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. Less than a year after it exploded onto the PC in the dead of summer, the game is now available for the Xbox, boasting a new two-player cooperative mode that really helps round out the experience, and which probably should have been in the PC version to begin with. Perhaps more importantly, those amazing good looks survived the translation to the Xbox well intact--along with pretty much everything else. And what that means is when you look past the spectacular appearance, you'll still find a conventional, derivative shooter. Some might interpret this straightforwardness as being deliberately "old-school," especially since Doom 3 is packed with direct references to its classic predecessors. However, Doom 3's old-fashioned gameplay mechanics and level design are very much at odds with its cutting-edge, ultrarealistic looks. Yet the quality of the presentation truly is remarkable--enough so that it overwhelms Doom 3's occasional problems.
In Doom 3, you play as a nameless, voiceless 22nd-century space marine called by the Union Aerospace Corporation to its Mars research facility, which is beset with mysterious problems. These "problems" are the forces of hell, to be exact. All alone or with an ally in the new co-op mode, you'll end up fighting back legions of hellspawn using weapons like shotguns, machine guns, and rocket launchers. Beware of one thing about co-op mode, though: You can choose to start a co-op session on any of the campaign levels. So if you haven't already played through the campaign solo, you could very easily give in to temptation and spoil it for yourself in co-op.
In terms of content, the co-op campaign is basically similar to the solo campaign, though there are additional enemies and power-ups to give two players their fills. And, in a decidedly caring touch, some of the dialogue is changed to reflect there being two marines trying to thwart evil, instead of just one. You'll notice a few other twists, such as doors that can only be opened when both players are present, and how a lot of the peripheral story stuff is stripped out to keep the game moving along. The gameplay is more fun in co-op than it is in solo (particularly if you toggle on friendly fire), even though it's functionally identical and easy as hell. Whenever you get killed, you just pop right back into the level and can run over to wherever you died and grab a backpack with all your weapons in it. Yet having a friend (or even a stranger) along for the ride will naturally make the journey more interesting, and having to pick off targets in narrow corridors while staying out of your buddy's way--and not mistaking him for a threat in all those dark shadows--adds a much-needed bit of depth to the action, not to mention an appreciable chunk of value to the entire package. Fans of the PC version might not be able to justify paying full price just to play Doom 3 again in co-op, but yes, it would be well worth their while to check this out.
While we're talking money, for an extra $10, the collector's edition of Doom 3 offers faithful ports of 1995's The Ultimate Doom and 1994's Doom II, classic first-person shooters each featuring support for split-screen co-op and deathmatch modes for up to four players. These collectively contain dozens and dozens of hours of old-but-good gameplay...plus better weapon sounds and tougher enemies than the wimpy Doom 3 equivalents, as far as we're concerned. Most collector's editions of games yield minimal benefits, but you won't regret springing for this one.
As in the classic Doom games, your foes in Doom 3 are liable to strike at any time, often just as you round a corner, grab a much-needed power-up, or set foot in a new area. So, while your enemies will materialize without notice and may occasionally startle you as they leap from the darkness, Doom 3 cannot easily be described as scary or suspenseful. On the contrary, it's quite predictable, and it more or less just goes through the same types of paces that you've probably gone through before in any number of other similar games. Of course, the quality of this game's presentation makes the experience unique in its own right. Like some blockbuster big-budget popcorn flick, what the game lacks in substance or originality, it more than makes up for with sheer "wow" factor.
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 (unless you're playing in co-op). Despite the game's cinematic trappings, it follows a formula that generally lacks drama and tension. Occasionally, the game presents to you a shocking or surprising scene, such as a hallucination or some hellish, otherworldly image. These moments are effective but are too few and far between in the context of a shooter that's of above-average length, clocking in somewhere between 15 and 20 hours. Fortunately, the campaign definitely picks up during the last several hours, once you finally reach (and keep going past) the point where 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. In the solo campaign, you'll frequently find voice recordings and e-mail from various characters. Not only is a lot of this stuff pretty dry, but also, having to take a few moments to switch to your bulky PDA to read text messages or to 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 does a fine job of drawing you in at first, as you explore the UAC base, eavesdropping on various conversations and observing great, little details here and there. But, all hell quickly breaks loose, and from that point onward, you'll encounter scarce few creatures that you won't want to instantly shoot.
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 more than likely 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 wouldn't any of a 22nd-century space marine's 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 a 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. But, on the other hand, so what? Once the imps start spawning and the zombies start moaning, it's time to shoot first and ask questions later.
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 simple and 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 the weapons 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 few melee weapons are mostly useless (though the chain saw 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. So 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, and he can carry every weapon at once. But that's it. Don't expect dual wielding or recharging energy shields 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 is also the same effect used 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 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, one of the main reasons for this is because you can quicksave your progress at any time--a feature that's common to PC shooters and one that's been lovingly translated to the Xbox, where the "back" button on the controller can be used to record your progress 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 suspense and tension is further mitigated. Limited save systems in shooters often meet with great resistance from certain players, but Doom 3 probably would have benefited from one. As it stands, shooter veterans shouldn't have any problem blasting their ways through the game at the middle difficulty setting (at least up until near the end, anyway), so they should therefore consider the hardest available setting for their first attempts.
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 the fire button 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 from 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. There's no clear-cut reason to revisit the single-player campaign, since the action itself will have practically outlived its welcome by the bitter end of your first time through. This leaves you with either the co-op mode or Doom 3's threadbare competitive multiplayer features to consider, which are playable over system link or Xbox Live. As mentioned, co-op mode is definitely a treat, though the competitive modes aren't as special. The game supports only up to four players on a handful of maps and in a small number of different deathmatch-style variants. Doom's biggest fans could probably make a case for how this is a throwback to the good old days, but it's simply not a particularly strong multiplayer offering by current standards. The action at least moves a lot quicker than in the campaign, making for a slight change of pace, if nothing else.
In a word, the deathmatching is 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. 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 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 use certain computers, but you can't damage most objects you see, and you can't manipulate them in any way. But it's all really, really pretty, and the whole game is textured in such a way that it feels like you could reach out and touch anything you see. The character models look about as outstanding as everything else, though the awesome-looking monsters really outdo the human characters. Doom 3 for the Xbox also features support for progressive-scan displays, and while it doesn't look quite as sharp or as colorful as the original version running on a high-end PC, it's pretty darn close. Damn, even. 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 virtually unmatched, and it truly needs to be seen in action to be fully appreciated. Also of note, the loading times are thankfully rather brief.
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 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, 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 competitive multiplayer mode--which is a focal point 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 truest sense, and it's 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.