Thursday, June 10, 2010

Abandon Hope, All Ye Who Enter Here: "DOOM 3" Review

Game: DOOM 3 (Yes, you do have to capitalize the title consistently. It bugs me, too)
Platform: PC, Mac, Xbox
Genre: First-Person Shooter / Survival-Horror
Developer: id Software
Publisher: Activision
Release Date: August 3, 2004 (NA), August 13, 2004 (EU)
Players: 1 (2-4 online, though enterprising modders managed to boost this paltry number up to 16)

It’s been 17 years since the release of the very first DOOM, a game that arguably has a claim to being one of the most historically significant and influential of all time. Don’t believe me? Just think about everything DOOM did for the industry. It popularized and cemented the first-person shooter genre into gaming culture, so much so that most FPS’s for years afterward would be referred to as “DOOM clones”. It helped spark the fires of the violent video games controversy that lives on even to this day, no matter how often Joe Lieberman fails to secure a presidential nomination. It gave rise to the early days of video game piracy, back when torrents and file-sharing programs took the more primitive form of floppy disks swapped amongst kids in the back-alleys of school like an illegal drug. It was one of the first games to inspire a legitimate mod-making community, rife with unauthorized pop culture insertions from The Simpsons to Ghostbusters. And of course, it had that undeniably awesome theme music, one of the most iconic tunes in gaming history. I could go on, but suffice it to say that the original DOOM (and to a lesser extent, it’s sequel DOOM II) has a laundry list of milestones and achievements, and the industry owes it a debt that can never be truly repaid.

Ah, those were the days…

It’s been five years since the release of DOOM 3. And, it, umm… looked real nice at the time, I suppose. I, err…I guess that’s it, really.

OK, let’s be honest here, there’s not much more that the so-called third game in the series can do but look upon its glorious ancestor in awe-struck splendor. And considering the many degrees in which the FPS genre has evolved since 1993, for there to be no noteworthy hallmarks upon the résumé of this game is, quite frankly, rather pitiful. There have been multiple takes upon whether this truly diminishes the impact of the game, though; it was, indeed, given a strong reception upon initial release despite its lack of innovation. But personally, that’s not even what galls me about DOOM 3 the most (although that is most certainly a part of it). It’s that, somewhere in time, starting from the moment it began development to the moment it hit store shelves, DOOM 3 stopped being…well, DOOM.

The best part of DOOM 3. Yes, really.

I’m going to go out on a limb and proclaim that you might have played a video game or two at some point in your life. I’ll presume further that there’s a very good likelihood that, for reasons clearly iterated in the first paragraph of this review, the original DOOM may have been one of them. And if you’re the type of person who fancies themselves a “gamer”, then I sure hope that is the case; if not, then I would suggest doing so right this second before even considering using that term to describe yourself again. Seriously, right now. I’ll wait. This article isn’t going anywhere.

Okay, you finished? Good, now assuming once more that your memory hasn’t decayed to the point of complete incompetence, you almost certainly possess a grasp on what the DOOM experience is composed of. The very mention of the title should give rise to visions of speedily running about in mostly well-lit, occasionally open-ended areas swarming with fiendish, over-the-top-cartoony monsters. They stand between you and where you need to be…and they also happen to be standing on the receiving end of your shotgun. As the corpse pile up, shells are spent, and totally radical MIDI-ized metal riffs wail in the background, masking the screams of your fallen foes, you vaguely recall a brief mention of some kind of story that instills method to this madness. Then you immediately cease to care and continue your odyssey into pure, unmitigated violence against the forsaken hordes of Satan.

