100% All-Natural Composition
No Artificial Intelligence!

Thursday, September 02, 2004

Doom 3 review: Once again, "the sanest place is behind a trigger"

It was a hot, sultry Tuesday evening in May of 1994 when Doom first entered my life. My good friend Johnny came by the house so we could drive together over to the nearby community college for an American history class we had one evening a week. Before we left he gave me a box that he picked up for about two bucks at the local K-Mart. “Here, try this. It’s pretty wild,” he told me.

I didn’t actually install the game ‘til about 2 the next afternoon and when I finally looked at my clock after that it was darn nearly 7:30 PM. Dad came by my room earlier, just after I’d first discovered the chainsaw: I pulled it out and ran toward a Former Human Sergeant: “watch that raw meat fly, Dad!!” He just shook his head and walked away with a wry grin, saying he’d never seen anything THAT gruesome before.

Good lord, how many nights did we lose to that game? I did four things that summer: bussed tables at a restaurant, traveled some, played TIE Fighter when it came out, and played Doom. Lots of Doom. The original shareware episode wasn’t enough: I wound up mail-ordering away for the complete game. Then I heard that people had started modifying the game, adding on levels and changing the monsters. And then it got worse

This wasn’t long after I first discovered online bulletin board systems (we didn’t have full-blown Internet yet). There was a BBS in Kansas City that was dedicated to nothing but Doom files. I racked up a forty-dollar phone call to the thing one night, downloading nothing but Doom stuff. But at least I got to transform the Baron of Hell into Barney the Dinosaur to show for it.

Doom 2 followed in October of 1994: basically the same game but with more monsters and larger maps. The hardware demands also ratcheted up a bit: my snazzy lil’ 486 SX at 25 MHZ was doing so well… until the Icon of Sin in the final level. That damned grinning goat skull spat out so many monsters out of its exposed forehead that my computer slowed down to about 10 frames per minute. When I got a faster system a few years later I was finally able to take it down (and didn’t even have to do the “turn no-clipping on so you can walk behind the wall and shoot at John Romero’s head on a stick” trick either!).

I haven’t shown it to Johnny yet but if he thought that was rough he’ll probably scream and poke his eyeballs out when he takes a gander at Doom 3 the next time he comes over. Ten years, the Quake series and countless times of being asked “is it done?” later, id Software last month finally released the follow-up that may have had only slightly less anticipation than the Second Coming.

Other than the original I never played any of the Quake games, but everyone I’ve spoken with has said that Doom 3 is the strongest effort yet that id has poured into an actual plot for one of its games. It’s not a straightforward sequel but actually a retelling of the original Doom story, but apart from a few details the story’s basically the same: a hundred and fifty years from now you play a hardened space marine that’s been assigned to duty on Mars. Specifically, at a research facility run by Union Aerospace Corporation (think of the nefarious “Company” from the Alien movies and you’ll know already where this is going). Seems that the UAC has been doing some experiments in teleportation and matter transfer, and then decided to get really ambitious. So it is that just after you arrive and have finished up some introductory levels on moving around the game, that something starts pouring out of the gateway at the mysterious Delta Labs complex and everything, literally, goes straight to Hell. From that point on its you as the space marine on a quest not only for your own survival but also to turn off the portal to Hades lest it damn not just the bad dead folks, but the good live ones too.

I upgraded my system after this past Christmas so that it could effortlessly run Star Wars Galaxies. Even so, Doom 3 is so hoggish on resources that I’m forced to run the game on medium settings. However, after “tweaking” the configuration file in the Doom 3 directory (there’s a bunch of resources online on how to do this, on sites like Doom World and Planet Doom) I got it averaging about 45 frame per second on a 2 GHZ AMD system with a 128 MB Nvidia card. Only at 600x800 resolution mind ya, but even there… the graphics are stunning. And scary.

This is quite possibly the most realistic computer game yet published. Project lead John Carmack intended from the getgo that Doom 3 would have realistic lighting and he succeeded wildly: the Doom 3 graphical engine calculates light sources and surfaces (the bulk of the processing requirements). In layman’s terms it means that everything in the game casts a shadow or reflects light, exactly as it would in the real world. Go inside the restroom during the first minutes of the game and you’ll see yourself reflected back in the mirror (return there later and you’ll see… other things… reflected back also). Walk into a blackened room later on and you’ll genuinely hesitate, wondering just what the heck could be lurking in there that you can’t see yet, if at all. The effect is enhanced by having a flashlight to illuminate darkened corners with: try not to scream when you see something jumping out at you from the edge of the cone of light that it casts.

