Fashionably Late: Doom 3

doom-3-1

Regardless of the medium, sequels tend to put a creator between a rock and a hard place. On the one hand, going back to the well on an established concept is less effort than starting over from scratch, and it’s also more lucrative from a commercial standpoint. 

On the other hand, a creator making a sequel has to walk a very thin line between iteration and innovation. If they don’t change enough between installments, fans and critics will bemoan the fact that the sequel is just more of the same, and wonder why the creator bothered. But if they change too much, then the fanbase will inevitably be divided, with some liking the new direction and others absolutely hating it.

This is more true in video games than perhaps in any other medium. Gamers, particularly today, are highly sensitive to rehashes, since several publishers (*coughEAcough*) have gotten into the habit of releasing annual installments of franchises with only a bare minimum of changes in between games, just enough so they can justify charging fans another $60. By the same token, there’s nothing fans of a game franchise hate more than a game that completely breaks with tradition, especially if it does so in a way that runs contrary to what came before.

So it’s not hard for me to appreciate the position that id Software found themselves in when it came time to make Doom 3. The first two Doom games were mega-hits that established an entire genre of games, and id had taken that ball and run with it when they made the Quake series, fleshing out gameplay mechanics and improving online multiplayer. Finally, ten years after the fact, id decided to make a third game in their most storied franchise.

However, a lot had changed in the course of a decade. John Romero, one of the lead designers of Doom, Doom II, Quake and Quake II had left id due to creative differences, and gone on to incinerate his career in the spectacular failure that was Daikatana. And the FPS genre itself had changed a great deal since the last Doom game. Series like System Shock, Half Life and Deus Ex had redefined the importance of plot to shooters, and System Shock and Half Life had been game-changers for how shooters handled horror elements. If Doom 3 were to remain completely faithful to the games that had come before, it would be viewed as dated and poorly-designed.

Yep, that sure was a good idea...

Yep, that sure was a good idea…

And moreover, this is Doom we’re talking about, the first new installment in the granddaddy of FPS franchises. If a new Doom game was coming down the pipe, it had to be revolutionary and show all these upstart whippersnappers how it was done…again.

So, id had a lot of people to please with this new game; they had to please fans of the original games, please people who had come to like a good story with their FPS, and show fans of both that they could make a game that scared them just as much as the original had back in 1993. And what they delivered was a game that tried to do all of that at once…but didn’t quite succeed at any of it.

Anyway, first things first; the version of the game I reviewed is Doom 3: BFG Edition for the PS3. BFG Edition is the not-quite-20th anniversary collection of the Doom franchise, and contains full versions of Doom (which I’ve already reviewed), Doom II, and remastered versions of Doom 3, its expansion Resurrection of Evil, and a new mini-campaign called The Lost Mission. The remaster features some gameplay and graphical tweaks that I’ll cover when I get to those segments, but is otherwise the same as the original game.

Despite being titled as a sequel, Doom 3 is actually a re-make of the original Doom, in the sense that it starts the series story over from the beginning. The premise is essentially the same; the player takes control of a nameless marine (“Doomguy”) as he arrives at the Mars station run by UAC, the Union Aerospace Corporation, for his first day on the job. All hell quickly (and literally) breaks loose while Doomguy is on a security assignment to a remote part of the base, and demons, pouring through a rift between dimensions caused by UAC’s teleportation experiments, begin killing everyone in sight and tearing the base apart. The player must fight his way through the station and ultimately try to stop the invasion at its source.

It's all fun and games until someone breaks out the sacrificial altars...

It’s all fun and games until someone breaks out the sacrificial altars…

The main difference here is that while in the original Doom the story existed purely as set-up for hours of blasting demons in the face, in Doom 3 the story takes center-stage, with cutscenes and voice-over advancing the plot in-game, and audio logs and e-mails found in PDAs scattered throughout the game environment that flesh out the backstory. While at first blush this seems like a good idea, the fact of the matter is Doom’s premise was always paper-thin, far too much so to support a full narrative, and it shows here. 

Doom 3’s plot revolves around weak, stock characters, plot “twists” so predictable they could be used to signal traffic, and dialogue so riddled with cliches I could, ironically, write it in my sleep. Normally I love stories in my games, but this is one of the few titles I’ve played where I’ve longed for the ability skip past the cutscenes on the first viewing (a feature disabled in the BFG Edition, for some inscrutable reason).

Even more problematic is the fact that, for much of the narrative, Doomguy really isn’t central to these proceedings. Much of Doom 3’s story unfolds through cutscenes for which Doomguy isn’t even present; the bulk of the plot revolves around a conflict between the demonically-possessed head of research, Dr. Malcolm Betruger, and a UAC troubleshooter named Swann and his bodyguard Campbell.

