Thoughts on Doom 3

I’m 10 years late, but I finally purchased the BFG edition of Doom 3 for my PS3.

Abs on that.

When the game came out originally in 2004, I just didn’t have the horsepower on my PC to run it at any acceptable framerates. I recall installing the demo from Id’s FTP server and being dismayed at the stop-motion-esque intro sequence. That, coupled with some poor reviews, put me off the game; not so much because I didn’t want to risk laying out the cash for it, but rather because I didn’t want to risk being dissapointed by it.

I’d been a fan of Id for some time, and in particular John Carmack, who was (and still is) something of a programming “hero” for me.  Reading his .plan files in the days of developing Quake II was hugely exciting, and creating my own mods for Quake gave me a fantastic introduction to just how fun programming could be (once someone had gone to all the effort of of creating the entire engine first!).

So, some thoughts on the game as I see it.

  • The flashlight – as I understand it, gamers complained in the original release that you couldn’t hold the flashlight and a weapon at the same time. This, they claimed, made the game more difficult as you had to constantly switch between the two on account of the game being so incredibly dark (the darkness is often claimed to be due to the lack of technical prowess in the lighting engine, which I just don’t agree with at all as the game was one of the first to provide per-pixel lighting and real-time shadows using the stencil buffer). In the BFG edition, Id added the ability to hold both at the same time (functionality provided by the ‘duct tape’ fan-created mod at some point). I think this was a mistake. I really think that being forced to decide between the two adds to the tension (not that it needs any more) and provides an additional layer of complexity in tactical play in that during shootouts with unknown foes in dark corners, you’d need to tactically switch between the two as you figured out your next target.
  • The lighting looks really nice, even by 2014 standards. What look dated are the low polygon count models, poor lip-sync animations, and those kind of details that have progressed so immensely over the past ten years due to increasing game budgets (many games now cost more than a Hollywood blockbuster).
  • The tension is very well played, as it was in the original Doom and Doom II games. Whispers in your ear (playing with headphones is really quite something), distant groans, etc, all add to the atmosphere. One disappointment however that I agree with in reviews is the ‘trigger’ mechanisms placed around the maps. If you look down a long corridor and there’s a health pack or some armour at the end, you just know that it will trigger a goddamn Imp to crash from the ceiling and start hurling fireballs at you. It’s so repetitive that you can predict such events with high accuracy after playing for a few hours. Once you’ve cleared an area, that should be it. If there are surprises, it should be due to an enemy hunting me down from another room rather than jumping out of a concealed trap door. It feels a little like a ghost train, what with it being linear and all.
  • Key cards – yes, you have to hunt for key cards all the time. It gets really boring and doesn’t really make you feel more involved with the story. It’s just lazy level design and a cheap way to spawn new monsters on your way back to the door that you can now actually unlock. In fact, this mechanism ruins a large part of the fun of exploring – if you’ve been somewhere before and there are no monsters appearing from nowhere, then you’re probably on the wrong track and you shouldn’t have gone back.

Overall though, I’m really glad I bought it. I can play for around an hour before I need a bit of a rest to play something a little less tense. The game received some quite negative reviews upon release, and really I think that most were simply due to the hype and expectation. The Doom franchise was and still is much-loved, and Doom 3 was never going to recreate the original experience because the originals were unlike anything that had come before them.

The technical prowess of the engine (excellent code review can be found here, including a description of the binary space partitioning method of storing and drawing the map data verses the raycasting methods of Wolf3d), the use of sound to build tension, full texture mapping (even on floors, ceilings), and so on. It was truly incredibly for its time, as a technical achievement and as a piece of art.

On the disc for the BFG edition is the original Doom and Doom II, ported to the PS3. I imagine both can run happily on a single cell CPU. It occurred to me how wonderfully simple and yet powerful nostalgia can be. The combination of the original music, sound effects, textures, flickering lighting, all took me back twenty years (I didn’t have a PC when Doom originally came out – but I did ready for Quake!).

I realised whilst playing that I was enjoying myself more than Doom 3. The simplicity of the design provokes my mind to ‘fill in the gaps’, much in the same way as I prefer to read a book verses watching a film. I prefer looking at Doom 3, but I prefer playing the originals. How much of this is nostalgia and how much is genuine playability is difficult to understand.

So it’s a pity to compare Doom3 against the originals. I guess rose-tinted spectacles are difficult to remove.