Extremely impressive from a technical standpoint yet behind the times from a first-person-shooter design standpoint: This is the dichotomy that is Doom 3, the long-awaited sequel from well-known Texas-based developer id Software. Doom 3 is quite possibly the best-looking game ever, thanks to the brand-new 3D graphics engine used to generate its convincingly lifelike, densely atmospheric, and surprisingly expansive environments. At the same time, when you look past the spectacular appearance, you'll find a conventional, derivative shooter. In fact, if you played the original Doom or its sequel back in the mid '90s (or any popular '90s-era shooter, for that matter), you may be shocked by how similarly Doom 3 plays to those games. The legions of id Software's true believers will celebrate this straightforwardness as being deliberately "old school," especially since Doom 3 is packed with direct references to its classic predecessors. However, the truth of the matter is that Doom 3's gameplay structure and level design are behind the times and very much at odds with the game's cutting-edge, ultrarealistic looks. Yet the quality of the presentation truly is remarkable--enough so that it overwhelms Doom 3's occasional problems.
There's no debating one thing about Doom 3: It looks absolutely, positively phenomenal.
Doom 3 is essentially a remake of the original Doom, though series fans will find reimagined versions of almost every monster from both Doom and Doom II in the new sequel. You play as a nameless, voiceless 22nd-century space marine called by the Union Aerospace Corporation to its Mars research facility beset with mysterious problems--the forces of hell, to be exact. You'll end up single-handedly fighting back legions of hellspawn using weapons like shotguns, machine guns, and rocket launchers. As in the classic Doom games, your foes here are liable to strike at any time--often just as you round a corner, grab a much-needed power-up, or set foot into a new area. So, while your enemies will materialize without notice, and may occasionally startle you as they leap out of the darkness, Doom 3 cannot easily be described as scary or suspenseful. On the contrary, it's very predictable, and more or less it just goes through the same types of paces that you've probably gone through before in any number of other similar games.
Over the course of the game, you'll fight your way through a series of linear levels filled with locked doors, and you'll gradually find new weapons and occasionally meet new types of monsters. Early on, your apparent goal is to meet up with your squad, but as you might expect, you'll never actually get to fight alongside any human forces (no thanks to the omission of a co-op mode for multiple players, which was a signature element of past Doom games). Despite the game's cinematic trappings, it follows a formula that generally lacks drama or tension. Occasionally, the game presents to you a shocking or surprising scene--a hallucination or some hellish, otherworldly image. These moments are effective, but are too few and far between in the context of a single-player shooter that's of above-average length (somewhere between 15 to 20 hours). Fortunately, the campaign definitely picks up during the last several hours, once you finally reach (and keep going past) the point when you confront the enemy on its own turf. Getting to that point may be your primary motivation for trudging through some of the repetitive middle portions of the game, though.
Part of the issue is that Doom 3's storyline and narrative technique are ineffectual. Since the main character has no identity whatsoever (for whatever reason), the game tries to get you interested in everyone else on the base. You'll frequently find voice recordings and e-mail from various characters, but not only is a lot of this stuff bone dry, having to stop and read or stand around and listen to a rambling monologue jarringly disrupts the flow of the action. Unfortunately, if you choose to focus on the action by ignoring the seemingly extraneous story elements, you'll find that some of them aren't optional--you'll need to sift through those e-mails and listen to some of those voice recordings to get passcodes for locked doors and storage chests.
For what it's worth, the game's premise seems very fleshed out, and the game gives an amazing first impression. As you explore the UAC base, eavesdropping on various conversations and observing great, little details here and there, you'll get the impression that Doom 3 takes place in a fully realized world. Of course, all hell quickly breaks loose, and from that point onward you'll encounter scarce few creatures that you won't want to instantly shoot. The premise of the game will continue to unfold through occasional cutscenes and the aforementioned e-mails and recordings.
Don't expect the actual gameplay to be as cutting edge as the visuals; Doom 3 plays like shooters from the good, old days.
