Extremely impressive from a technical standpoint yet behind the times from a first-person-shooter design standpoint: This is the dichotomy that is Doom 3, the long-awaited sequel from well-known Texas-based developer id Software. Doom 3 is quite possibly the best-looking game ever, thanks to the brand-new 3D graphics engine used to generate its convincingly lifelike, densely atmospheric, and surprisingly expansive environments. At the same time, when you look past the spectacular appearance, you'll find a conventional, derivative shooter. In fact, if you played the original Doom or its sequel back in the mid '90s (or any popular '90s-era shooter, for that matter), you may be shocked by how similarly Doom 3 plays to those games. The legions of id Software's true believers will celebrate this straightforwardness as being deliberately "old school," especially since Doom 3 is packed with direct references to its classic predecessors. However, the truth of the matter is that Doom 3's gameplay structure and level design are behind the times and very much at odds with the game's cutting-edge, ultrarealistic looks. Yet the quality of the presentation truly is remarkable--enough so that it overwhelms Doom 3's occasional problems.
Doom 3 is essentially a remake of the original Doom, though series fans will find reimagined versions of almost every monster from both Doom and Doom II in the new sequel. You play as a nameless, voiceless 22nd-century space marine called by the Union Aerospace Corporation to its Mars research facility beset with mysterious problems--the forces of hell, to be exact. You'll end up single-handedly fighting back legions of hellspawn using weapons like shotguns, machine guns, and rocket launchers. As in the classic Doom games, your foes here are liable to strike at any time--often just as you round a corner, grab a much-needed power-up, or set foot into a new area. So, while your enemies will materialize without notice, and may occasionally startle you as they leap out of the darkness, Doom 3 cannot easily be described as scary or suspenseful. On the contrary, it's very predictable, and more or less it just goes through the same types of paces that you've probably gone through before in any number of other similar games.
Over the course of the game, you'll fight your way through a series of linear levels filled with locked doors, and you'll gradually find new weapons and occasionally meet new types of monsters. Early on, your apparent goal is to meet up with your squad, but as you might expect, you'll never actually get to fight alongside any human forces (no thanks to the omission of a co-op mode for multiple players, which was a signature element of past Doom games). Despite the game's cinematic trappings, it follows a formula that generally lacks drama or tension. Occasionally, the game presents to you a shocking or surprising scene--a hallucination or some hellish, otherworldly image. These moments are effective, but are too few and far between in the context of a single-player shooter that's of above-average length (somewhere between 15 to 20 hours). Fortunately, the campaign definitely picks up during the last several hours, once you finally reach (and keep going past) the point when you confront the enemy on its own turf. Getting to that point may be your primary motivation for trudging through some of the repetitive middle portions of the game, though.
Part of the issue is that Doom 3's storyline and narrative technique are ineffectual. Since the main character has no identity whatsoever (for whatever reason), the game tries to get you interested in everyone else on the base. You'll frequently find voice recordings and e-mail from various characters, but not only is a lot of this stuff bone dry, having to stop and read or stand around and listen to a rambling monologue jarringly disrupts the flow of the action. Unfortunately, if you choose to focus on the action by ignoring the seemingly extraneous story elements, you'll find that some of them aren't optional--you'll need to sift through those e-mails and listen to some of those voice recordings to get passcodes for locked doors and storage chests.
For what it's worth, the game's premise seems very fleshed out, and the game gives an amazing first impression. As you explore the UAC base, eavesdropping on various conversations and observing great, little details here and there, you'll get the impression that Doom 3 takes place in a fully realized world. Of course, all hell quickly breaks loose, and from that point onward you'll encounter scarce few creatures that you won't want to instantly shoot. The premise of the game will continue to unfold through occasional cutscenes and the aforementioned e-mails and recordings.
Since Doom 3 purports to have a plausible premise, suddenly, aspects of the game that you might not normally question will start to stick out as being annoyingly inconsistent. You'll undoubtedly find time to wonder about these logic gaps as you fight throughout the UAC base, especially if you've played other recent first-person shooters that do a better job of justifying their plots. Why would a 22nd-century space marine be sent into action in a darkly lit area without night vision goggles of some sort, or even a helmet? Why wouldn't any of his weapons have light-amplification modules built into them when even today's weapons frequently do? Why, instead, is he stuck carrying around a very weak flashlight with unlimited battery life? Why is he unable to hold a gun and the flashlight at the same time? Why are the UAC's small, spiderlike sentry drones so incredibly powerful? You'll see these helpful little guys rip through droves of hellspawn even faster than you can. If the base's defenses are so tough, then why is everyone so worried, and why is everyone getting killed? Doom 3's central gameplay conceit simply doesn't fit in with the premise of the game, and this is a problem only because Doom 3 chooses to try to make you feel like you're in a believable, fully realized world. Doom-inspired shooters, such as Serious Sam and Painkiller, wisely followed the classic game's arcadelike nature by never even purporting to be plausible and simply focusing on run-and-gun action. So it's ironic that Doom 3's ambitions to be a story-driven game mostly just end up getting in the way and weakening the overall experience.