Fortunately, that’s not all you have as you navigate the dark recesses of UAC’s Mars City. Prior to your first mission (during which Hell erupts) you are issued a pistol. But soon you complement that with real firepower: the classic shotgun. Along with the rest of Doom’s signature armaments: the chaingun, the plasma rifle, the rocket launcher, and for the first time you can throw (or drop) grenades. There is also something called the “soul cube”, but any more on that would be major spoilerage. And of course, the BFG 9000… and the legendary chainsaw, which for the first time in a Doom series you finally come to understand why it is that chainsaws have been left laying around Mars to begin with.

That bit of info, along with many others, comes to you via one of the innovations that makes Doom 3 such a treat for the single player: you are armed with a personal data assistant (PDA) that you can call up anytime in-game, to read your incoming e-mail or watch videos that you download during the game. You can also read the PDAs of other, less fortunate characters that are found laying around the corpse-strewn facility. Make sure to read all the PDAs – and listen to the audio logs on them – as you move ahead, as they not only progress the story but give you much-needed information that you’ll need later on (like locker combinations and clues on defeating the baddies).

Most of the classic Doom enemies have returned for this retelling (but not all: sorry, no Spider Mastermind this time but that never seemed very demonic to me anyway). Most of the humans in the facility have been “zombified” by the outpouring demons so don’t feel too bad about capping them full of lead… they sure won’t hesitate to do the same (or worse) to you. This time though the former humans do not look identical to each other: you really do get the impression that these are hapless individuals that got turned undead (okay, apart from those really really fat zombies walking around that look pretty much the same: however good the UAC is at colonizing planets, they suck bigtime at combating morbid obesity). They come in a bunch more flavors this time than just “Former Humans”, “Former Human Sergeants” and “Chaingun Dudes”: there’s former human civilians, scientists, maintenance workers, security guards, marines, commandos… everyone but you and a few brave souls that escaped the holocaust that you meet along the way.

And then… the rest. Remember the Imps, those brown spiky guys that threw fireballs at you? They’re back, with more eyes and a LOT faster! They’ve also brought their cousins the Wraiths with them. The “Pinky” demons have been brought back for another round, albeit bigger and nastier than before. You’ll also have to once again contend with Revenants, Lost Souls, Cacodemons and Arch-Viles (but thankfully they don’t seem to have as much “resurrection power” as they did in Doom 2) along with an entire horde of new demons (like the spidery Trites, which look a LOT like the “Norris-things” from John Carpenter’s The Thing). Possibly the most beautiful/horrifying redefinitions have got to be for the Mancubus (the big waddling fat guys with plasma launchers for hands from Doom 2) and the new take on the Cyberdemon. But so far as new bad guys go, the Cherubs take the prize for most disturbing addition to the Doom canon: think tiny little babies. With claws. And insect wings. That scream “ma-ma”. Whoever thought up these things is one disturbed sicko. I pray he seeks counseling from a good therapist somewhere.

And if you do disturb easily, you might seriously wanna consider whether you really want to play Doom 3. The guys at id included a pamphlet in the box that suggests playing the game in a darkened room with the door locked and the sound turned up (I haven’t even begun to describe the haunting work that went into the sounds for this game) and that’s exactly how I played this for the week and a half that it took me to finish the game, playing mostly at night. There are things in this game that once you see, you can’t “unsee” if you know what I mean. After awhile it begins to SERIOUSLY play games with your head: strange lights in a dark corner that disappear when you get closer, things that move for no reason, things thrown at you but no assailant visible, and a disquieting woman’s voice enticing you to come “over here” before telling you that “they took my baby” (there’s more, but I don’t wanna think about it right now).

All of this makes for what is easily the most engaging, involving game experience that I’ve ever known for a single player. If there’s anything more that I wish it could have, it would be that most of the levels could have been larger, longer, and seeming not quite so “linear” in gameplay: one of the original Doom’s charms was just running around finding secrets or working your way through any sorts of puzzles that blocked your path. Those are still here also, but not nearly as hard to figure your way through (which, when you have demons on your tail makes the time that much more nerve-wracking… and fun). Most of the rooms seemed too “confined” also, and not as open as the original Doom games had them.

But the good news is that as with the originals, id Software has embraced the open-ended architecture that has made the Doom series so legendary (“Doom will never die, only the players,” as one of its programmers put it years ago) but to a far greater degree. Doom 3 comes complete with a built-in editor that’s accessible through its command console (hit CTRL plus ALT and ~ to bring it up) and already there are several user-written editors on the way. id is also set to soon release – for free – its Doom 3 developer’s toolkit, including the devised-but-not-used player-driven vehicle. And already there are numerous player-driven projects involving Doom 3 in the works, including at least two sequels (both called “Hell on Earth” by the way) and a reworking of the original Doom using the Doom 3 engine. Whatever faults the game may have, they will no doubt be soon eradicated by an army of dedicated Doomers.

Who knows: maybe someone among the new generation of Doom designers will create an updated version of Barney the Dinosaur for me to slaughter with my chainsaw again.