So upon booting up the DOOM 3 disk, a warning light should flicker on in your head when, right from the beginning of the game, it becomes apparent that it’s going to attempt to have a plot. It touts itself as a re-telling of the tale from the original game, but what was once a brief write-up translating in essence into “Hey, there be demons here. Go kills them.” now takes the form of extravagant cutscenes, featuring characters and dialogue when the need for such a thing clearly does not exist. Among the ranks of the game’s compelling cast are a doctor you know is evil from the second you meet him because he lacks a pupil in one eye and speaks in a voice you might hear from the hidden intercoms at a carnival’s haunted house, as well as a authority-figure-type counselor who the game tries desperately to establish as a fake-out villain, but who clearly isn’t because…well, he isn’t the unambiguously evil doctor.

Seriously, how do you even get hired looking like that? Does “evil cackling” make an attractive feature on the résumé of an aspiring scientist?

As if the cliché-o-meter isn’t full to bursting already, there are also no less than two grizzled, gravely-voiced veteran lieutenants, one of which escorts the counselor with the aid of about six lines of dialogue, and the other of which spends the first half of the game sitting in his office, giving you orders and eating all the Easy-Mac until he remembers that there’s supposed to be a story, at which point he turns evil for the purposes of creating hopelessly non-existent dramatic tension. And then there’s you: a nameless, mute, disproportionately-muscle-bound meatslab of a man who holds no interest or emotion in anything taking place around him. Of course these supposedly interesting new characters and concepts need to be introduced, so whereas DOOM had you pumping lead into zombies by the ten-second-mark, DOOM 3 marks its clear intention to shamelessly integrate the ideas of other, better, and more recent FPS titles by leading you through a lengthy, bloodless introduction scene similar to (i.e. almost identical to) the one in Half-Life. Then again, Half-Life didn’t allow you to murder innocent scientists without anyone else even giving you a weird look in return.

“Yes, can I help you? Wait, what are you doing with that revolver? No, stay back, I…GAAAH!”

Inevitably, of course, all Hell literally breaks loose in the Union Aerospace Corporation facility, and you, the player, have to fight your way out, figuring out what went wrong in the process (spoiler alert: it may have something to do with the evil scientist cackling uncontrollably in the corner of the room). It’s at this point that you expect the balls-to-the-wall action you remember from your nostalgic memories to finally arrive and make the game fun again, but it’s not too much longer before you’re disappointed. This simply isn’t DOOM as you remember it, and while change isn’t inherently a bad thing, you’ll find that the series isn’t so much “changed” as it is “trapped”: sandwiched between the game it’s supposed to be and the game it wants to be.

To be fair, there are some ways in which, for better or worse, DOOM 3 is actually very much the same game you played in 1993. The scientific complex you venture through is rendered in a stunning total of about three different shades of grey (discounting the numerous spatters of red, of course). You stumble across armor, med-kits, and ammo with every alternate step. The level design is standard and linear, only occasionally manipulated in the form of a key-fetching quest or a brain-dead puzzle. The monster designs – many of which are simply monochrome variants of the classic baddies encountered in the old titles – range from only mildy disturbing to downright juvenile when placed in the more realistic context that the game strives for (not to mention one of the bosses – I kid you not – is a former marine general whose torso has been grafted onto tank treads for seemingly no reason).

Skeletons with rocket-launching shoulder-pads and flaming, jetpack-adorned skulls were rad in the early 90’s, but now…?

Furthermore, the AI is as laughably single-minded as it was back in the day, never amounting to more than “run at guy, bite at face”. Even the weapons arsenal is nearly unchanged, plucked straight from the Generic FPS Weapons Handbook 90’s Edition. The only notable deviations in your armory are the series trademark BFG, a demon-slaying plot-MacGuffin known as “the Soul Cube” (don’t ask), and the chainsaw…though really, within the framework of the newly dead-serious story, what a chainsaw is doing on a Martian research outpost is really anyone’s guess.

