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Doom 3: Then and Now

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Doom 3 is a weird game. It’s a weird game on its own merits, but when you tie in the history of the franchise, and all the expectations that come with that franchise, Doom 3 is exceptionally weird. I replayed Doom 3 on the PS4 and wanted to write about it, on its own merits, but it’s hard to ignore the history of the franchise, especially when this game has a ‘3’ after its title. So, I’d figured I’d start by talking about my personal experience with the franchise.

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My first experience with Doom was through osmosis. I didn’t own a PC when Doom came out, so I just read about it in game magazines. Even then, I didn’t really know a lot about the game. It wasn’t until I played the 32X version that I got a sense of what the game was about. That version isn’t great, but for the time it played well and for someone like me, with limited experience with FPS games, it was amazing. The game at first felt a bit like a horror game. But as I got more used to the gameplay mechanics, it became less of a horror game and more the action game most of us tend to associate with the franchise now. It was fast, intense, open-ended, and exhilarating (even on the 32X). For me, that was Doom. Even when I played Doom 64, my next ‘Doom’ game, it fit that bill of fast, intense, open-ended design despite the change in tone and art design.

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By the time Doom 3 came out I had a PC that could play the game. It couldn’t play it ‘well’, exactly. I don’t remember the framerate, though it was probably hovering around 30, but I remember the resolution; I played nearly every game on that PC at 640x480. I remember that resolution specifically because that was the resolution I had to play at, for a very long time, to get an acceptable level of performance. Yikes. Looking back, I enjoyed Doom 3 the first time through. If my memory of that experience is correct, I remember really liking the atmosphere and was enamored with the technology (even at 640x480). I also remember finding it scary. But I also remember finding the shooting dull. I remember enjoying the game well enough to finish it, but I think the novelty of playing a good-looking game on a PC pushed me through.

Now we have the BFG version on the PS4. I’m 15 years older (holy shit) and have a different perspective than I did when I played the original game. However, the first impression I had of the game, playing now, is very similar to the first impression I had playing originally; this game looks cool. But it looks cool for a different reason. I recently bought an LG OLED and the blacks in this game are amazing to see. With the game playing in 4k, with razor sharp details, and completely black blacks the game, to this day, has a singular look. A lot of mainstream games create dark scenes, but few really lean into absolute and complete darkness like Doom 3. It’s truly a sight to behold on an OLED. That said, the textures don’t hold up quite as well anymore. And the art design feels like it’s trying a bit too hard to be ‘edgy.’ But the use of shadow and contrast is the standout when it comes to the look of the game.

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What also stood out was the atmosphere. The soundtrack of the game is primarily soundscapes, a bit like the soundtrack for the Playstation/Saturn/N64 Doom games. That, along with ambient storytelling, the use of shadows, and the tight and intimate nature of most of the levels lead to an experience that feels ‘lived in’ for lack of a better term. The world of Doom 3 has a real sense of place, even more so than the 2016 Doom or any other Doom before it. The problem with this sense of place is that it feels very polarizing. Over these last 15 years I’ve apparently become much harder to scare and Doom 3 is a horror game. It’s a shooter, and you interact with the world primarily by shooting things, but it’s all within the context of horror. It’s atmosphere, appropriately then, lends itself to that horror. But because nothing in this game scared me, a large component of this atmosphere was lost on me. I appreciated that they went for a strong atmosphere, but I wasn’t affected by it. So, then you need to consider if you ‘like’ the atmosphere in and of itself. Doom 3 is a serious game. A deadly serious game. But a deadly serious game about hell monsters on Mars. I just couldn’t get into the story they were telling. The dialogue was campy, and at times given in a campy way, but within the context of what appeared to be a serious tone. It was a truly conflictual experience. As singular and well thought out as the atmosphere was in some ways, even if I didn’t really care for it, the story felt equally rushed and overdone. The writing, too, was bizarre. The voice acting was mostly solid and the writing, particularly of the audio logs, was good but I didn't care for the content of what was written. It was just written at a high quality. Then the writing of the cutscenes, where most of the ‘camp’ happened, was at odds with the atmosphere of the gameplay, the audio logs, all of it. It was a truly bizarre experience. I both sort of like it and dislike it all at once. Which may as well be my experience with Doom 3 overall.

The shooting, for example, isn’t inherently bad. It isn’t inherently good, either. It just ‘is.’ I have no passion at all about the shooting. It was innocuous and I was devoid of an emotional reaction to it. But it was functional. What I didn’t like was the enemy placement. I get what they were going for, in theory. Doom 3 is a slower game than the older Doom games and the newest Doom game. But, like all the other Doom games, a lot of Doom 3’s fighting takes place in close quarters. The level design seems to foster this by having narrow corridors, lots of obstacles in the way, and the like. Design that forces the player to move toward the enemy and engage. Which I’m fine with, again, in theory. The problem is what happens after initial engagement with enemies that already exist in the world. Much has been made about ‘monster closets’ in Doom 3. Essentially, there are several moments where, in Doom 3, the player is walking along when seemingly at random a panel along a wall somewhere will move to reveal an enemy lying in wait. It feels like a cheap jumpscare that is more obnoxious to deal with than additive to the experience. But what I had the biggest problem with were warping enemies. It felt like most encounters with enemies in the world set off a cascade of warping enemies that would spawn into the level all around the player. For example, the most common scenario the player faces in Doom 3 is to walk into a new room, engage with an enemy or two, then halfway into the engagement an enemy warps from behind you. So, you as a player learn to engage an enemy, turn around, fight the enemy that just warped in behind you, and then turn back around to fight the original enemy. It’s a very literal version of ‘one step forward, two steps back’ but repeated ad nauseam. At the end of the game, you get used to simply engaging an enemy, finding a corner, and then acting like a stationary turret shooting all the new, warping enemies. That isn’t fun. It felt like work. If the PS4, BFG version didn’t have the light mod that attaches the light to the player character I would have stopped playing the game in frustration.

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Which all of this makes me wonder why I kept playing it at all. Because rereading all this it seems like I didn’t really like this game. If I were a reviewer, it wouldn’t have reviewed well. But there is something about this game that stands out, even today. In a lot of ways, it reminds me of the first Fear game, which came out a year after Doom 3. Both are horror FPS. But where Fear had better shooting and design Doom 3 had a more fleshed out world and atmosphere. But is that atmosphere, which I mentioned I don’t even really like all that much, and really black blacks on an OLED screen enough. Kinda?

…those blacks are very black.