Doom 3 Final Version Hands-On Impressions

We travel to LA so we can take you to hell. Did we really play Doom 3, or are we just being witty? Read on to find out.

UPDATE (03-Aug-2004 9:09am PDT)--We've finished posting two dozen new movies (scroll down our media page) and more than 100 new screens (check the screen index) from the first several hours of the game--how far through the game are we? Let's say we're getting warmer. Stay tuned for updated impressions, and more!

Consider this scenario: You're in Los Angeles, it's Saturday night, and G-Phoria, one of the game industry's biggest awards shows (which will air on G4TechTV August 6), is happening all around you. What do you do? You hunker down in a darkened room and play Doom 3, of course. As the aftermath of gaming's answer to the Oscars raged behind us tonight, we spent a good 90 minutes with the final retail version of id's long-awaited shooter to get a sense of how it has turned out, four years after its development began and just days away from its release. Bear in mind that all the impressions following are taken from one brief run through of just a few levels of the game, and thus aren't intended as a final analysis of its quality. With that said, here's the short version: id hasn't reinvented the wheel with Doom 3, but damn, this is one good-looking wheel.

Check out some of the graphically intense action from Doom 3, and check our media index for over a dozen more. Click "stream" for a larger view.

The Doom 3 demo station at G-Phoria didn't subject eager attendees to the game's introductory segment, which is reportedly set before all the hellish action picks up. In fact, our experience with Doom 3 started with the second level of the game, at which time the nameless main character is tasked with navigating the labyrinthine research base and briefly traversing the Martian landscape in search of a missing scientist. Right about the time you find this scientist, all hell breaks loose--literally--as a terrible presence overruns the base and your former comrades begin to turn demonically against you.

But let's back up a bit, because even the segment that we played before the shooting starts warrants a detailed description. From the short snippets of Doom 3 footage that have been released so far, it has been difficult to glean exactly how alive the game's world really is; but play the game at length and this will quickly become apparent. When you first step off the lift and begin speaking with the soldiers and scientists who are performing their duties, you'll notice that the game's dialogue is both well-written and convincingly acted. As you walk from one grungy industrial facility to the next, you can't help but be impressed by the complex machinery that animates in almost every room. One television monitor even runs a perfectly animated video detailing the history of the Union Aerospace Corporation. In short, these aren't the production values you'd expect from an id game; they are, based on our brief experience, much more impressive.

In this first sequence, when you're observing business as usual in the Mars research base, Doom 3 feels very cinematic and very much like an adventure game. When you approach a character, your marine lowers his weapon, and his crosshairs are replaced by an onscreen element that displays the name of the non-player character as well as the "talk" function. Continue to badger the character after he has said his piece, and he'll either fill you in with further information or get fed up and walk away. There were no stock characters that we observed as we played; each one had completely unique facial and other features. You won't necessarily even encounter every character in this beginning area, since some of them are placed off to the side and simply exist to create further context in the gameworld. This degree of character interaction--at least, interaction that involves speaking to characters rather than pumping them full of buckshots--may seem odd for a game bearing the Doom name, but its effect on the atmosphere and believability of the world is substantial.

Doom 3's game flow seems to be set up in a goal-based format, as you'll periodically receive context-oriented mission objectives that will guide you onward. As mentioned, our first objective was to travel through an air lock, dart across the bare Martian surface, and enter an adjacent building to locate a scientist that has gone missing. Once this was completed, we almost immediately received a new mission based on the changing events in the story. As events in the game progress, you'll receive a new mission objective each time you complete the previous one and when an event occurs to provide you with a new purpose. We never had more than one mission objective at a time, so we weren't performing any optional side tasks before moving on to the next mission at hand. Therefore, we would imagine that the game is pretty linear in a point-A-to-point-B fashion, but of course we'll have to play more to say for certain.

Fighting Doom 3's monstrosities is a truly visceral experience.