UAC Employee #1, Mac: Hey, did you get those hydrofusion battery order forms I asked you to mail out? We need those in the lab by Tuesday.
UAC Employee #2, Bob: Uh, yeah, about that…I DID mail them out, like you asked…but there was kind of a mix-up in the post office, and we accidentally ordered about a hundred chainsaws instead.
Mac: Damnit, Bob! First you “accidentally” triplicated the quantity of our shipment of security armor and back-up ammo, then you spent company money on a rocket launcher that we will never , EVER need, and now THIS!
Bob: Well…we could just scatter all that stuff around the base. Y’know, hide it in inconspicuous places, around corners…no one would ever know!
Mac: Yeah, I guess you’re right. No sense in stockpiling all that stuff in some dusty supply room somewhere. And hey, at least you managed to successfully order in those NON-flammable, NON-exploding barrels this time, right?
Bob: Uh, yeah, about that…

But then again, as boring, cliché-ridden and conventional the gameplay may be, it is at least acceptably functional on a mechanical level, and may very well have served as an appropriate springboard towards a no-holds-barred spamfest shooter romp…or at least it could have been, were the classic DOOM elements not attempting to occupy the same space as a survival-horror game.

Yes, DOOM 3 grabs hold of the retrospectively silly notion that the original games were as scary as they were furiously intense and runs with it to the ridiculous extreme. So now, instead of boldly and recklessly charging through open-ended levels filled to the brim with hordes of ferocious demons, the fully-armed space marine finds himself steadily creeping through claustrophobic labyrinths, only occasionally stumbling into the one-odd pitched battle with a single Satanic minion. Meanwhile, the awesomely plagiarized tunes of the classics are replaced by the quote-on-quote “atmospheric” silence of the base, sporadically broken up by the sounds of combat or the periodic cheesy horror-movie-trailer-voiceover courtesy of that evil doctor archetype telling you just how many ways you’re going to die.

“Oooooo, look! Now your screen is reeeeeeed! Are you scaaaaaaaared yeeeeeet? OooooooOOOOOoooo!”

Most notably, nearly every event in the game hinges on cheap scare tactics, a most detrimental fact in regards to combat; seemingly every demon in the game is stationed in place like a spring-board display in a theme park ride, waiting until you cross some form of invisible line before leaping out from behind a door, around the corner or – my personal favorite – an otherwise-empty sliding-door compartment in the wall. Here's a question: why are the bloodthirsty spawn of the Malebolge patiently waiting for passers-by in a fucking pantry? And what the hell were those closets necessary for before the demonic invasion?

Mac: Hey Bob, the atomic collider just malfunctioned. Do you have any spare flux capacitators lying around your office?
Bob: Nah, sorry man…but hey, why don’t you check the metal-shuttered closet in the hallway?
Mac: Y’know, I never did understand why the UAC had these built in. Hell, it seems more like a violation of building code than anything el…dude, there’s just a shitload of board games in here!
Bob: What, really?
Mac: Yeah, who woulda thought? Candyland, Mouse Trap, Stratego, Yahtz…oh my God, fucking Hungry Hungry Hippos!
Bob: Score!

Then of course there’s the darkness. Every last corridor of DOOM 3 is simply flooded with shadows, a fact just as inconvenient to the player as it must have been to the chronically-depressed former employees of the UAC. Seriously, for a facility touted to be at the cutting edge of human knowledge and understanding, nobody there seems to know how to create a productive work environment.

“Look, all I’m saying is, a bigger janitorial budget might improve morale just a little.”

This, in turn, introduces the flashlight mechanic. Yes, we’ve all heard the flashlight jokes, from how a well-funded research facility seems to lack any duct tape to graft the damn thing to your gun to the obvious inquiry of why space marines stationed in a noticeably poorly-lit environment (in the future, no less) wouldn’t be issued weaponry with built-in visual aid…but rather than harp on these fallacies of logic, let’s discuss its harmful ramifications on the actual game, shall we?

Does no one else find it ironic that the lighting effects were one of the most publicized features of DOOM 3’s new engine? Because, y’know, there’s barely any light to begin with?