Since Doom 3 purports to have a plausible premise, suddenly, aspects of the game that you might not normally question will start to stick out as being annoyingly inconsistent. You'll undoubtedly find time to wonder about these logic gaps as you fight throughout the UAC base, especially if you've played other recent first-person shooters that do a better job of justifying their plots. Why would a 22nd-century space marine be sent into action in a darkly lit area without night vision goggles of some sort, or even a helmet? Why wouldn't any of his weapons have light-amplification modules built into them when even today's weapons frequently do? Why, instead, is he stuck carrying around a very weak flashlight with unlimited battery life? Why is he unable to hold a gun and the flashlight at the same time? Why are the UAC's small, spiderlike sentry drones so incredibly powerful? You'll see these helpful little guys rip through droves of hellspawn even faster than you can. If the base's defenses are so tough, then why is everyone so worried, and why is everyone getting killed? Doom 3's central gameplay conceit simply doesn't fit in with the premise of the game, and this is a problem only because Doom 3 chooses to try to make you feel like you're in a believable, fully realized world. Doom-inspired shooters, such as Serious Sam and Painkiller, wisely followed the classic game's arcadelike nature by never even purporting to be plausible and simply focusing on run-and-gun action. So it's ironic that Doom 3's ambitions to be a story-driven game mostly just end up getting in the way and weakening the overall experience.
As mentioned, Doom 3 is pervasively dark; there's rarely a moment when your entire field of vision isn't predominantly shrouded in thick, black shadow. This contributes heavily to Doom 3's creepy, claustrophobic feel and it does indeed give the gameplay a distinctive quality. However, the constant extremely dark settings conspire with the frequently repetitive level design to contribute to gameplay that can often feel monotonous, especially since the action itself is very straightforward. What's more, the game's levels will occasionally require you to backtrack through dark hallways without clear markings, so rather than constantly blasting monsters, you may end up spending an undue amount of time just trying to get your bearings. There's a sizable arsenal of weapons to be found here, but none of them are completely satisfying to use. Pretty much all the guns are direct-fire, point-and-shoot weapons with no alternate firing modes and no close-range melee attacks; they do look impressive onscreen, but they all sound surprisingly tinny and subdued, rather than loud and powerful.
Stifling darkness lends Doom 3 much of its atmosphere as well as much of its challenge.
Meanwhile, the game's few melee weapons are mostly useless (though the chainsaw is at least fun to use). The grenades and the rocket launcher are liable to damage you just as much as they will damage your foes, since most of the game's battles occur at close range. Most modern shooters now seek to balance their weapons such that different tactical circumstances call for different measures, but Doom 3 takes the old "bigger is better" approach, for the most part. The main consideration in deciding which weapon to use at any given moment will be how much ammunition you have remaining, and to its credit, Doom 3 forces you to be pretty conservative with your ammo--you'll often feel the need to make every shot count. Furthermore, your marine has no special abilities to speak of. He can move about fairly quickly, he can jump about two feet high, he can crouch, he can sprint, and he can carry every weapon at once, but that's it; don't expect him to be able to lie prone or lean around corners or anything like that. This isn't that kind of game.
This also isn't the kind of game in which you should expect to be fighting against ruthlessly intelligent foes. Some of the former human marines you'll face will use rudimentary tactics against you, and other foes at least do a fairly good job of giving chase if you try to flee from them. But, in general, your enemies follow the same sorts of predictable patterns that you may remember from previous Doom games. By the halfway point of the game, you'll have little trouble avoiding your enemies' attacks when directly confronting them, so you'll instead be concentrating on predicting the expected ambushes around every corner. Also, one of the drawbacks of Doom 3's richly detailed graphics is that you'll rarely face more than a few foes at a time, and as you kill them, their bodies instantly disintegrate into ash--which is a nice effect, but also the same effect for just about every foe you kill. It's disappointing that the colorful death animations and seas of monster corpses from past Doom games are nowhere to be found here (though, in exchange, you'll pass through countless corridors chock-full of smeared blood and human remains).