Adding to the adventure-game feel in Doom 3 is your marine's PDA, which you can call up at any time with the Tab key. This PDA keeps track of e-mails, audio recordings, and video files available to your own character. More importantly, the PDA can also store the same sorts of data contained in other characters' PDAs, which you'll find scattered around the base. These e-mails and audio recordings seem to serve a dual function: First, they help to flesh out the storyline and atmosphere, in the style of, say, Resident Evil or System Shock 2; and second, they often contain passcodes or hints that you'll need to progress to the next area. You can get into and out of the PDA, listen to recordings, and read e-mails expeditiously. We don't expect that the use of this device will significantly hinder the flow of Doom 3's action.

All Hell Breaks Loose

Anyway, enough about all the window dressing--what is the action like? Well, you pick up a gun, you aim it at your enemies, and you pull the trigger. In this way, Doom 3 is similar to just about every first-person shooter you've ever played. It's just how good looking and visceral this process is in Doom 3 that sets the game apart from others before it. If you're just plain tired of slapping some shells into your shotgun and wasting a bunch of monsters (although what FPS fan worth his or her salt could make that claim?), it doesn't seem that you'll find any radical gameplay innovations here. At least you'll be performing that hallowed ritual of shooting monsters in the most visually appealing manner we've ever seen in a video game.

We tried out several old favorites, but sadly, we didn't find the chainsaw (this guy stole it).

When the demonic invasion first begins, you'll be pitted against two basic types of enemies: dumb zombies who merely shamble toward you, and more agile former soldiers who will attack with the same type of shotgun and machine gun that your own character has access to. Even these simplistic foes were capable of making us jump (and against the din of G-Phoria, that's saying something), as they'd often lunge unexpectedly out of the shadows as we passed by or sneak up on us from behind while we were dealing with one of their ugly colleagues. On a side note, we also enjoyed a nod to the original game's shotgun-wielding soldier, who, in the Doom 3 version, wears a very similar red-and-gray uniform (which Doom fans will recognize immediately).

Fighting some of the more ferocious enemies in the game is an altogether scarier experience than simply trading fire with machine-gun-toting possessed marines. We fought many imps (which id has shown liberally in released footage), and while we found their fireballs rather easy to dodge, we weren't quite so capable of dispatching the imps when we were being savaged up close by their claws. Your character's perspective whips frenziedly back and forth when he's being physically attacked by enemies such as the imps. This view makes it awfully difficult to steady your aim and kill them, so every time you see an imp, there's a frantic imperative to take it out before it manages to get within melee distance of you. Given that the imps will often spring at you from all fours, like an animal, makes each encounter with the bug-eyed bastards all the more frightening.

It has been reported previously that Doom 3's arsenal is, by and large, lifted directly from the original Doom. From what we played of the game, that seems to be the case. We started off with a standard pistol and our trusty fists--not to mention a flashlight that inexplicably can't be equipped while you have a weapon drawn (though it can act as an impromptu bludgeon should the need arise). We also managed to nab a shotgun and machine gun during our time with the game, both of which behave exactly as you'd expect. There were many of the classic Doom power-ups, including armor (and armor fragments), med kits, and so on. However, in Doom 3, a power-up doesn't have any cartoonlike glow or other feature to call attention to it--instead, it appears to be just another object in the environment--so you'll have to keep your eyes peeled for precious health and ammo pickups.

Scripted in-game encounters heighten the cinematic tension in Doom 3.

Doom 3 is rife with in-game scripted sequences that serve to build suspense or just plain scare the crap out of you. Many of these scenes occur when the camera pulls back from your own view to cinematically introduce a new enemy or to further detail the Mars base's descent into demonic ruin. The sequences we saw in this vein were effective enough at moving the action along, but our favorite scripted scenes occurred while we remained in control of the game. In one scene, we were looking through a view port into the next room that we had to enter, when an imp skittered across the very window we were looking through, inches from our character's face, and disappeared into the darkness. Trust us, this was truly creepy. In our first encounter with a "pinky" demon, we were trapped inside a small room while the giant monster repeatedly rammed the door, denting it further and further inward before it finally gave up and smashed right through the glass. These playable scripted sequences have been nicely done, so far, and have added even more tension to an already tense game.

