Like every other id Software release, Doom 3 is a master class in game design, a technological powerhouse, and an absolute blast to play. And like many other id Software release, Doom 3 is an absolute mess. Monster closets, jumping puzzles, futuristic weaponry that has no concept of a tactical light — if these aren’t enough to discourage you from finishing the game, the sheer exhausting relentlessness of the action and overwhelming horror may well be. There is no downtime in Doom. You’re either being jumped by monsters that teleport in behind you, or frantically scavenging for ammo while hoping that no monsters teleport in behind you. It’s oppressive. You can’t see anything. It’s brilliant.
We can’t talk about Doom 3 without talking about Half-Life 2, so let’s get that out of the way. Both games were released in the same year, both had incredible expectations riding on them as the successors to legendary shooters, and both featured new graphics technologies that would serve as the base for a slew of other important games. Half-Life 2 was just better in virtually every regard. It looked better, it played better, it had environments that consisted of more than dark industrial corridors, it had a proper story, it had proper characters. I could go on. The game is nearly 10 years old, but has yet to be surpassed in narrative shooter design. Half-Life 2 is one of gaming’s crown jewels, surpassed in its form arguably only by Portal – which owes its technology and several of its key ideas to Half-Life. So maybe it’s unfair to talk about it in relation to Doom 3.
Where Half-Life was visionary, Doom was conservative. Doom 3 wanted nothing more than to be Doom 2 by way of System Shock — a pure twitch shooter with a strong element of horror. To this end it succeeded greatly. Would Doom have been better if it had traded its claustrophobic darknesses for an expansive sci-fi world? Probably not, as Raven’s Quake 4 did just that — using the same id Tech 4 engine powering Doom 3, no less — and it was pretty terrible. Granted, part of that was due to the inherent weakness of id Tech 4 in making anything look good except overwhelming blackness, but that’s what it was designed to do, and it did it so very well. The internet loves to make fun of the lack of a proper flashlight in Doom 3, but that lack is integral to the level design. If you have a flashlight out for anything in Doom aside from peeking behind a staircase to see if there’s ammo hidden back there, you’re doing it wrong. In Doom 3, player and enemy attacks light up the screen. Fireballs thrown by demons cast dynamic shadows across the walls of the military complex; plasma rounds illumine entire rooms with their blue glow. Ten years later, it’s still a glory to behold – just try not to look too closely at the textures.
Even the monster closets are crucial elements of Doom’s level design – don’t get me wrong, I never want to play another game with this degree of over-engineered insanity ever again, as I much prefer a more organic and believable solution to the fourth wall breaking issue of enemy spawns. But they’re just so perfectly engineered in Doom 3. Most modern shooters are obsessed with their lackluster story and their tired setpieces, to the point where there just isn’t a particularly compelling design argument for their existence. Doom‘s design is built around two fundamental principles — immerse the player, and unease the player. The scope of the game could be more focused, but the tension never releases. Like Far Cry 2, it is a game where there is no winning – only varying degrees of justification of survival. Even the defeat of the end boss feels lackluster, partially due to uninspired setpiece construction, but largely due to the absolute lack of heroism in the Sisyphean emptiness of Doom‘s never-ending battles.
Of course, none of this diminishes the serious problems inherent to Doom 3. You’ll never see me defend the jumping puzzles, or the Lost Souls, or the absolutely godawful gun feel that got genetically passed on to other id Tech 4 games, of which there were mercifully few. Let’s face it — id Tech 4 just wasn’t the all-encompassing successor to the Quake 3 engine that it should have been. And if I’m being honest, Doom 3 was not at all the successor to Doom 1 and 2 that I would have wanted. Perhaps Carmack and company envisioned the original Doom to be as depressing and disturbing as Doom 3, complete with unsettling hell levels with demonic babies and human corpses everywhere, but were severely limited by the technology of the time. When I look at the original Doom, however, all I see is a batshit little game that doesn’t take itself seriously and uses the forces of hell as a source of fun rather than a source of horror. I rather hope that this is the kind of game we get when Doom 4 is finally unveiled, but if not, we can at least hope that there’s a little of that genius still left at id. If we’re really lucky, maybe we’ll get another Half-Life to go with it, and ten years from now I can be foolishly defending Doom 4‘s honor in the face of its chronically poor timing. Now if you’ll excuse me, I think I’m going to go play something a little more life-affirming.