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DOOM 3

Review by Steerpike
August 2004

DOOM 3!

Even people who haven't heard of computer games have heard of DOOM. It is one of the seminal events in PC gaming and sparked the stratospheric rise of this medium. Thus, when id Software announced in 2000 that its next project would be a story-driven sequel with a focus on single player, there was plenty of excitement. John Carmack's new engine was rumored to be far more advanced than anything anyone had imagined, and as the breathtaking screenshots trickled out, excitement grew proportionally. And then id fell largely silent for four years.

While those screenshots still look really good, they are no longer the mind-blowers they were when we first saw them in 2001. Back then, their competition was the Quake 3 and Unreal engines, powering games like Return to Castle Wolfenstein. Though it's still the best engine currently available, these days it does face some visual rivalry. And four years is a long, long time to work on a game; generally such a lengthy development cycle implies problems at the studio. Given id's rocky past and "fire everyone" business model, no rumor is too farfetched.

id Software has matured a lot since the early days, when it grudgingly included stories to appease gamers it considered to be missing the point. John Carmack is famous for saying that "story in a game is like story in a porn movie"—that is, present but unnecessary and kind of stupid. Odd, then, that DOOM 3 sports an intricate, well-written storyline that drives the game forward as much as the action does. DOOM and DOOM 2 are famous for how scary they were despite being "narrative lite"—in this installment, id tries its hand at some emotioneering techniques that really build the fear factor through narrative and environment.

Anticipation reached a fever pitch before the release, with some eager gamers committing felonies to get their hands on a copy a day early. So any review faces this question first: is this game, for which we have waited so long, really worth all the hype? Answer: most definitely.

There's a magic about the DOOMs we've never seen anywhere else, and fans are justifiably curious as to whether DOOM 3 will share that magic. Sure, it looks great, but is it as special as DOOM? Answer: no, because the halcyon days of DOOM are long gone and sepia-toned memories of that game have placed it on a pedestal so high that nothing will ever measure up. But this one is close enough.

DOOM 3's pedigree has a lot more in common with Half Life and System Shock 2 than it does with its own predecessors. Conveniently, both of those games are hall of fame–worthy classics, remembered and cherished years after their initial releases. If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then those two are blushing—but DOOM 3 retains its own impressive identity.

The Short Version

DOOM 3 is a rare event in PC gaming these days: it's a game that delivered on all of the promises it made. It's scary, it's got a good story, and the writing and voice acting are superb. It's also action-packed and exciting. The gameplay, while not terrifically different from any other FPS, has that magic something that keeps you coming back for more. You are always challenged but never frustrated by the combat or the puzzles, nor do you sense that any part of the game is there merely as window dressing. Everything serves a purpose in DOOM 3, and serves it well. This is the definition of a five-star game in every respect.

It is not, however, very similar to the DOOMs of old. It is much slower and slightly more cerebral, and it is objective- rather than progress-driven. People who want a pure Serious Sam-style rampage may be disappointed. Having (hopefully) firmly entrenched my admiration for this game in your mind, I'm going to refocus and talk mostly about bad stuff from now on. Because this game is getting too much gushy press and, great as it is, it's not perfect. But despite those flaws, it remains a real treasure.

Are You Listening, Crytek?

The fantastic new engine under DOOM 3's hood will be powering a lot of games over the next eighteen months, and some fret that there's no way plain-Jane systems will be capable of running it.

But DOOM 3 runs great on anything within its requirements. This was apparently a priority at id. What's really astonishing is that it also looks great on anything. If you want to run it at a super-high resolution, you will need heftier hardware, but even those requirements are startlingly reasonable considering the graphic syrup you get.

So don't upgrade your rig to play this game until you've actually tried running it on what you've already got. If you do have your heart set on an upgrade, your money would be best spent on some combination of a good sound card, a set of 5.1 speakers, more RAM, and a top-notch video card. DOOM 3 is an OpenGL game, and nVidia's GeForce cards are historically better performers under OpenGL, but ATI is working feverishly to bring its Radeon drivers up to snuff.