Betruger, AKA Dr. Evil.

Betruger, AKA Dr. Evil.

Both sides are blissfully unaware of Doomguy’s existence for the first act of the game until, at the behest of his C.O., Sgt. Kelly (who acts as the “disembodied radio voice who gives you orders” first popularized by System Shock 2), Doomguy either radios the UAC fleet for help or doesn’t (a “but thou must” false choice that makes no difference at all to the plot), at which point, both sides get pissy at him. This plot point doesn’t hold up on many levels, since:

  1. The game establishes that it takes a month to get from Earth to Mars and vice versa. While this is clearly much faster than what we can currently manage, unless the fleet is already hanging out in Mars orbit, they would never arrive in time to make a difference, so it makes no sense for Kelly to tell Doomguy to truck it all the way across the Mars station to make the call.
  2. Swann gets mad at Doomguy because he says that the fleet will provide an opportunity for the demons to get off Mars. This is a pretty strange assumption, since the demons have demonstrated they can teleport anywhere they please. Granted, Betruger confirms that Swann is right, but Swann had no way of knowing that when he went out of his way to stop the call from going out.
  3. Betruger, who is the one sending waves of demons out, obstructs Doomguy from making the call and from preventing the base’s reactor from blowing up (after it’s damaged during a firefight in a sequence directly stolen from Aliens), even though stopping these events runs directly counter to his stated interests.

Now, some of you might be wondering why I’m going out of my way to berate and nitpick the story of Doom 3 when I hand-waved it in Doom. If id had been content to make Doom 3 another pure action title, I probably wouldn’t. 

But the fact of the matter is, id themselves made the story a primary focus of the game. They were damned proud of this little tale they concocted. They even hired a professional sci-fi writer to help punch it up for them. I have rarely seen so much effort put into telling a story this poorly constructed and unnecessary.

I said "rarely," not "never."

I said “rarely,” not “never.”

But what about the gameplay? Well, here again the split focus of Doom 3 really hurts it. The design tries to incorporate both the run-and-gun action that Doom was beloved for, coupled with modern features like vertical aim, jumping, crouching, magazines, etc., and the claustrophobic, dark environs of a more horror-focused game. This results in a system that seems to want to encourage gunplay and fast-paced action, but has an environment too restrictive to do it in. 

The corridors are frequently too narrow to sidestep in, and the game lacks a proper cover system, so combat with monsters frequently devolves into trading shots with them until they die, gathering some of the abundant armor and health power-ups to mend your wounds, and moving on. This is in stark contrast with the original Doom, where the player had to be constantly moving and trying to dodge enemy attacks; enemies were far too strong to simply trade shots with them, especially in later levels. Doom 3’s pattern of trading blows is almost more reminiscent of a turn-based RPG than a pulse-pounding FPS.

As for the horror aspect, well, Doom 3 was apparently designed with the same concept of “horror” as most modern “scary” movies. Much of the Mars base (even before the demon invasion) is poorly lit, sometimes pitch black, to the point where the player can’t see much of anything without a flashlight. Basically, this design serves two purposes: to show off Doom 3’s then-cutting-edge lighting engine, and to set up jump scares.

Ahhh, zombies in the dark, omg so scary...Am I doing it right?

Ahhh, zombies in the dark, omg so scary…Am I doing it right?

Almost every monster encounter in Doom 3 is a jump scare. They teleport into an empty room to attack, come creeping out of crawlspaces, run out of hiding to shoot you or, most annoyingly, hide in closets near items, waiting for the player to come along and pick up ammo, body armor or a medkit, then pounce. It’s these last encounters that become really annoying, and the “monster closets” are a common complaint about the game. Granted, Doom and Doom II also had monster closets; I talked about them in my review of Doom. However, those were more forgivable, for a few reasons.

For one thing, the monster closets in Doom are much less frequent. They appear in a few locations in most levels of the game (I don’t think the first few levels have any, but my memory could be faulty). In Doom 3, monster closets comprise probably a third or a quarter of all monster encounters. 

Any time you go a little off the beaten path and find an item, it’s almost a guarantee that you will also find a monster closet. The frequency and predictability makes these jump scares lose their potency in record time, and exploring levels quickly becomes an exercise in frustrating tedium.

The other problem lies in Doom 3’s greater realism. Because of its simplistic design, it’s a lot easier for me to forgive a game like Doom for using such transparently game-like mechanics, because it’s obviously not trying to be even remotely realistic. Doom 3’s design becomes a victim of its own aspirations at seriousness and realism. When I encounter a monster closet in Doom 3, my thought process immediately tries to break the situation down logically:

Totally how it went down.