There's one other thing that happened to us while we played Doom 3--something that has never occurred when playing any of id's previous games: We became interested in finding out what was going to happen next in the storyline. Then again, Doom 3 is the first id game to really have a true storyline that evolves as you play. Though most of the non-interactive cutscenes we saw were used simply to show off some creepy scenario involving an enemy or two, toward the end of our experience with the game we saw a story-related cutscene that managed to introduce both new characters and a minor plot twist at the same time--again, not an element you'd expect from an id game, but a welcome one all the same. We'll be interested to see if the storyline continues at such a steady and interesting pace as Doom 3 progresses.

Sensory Overload

So much has already been written about Doom 3's graphics that we'd hate to belabor the obvious here, but the state of the final game's visuals is just stunning. From a technical standpoint, few recent games have come close to this level of complexity, and it's our opinion that none have yet matched it. Every square inch of the indoor backgrounds we saw seemed to be alive with computer displays and functioning machinery, with different colored lighting, smoke, and sparks emanating from all over that enhanced the mood of the grim surroundings. The game's characters, both friendly and hostile, at first glance look as detailed as the prerendered computer-generated films of just a few years ago. And, of course, the game's real-time lighting and shadowing are extremely impressive, not to mention essential for establishing the game's creepy atmosphere.

Whither Doom 3's multiplayer? Watch for a future update on that subject.

There were some nice, new graphical touches that we noted while we were playing Doom 3. For instance, sources of intense heat generate a very realistic shimmering effect like the one you'd see over an open flame. The Mars base's interior windows cause a subtle refraction of the scenery that helps to enhance the realism of each scene. We also saw what was essentially full-motion video in the gameworld (in the form of what appeared to be an animating texture) on the aforementioned UAC promotional video and in a video call from a villainous scientist.

The technical quality of the graphics is undeniable, but your opinion of Doom 3's aesthetics, of course, may vary from ours--after all, this is yet another series of futuristic industrial environments in a genre already overflowing with futuristic industrial environments. But at least these are the best-looking such backdrops you've ever seen in a shooter, and we'll leave evaluation of the game's prevailing visual style to the individual.

Since Doom 3 went gold, discussions about the hardware gamers will need to run it have been as commonplace as those related to the quality of the actual game itself. So in the interest of full disclosure, we're compelled to report that we played the game on a PC equipped with a 3 GHz CPU, one gigabyte of RAM, and a GeForce 6800 GT video card. At a resolution of 800x600 and with the game's visual quality set to high, Doom 3's frame rate was perfectly smooth almost the entire time we played, rarely dipping noticeably and never getting low enough that even the most discriminating player would find cause for complaint. Granted, this hardware configuration is a lot more advanced than what most gamers will use to play Doom 3, but Activision producer Jonathan Moses assured us that it would look and play fabulously on lesser systems, a statement the recent hardware guide published at HardOCP seems to have borne.

Doom 3 will be on shelves nationwide this week. Will it live up to the hype? We sure hope so.

Thus far, the sound design in Doom 3 has perhaps played second fiddle to the game's incredible graphics. However, from what we could tell amidst the roar of G-Phoria, the game's aural backdrop has it where it counts. As mentioned, all of the voice acting we heard was of a professional caliber, and we heard a lot of it from a lot of different characters. You'll begin to receive a lot of radio chatter after the demonic invasion that's filled with screams, gunfire, and all sorts of little mood-enhancing effects. From what we could tell through the headphones we were using with the game, these ambient sounds were pretty chilling and never seemed to come off as hokey or unbelievable. As with all other aspects of the game, we're quite interested to see how the sound design evolves as the game wears on.

As you may have gathered, our initial impressions of Doom 3 are pretty positive. We'll admit that we didn't see anything wildly innovative in our time with the game, but the levels we went through were eminently playable and extremely polished. With Doom 3, the team at id set out to create its most ambitious single-player experience ever. Will the game live up to that goal? You'll have to wait for the full review for the answer to that question. There's a lot more to talk about than what we've covered here, so expect much more on Doom 3 in the coming days.

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jakeboudville
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