This engine has undergone massive optimization and requires little input from you. Tweak your resolution and quality settings, but leave the advanced options on their defaults. If you simply must mess with something advanced, fiddle with the anti-aliasing. Set it as high as you're able while still retaining a solid frame rate. Also, be advised that the four quality choices apply to both graphics and sound, so you will not be able to tweak individual audio settings from this menu. Irritatingly, you have to restart DOOM 3 before any changes are applied.

It's clear that id spent thousands of man-hours optimizing for the ideal combination of fast and pretty, and it paid off. Development studios like Crytek—responsible for the ridiculously clunky and unnecessarily computer-punishing Far Cry—should take note. Both Crytek and id peddle their game engines, and if Crytek doesn't get its act together fast, DOOM 3 will walk all over it. I have what can only qualify as a midrange gaming PC these days: an Athlon 2800+, a Radeon 9700 Pro, and a gigabyte of PC2700 memory. To my great surprise, I was able to run DOOM 3 out of the box at 1280×1024 on "high" quality, with 2x anti-aliasing, and still average a frame rate in the high thirties. I can't say the same for Far Cry.

Why Science Is Bad

Veteran game writer Matthew Costello—who also wrote The 7th Guest and The 11th Hour—wrote the script for a game that id CEO Todd Hollenshead described as "a walking tour of Mars with a brief stopover in Hell." DOOM 3 is not actually a sequel, but a "retelling" of the original DOOM, which everyone except Toger probably knows is the tale of a disastrous experiment in teleportation that opens up a gate to Hades. Demons come swarming through, your character is the only one left alive, and hilarity ensues.

While DOOM took place on the twin Martian moons of Phobos and Deimos (that's "Fear" and "Dread" to Greek-speakers), the setting for DOOM 3 is an enormous research installation on the surface of Mars. The Union Aerospace Corporation employs this out-of-the-way facility to conduct dangerous or inhumane experiments best kept off the world's front pages. Doctor Malcolm Betruger runs the place, but he seems more interested in continuing his teleportation research than in the base's alarming number of accidental deaths and incidents of psychosis.

You play a marine assigned to the lab's security detail, and on your very first day, before you even get a chance to put your socks in your sock drawer, the teleporter goes haywire and the Kingdom of Satan pours forth into the base. The story unfolds through emails, video logs, and various communiqués from the (increasingly few) survivors of the demonic invasion. These are collected on your PDA, which manages your mission objectives and keeps your email organized.

As in System Shock 2, your character is a nameless, voiceless, and lonely cipher who must jump through assorted hoops in order to set things right. You'll need to get the power back on, send some "help us" messages to the fleet, close up the portal to Hell, and—most importantly—figure out a way to keep the demons from reaching the human buffet that is Earth.

This is an objective-driven game, but, unlike the sprawly System Shock 2, it is quite linear. You seldom have more than one objective at a time, and there's rarely more than one path open to you, so it's really about going from point A to point B without getting shot, pulverized, or eaten. The journey is what matters in DOOM 3, however, and it's just so good that even its stark linearity and relative simplicity compared to the game on which it is so obviously based are forgivable.

It's as If You Were Blind

The lovely graphics are even more wondrous to behold when in motion, and yet at the same time they are also significantly more disappointing. They were going for fear and suspense in this game, and to a certain degree they were successful. DOOM 3 has more than its share of jump-out-of-your-seat moments, and its environments range from the really eerie to the scary as (quite literally) Hell. One of the ways they accomplished this was by making the game dark and providing a flashlight on which you will depend utterly. Flashlight and I become very close friends, but the game is too dark for its own good.

DOOM 3 makes Thief: Deadly Shadows look like a sunny day in a meadow filled with 6,000-watt Klieg lamps. It is so gloomy that it's usually impossible to see what's going on during combat, and the brightness controls do not affect most shadows. "Pitch black" is too minimal a term to describe the lumen-sucking vortex of darkness that is this game. Even worse, at one point you and Flashlight are briefly parted.

