PC Review

Doom 3

'You owe it to yourself as a gamer', enthuses Sam Gibson...

DOOM 3 needs no introduction so I'm not going to waste the time of either of us. Its been in development for a few years and was confirmed as id's next project a couple of years back. Ever since then gamers have been salivating at the twin prospects of John Carmack's next graphics engine and the next instalment in one of the best loved of all gaming series. The game has been available now for a few weeks, during which time Ferrago has been hard at work to bring you this in depth review.

The game starts off in the now typical fashion with a gentle intro as your newly arrived marine walks his way from the shuttle to meet his new boss and run a quick errand for him. This lets you gaze around at the technical splendour that is DOOM 3 without having to worry about coming under attack. Later on in the game you are unable to appreciate a lot of the creative art and sophistication that is on display as you are desperately fighting for your soul, so the meandering introduction is welcome. The scene is nicely set-up, with the grim existence of the UAC Mars worker recreated vividly on your screen. You can talk to any of the other people milling about, some of whom will warn you of the dangers of the Mars facility while others will just help to give life to the environments. From the start and right through the game you will come across announcement boards and presentation screens where the might and power of the UAC is vibrantly extolled. This particular announcer has the same tone and inflection as the announcer at places like the Epcot Center and other attractions of the future, his mixture of wonder and certainty is a powerful lure into letting oneself become absorbed in the world.

Other information can be had from video disks, narrated by the same chap, which will teach you of a certain process or weapon system that you may need to be familiar with to progress past a certain point. Personal Data Assistants are scattered through the facility which you can download onto your own PDA device. These are sometimes nothing more than a collection of benign emails and recorded audio musing, containing the security codes and passes you need to continue on your quest. The PDA is well designed and works beautifully. Press tab and the screen is raised in-game towards your face. You can then take your time to peruse any info you have so far collected. If you start a video or audio recording you can drop the PDA down and continue to listen to the audio feed while you continue on your way, although it is usually a good idea to stay in a safe place and hear the recording through as important codes or clues will often be revealed. Interfacing with the various control panels and computer screens is also handled very well. Move the reticule over a screen and it changes to a mouse pointer. You then navigate through the screens and manipulate controls without the need to switch to a separate screen, thereby retaining that all important sense of immersion. I really did feel at times that I was actually there on Mars, a wonderful achievement.

The controls worked flawlessly. I encountered no problems of overburdening the system with multiple key-presses and the keys are completely configurable. I was happy to note that the system recognises the extra buttons that many mice have these days, so after a few levels I was in complete control of the proceedings. Unless, that is, something had just put the fear right into me and my higher brain functions ceased for a second or two. There's no fancy leaning or acrobatics here. In fact there's nothing in the controls that is any different from the original other than the ability to look and move in three dimensions. Even id would have had a hard time taking the retro feel that far. While the option to peer around a corner to determine whether that horrid screeching sound was going to cause you to lose your last few health points would have not harmed things, I soon didn't care and rather preferred having those keys free to set up as I chose.

DOOM 3 is all about the atmosphere. Sure, there's a story in there, and well told and presented it is too. Sure there are some entertaining gun fights and one or two gameplay elements that haven't been seen before, but DOOM 3's entire raison d'etre is to take the player on a wild ride that they will never forget. And to do that properly id have concentrated on making DOOM 3 the most intense, moody and atmospheric gaming experience yet coded onto a home computer. If you are looking for the next generation of shooter then this is the wrong place. If, on the other hand, you are looking to experience the old care-free DOOM blasting experience on the very best technology that genius and money can buy, then you have come to the right place. There is one problem with this goal to immerse and encapsulate the player in the world that they have created. You see, DOOM 3 is a game that loses its power as the sun rises. And played in the harsh light of day it is less than half as effective a piece of entertainment software then it is with all the lights turned off in the room you are sitting in alone, free from any distractions.

