E3 2002: Doom III impressions

Actual gameplay from Doom III is being shown at E3. We've seen it and we're stunned--read on to learn why in our lengthy impressions, and see for yourself in these new screenshots.

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Quite probably the most crowded area of the Los Angeles Convention Center was the Doom III display at the epicenter of the Activision booth. That should come as little surprise--the opportunity to see an early build of id Software's next first-person shooter in action would be incredibly exciting for just about any gamer. Now that we've seen the game for ourselves, though, we're guessing that id Software's area of the show floor is only going to get more crowded over the course of the show--because word of mouth about how utterly incredible Doom III looks is going to spread, and fast. Consider what we're about to say a community service.

A dense crowd was packed into a rather small theater area to see the game. The demonstration opened with a disclaimer: Everything about to be shown would be rendered in real time by id Software's proprietary 3D engine developed for the game. The demo opened with a cutscene showing a planetoid of some sort--perhaps one of the moons of Mars--in the year 2145. The scene changed to show a high-tech cityscape on the surface of the planetoid, and it then panned over to a formidable-looking military installation: the Union Aerospace Corporation. Heavily armed and armored guards stood chatting in front of the facility.

One took his helmet off. The camera moved in to reveal the incredible detail found in Doom III's characters. The characters' facial expressions were quite lifelike as they exchanged dialogue. But what was even more impressive was the subtle detail that could be seen in their individual skin tones and complexions. It's no exaggeration to say that these are easily some of the most realistic-looking 3D real-time-rendered characters ever seen in a game. The quality of the character models--and actually, even the visual design of their high-tech armor--is comparable to what can be seen in last year's computer-animated sci-fi feature film Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within.

As the guards talked, a suspicious figure rushed past them. The guards thought little of it--he was just some scientist. But we saw a close-up of this man's face, and clearly, something was not right with him. We saw him bolt into a secret research and development facility and report over a com unit to an unknown, sinister-sounding entity that things were going according to plan. The scientist expressed some misgivings about what was about to occur, but the entity ordered him to be silent. Suddenly, a red, glowing portal burst forth with evil energy. Silhouettes of human skulls could be seen gushing forth from this hellish gate, streaming all throughout the facility. Two of the first victims of this attack were the guards seen earlier--one was shown convulsing as the energy coursed through his body. His skin went gray and his bones began to protrude as his flesh seemed to wither. At that point, what looked an awful lot like one of the subhuman soldiers from the original Doom appeared. Only this one looked much, much scarier and much, much better.

The narrator went on to say something about how "only one man" could stop this menace, and at that moment, a lone marine entered the facility. He was gritting his teeth, not frightened, but definitely desperate. He looked from side to side, peering into the darkness, looking for trouble--it was a clear homage to the original game, where a picture of the protagonist's face could be seen at the bottom of the screen at all times, looking tough and sometimes looking hurt.

Then the gameplay began. It's definitely a first-person shooter, and it's definitely Doom. But it looks incredible. There's tremendous detail in the environments, even though all the environments we saw consisted of industrial-looking corridors and offices and high-tech equipment and research stations. Clearly the facility had been stricken by a cataclysm. Emergency lighting is all that prevented utter darkness, and swinging light fixtures cast incredibly realistic-looking real-time shadows all about. The environments looked very creepy and very real, despite the science-fiction theme.

It didn't take long before human zombies started shambling toward the hero. He opened fire with his sidearm, but the zombies didn't go down easily--it took several hits to bring these bloated walking corpses to the ground. During these early gunfights, we noticed that Doom III's environments are reactive, at least to some extent. Errant gunfire hit some boxes on shelves, sending them crashing down. Apparently, that was the game's physics engine at work--it wasn't just a scripted sequence. We saw other evidence of the game's physics when the hero shot down a fat zombie at the top of a stairwell--the lifeless thing came tumbling down.

In the next scene, we got to see some of the other weapons from Doom, including an assault rifle and a high-powered shotgun. We were nearly as impressed by the sound of the demonstration as we were with the graphics--the atmospheric music, creepy sound effects, and roaring gunfire really helped bring the visuals to life. The hero's weapons seemed reasonably effective--until he came face-to-face with some of his more-dangerous foes. One was a monstrous-looking man armed with an enormous chaingun. It seemed ridiculous to fight him head-on, so the marine managed to lure him around a corner and took him out from behind. Another appeared to be a revision of the original Doom's pink demon. The front of this thing was almost wormlike and the back end was mechanical, and it rushed at the hero with violent force--it was really frightening. Another monster we saw was a zombie soldier with a vicious tentacle where one of his arms used to be.

We also saw Doom III's version of the original game's imp. It still threw fireballs, but its skin was slick and black, and it had spiderlike rows of evil eyes. The fireball attack seemed nasty--but the imp also lunged savagely at the hero, rending him with its claws.

We were shown the hero manipulating some other objects in the environment, using various high-tech devices and opening doors, in traditional Doom fashion. We also saw him jump a few times. Some have speculated that the ability to jump would be removed from Doom, but we saw the hero jumping--not very high, mind you--with our own eyes.

The action looked intense and suspenseful. We never saw a long-range firefight--only a series of scary close-quarters battles with varying numbers of the game's fearsome foes. If the game is going for shock value, it's certainly succeeding. In one scene, the hero noticed a thick trail of blood leading around a corner. He investigated and found the bloated corpse of a man...and an enormous demon, which proceeded to eviscerate him with its powerful jaws. It was something straight out of a horror movie--you'd best believe this one's getting an M rating once it finally comes out next year.

In the last scene we saw, the hero noticed a huge shadow looming behind him. He ducked around a corner and witnessed an enormous humanoid monstrosity lumber into the room--possibly Doom III's version of the original game's Baron of Hell. The creature took notice of the marine and the showdown began.

The marine lost. We saw him crumple to the ground, and unlike in a traditional shooter, where the screen simply fades to black, we were still looking through the marine's eyes--we could see his own lifeless arm and legs. The demon lumbered around the corpse and then reached down and clutched the marine by the head, hoisting his body off the ground. He then wrenched the head off the body and swallowed it whole. It was a shocking ending to an incredible demonstration.

Doom was apparently shown running on a 2.2Ghz system using some sort of ATI graphics card. It's scheduled for release sometime next year. More details about the gameplay are currently unknown, such as whether multiplayer features will be included in the release. Plenty of other questions remain. But make no mistake--Doom III looks extremely promising and extremely good from a graphical standpoint. The original Doom game is a modern classic of PC gaming, and judging from this demonstration, Doom III may shape up to be a very worthy successor.

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