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. Less than a year after it exploded onto the PC in the dead of summer, the game is now available for the Xbox, boasting a new two-player cooperative mode that really helps round out the experience, and which probably should have been in the PC version to begin with. Perhaps more importantly, those amazing good looks survived the translation to the Xbox well intact--along with pretty much everything else. And what that means is when you look past the spectacular appearance, you'll still find a conventional, derivative shooter. Some might interpret this straightforwardness as being deliberately "old-school," especially since Doom 3 is packed with direct references to its classic predecessors. However, Doom 3's old-fashioned gameplay mechanics and level design are very much at odds with its 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.
In Doom 3, you play as a nameless, voiceless 22nd-century space marine called by the Union Aerospace Corporation to its Mars research facility, which is beset with mysterious problems. These "problems" are the forces of hell, to be exact. All alone or with an ally in the new co-op mode, you'll end up fighting back legions of hellspawn using weapons like shotguns, machine guns, and rocket launchers. Beware of one thing about co-op mode, though: You can choose to start a co-op session on any of the campaign levels. So if you haven't already played through the campaign solo, you could very easily give in to temptation and spoil it for yourself in co-op.
In terms of content, the co-op campaign is basically similar to the solo campaign, though there are additional enemies and power-ups to give two players their fills. And, in a decidedly caring touch, some of the dialogue is changed to reflect there being two marines trying to thwart evil, instead of just one. You'll notice a few other twists, such as doors that can only be opened when both players are present, and how a lot of the peripheral story stuff is stripped out to keep the game moving along. The gameplay is more fun in co-op than it is in solo (particularly if you toggle on friendly fire), even though it's functionally identical and easy as hell. Whenever you get killed, you just pop right back into the level and can run over to wherever you died and grab a backpack with all your weapons in it. Yet having a friend (or even a stranger) along for the ride will naturally make the journey more interesting, and having to pick off targets in narrow corridors while staying out of your buddy's way--and not mistaking him for a threat in all those dark shadows--adds a much-needed bit of depth to the action, not to mention an appreciable chunk of value to the entire package. Fans of the PC version might not be able to justify paying full price just to play Doom 3 again in co-op, but yes, it would be well worth their while to check this out.
While we're talking money, for an extra $10, the collector's edition of Doom 3 offers faithful ports of 1995's The Ultimate Doom and 1994's Doom II, classic first-person shooters each featuring support for split-screen co-op and deathmatch modes for up to four players. These collectively contain dozens and dozens of hours of old-but-good gameplay...plus better weapon sounds and tougher enemies than the wimpy Doom 3 equivalents, as far as we're concerned. Most collector's editions of games yield minimal benefits, but you won't regret springing for this one.
As in the classic Doom games, your foes in Doom 3 are liable to strike at any time, often just as you round a corner, grab a much-needed power-up, or set foot in a new area. So, while your enemies will materialize without notice and may occasionally startle you as they leap from the darkness, Doom 3 cannot easily be described as scary or suspenseful. On the contrary, it's quite predictable, and it more or less just goes through the same types of paces that you've probably gone through before in any number of other similar games. Of course, the quality of this game's presentation makes the experience unique in its own right. Like some blockbuster big-budget popcorn flick, what the game lacks in substance or originality, it more than makes up for with sheer "wow" factor.
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 (unless you're playing in co-op). Despite the game's cinematic trappings, it follows a formula that generally lacks drama and tension. Occasionally, the game presents to you a shocking or surprising scene, such as a hallucination or some hellish, otherworldly image. These moments are effective but are too few and far between in the context of a shooter that's of above-average length, clocking in somewhere between 15 and 20 hours. Fortunately, the campaign definitely picks up during the last several hours, once you finally reach (and keep going past) the point where 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.
The world may never know if the PC version of Doom 3 was truly worth the wait, but the Xbox-exclusive co-op mode was definitely worth a few extra months of patience.
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. In the solo campaign, you'll frequently find voice recordings and e-mail from various characters. Not only is a lot of this stuff pretty dry, but also, having to take a few moments to switch to your bulky PDA to read text messages or to 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 does a fine job of drawing you in at first, as you explore the UAC base, eavesdropping on various conversations and observing great, little details here and there. But, all hell quickly breaks loose, and from that point onward, you'll encounter scarce few creatures that you won't want to instantly shoot.
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 more than likely 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 wouldn't any of a 22nd-century space marine's 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 a 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. But, on the other hand, so what? Once the imps start spawning and the zombies start moaning, it's time to shoot first and ask questions later.
Stifling darkness lends Doom 3 much of its atmosphere, as well as much of its challenge.
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 simple and 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 the weapons 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.
Meanwhile, the few melee weapons are mostly useless (though the chain saw 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. So 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, and he can carry every weapon at once. But that's it. Don't expect dual wielding or recharging energy shields or anything like that. This isn't that kind of game.