Doom 3 Preview

We went to hell and back with the Xbox port of id Software's demonic shooter.

This time last year, it was hard to imagine a game more highly anticipated or more shrouded in secrecy than Doom 3. Id Software's constant refrain of "when it's done" was just about all gamers had seen or heard of the awaited shooter since it was first unveiled at E3 in 2002. Now it's six months after Doom 3's release, and the game has come and gone...at least if you were fortunate enough to play it on a high-end gaming PC. Thankfully, id's technological juggernaut will soon be available to the rest of the world on the Xbox, and it will come packing substantially more features than in its original incarnation. We had a chance to sit down for a morning of fragging, both online and off, with a near-final build of Doom 3 and were rather impressed at how well it's translated to Microsoft's console.

It's Doom 3, and it's on the Xbox. Vicarious Visions has done an impressive job bringing the game to lesser hardware.

If you don't know the story of Doom already, well, you obviously haven't been playing games very long. You're cast as a space marine detached to the Union Aerospace Corporation's Mars research facility. The scientists there have been conducting teleportation experiments for some time, and just minutes after you arrive, they happen to open a portal to hell, thereby unleashing a horde of angry demons on the base. Oops! As one of the lone survivors of this demonic catastrophe, it's up to you to grab every weapon you can find to shoot your way to freedom. It's your typical "boy meets demon, boy blasts demon back to hell" story.

The campaign in Doom 3 on the Xbox will unfold just like it did on the PC, with more than 20 levels taking you through the ravaged Mars base and even to hell and back. We played through several full levels in the single-player mode, including sections of Alpha Labs and a couple of hell levels. We noticed a couple of small omissions from these maps, and overall the levels felt just a bit shorter than on the PC. However, for the most part, the layout was quite similar. Thankfully, the loading time between levels was much quicker than in the PC version, and the overall flow of the gameplay was nicely paced.

After having played the PC version extensively, one of the first things we noticed about the Xbox version of Doom 3 was that it appears considerably brighter. Id lead designer Tim Willits confirmed that this was an intentional design choice to tailor the game for the living-room-playing console audience. In general, we were able to run through long stretches of each level where we could more or less see what was going on around us, even if we didn't have the light equipped. There will still be plenty of opportunities for you to use your flashlight to light dark places, but we found ourselves doing so much less frequently than on the PC.

The core game in Doom 3 remains as playable on the Xbox as it was on the PC, with Halo-style controls that any console first-person-shooter fan will cotton to instantly. All the weapons from the original, from the shotgun and plasma rifle to the BFG and soul cube, are available. And while you can cycle through the entire litany at the touch of a button, you can also map one weapon to each direction on the D pad so you can access your favorite weapons more quickly. The game also offers an aim-assist feature that helps keep your targeting reticle locked onto whatever enemy you're shooting at, which we found to subtly enhance accessibility without simply making shooting too easy.

Cooperative play is the most exciting addition to Doom 3 on the Xbox.

One of the original Doom's biggest strengths was its cooperative mode, which let you and up to three friends fight next to one another against the demon hordes. Understandably, nostalgic gamers were a little miffed that the PC version of Doom 3 had no such mode. Luckily, co-op will be playable in the Xbox version via Live or system link, and after playing through several missions with another player, it seems like Vicarious Visions has balanced the game's maps nicely for cooperative play. Naturally, the maps and especially dramatic sequences had to be tweaked somewhat to make for a smooth two-player experience. So it came as no surprise, then, that we found Doom 3's co-op to be a little more run-and-gun than the one-player game. All 20 of the cooperative maps will be available for play right out of the box, so you won't have to unlock any of them by playing through the campaign.

Doom 3 was designed at id as a game for one player only. So how does its campaign play when you throw another human into the mix? Read on to find out.

