After plenty of delays, and months after the PC version has had time to make its mark on gaming, Doom 3 has finally made its way to the Xbox. An impressive achievement in audio and visual technology, Doom 3's visceral gameplay is a deliberate throwback to the original Doom from 1993 (appropriate, since the game is essentially just a retelling of the first). And for what creator Jon Carmack and his experienced team at id envisioned, Doom 3 is a resounding success.
Since Doom 3 is a remake of the original, the story is essentially the same. At a research base on Mars in the year 2145, a nameless Marine arrives to report for a routine assignment amid whisperings of missing persons and mysterious happenings. Armed with only a pistol and a flashlight, he's dispatched to a remote section of the compound to find an errant scientist. Quickly, things start to go awry, and soon enough all hell breaks loose—literally. The base slowly descends into chaos as the forces of Hell run rampant. The story will take our protagonist to Hell and back before its resolution.
Surprisingly, given its clear focus on action, storytelling is one of Doom 3's strongest points. This is not to say that the plot is anything spectacularly original or evocative, but the way the story unfolds—through in-game dialogue, radio conversations, emails, and audio logs downloaded to the Marine's PDA—provides a rich backdrop for the chaotic events that unfold.
Mood and atmosphere are the keys to Doom 3's success. The graphics and sound are simply phenomenal. Though the Xbox version certainly lacks the high-resolution detail of its PC cousin, it's doubtful that console gamers will care. Doom 3 is easily the most visually impressive game on the Xbox. The ugly, claustrophobic corridors that fill the game are crisp, lushly detailed and full of life. Although the game takes places almost entirely in similarly industrial environments, they are surprisingly varied. And when our hero descends into Hell itself, it's an astonishing sight. I vividly remember Hell in the original Doom (I also remember being pretty creeped out, despite the crudeness of the graphics by today's standards), and the reimagining of it is truly a frightening place. Additionally, the many hellish enemies players will encounter are all fantastically detailed and are believably animated with impressive fluidity. Most impressive, though, is that Doom 3 runs remarkably smoothly. Even when large numbers of enemies and tons of explosions and effects on screen, the frame rate chugs along without a hitch.
Doom 3 is also quite dark, making very impressive use of real-time shadows. Lights flicker, rooms are often dimly lit, and there are many sections of near total darkness. Our protagonist is armed with a flashlight, but he can't wield both the flashlight and a weapon at the same time. Now, some people might find that to be fairly contrived since even most modern day weapons can be fitted with a flashlight, but given the large arsenal our Marine accrues—particularly some that are heavy weapons or prototypes—I thought it would be less logical for him to have light attachments on them. Of course, I'm sure there is some creative counter-argument—maybe he should have a flashlight built in to his suit! But really, talking about logic in a game as outlandish as Doom 3 is absurd. Being forced to swap between the flashlight and the weapons is a pure gameplay mechanic, and it successfully creates a sense of fear and vulnerability.
The superlative audio adds tremendously to the game as well. I'm fortunate to have a quality stereo system that is able to capture the nuances of the sound, but I suggest that players not so fortunate with their home audio invest in a decent headset to fully experience the dynamic sound in the game. Just as seeing a blockbuster science fiction movie on TV is less engrossing than seeing it on the big screen with crisp surround sound, Doom 3 will lose much of its atmospheric impact without the sound cranked and clear. Subtle, often faint sound effects bring a great sense of tension to the gameplay. It's quite nerve-wracking to be pacing around in near-total darkness, only to hear a ghostly groan or thumping footsteps coming from close by.