Totally how it went down.

Ooh, sweet, more body armor! Just what I needed! Let me just grab it and…OW! Eat lead, you cheap, backstabbing hellspawn!

Wait, where did that imp come from? I didn’t hear him teleport in…wait, that closet wasn’t open before. Was he just…hiding there in a broom closet? Waiting for someone to come along and pick up that armor so he could jump them? Why would he do that instead of running around the station killing everybody like all the other demons? Seems pretty inefficient. Wait, was this like some kind of demonic practical joke? Is there a camera? Have I been Punk’d?

That still doesn’t make any sense, though. Because this place is pretty isolated. I had to sneak through a crawlspace and past flaming gas pipes to reach it. It’s not exactly on the main drag. Just how long was he waiting here for some schmuck to truck it all the way here in search of body armor? It must have been a couple of hours, at least. Wouldn’t he get bored? What if he had to take a shit? Do demons even have to shit? I mean, they seem to eat people, so that has to come out somehow…

And thus I have gone from playing an exciting shooter to contemplating demonic gastroenterology. Somehow, I doubt that’s what the design team behind Doom 3 had in mind.

Maybe it was supposed to be an edutainment game?

Maybe it was supposed to be an edutainment game?

This emphasis on jump scare encounters and teleporting monsters also destroys any chance the game might have offered for players to make tactical decisions. You see, unlike in the original two Doom games, where the enemies loaded with the level itself and were present from the start, Doom 3’s greater emphasis on graphical fidelity means that the monsters don’t load in advance of you entering a room to conserve system resources.

In fact, even monsters that don’t teleport in and pop out of closets or behind doors apparently spawn in the dark, out of the player’s view, a fact I discovered for myself when I witnessed a demon materialize out of nowhere less than a foot away from me while going slightly off the game’s beaten path. And no, this was not a teleporting monster; there was none of the light and sound fanfare that accompanies demonic teleportation in this game. I just stepped behind a stack of crates into the shadows, and abruptly there was a Maggot sitting there two feet in front of me where before there had only been empty space. I wish I had been recording it, because words don’t do it justice. It was disappointing on every conceivable level, and smashed immersion in the face with an aluminum bat.

Because the monsters aren’t pre-loaded, the player can’t take any kind of pre-emptive action in the game. Want to throw a grenade into the room to clear out any monsters you think might be lying in wait? Too bad, they’re not there yet! Want to be smart and clear the corners of the room like you would in any other shooter? Too bad, the enemies won’t be there until you turn your back on them, making the whole exercise of proceeding with caution entirely pointless! Unlike the fast-paced strategizing demanded by the original games, Doom 3 values a player’s twitch reflexes and nothing else.

Additionally, the level maps in Doom 3 are all painfully linear. Unlike the enormous, sprawling non-linear mazes full of secrets and side-paths found in Doom 1 and 2, the levels in Doom 3 are almost universally a straight shot down a dark hallway to the end of the level. Oh sure, there’s the occasional side-path that’ll lead to items before it dead-ends and you have to return to the main corridor, and sometimes the game will make you backtrack slightly from the end of the path to reach the actual exit, but these diversions don’t change the fact that there is exactly one way to proceed through these stages, and one way to approach any enemy encounter; enter a room, wait for the monsters to spawn, shoot them fast, mend your wounds and armor, and move on.

Apparently Final Fantasy XIII didn't invent the hallway simulator genre after all.

Apparently Final Fantasy XIII didn’t invent the hallway simulator genre after all.

The monsters themselves are also pitifully stupid; they’ll either stand in one place and fire projectiles at you, or they charge in and attack you, making no effort to flank the player or take advantage of cover. It feels like they used the same monster AI from the original games without any sort of update over the intervening decade. 

The only reason enemy encounters are even slightly challenging is due their tendency to spawn behind the player and the confining corridors that keep the player from moving freely. A lack of situational awareness on the part of the player is a bigger threat than any demon in Doom 3.

One thing that hasn’t changed much since the original games is the array of weapons. The player has almost the exact same line-up of guns that were present in the previous two games. There are only three new additions (aside from the flashlight); the machine gun, the grenades, and the Soul Cube. 

The machine gun replaces the chain gun as the weak, rapid-fire gun of the game, and the chain gun instead becomes a heavy damage weapon; it’s fine, and you’ll use it a lot on weaker enemies in the first half of the game, but it’s nothing to write home about. The grenades are pretty much worthless; you have to equip them as a weapon, meaning you can’t mix it up with gun-and-grenade play, they bounce all over the place, and as I said before, you can’t throw them into a room to clear it, because the rooms will always be devoid of enemies until you enter them. I tried to use the grenades exactly once before I gave it up and stuck to regular firearms instead

Pictured: Worst FPS weapon since the Klobb.