You can't have Flashlight and a gun out at the same time (there's a mod that changes this, download it here). You generally just shoot at glowing eyes. Also, your enemies move really fast. At most you'll usually register a blur—just enough to identify what it is—before a creature is upon you. This is a pity, because many attacks are part of in-game scripted sequences that are really cool and deserve more screen time.

I don't mean to speak ill of DOOM 3's graphics. They are astounding, breathtaking, head and shoulders above everything else out there right now. Attention to detail on environments and monsters is impeccable; every bump map, every surface, every texture is the product of obvious loving care. Flashlight and I felt humbled by the beauty of DOOM 3. It's just that the game is so dark, and the action is so fast, that you don't really get to savor it.

Steerpike's Annoying Audio Problem

The sound of DOOM 3 is worthy of a review by itself. Dolby 5.1 surround pumps out spatial effects the likes of which we've never heard before. This is one of those games that makes you look nervously behind you and even jump in terror and swivel around when those rear speakers blare something unexpected or particularly frightening.

There's little music to speak of in DOOM 3; the soundtrack is mostly environmental. The ambient sound goes a long, long way toward making it scary. Before long, you and Flashlight are alone in a vast, dark complex, and every noise makes you jump and squeak. You'd do well to shut off the lights, crank up the volume, and play this game as it's meant to be played—there's even a card in the box that says as much.

The sound has major bugs, though. It kept quitting on me without warning. Other times it got staticky and out of sync. In both instances, it's necessary to drop out and restart the game from Windows. This is annoying, and it happens every ten minutes or so. It would seem that lots of people are having problems with the sound, and right now all Activision can recommend is updating the sound drivers. Everyone's done that, and the problems haven't gone away.

Top Ten Reasons Not to Open a Portal to Hell

There really wasn't much story in the original DOOM to be faithful to, so DOOM 3 is faithful in other ways. All of your favorite monsters from the originals reappear, from the humble Fire Imp to the run-for-cover Hell Knight. Because this game is much more System Shock than Serious Sam, you generally only see one or two opponents at a time. This is a thinking man's DOOM.

It's also a very, very difficult DOOM, more "be careful" than "blast everything," and opponents have been tweaked to mirror that. Even the little Fire Imps are no longer just chaff—they are dangerous in the extreme, fast, crafty, and capable of scuttling along ceilings and on walls, then attacking from the darkness. Other favorites like the pink pig-demons are so fast and so lethal that your first instinct is to run rather than fight.

Unfortunately, you can't do that. I would have liked the opportunity for a little more evasion in DOOM 3, and it's not there. Monsters are stationary and don't move until they see you. It gives the game a predetermined feel that worked in 1994 but doesn't today. I'd much rather that all the creatures had the run of the base, like the opponents in System Shock 2. This would make for more intense firefights and probably more tension while moving through previously visited areas.

Throughout the game, secret doors will slide open, revealing demons that were apparently lurking in tiny, featureless cubicles until you walked by. If a monster flings itself out of a closet to eat me, I want to know what it was doing in there in the first place. This game is make-you-jump scary rather than beside-yourself-with-terror scary. The Shalebridge Cradle mission from Thief: Deadly Shadows is that, and comparing that two-hour shriekfest to the "Boo!" of DOOM 3 is like comparing Dracula to the Count from Sesame Street. There are scary moments, even terrifying ones, but they often feel manufactured. DOOM 3 also has the nasty habit of spawning enemies to punish you for completing objectives or for picking up objects such as weapons and health packs. What was supposed to be always scary comes off instead as often scary and sometimes cheesy.

Alas also that Hell itself, when you get there, is somewhat derivative. Painkiller was much more creative and avant-garde in its portrayal of the Nether World; id went with tentacles and ugly gothic stonework and stuff that glistens and breathing walls and lots of lava, but we've seen that Hell in a zillion video games.

Like the monsters, the weapons from the original make a return appearance. You've got your pistol, shotgun, chaingun, plasma rifle, a cool new BFG, even the chainsaw. It's funny how these mundane weapons are perfectly fine when they're part of a good game. I felt no desire for more weapons or for more unique ones. They look great, they sound great, and they do the job. The new hand grenades bounce like superballs and are very difficult to aim—another example of "too much physics" in a game—but I depended on them nonetheless. Big props to id for staying faithful to much of the DOOM legend.