But despite the advanced technology that encapsulates the game, Doom 3 is a decidedly old school experience. Carmack conspicuously eschews the many first-person shooter conventions popularized in the past five or so years by everything from Half-Life to Halo. Instead of having a shield-recharging system, a limited weapons arsenal or only allowing players to heal themselves at dedicated "health stations," id went back to the old school conventions of the original Doom: Our protagonist, the lone, tough-as-nails Marine (who, for no particular reason, is far tougher than his comrades, all of whom succumb to the forces of Hell), is a veritable one-man army with an arsenal that could put a hole in a small country, yet he moves adeptly and switches from a pistol to a chainsaw to a rocket launcher with superhuman speed; Armor and health are randomly scattered and often hidden in the most absurd places; and although the zombie marines display some decent artificial intelligence, for the most part the monsters in the game have simplistic, aggressive attack patterns—they are, after all, monsters.
Perhaps Doom 3's greatest achievement is that it proves that all these seemingly hackneyed conventions are still functional and do little or nothing to sacrifice suspension of disbelief. There seems to be an implicit assumption among game designers that "realistic" correlates to "believable," but Doom 3 proves that such is not the case. On the contrary, too often when a game strives to be "realistic," its contrivances become all the more obvious. With brisk pacing, spectacular atmosphere, high-tension gameplay and adept storytelling, Doom 3 hides its contrivances artfully.
Doom 3 is also very linear, which I view not as a shortcoming but as an integral part of the excellent pacing in the game. The PDA acts as a multifunctional tool that allows the Marine to access new areas and gain access to some hidden items when he downloads information from other characters' PDAs. Essentially, it's the same find-the-key gameplay of the original, but again id has turned archaic contrivances into believable gameplay.
This is not to say that Doom 3 couldn't have benefited from more progressive thinking in some respects. It would have been nice to see a little more variety or intelligence in the tactics of the enemies. What if, for example, instead of always blindly charging at the Marine, they kept their distance and tried to lure him in into a trap? Once the relatively simplistic attack patterns of the enemies are memorized, there is little effort in dispatching them unless they appear in large numbers. Fortunately new enemies appear often and they are varied well, but the replay value does take a bit of a hit.
The difficulty of Doom 3 is a point of contention as well. I don't mind the occasional surprise, but there are times when the cheap ambushes that are found throughout the game become a little too cheap and make the game too frustrating. In one example, I found a room full of ammunition. Having low health already and without any health packs in the area, I needed all the ammo I could get. I stepped out of the room only to encounter a veritable army of ghouls and, by the time I was done slaughtering them, I was literally one hit away from death and I had used nearly all of the ammo I had found. The whole thing was just a booby-trap. Additionally, the old "monster in the closet" gag gets old pretty fast. It doesn't happen all the time, but it often feels too forced and artificial to gel with the rest of the game.
Though it should be no secret to those who have read the PC reviews, the multiplayer is decidedly average. Personally, I would rather id had just skipped the competitive multiplayer altogether. It's clear that Carmack and company were focused on Doom 3 being a scary, solitary experience, and that the multiplayer was merely added on to appease the popular but misguided notion that what is essentially a minigame is a required feature in a first-person shooter.
For the Xbox, Doom 3 has been graced with a nice new feature: a cooperative campaign. It's a great feature; the levels are trimmed down to be more action-oriented, and the narrow corridors are widened a bit to accommodate two players. Weapons and ammo are also designated to each player, so it's impossible for one player to hoard all the items for him or herself. The downside, however, is that all of the multiplayer features are available only over Xbox Live or via System Link. All of the fun I had playing Halo cooperatively was with a buddy sitting next to me, and with a console with four controller ports, neglecting split-screen play is a rather glaring oversight.
But for an avid first-person shooter fan like myself, none of the complaints I can level at the single-player game amount to more than minor nitpicks. Doom 3 does so many things right that its retro-style gameplay feels decidedly new. Although, save for the visual technology, it does little to advance first-person shooters to new grounds in the way a game like The Chronicles of Riddick or Half-Life 2 does, it brings together the best qualities of the genre and serves as an example of how to do the most important things right. I'm sure many shooters will come along in the future with more complex gameplay, but Jon Carmack and his team have shown us that when the basics are done right, simplicity is all the firepower you need.