Pictured: Worst FPS weapon since the Klobb.

The Soul Cube is actually kind of an interesting weapon; it’s new ultimate WMD of Doom 3, even trumping the returning BFG. It charges up as the player kills enemies, and once fired, it will seek out the most powerful enemy in the area and obliterate it, as well as doing massive splash damage to any nearby foes. It’s cool, but you also get it just before final level, so you have very few opportunities to play with it. 

This is depressing, since the player is forced to go through the first few hours of the game with no weapons available but the pistol, shotgun, machine gun and grenades (which, again, are useless). It’s incredibly tedious switching back and forth between the shotgun and machine gun over and over for the duration of these early segments; when the game actually relents and starts doling out new weapons on a fairly regular basis, it’s almost enough to make you forget how bland and brainless the combat actually is.

For the successor to the Granddaddy of the FPS, it’s hard to believe just how vanilla the combat in Doom 3 is. It feels so uninspired and incomplete. As much as id needed to come up with cool new ideas here, it also feels like they could have benefited from taking lessons from some of the other games that came since Doom 2

Alternate fire modes would have benefited the weapon variety immensely, and taking a page from Halo and giving the player melee and grenade attacks as standard actions would have helped with the pacing of combat. These weren’t new, revolutionary ideas by the time Doom 3 was in development; there was no good reason for the developers not to take advantage of them.

Ugh, I can't believe I just praised Halo. I have a sudden urge to chug a Mountain Dew and "victory crouch" on somebody...

Ugh, I can’t believe I just praised Halo. I have a sudden urge to chug a Mountain Dew and “victory crouch” on somebody…

So the game is a dud as far as action goes; what about horror? Well, monster closets are one of just three elements that Doom 3 has in its repertoire of scares. The others are darkness and spooky noises. The spooky noises are your typical creepy whispers, demonic snarls and banging that you might find in any moderately competent Halloween spook house. 

It’s fine, but there’s nothing here that I really haven’t seen before. As someone who has played games with genuinely creepy sound design (Silent Hill, Fatal Frame and Eternal Darkness all come to mind), Doom 3 is very “meh” on this front.

Even ignoring the fact that the sound design just isn’t very scary, it’s also just disappointing in general. Music is practically non-existent in the game, in favor of ambient “spooky” noises, a major disappointment when Doom’s soundtrack was so memorable and exciting. Even the sound effects for weapons are underwhelming in comparison to the first game; the guns make little “pew” and “pop” noises compared with the electronic snarls and subwoofer roars of the original game. It’s underwhelming, to say the least.

The darkness is a whole other ball of wax. From the minute Doomguy sets foot on the Mars base, the lights are malfunctioning. The audio logs and e-mails you find make it clear that this has been going on for a while as a result of the teleportation experiments, and the electrical systems of pretty much every section of the base are knocked offline when demons start teleporting in. Mostly, though, this is an excuse to plunge the base into darkness to give the developers the opportunity to set up jump-scares, and to introduce the flashlight mechanic.

Now, the flashlight mechanic comes in two flavors, depending on which version of the game you’re playing. In vanilla Doom 3, Doomguy only has a handheld flashlight, and the game treats the flashlight as a weapon, meaning that Doomguy can either have his flashlight out and see in front of him, or he can have his gun out and shoot things. He can’t do both at once. This is an incredibly frustrating mechanic on many levels (not to mention illogical and stupid on multiple levels), especially in a game that’s meant to be a fairly fast-paced shooter. The flashlight is one of the most polarizing aspects of Doom 3, and it’s why many people dislike the game, understandably so; other people defend this mechanic, saying it makes the game “scary.” If by “scary” they mean “annoying and frustrating,” then I agree with them.

Actually, that explains a lot about the Resident Evil fanbase.

Actually, that explains a lot about the Resident Evil fanbase.

Having heard all the criticism about the flashlight mechanic, the developers decided to fix it in Doom 3: BFG Edition…after a sense. Instead of the handheld flashlight, the developers gave Doomguy an armor-mounted, off-the-shoulder flashlight that can be used at the same time as the weapons. However, this poses a balance problem, seeing as the game was designed around the original flashlight mechanic, and the challenge of combat is dependent on the player not being able to shoot their gun at an enemy at the same time that they can see it. This helps compensate for the game’s limited and rather pitiful enemy AI; with an always-on light, the combat is broken in the player’s favor.