The goal of the flashlight mechanic is fairly obvious and well-intentioned at heart. By making the player choose between the gun or the flashlight without overlap, it creates a dichotomy between visibility and defensive ability, attempting to induce fear in the process. This works in theory. In practice, however, it’s downright infuriating, for several reasons. For one thing, it’s distressing to leave player success or failure up to the hands of their very natural limitations, i.e. their vision. In other words, it’s one thing to lose in a death-grapple with an imp due to skill, and quite another due to the fact that the player couldn’t aim the chaingun through impenetrable darkness; this is especially true since, as implied earlier, there is isn’t much initial threat from an enemy when you happen to be armed to the teeth and coated in body armor, and thus the sight disability serves as the only real challenge in many confrontations. Also, the aforementioned over-saturation of shadow makes the flashlight essentially necessary to see at all in certain spots, which more or less removes the critical choice from the player. Again there’s a distinction to be made here to the developers: it’s one thing to impair the player’s combat readiness for the sake of horror, but it’s quite another when you create the illusion of choice regarding this impairment. And lastly, it’s just downright clumsy implemented; having to constantly have your thumb hovering over the button while you wait for the game to schizophrenically decide whether it’s going to maintain the quiet integrity of the atmosphere or just throw a cacaodemon at you is annoying, as is the rather awkward animation you’ll constantly witness as you flip back-and-forth from your weapon to the torch. It’s really just a frustrating mechanic from start to finish, and reinforces the belief that the game is attempting to be something that it’s not.

And really, that’s the most glaring weakness of DOOM 3; in attempting to branch out towards a genre almost inverse in style to its roots, it sours the remaining aspects of the source material. Had the developers more consciously chosen to extract the remaining FPS lifeblood from the game and transform it into a purely survival-horror experience, it might have worked; as it stands, the DOOM brand stands averse to the elements that make a horror game function. Compare the hybrid, half-heartedly frenzied horrorscape of DOOM 3 to a true master of the genre such as the Silent Hill series; sure, the former may startle on the first through playthroughs with its one-time funhouse scares, but the latter’s fog-drenched, unsettlingly lifeless environments create an atmosphere of sheer, pulsing dread just from the player picking up the controller…and that’s a game series where you can shoot and have a flashlight on at the same time!

That’s right. James Sunderland is more competent at multi-tasking than a trained space marine.

Even more action-oriented horror gameplay along the lines of DOOM 3’s thought process has been successfully achieved by the likes of Condemned: Criminal Origins, which equipped you, the player, just as well as the psychotic (and shockingly intelligent) foes, making every confrontation a matter of life or death. Here, alas, the predictability and repetition of the game’s handful of scary tricks soon bog it down, forcing it to rely on the shooter elements which, thanks to the terror-emphasis, went sadly underdeveloped.

But I haven’t even mentioned the most obnoxious aspect of DOOM 3: the PDA. Oh, sweet-buttery-Jesus the PDA. You’re granted a free personal-data-assistant as you enter the base; whether this is a free promotion from the station’s gift shop or a simple act of kindness, I really could never tell. It serves little help on its own, but you can upload the files of other employees’ PDAs upon finding them, through what I can only assume is an infrared communications port akin to the Game Boy Color. Of course, you’ll stumble upon plenty of unattended devices as you progress through the decidedly empty base, whereupon you can shamelessly rifle through the audio logs and emails of the deceased. Respect for the dead, who needs it?

“I’ll trade you my breakthrough research notes for your private insurance information!”
BONUS CAPTION: What? IMP is evolving!...Congratulations! Your IMP evolved into HELL KNIGHT!

