For a company that has spent over a decade making games made in hell, to see Doom III apparently entering its own Hades - development hell - is a sad irony. Although Id wisely never promised us a release date, it was on Activision's release schedule for the end of this year for so long that it's clear that the powers that be hoped that Doom III was going to be almost in the can by now.
When we first caught Doom III running in real time back at Activate in August 2002 it seemed so far ahead of anything else, and for all the world a finished engine, it seemed inconceivable we were looking at a game as much as two years away from completion. But, whatever the real reason, be it the intensive amount of artwork involved in creating such a beautiful looking game, or a re-evaluation borne out of the shockwaves created by Valve's Source engine, or a bit of both, the truth is that Doom III is taking longer than any previous Id project, and certainly longer than anyone reasonably expected.
When it's nearly done... we'll take a bit longer
But as the well worn cliché goes, good things come to those who wait, and we're assured that quality control appears to be the over-riding concern here; not a luxury that many developers can afford. But while it's been great to see Id's most ambitious project at various stages over recent years, the delays have somewhat dampened enthusiasm. Fast forward a year from the original real-time presentation and the atmosphere among the collective audience of retailers, distributors and journalists has shifted from astonished awe ("this running in real time, right?") to a more irritable 'this is the fifth Doom III presentation I've been in'. Sure, the vibe is still positive, but we're just keen to play rather than merely spectate at this point.
But what is abundantly clear is that lead designer Tim Willits and CEO Todd Hollenshead still have the most impressive looking game out there, and they know it, with a degree of texture and character detail well above anything we've seen elsewhere. For all Valve's impressive (third party) physics and cunning AI, the eye candy in Doom III is still a cut above (even if it might not to be everyone's taste), and Id has its own proprietary physics solution too. We were treated to two out of the "28 to 30" of the "more finished" levels over the half an hour, a quick insight into the plot (yes Ladies and Gentlemen, a plot) followed by a quick demo of the engine's physics capabilities, to show us that, yes, Doom III will have lots of tumbling boxes, barrels and rag doll deaths too.
For some reason, Id's game was the only title of the 15 shown off at Activate not to feature any accompanying blurb, so we had to pay extra attention as we scribbled notes down in the dark. As you'll doubtlessly know by now, Id wants Doom III to be "an experience in intense, horrifying fear", meaning lots of spooky lighting, and evil otherworldly creatures that stalk you in the darkened metallic complex of the UAC base, situated on Mars.
War is hell... and so is Mars
For reasons not quite fully explained, hell invades the very structure of the UAC base, taking over not only the personnel, but the environments too, turning both into a bizarre amalgam that let Id's art team's imagination run riot. Willits showed off the Administrator Complex after hell has invaded, with your base "horribly outnumbered". Humans become eyeless, shambling zombies attacking everything that moves, while everything else is some twisted unrecognisable misshapen creature from hell. Funny that. Where they came from, we're not quite sure, but we assume the research team has brought along some kind of Noah's Ark with it, and it's all gone disastrously wrong.
Whatever the spurious reasons, even the spiders have mutated into gigantic creatures of death, and they're especially vile, slimy, hairy, and they're after you. In keeping with all the other evil monsters, they sport more detail and menace than anything you've ever seen in any game. The environments are similarly exquisitely detailed, with texture detail that still astounds. Constantly throughout the demo, the structure comes under attack from various ugly brutes that seem to like to burst though the steel structure as if it were wottle and daub, and makes Resident Evil look like Jackanory.
The scripted events come thick and fast, as if Id just wants to kill its already quivering audience. On the way through the complex Willits encountered a downed marine slumped in a bloody heap, alive enough to utter: "Don't wait for me buddy - they surprised us - they came out of nowhere", before pushing on to the Alpha labs to track down a member of the 63 Science Team, and grab a PDA.
As he progressed through the labs, the impressive touches struck us literally at every turn. Such is the detail of the environment; your marine can walk right up to a computer screen and use it in a convincing fashion. Rather than clicking the 'use' button and your screen switching to the computer view, the screen you're looking at, is your view of the computer, and it's so sharp it's completely readable and all the more convincing because of it.