Multis and Mods

Though primarily a single-player game, DOOM 3 does include blah deathmatch multiplay. A maximum of four players can try to kill each other rather than demons, provided they all have a broadband connection. Multiplayer DOOM 3 is okay, but it's neither as entertaining nor as varied as Unreal Tournament 2004, and the four-player minimum makes finding a game quite a challenge, since most servers are always full.

A mod is in the works to increase that player limit to 32, which will be welcome; there's also a mod to address the glaring lack of cooperative play. I'd love to play through DOOM 3's single-player story in cooperative multiplay.

All of id's games are famous for their moddability, so we'll doubtless see plenty of interesting tweaks in the days to come. DOOM 3 must be easy to work with, considering that the first mods for the game were available the day it landed on shelves. The DOOM 3 engine is even being considered by a group of indie modders who want to use it for a total conversion of—get this—System Shock 2.

DOOM 3!

Despite good replay potential, DOOM 3 could stand to be a little longer. Any game four years in development ought to sport more than 25 hours of play. In FPS titles, the change from discrete levels to more persistent, objective-based environments has contributed to this, as its harder to test a persistent game for length. Still, given that this was a "retelling" of the 50-hour DOOM, I don't see why they couldn't have stuck with the more episodic structure of that original.

id farmed out all responsibility for DOOM 3's Xbox incarnation. Recognizing that its strength was the PC platform, it handed over all assets to Crash Bandicoot developer Vicarious Visions and took little further interest in DOOM 3 for the Xbox. The result is that the PC version doesn't play like a console port and the console version won't play like a PC port, and everyone is happy.

id Software and DOOM have a lot to do with the enormous success and acclaim that the medium is currently enjoying. DOOM and Myst are arguably the two games that really sparked mainstream interest in PC gaming in the 1990s. With luck, the release of DOOM 3—and, in September, Half Life 2—will be just what the flagging PC platform needs. Even developers are acting like the PC is dead, so when id unapologetically creates this new sure-to-be-a-bestseller game for the PC and fobs off the console responsibilities, it's a powerful statement. People watch what id does.

No one really knows what the future holds for John Carmack, the driving force behind id's success. He doesn't play the games he makes; indeed, he only makes games because that's where the exciting programming is going on. He is deeply committed to winning the X Prize (though a recent crash has all but put his team out of the running) and has devoted a significant part of his fortune to it. More and more, the X Prize seems to be his priority, which is part of the reason DOOM 3 took so long to ship. Thus, many speculated that it would be his last game and that he'd pull a Ground Control to Major Tom on us shortly after its release; but id just announced that it's working on an original new property with Carmack developing an entirely new engine. Other than that, all they're saying is that this next game will not take four years.

2004 has been a loser year for PC games. Titles we expected to be great sucked; other titles never appeared at all. DOOM 3 joins the tiny handful of games we've seen this year that really are all they're cracked up to be. It's got fun, excitement, good looks—everything people look for both in a potential mate and in a video game. Replay and moddability guarantee that it will stay on hard drives for years to come. It was a long wait, but now that it's here, there's no doubt that it was worth it. The End

The Verdict

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The Lowdown

Developer: id software
Publisher: Activision (PC); Vicarious Visions (Xbox)
Release Date: August 2004 (PC); TBA (Xbox)

Available for: Windows Xbox

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System Requirements

Windows 2000/XP
Pentium IV 1.5 GHz or AMD Athlon 1.7 GHz XP processor or higher
384 MB RAM
8x CD-ROM drive
1.7 GB free hard disk space
100% DirectX 9.0b compatible 16-bit sound card
100% Windows 2000/XP compatible mouse and keyboard
100% DirectX 9.0b compatible 64MB hardware accelerated video card
Internet (TCP/IP) and LAN (TCP/IP) play supported; Internet play requires broadband connection; LAN play requires network interface

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