Knee-Deep in the Dead

The designers have implemented a couple of transparent but nonetheless meaningful features in cooperative play to help make the experience smoother. For instance, each set of power-ups has essentially been doubled. So instead of finding one chaingun and crate of ammo, you'll now find two. The catch is that each of you will only be able to pick up one set, not both of them, ensuring that everyone who plays co-op will be able to get the necessary weapons, ammo, and health. When you die, you'll drop a backpack containing your equipment that only you can retrieve (once you've made your way back from the checkpoint, that is). The co-op maps will also have the occasional choke point, such as a switch that requires both players to operate. These points are intended to keep one teammate from getting too far ahead of the other.

The game will ship with some nice extras, including full multiplayer-capable versions of The Ultimate Doom and Doom II.

You might think having backup would make it easier to fight off the forces of hell, but the co-op levels generally have a greater number of enemies spread throughout to help keep the challenge consistent. We noticed enemies in places where there weren't any in the single-player game, for instance. Additionally, other areas that were already populated simply had more to throw at us. We were especially impressed by a sequence that requires you to follow a lit capsule on a conveyor belt through an area of complete darkness. In effect, you have to use the capsule as a source of illumination. We didn't follow this capsule in time, though, which forced one player into assuming permanent flashlight duty through the pitch black darkness while the other one killed anything that came from it. Hopefully there will be a lot of similar instances where working together will significantly enhance the experience.

On the competitive multiplayer front, Vicarious Visions hasn't messed with id's original design one iota, so the game will ship with the same five deathmatch maps and bare-bones game types (deathmatch and team DM) seen in the PC original, with the same four-player limit imposed on multiplayer matches. The action is much more fast-paced here than in single-player, since the run speed is set to its fastest level. We actually found the Xbox version's multiplayer easier to get into than it was on the PC, perhaps because the frame rate was so consistent in the console version. The multiplayer in Doom 3 on the Xbox won't be as big a draw as it is in, say, Halo 2, but it does provide a nice complement to the main story-driven campaign.

The cooperative play is a big addition to the Xbox port of Doom 3, but Vicarious Visions has added an extras section brimming with bonus content for the hardcore Doom fan. Easily our favorite is the inclusion of full versions of The Ultimate Doom and Doom II, which can both be played cooperatively or in deathmatch mode with up to four people on one four-way split-screen. Sadly, no online or system-link networking is available, so if you want to get your old-school deathmatch on, you'll have to gather all fraggers into one room. But regardless, you're getting two classic games for free, and furthermore, they actually play very well with the Xbox controller. Any younger gamers just getting aboard the Doom 3 train can now go back to see what caused all that fuss more than 10 years ago. Several video featurettes are also included that present interviews with id Software personnel, a history of Doom, and a piece on Doom 3's concept art, among other things. As with the cooperative maps, all the extra content will be available out of the box, so no tedious unlocking of it is required.

Naturally, Doom 3 doesn't look as good on the Xbox as it does on the PC. All things considered, though, Vicarious Visions has done an outstanding job of getting this demanding game to run smoothly and with minimal loss of detail on the console hardware. This is still one of the best-looking games you're going to see on the Xbox (especially since the system's life span is apparently on the wane). The game is noticeably of a lower resolution, as are some of the textures, but much of the dynamic lighting, bump- and specular-mapping, and other essential visual features have been retained. What's more, the frame rate never dipped substantially throughout the half-dozen or so levels we played, which bodes quite well for the final game's performance. Based on our experience, we feel Xbox players will get as close to the Doom 3 experience as possible on current console hardware with this port. Of course, the game will include full 5.1 audio as well, which ought to give plenty of people's home theater setups a workout.

Despite some necessary shortcomings, the graphics are surprisingly close to those of the PC original.

Even as rumors circulated of its impending PC release last year, much doubt was cast upon the Xbox version of Doom 3 making it out in 2004. And, in fact, id finally went on record to say the game would be delayed into the new year. Now Xbox owners can finally start looking forward to the game again. It's slated for release in the first week of April, and from the substantial sampling we've gotten of it, the game seems like it's just about ready to go. For more on Doom 3, check out our extensive coverage of both the PC and Xbox versions, as well as our full review of the PC original. Also, be sure to check out today's developer interview and official vignette showing the Xbox version of Doom 3 in action.

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