Monday, 18 April 2005
Prepare for a shock, as resident mutant slayer Chris Pickering takes to the third iteration of the classic Doom franchise.
While the self proclaimed ‘hardcore’ among us clamour for new and unique gaming experiences, it’s unusual for a publisher to go down this route - especially when development of some new concepts can come at the detriment of the continuation of a well known IP. That is, of course, without mentioning the obvious ‘sales numbers’ - a deciding factor for publishers, who tend to favour better established franchises and ideas over something new and fresh.
While that’s not to say that existing styles of videogames aren't entertaining in their own right (Halo 2, for example, offers an almost unrivalled gaming experience despite bringing nothing new into the mix), the FPS genre in particular hasn’t really progressed all that far since the introduction of the original Doom. The graphics have improved, the weaponry is more realistic, and the introduction of modern day physics engines has brought about new ways of handling puzzles - but essentially, you're still running down the same corridors and killing the same enemies.
This brings about one of Doom 3’s most obvious drawbacks, in fact. Instead of rewarding more intelligent gunplay, we’re back to the 'traditional' health system, with shots to any part of your foe (regardless of head or leg shots) knocking away at their (invisible) health bar until they drop down dead. This may have been a concious decision by the developers to ramp up the 'fear factor', but I believe there should have been more scope for 'tactical' shooting. While the lack of strategic gameplay and a reliance of a twitchy trigger finger is the most important part of the gaming experience, the inability to utilise headshots and conserve ammo (which is quite lacking in numbers for the first hour or so of play) is quite a curious mistake - especially when you come to a point where you are forced to waste hundreds of bullets in order to progress. The fact that the enemies you encounter barely react to a bullet in the skull at all also helps to destroy the atmosphere.
These flaws can almost be forgiven thanks to the sheer quality of the visuals. While sections of the game have been cut, and most parts are a small step behind the incredibly high level that the PC version showed off, this is still one gorgeous game. Though you’re not going to be able to sit back and marvel at the glorious level design too often - this is one incredibly dark game. A large part of the fear this game creates is due to the lack of light in various places throughout the levels. While you do possess a torch to help you 'see the light' as it were, you cannot carry both the torch and the weapon at the same time - a design flaw which is the cause of many a frustrating death as you're plunged into darkness, hearing the pitter-patter of feet, and a few short groans, but unable to see exactly where they’re coming from. Do you fire blindly in many wild directions, or do you pluck up the courage to hoist your mighty torch? The choice is yours - and it's a choice that most wish they didn't have to make.
Despite the relatively dark levels, the lighting effects are used rather nicely in Doom 3. Lights flicker at pre-determined moments, and sometimes cut out completely leaving you shrieking in fear as you hastily prepare for whatever beasties might be coming after you. The set pieces in the game are very well presented and are utilised to great affect, especially in bringing new enemies into the mix.
Unfortunately the enemies you encounter during your mission are a little lacking on the intelligence side. Most are more than willing to slowly amble in your direction as you gradually knock away at their health bar with your pistol, or rush up close and slaughter them with a close range shotgun blast. Remember my point about how genres have developed over the years? Nowadays, we expect games to require an ounce of brain power to get through our first person shooting titles, with enemies showing awareness of their surroundings, and not being merely lambs to the slaughter. While the lack of intelligence shown by the various species of enemy you’ll encounter during Doom 3 is to a point entertaining, you do eventually long for the impressive AI shown in other recent titles on the PC and Xbox. There’s not much fun to be gained from outwitting the terminally dumb.
I can level a fair few other niggles towards the Xbox iteration of Doom 3 too. For one, the few seconds it takes to load up and disengage from your PDA are extremely frustrating, especially when you click the black button (to activate the PDA) when you originally intended to push the white button to light up your surroundings with your torch. Arguably, however, the most frustrating aspect of this game can often be the pause menu. Once you pause, only a press of the red B button will take you back to your game. If you just press start, instead of taking you back as you’d expect, you’ll reload the level from the very beginning. A small gripe maybe, but something that will no doubt happen to a fair few of you.
The unfortunate truth in the gaming world is that despite how a game such as Doom 3 can be sold purely on its reliance on 'old-school' gameplay with fancy new graphics, we have to remember that genres develop for a reason. While the joys this title can offer are certainly apparent, when compared with some of the modern day FPS games it feels just a step behind the currently required standard of greatness - and the score at the bottom of this review reflects that. But Doom 3 not only manages to scare and surprise you at every step, but also pushes you along at a terrifying rate, leaving you eagerly anticipating what the developers are going to put you up against once you turn the next corner. And that, at least, is a feeling that other FPS games should try to emulate.