It’s really nothing more than a variation on the audio logs popularized by System Shock (confirming once more that the game would rather ape innovations of influential late-90’s shooters rather than devise any itself). But whereas other games with such a system like System Shock, Bioshock, and Metroid Prime possessed an interesting plot, shrouded in the cloak of a mystery to be unfolded, I must remind the developers that the only intrigue to the plot of DOOM is exactly how evil the clearly evil scientist actually is, and that the most startling revelation the logs ever unveiled for me was that the UAC seemingly only has one female employee (apparently the feminist movement receded in on itself somewhere in the early 2100s). No, there’s a much more sinister purpose for the audio logs of DOOM 3 than simple story embellishment, and it can be stated in one word: lockers.

The worst part of DOOM 3. Yes, really.

See, the understandably nerve-wracked denizens of Mars clearly figured that something unholy (quite literally, as it turned out) was about to go down, so they decided to store their munitions and medical supplies for safe-keeping within the confines of massive, encoded storage lockers, each with a four-digit entry code. And because nobody thinks to use the primitive devices of pen or paper in the future, the only way anyone recorded these passwords was within the files stored on their PDAs. This means that, in order to be at maximum strength throughout the game, you’ll need to pause the game every time you pick up a new PDA, scroll through the text files and listen to the mind-numbingly dull recordings to find these all-important codes, whereupon you can retrieve the grab-bag of goodies inside the lockers. You can, of course, choose to listen to the audio files whilst still venturing through the facility, rather than simply sitting at the PDA-menu screen twiddling your thumbs like a fool while you pretend to feign interest in Dr. Gripesalot’s thoughts on the new plasma gun’s alpha-wave combustor-core, or Mr. McFussypants’ watercooler gossip about how that dick Jim from accounting stole his best stapler when he wasn’t looking, or whatever…but guess what? If you happen to the miss hearing the actual code from behind the sound of an explosion, or demonic scream…or, y’know, the sound of the game being played, you have to start it over from the top. Most insultingly of all, the lockers themselves are almost never hidden at all, always found a couple rooms away – or, even worse, a few measly feet – from the PDA that holds their passkey, rendering the whole exercise pointless, futile, and a direct affront to my intelligence. There’s simply no excuse for the kind of flow-breaking tedium this system invokes.

Mac: I was thinking of running down to the coffee room for a donut, you wanna…umm, what are you doing?
Bob: Oh, sorry, I was just recording an audio log of my research for the day. Plus I stored all my left-over sponge cake in the locker over there, so I wanted to remember the passcode I set for later.
Mac: That WAS damn good sponge cake. But listen, why’d you record a secret code in the one device that anyone on this base can access without any sort of authorization of their own? And couldn’t you have just written it down on a sticky note and kept it in your pocket or something?
Bob: Well sure I could have, but then how would the player know how to get to it once he’s found his way here?
Bob: Wait, what? WHAT?!

The saddest part is that many of these annoyances can actually be partially avoided by forsaking the single player campaign and jumping online. Mind you, the competitive multiplayer is a joke, nothing more than basic deathmatch with a pathetically small player count (by default, anyway) and the same ol’ dark, cramped map layouts. But when tackling the hordes of Lucifer in online cooperative play (strangely found only in the Xbox version), the attempts to polish the game down into a shorter, more stream-lined experience surgically remove many of the aforementioned hindrances to the fun. There are far more monsters packed in far more open spaces, making for a more action-packed adventure, and the addition of a second player transforms the flashlight from an annoyance to an actually interesting mechanic; one player guides the other through the dark labyrinths, counting on the partner to defend him/her from beasties.

It’s simply a shame that this won’t be the game that will be remembered through the annals of gaming history. Instead, it will be the game that crushed light-hearted, over-the-top monster-slaying fun under mundane concepts, confused gameplay, and cheap scares. People unfamiliar with both first-person shooters and horror games (as I once was when I first played the game, in what seems like eons ago) might enjoy a one-time, mildly-atmospheric march through DOOM 3, but anything beyond that and the game loses its luster, ceasing to be little more than a tech demo.

But in spite of all of that, it’s hardly the worst thing to hold the DOOM name. Why, that would have to be…

…oh God no.