As mentioned, Doom 3 is pervasively dark; there's rarely a moment when your entire field of vision isn't predominantly shrouded in thick, black shadow. This contributes heavily to Doom 3's creepy, claustrophobic feel and it does indeed give the gameplay a distinctive quality. However, the constant extremely dark settings conspire with the frequently repetitive level design to contribute to gameplay that can often feel monotonous, especially since the action itself is very straightforward. What's more, the game's levels will occasionally require you to backtrack through dark hallways without clear markings, so rather than constantly blasting monsters, you may end up spending an undue amount of time just trying to get your bearings. There's a sizable arsenal of weapons to be found here, but none of them are completely satisfying to use. Pretty much all the guns are direct-fire, point-and-shoot weapons with no alternate firing modes and no close-range melee attacks; they do look impressive onscreen, but they all sound surprisingly tinny and subdued, rather than loud and powerful.
Meanwhile, the game's few melee weapons are mostly useless (though the chainsaw is at least fun to use). The grenades and the rocket launcher are liable to damage you just as much as they will damage your foes, since most of the game's battles occur at close range. Most modern shooters now seek to balance their weapons such that different tactical circumstances call for different measures, but Doom 3 takes the old "bigger is better" approach, for the most part. The main consideration in deciding which weapon to use at any given moment will be how much ammunition you have remaining, and to its credit, Doom 3 forces you to be pretty conservative with your ammo--you'll often feel the need to make every shot count. Furthermore, your marine has no special abilities to speak of. He can move about fairly quickly, he can jump about two feet high, he can crouch, he can sprint, and he can carry every weapon at once, but that's it; don't expect him to be able to lie prone or lean around corners or anything like that. This isn't that kind of game.
This also isn't the kind of game in which you should expect to be fighting against ruthlessly intelligent foes. Some of the former human marines you'll face will use rudimentary tactics against you, and other foes at least do a fairly good job of giving chase if you try to flee from them. But, in general, your enemies follow the same sorts of predictable patterns that you may remember from previous Doom games. By the halfway point of the game, you'll have little trouble avoiding your enemies' attacks when directly confronting them, so you'll instead be concentrating on predicting the expected ambushes around every corner. Also, one of the drawbacks of Doom 3's richly detailed graphics is that you'll rarely face more than a few foes at a time, and as you kill them, their bodies instantly disintegrate into ash--which is a nice effect, but also the same effect for just about every foe you kill. It's disappointing that the colorful death animations and seas of monster corpses from past Doom games are nowhere to be found here (though, in exchange, you'll pass through countless corridors chock-full of smeared blood and human remains).
As a result of all of the above--the predictable level design and enemies, and the simple-but-effective weapons arsenal--Doom 3 does not turn out to be particularly challenging, at least at the normal difficulty setting. Actually, the main reason for this is because, as in many other shooters, you can quicksave your progress virtually instantly and at any time. The creepy atmosphere and frequent ambushes will likely cause you to use this option more often than you need it, and as a result, the game's suspense and tension is further mitigated. Limited save systems in shooters often meet with great resistance from certain players, but Doom 3 is a game that probably would have benefited from one. As it stands, shooter veterans shouldn't have any problem blasting their way through the game at the middle difficulty setting (at least up until near the end, anyway), and they should therefore consider the hardest available setting for their first attempt. "Nightmare" difficulty is unlocked after you finish the game, and in it, your health constantly dwindles down toward a danger zone, which means most players aren't going to find it much fun.
So what makes Doom 3 special if it's just a basic corridor crawl in which you shoot anything that moves? For one thing, the foes you'll face--while not terribly smart--are a decidedly impressive and wonderfully animated lot. Doom diehards will recognize most all their old nightmarish favorites, and will spot a number of vicious-looking new ones. Sometimes your only tip-off to the presence of enemies will be their gleaming orange eyes peering at you through the darkness, which is another great touch. Most enemies have both ranged and melee attacks, and when they hit you, your perspective will often shake violently as blood fills your field of vision, disorienting you and making you feel like, well, some demon from hell just hit you in the face. Interestingly, this effect is more pronounced the less health you have, which makes for some nerve-racking firefights.
Also, the stifling darkness of the game does work to good effect during most of the battles. As you explore with your flashlight in hand, you'll suddenly hear the chilling groans and growls of nearby foes, so you'll switch to your weapon of choice and whirl about trying to find signs of movement. The action unfolds quickly and violently. Enemies will often lurch right at you, giving you a clear shot of (and a clear shot at) their ghastly physiques. That is to say, what Doom 3's battles lack in complexity, they make up for in visceral thrills. Even after you've fought countless imps and other demons, you'll still be impressed by some of your close encounters with them.
