and even the revenants (skeletal creatures with gelatinous, translucent flesh and rocket launchers grafted to their shoulders) are threatening rather than comic.
As everyone has known since the first game trailers began to appear, the zombies are grotesque and disturbing. Particularly the obese ones with internal organs spilling from distended bellies. Run up and blast a zombie with a shotgun and you'll see his loose flesh splatter from his skeleton. The brains take away from the horror somewhat, as they will fly into the air whole, even if the zombie was headless to begin with. Still, there are plenty of creatures that can make you cringe, including the spider-like heads with eight legs that will lower themselves from the ducts in the ceiling or scuttle out of vents to swarm you; and the half-baby, half-fly-like grubs that lunge at you with leaps that are like an abortive attempt at flight. When slain, demons will disintegrate into what looks like a lump of quickly cooling coals.
The environment itself heaps nervous tension upon anxiety, playing on the shadows and sound design. Especially in the early areas of the game, Mars is replete with machinery, and the movements of mechanical devices (as well as the sounds they create) closely (but not exactly) mimic demons, and can cause you to jump nearly as often as demons appear. Also, the game's physics mean that you can push objects around. More than just shoving a crate to jump for partially hidden ammunition, you can shove the ubiquitous explosive barrels to help you ambush the demons that would otherwise ambush you.
Another brilliant advance in Doom 3 is the way computer screen interfaces are handled. If you are close to a touch screen, your targeting reticle changes into an interactive cursor, and you can manipulate the screen or download data to your in-game PDA. That seemingly simple trick of the interface does wonders for integrating you into the world.
Where Doom 3 falls a little short is on horror. As a haunted house on Mars, the game is an extended series of "gotcha" moments. That has its appeal – you will shoot at shadows. Especially in short play sessions, you will be constantly surprised by things that jump out at you. Most of the game is set up so that as you pass a certain spot or pick up a pile of helpful ammunition, a hidden cubbyhole or closet will open and demons will leap out at you. And like a haunted house, it feels remarkably artificial. The few times that an imp is hanging in plain view, masked by shadow, only to drop down on you as you pass are so much more impressive than when a wall slides aside to reveal a hidden imp. For example, in a portion of the Delta Lab levels, a creature seems to stalk you, clinging to the outside of the walls. That's far more terrifying than a cacodemon in the closet. The haunted house atmosphere leads to a routine in which a monster jumps out, you kill it, quick save and repeat until the game is over.
This does help explain why there is no co-operative mode available for the game. Every moment of play is tightly scripted so that creatures leap out from behind you. With a second player, demons would be unlikely to emerge behind both players, making play seem more like a pair of soldiers routinely going through an urban combat target shooting range.
The story is also something of a disappointment. Honestly, the plot isn't bad, it just feels irrelevant, and because of that, shallow. There's only so much sophistication that can be added to a tale in which the forces of Hell emerge beneath a Martian base. That said, the world has been fleshed out in exceptional detail, with an intriguing backstory for many of the characters and detailed (but optional) videos explaining UAC's presence on Mars. The game feels like it tried to take a lesson from System Shock 2, complete with logs from the dead.
What made this device so successful in System Shock 2 was the way it felt like you were actively communicating (through e-mails and transmissions) with denizens in a living world, some of which demanded, pleaded or cajoled you for your aid. The logs in Doom 3 simply give you glimpses into the lives of the dead that are only relevant if they contain useful codes that conceal ammo. After the opening moments of the game, transmissions cease, and your only communication with the living is with frightened souls hiding from the carnage. When your enemies taunt you with laughter, it just makes the forces of Hell seem like a papier-mâché threat – great for the haunted house, but without depth or motivations beyond destroying the world. It just can't match the horror I experienced the first time I heard a cyber-nanny in System Shock 2 mutter to itself about protecting its young, knowing that it meant my demise. At least the internal e-mails from the dead reference the fact that armor and weapons are scattered all over the base.
Whatever minor flaws Doom 3 might have, it is still a deeply entertaining shooter. Impressively atmospheric graphics and sound let you blast the forces of hell through the most attractive haunted house you've ever experienced. Where the game falls short, it merely points to where it could have been even better, not to places it fell down. You won't go wrong picking up a copy of Doom 3 to face the forces of evil – just make sure that you have a sufficiently powerful system to see the graphical bells and whistles that really make the game frightening.