You really need to play DOOM 3 under the right conditions: you wouldn't recommend someone watch Alien or The Ring for the first time in a big airy room at 3 in the afternoon on a glorious sunny August day, and nor should you do the same with DOOM 3. Now, for some this may be a reason to criticise the game. Adhering to these conditions certainly makes the experience go on for that much longer, but it is irritating to know that if you were to have a wee shot while the lights were still on that you would be doing the game, and yourself, a disservice. Still, patience is often called a virtue, and in DOOM 3's case it certainly is worth waiting for the right conditions. I kept finding myself judging the lighting conditions, waiting until it had gotten dark enough to jump once more into the bowels of Hell.

The graphics are, frankly incredible. I searched high and low and while I did manage to spy a few oddities and the very occasional glitch in my opinion the engine is more a work of art rather than science. The level design is second to none, with each area tweaked to near perfection. Each area is filled with the sort of equipment and personal effects that you would expect to see and the architecture is most convincing. The lighting effects are out of this world and add so much to the sense of apprehension and fear that quickly becomes DOOM 3's calling card. Saying that, there are some instances where things are not quite as they should be. For example some of the blackest areas don't light up correctly under the flashlight, and the glow from weapons like the plasma gun behaves erratically on surfaces. The flashlight doesn't register on reflective surfaces like toilet mirrors. There is a lot of fun to be had just observing the way different objects interact with each other and the way the light sources cast all the correct shadows. The starkness of the shadows is less than desirable, but we will have to wait another generation of engine before that obstacle is overcome. DOOM 3 uses this limitation cleverly and incorporates the pitch black lines and shapes into its overall artistic flavour.

The animation is superb as well, so good that you don't really notice it. With all other games the first time you see an enemy walk, or even worse run, the unnaturalness of their movements can temporarily break the illusion. There's none of this in DOOM 3 and it was only after I had gotten a bit further into the game that I took the time to appreciate the way each human and monster moved. This really is marvellous stuff and you can tell that this is yet another area which received a lot of attention during the development process.

As did the sounds in the game. They are also something rather special. The everyday noises of a scientific facility at work are all well and good, and accurately modelled in three dimensions if you have the proper set-up. But it's the tortured wails and moans, the cackling laughter and the sounds of a dimension being ripped apart that will really get the hairs on your entire body standing to attention. A simple clanking sound behind you will quickly raise the pulse, especially when the health bar is pulsing red. The death sounds of the Revenants are a particular favourite, and the sound of the pulse gun made me laugh with joy the first time I fired it. The voice acting throughout is also of a uniformly high quality. Although some of the personal recordings seem a little detached. The panicked radio chatter of marines during the first initial onslaught of the minions from Hell is ripped straight from the Marines first encounter with the xenomorphs in Aliens, a homage which is both fitting and a thrill to be a part of. The music is used very sparingly, barely making a peep outside of the intro music. Most of the time the only soundtrack comes from the shriek of Imps and Cacodemons (the compiler of Word's spellchecker must have been a DOOM fan) but some incidental music will sometimes be employed to raise the tension levels just that extra notch.

The plot, graphics, animation and sound have all been integrated so well together that DOOM 3 wins my award for the most professionally designed and built game I have had the pleasure to play. I can't really make any genuine complaint about any of these four elements, neither on their own or when they are all working together so effectively to immerse and scare the bejesus out of the player.

There are some great firefights where the odds are so heavily stacked against you that victory, when it comes, is an emotional event. There are plenty of instances where I found myself inhaling deeply after a big fight, cycling through my arsenal and noticing that every weapon was down to a few spare rounds. What a glorious struggle! These fights take most of their cues from the area in which they are fought rather than from the creature AI, which is basic, to say the least. It could be said that this is one area where DOOM 3 really looks weak compared to its modern competitors. Enemies will come right at you, with some marines taking cover behind walls and barrels only to pop out at regular intervals, and some of the more hellish monsters will jump to the side of your fire. But this doesn't matter, the spirit of DOOM is not about outwitting a clever opponent, it is about taking the fight to them and blasting the hell out of anything that stands in your way. And that works just fine.