Doom 3 has some other great details. You'll frequently be able to manipulate computers and other terminals, and you'll do so just by walking right up to them and using your mouse to click on them. It's a subtle yet impressive touch. The text on these terminals is clearly legible when you're standing near them, whereas other games in the past have required you to switch to a separate screen (and thus get taken out of the main experience of the game) to read these types of messages. Doom 3 also sports some realistic physics, though many other action games have already done this in the past year or so. Even so, Doom 3's physics are handled well, resulting in some excellent moments when enemies get sent flying from the blasts of your weapons, simultaneously bursting into ashes. You'll also happen upon some grisly or creepy scenes that are certain to stick in your mind long after you've fought your way past them.
In the end, Doom 3's single-player portion is well worth the exertion necessary to get through it from start to finish. At this point, there's no clear-cut reason to revisit the campaign, since the action itself will have practically outlived its welcome by the bitter end of your first time through. This leaves you with Doom 3's threadbare multiplayer features to consider. Out of the box, the game supports only up to four players on a handful of maps and in a small number of different deathmatch-style modes. Doom's biggest fans could probably make excuses for how this is a throwback to the good old days, and the game's player community will do more with it (they've already circumvented the four-player limit, for instance), but it's simply not a competitive multiplayer game compared to current standards. The in-game server browser at least is functional, but the four-player limit on most servers means that most multiplayer sessions are going to be full at all times, making the absence of some sort of "quick match" option sorely apparent here, whereas most online shooters get by without one.
While actually playing, the action is just OK; you run around and shoot other players that are running around with the same basic weapons you'll find in the single-player game, all while trying to keep your health, armor, and ammo levels optimal by nabbing power-ups. Unfortunately, most of the multiplayer matches that we tried were quite prone to lag, making the game's projectile-based weapons frustrating to use. The multiplayer maps themselves are dimly lit much like the rest of the game, but the lack of lighting isn't really conducive to the relatively faster-paced deathmatch modes; the maps themselves are interesting enough otherwise, and are basically well suited to four-player close-quarters bloodbaths. Nevertheless, the multiplayer action generally lacks much of the visceral and even the visual thrills of the single-player mode, since players are limited to choosing from four colors of just one generic marine player model.
Again, though, in spite of its shortcomings, Doom 3 certainly is a beautiful-looking game, so much so that simply running around in the environments becomes a pleasurable experience in and of itself. The environments offer little interactivity; you can knock over certain boxes and, as mentioned, use certain computers, but you can't damage most objects you see and you can't manipulate them in any way. But they're all really, really pretty. The game's character models look about as outstanding as everything else, though the awesome-looking monsters really outdo the human characters. Impressively enough, the game runs well even on systems closer to the minimum system requirements, as long as you set it to low detail (in which the colors appear more washed out, but the dynamic lighting effects and incredibly crisp textures still manage to shine through, and at a surprisingly brisk frame rate, no less). There actually isn't much genuine creativity to be found in Doom 3's visual design, which resembles any number of other sci-fi, horror-themed games or movies. But the execution of the visuals here is absolutely unmatched, and it truly needs to be seen in action to be fully appreciated. Also of note, the game's loading times are quite brief overall, even on relatively slower systems (there's a noticeable loading time when first entering one of the game's good-sized levels, but that's it). For that matter, despite reports from some players that the game is prone to crashing, we never experienced any technical issues of that sort during all of our testing.
As for Doom 3's audio, it's also quite impressive overall, but not nearly like the graphics. For one thing, Doom 3 has no soundtrack, apart from a heavy metal tune that plays at the title screen and a few rhythmic ambient tracks. This questionable design choice certainly does amplify the game's effective, believable, and often truly creepy ambient sounds, but it also contributes to the game's dearth of true drama and suspense. You can probably think of many games whose musical compositions and actual musical cues contributed heavily to the atmosphere of the experience; but Doom 3 balked at this opportunity. Some of the actual sound effects in the game also aren't that great. Your marine's footsteps sound bland and rather loud, and as mentioned, most of the weapons sound disappointingly underpowered. On the other hand, most of the monsters' shrieks and roars are just as menacing as their looks, and the voice acting that can be heard throughout the game is of generally high quality. For good measure, if you happen to have a 5.1 surround sound speaker system for your computer, you'll enjoy the audio that much more while gaining a tactical advantage against all those imps spawning behind you.
Some game players will tell you that graphics aren't everything. And others will tell you that, on the contrary, graphics are truly important for a game. Doom 3 makes a compelling case for both sides of the argument. On one hand, its gameplay has noticeable shortcomings, and its multiplayer mode--which is the focus of most of today's shooters, thanks in large part to id Software's own contributions in the past--seems like an afterthought. On the other hand, Doom 3 is a spectacular game in the purest sense, and it is therefore by all means worth experiencing by those with an interest in witnessing just how far the technology of gaming has come along. Fortunately, the actual game itself--while not as remarkable as the technology that fuels it--is put together well enough to make Doom 3 legitimately great, all things considered.