Seeing as you're on the hostile planet of Mars, you won't want to puncture the base, unless you fancy a quick death. Hollenshead revealed that if you do happen to shatter one of the complex's windows it creates a vacuum, forcing the area to automatically seal off from the rest of the base. Eeek. And with all the shooting you're going to be doing, what are the chances of not sending a stray bullet through the windows at some stage?
From what we've seen so far, the game's going to be a pretty gloomy affair, with lots of darkened environments to negotiate, and some chilling, swaying, lighting effects to boot. In one area, all the lights are out, and you need to get to another section of the complex to continue your mission. Sure, you have a torch (and a mind-blowingly effective looking one at that), but you can't shoot and wave your lamp at the same time. Handily, though, a kindly NPC appears bellowing "Don't shoot! I can help! Electromagnetic pulses have knocked out all the lights in the base... c'mon! I can't wait."
Alone in the dark
Naturally, you take him up on his offer, and concern yourself with killing everything in sight while he shows you the way. As you do so, he babbles away like a terrified child in the background, coming out with choice phrases such as "What was that?", "Kill it!!!", "That was close!", "Oh God, thank God it's dead!", "God, don't let it get me!" and so on. It's all very Half-Life, and very atmospheric, but does tend to repeat itself quite often at this stage. At least it gives the game some sense of personality, something every previous Id title sorely lacked.
Later on, Id showed of some explicit examples of the physics in action, with plenty of rag doll 'aftershock' if you're sadistic enough to keep pumping lead into bloodied carcases. Later we witnessed a crane game that tasks the player with clearing barrels with a winch and dumping them in an incinerator. To conclude Hollenshead showed off a white test room, with a tower of boxes stacked 100 high, and a dead marine dangling by the leg. Predictably, the poor limp guy was swung about like a rag doll and smashed into the box stack to show us what to expect in the game with boxes all falling to the ground in a convincing fashion. Admittedly, it wasn't in the same league of impressiveness as anything Valve showed off in its Half-Life 2 footage, but at least it shows Id keen to prove that this element of the game will be an important facet rather than a purely cosmetic way of showing enemies falling down stairs.
What was perhaps telling was Hollenshead's refusal to address the subject of physics in any detail. Asked how Id's solution compares to Valve's, Hollenshead spat: "you'll have to ask Valve that". Although he expanded the answer to "Valve's physics is a mod of the Havok 2 physics engine. Ours is a proprietary solution".
Licence to kill
That's all true, and Id's solution may well be far superior, but at the current time of writing, Half-Life 2 is on track to arrive six to nine months ahead of Doom III, and that's a long time for a company that's business model relies partly on licensing out its tech to other developers.
So when is Doom III coming out? "We have no plans to release it this year" said the Id CEO, and more recent information points to the release date being closer to summer next year, disappointingly. What about the Xbox version? "Vicarious Visions is handing the conversion". Any idea when that'll come out. "No". It's a downer for all concerned, especially Microsoft, which is desperately in need of more titles of Doom III's stature to emerge. Interestingly VV handled the conversion of Jedi Knight II and is also porting Jedi Academy, so judge for yourselves whether it has the technical nous to handle such a challenging conversion.
So why is Doom III taking so long? Is it down to the vast amount of artwork, or did Id shift the goalposts after seeing what Half-Life 2 was capable of? We're never going to get an official answer, and Id fanboys are probably busy penning barbed responses already at the mere possibility that the mighty Texans are playing catch up.
It's a tricky situation for Id; it's arguable that in the short term it could have drawn a line in the sand and released Doom III in time for Christmas. The various playable, real-time presentations certainly bear this out, and even if it lacked certain engine features possibly present in Source, the game would still surely have sold millions on the basis of its stunning art and atmosphere alone.
In many respects, we suspect there's a pride issue at stake here; that Id simply wants to make the game as impressive as possible. And why not? Id always takes the long term view on whatever tech it produces to maintain its reputation as always being a front runner, so that three or four years down the line, publishers and developers still regarded it as the top middleware provider in the FPS genre (and with all the new features being crammed into these engines, potentially all manner of other genres for that matter).
The challenge now will be for Id to keep the pot boiling in the midst of Half-Life 2 mania, and fend off the inevitable taunts that come from showing off a product for, most likely, three consecutive E3s. But in true enigmatic style it'll just batten down the hatches and get on with making Doom III the stunning game we all expect it to be.