The pacing in DOOM 3 is also worthy of some superlatives. More than just sticking in an occasional quiet area after a big encounter id have worked hard to use all of the elements at their disposal to keep the player guessing. After a few imps have leaped out at you from a freshly opened door you begin to expect it each time you approach a doorway. So nothing will come out at you for an age, until you have been lulled into a false sense of security, then BAM! This misdirection is implemented throughout the game, with areas you normally expect to come under attack remaining peaceful while the seemingly safe areas will explode in a burst of hellfire and damnation. The pacing is worthy of the tautest Hollywood thriller or novel and successfully stops the admittedly repetitive nature of the combat from becoming stale and predictable. In today's world of hundred strong development teams, for such a small group of people to have such mastery over all these disparate elements is a most impressive feat.

DOOM 3 is a drain on your system so it's advisable to kill any unnecessary utilities and processes before embarking. However, for a next generation engine it is surprisingly playable on most systems. You can get away with a GeForce 3 and 348 megs of RAM but you would not really be able to do the game justice with a severely lower specced machine. Yet once you rise to the mid-level machines DOOM 3 not only plays smoothly but it looks fantastic. My rig - 2800XP, 9800Pro and 768 RAM - can very happily run the game in 1280x1024 with the settings turned up to high. Sure, there's the occasional freeze as the textures are crunched around, and some slow down when the particle effects hit their stride, but the image quality at even lower resolutions makes the power requirements of games like Far Cry seem excessive. Sure, DOOM 3 may not have the amazing outdoor vistas of Crytek's very impressive game, but don't let yourself be fooled into thinking that the DOOM 3 engine can only handle tight, enclosed spaces. As the game progresses the environments open out, and by the time you are nearing the end the levels become expansive. The level design also changes completely and the architecture becomes far more organic, showing that the engine is most definitely not a one trick pony. If you think the earlier level screenshots look great just wait until you see what id have in store for you as you travel deeper into Hell.

I have a few niggles to get through now. There is a lack of secret areas which is a letdown and does dilute the authenticity of the DOOM experience. Later on in the game there are a few areas which require some sharp observation to locate but DOOM 3 relies on security lockers as an alternative. There are lots of these cabinets dotted throughout the levels. You have to find the right PDA to discover the key-code, but it just doesn't feel the same. Secrets seem to have disappeared almost completely from FPS games, an unfortunate devolution from the early years of the genre when they were a staple part of any title's design. I think id have done a reasonable job of compromising the desire for secrets with the desire to make the game as accessible as possible yet I still would have liked to have seen a secret level or a secret insane arena zone.

It's also a real shame that there are no player profiles so only one person can play the game on a machine at the same time. Unless they don't mind risking a severe injury for using quicksave to eliminate another person's progress. The multiplayer is also restricted to a miniscule four players. Although there's already a mod which ups this limit to 32 the multiplayer part of DOOM 3 is so different from the single player experience that it will be reviewed separately in the near future.

DOOM gave an indication of where the revolution that id has started with Wolfenstein could lead. DOOM 3 is most immediately important as the next chapter of the game that made a name for the PC as a gaming platform and which has a mythological status in the pantheon of computer gaming. It's also important as a piece of technology, for id's mastery of graphics engine technology has been used over the years to drive many of the most excellent games to grace our monitors over the last decade. Naturally this trend will continue, and DOOM 3's engine is expected to herald great things for the future direction of PC gaming.

But over and above its pedigree and the ramifications of the technology DOOM 3 is a great gaming experience. I haven't had so much fun playing a game in a long time, and it has been a long time since a game caused me to break out into a massive grin in such a consistent fashion. DOOM 3 is a great experience and a hell of lot of fun to play. Killing a Revenant with a chainsaw is one of those gaming experiences that we all look for in our entertainment. And above all else DOOM 3 is a very cinematic and entertaining game. The tricks of the movie industry have been used to great effect to make DOOM 3 a total success as a piece of entertainment. And while the game is not without its minor niggles and 'what if?'s on the whole DOOM 3 is a roaring success that any self-respecting gamer owes it to themselves to play.

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