So the developers attempted to compromise by giving the player a flashlight that can be used at the same time as the game’s weapons…but only has about 30 seconds of battery life. Once the batteries are drained, the flashlight cuts out, and the battery has to automatically recharge. From a gameplay standpoint, this does help balance the flashlight out…but it makes even less sense than the notion that Doomguy can’t figure out how to tape a flashlight to his gun. What dumbass engineer decided that what the world needed was a flashlight that burns out every 30 seconds? What corporation decided to mass-produce it? Who at UAC decided to buy it and outfit all their marines with it? The longer I play Doom 3, the more it finds new ways to insult my intelligence.

Visually, Doom 3 is a hard game to judge. At the time, its graphics were revolutionary, and were definitely the first thing reviewers and players talked about with regards to the game. And for the most part its visuals hold up well in the BFG Edition; the textures are occasionally blurry, but the lighting is still impressive and the game runs at a buttery smooth 60 FPS, so even though the action is dull, at least it’s fluid. 

The demon models still look rather good as well, though I miss the colorful demons of the original games, far preferring them to the beige and gray monstrosities of this title. Time has not been as kind to the human character models, with their blocky builds and lumpy, polyhedral heads, but it feels unfair for me to pick on them since they were products of their time.

Roll Swann's head to see if you save versus boredom!

Roll Swann’s head to see if you save versus boredom!

As I’ve mentioned in my previous review of Doom, Doom 3’s online community is basically extinct as of the time of this writing. Over the course of several attempts, I only ever managed to find one match, and it was a team match where two far more experienced players ganged up on my and killed me almost instantly every time I spawned. And Doom 3 does not have a local multiplayer component, so I can’t give an honest opinion of the quality of the multiplayer mode. Suffice to say that, if you’re looking to slake your thirst for some intense deathmatch action, you’ll have to look elsewhere.

If it seems like I’m being abnormally vicious with this review, I can honestly say I didn’t go into this one with the intent of ripping Doom 3 a new one. I mean, who would? It’s a sequel in a beloved, storied franchise that left a huge impact on the games industry and the community of players. It has an average of over 80 points on Metacritic, for crying out loud! 

Who would expect that the game would turn out to be a tedious, bloated, overly linear slog with dull gameplay, an insultingly bad story, world-building elements that make no sense, inferior sound design and music to its predecessors, and an emphasis on graphics over game quality?

Wait…why does that sound so familiar?

Apparently Final Fantasy XIII didn't invent the hallway simulator genre after all.

Oh yes, I’m going there.

I didn’t just make that FFXIII reference earlier as a gag; I feel that Doom 3 and Final Fantasy XIII have a lot in common. They’re both sequels in a venerated franchise that went through tumultuous development cycles, underwent drastic changes over the course of their creation, and wound up as mediocre products in pretty wrapping that were overly lauded by the “professional” critics for said wrapping. And both are games so tedious, dull and insipid that I couldn’t be bothered to finish them.

Yes, you read that right. Doom 3 marks a first for Fashionably Late; it’s the first game I’ve written a review for that I did not finish. Or rather, I should say I didn’t complete the game; I’m certainly finished with it. I thought about forcing myself to complete the campaign and the expansions, reluctant to give up on the game and leave it uncompleted. I was unwilling to let the game “beat” me.

But then I really thought about it. The reason I started Fashionably Late was not only to create content for my website, and complete video games in my back log, it was to have fun. And I realized that, 7 hours into the campaign of Doom 3, I wasn’t having fun, and I hadn’t been since I started playing. 

The main campaign of Doom 3 is roughly 20 hours long, and that’s not including Resurrection of Evil or The Lost Mission. That’s a long time to do any activity, especially one you don’t enjoy. Supposedly the game gets better in a few more hours, but…well, I’ve heard that one before. It wasn’t enough to keep me playing FFXIII, and it’s not enough to keep me playing Doom 3.

Well, I definitely got enough out of my time playing Doom 3 to write a review and create some content for my site. And I’m not having fun with this game. So I’m going to call it quits. And I’m going to mark another first for Fashionably Late by telling you not to listen to the critics. Doom 3 is a bad game. 

More specifically, it’s the worst kind of bad game; it commits the ultimate sin that any piece of entertainment can. It’s boring. Don’t play it. Do get Doom and Doom II, and thankfully the recent, fourth Doom game brought the series back to its exciting roots, so check that one out, but skip this. Sartre once wrote that Hell is other people. I disagree; I think Hell is boredom. And if that’s true, then Doom 3 managed to get at least one thing right.