Doom 3: BFG Edition review
Blast the past!
This review is intended purely as an assessment of how Doom 3's content and gameplay stand up today. If you're interested in the features and technical aspects of this new version, Digital Foundry will have extensive coverage for you over the next two days.
If anything encapsulates Doom, in all its wide-eyed and gory glory, it is the three letters BFG. In an age where arms manufacturers lobby publishers to include real-life killing machines in FPS games, there's something quite innocent, even sweet, about the idea of shooting a green plasma ball from a Big F***ing Gun.
The BFG does seem to sit oddly, however, in the most recent and somewhat humourless entry in the series. Doom 3 mostly takes place in an oppressive, winding research facility on Mars - a cold metal labyrinth of funnelling corridors, filled with the remnants of the recently deceased and subject to constant invasion from hell's forces. It is an environment designed to induce claustrophobia, always hemming you in and frequently blocking you off. A world that, regardless of the plentiful monsters, is never a nice place to be.
There is one standout characteristic about Doom 3's look, and that is the unique lighting, which can only be described as bizarre. In this world there is no place for ambient light - everything is either visible or totally dark. Outside of your torch, which we'll come to, the light in this world has nothing dynamic about it. Instead, every corner and corridor of pitch-blackness is placed with exquisite and damning precision.
This can be tremendously effective, and it can also be totally ludicrous. You'll come across bulbs that don't illuminate the ceiling they're hanging from, floodlights that stretch a certain distance and then stop dead, and bright panels surrounded by pitch dark. Doom 3 is a game of absolutes, and light is its most brilliant, constant, and overbearing metaphor.
This BFG edition incorporates a version of the popular and necessary 'duct tape' mod, the PC gamer's answer to the original's insistence on a clear line between torch and gun - you couldn't use both at the same time. Here you can, and it's a wonder id ever released the game without this option.
Did Doom 3's developers think blasting randomly in the dark was a source of tension, or terror? It turned out to be neither, but simply a frustration, particularly with the gluey-slow change between them. This light source is an essential counter to Doom 3's biggest addiction, which is turning off the lights and spawning a horde of monsters ready to chomp them some marine. Such situations are still its stock-in-trade, of course, but now at least you can see what you're aiming at.
"The setting is constantly populated with piles of grotesque meatbags, an unerring certainty of conflict that starts off surprising and quickly becomes abrasive."
You're always aiming at something. If Doom 3 delivers anything, it is gunfights by the barrel-load. The setup is always the same. You enter a new part of the environment, move forwards, and lightning-bolt SFX combine with a breathy voice whispering 'pistachios' to herald an incoming wave. Imps, Cherubs, Hell Knights, Cacodemons, Cyberdemons, Ticks and Revenants - the old gang's all here, and plenty more besides. They spawn in groups, at precise locations triggered by your position, and are not troubled by artificial intelligence. These monsters home in relentlessly and hit hard.
This combination of environment and enemy gives Doom 3 an odd rhythm. The setting clearly aspires to horror of the psychological kind, an atmosphere crafted with an almost pedantic touch - best shown in the slow, methodical opening, the first and only sequence of restraint. This setting is then constantly populated with piles of grotesque meatbags, an unerring certainty of conflict that starts off surprising and quickly becomes abrasive. It becomes subconscious. See a stash of items? Get ready. An open room? Lock n' load. It's like The Thing crossed with Attack of the Killer Tomatoes.
But wait, cries the fan, this is what Doom is all about! Constant combat with face-munching beasties, an endless ballet of circle-strafing, fireball-throwing euphoria! But Doom 3 never quite attains this single-minded perfection. The closest it comes, in fact, is the new chapter 'The Lost Mission', included in this edition. This is a one-to-two-hour joyride that cycles through all of the weapons and monsters deliriously quickly, a kind of highlights package that is largely free from the prosaic puzzling of the main game and simply sets 'em up for you to knock 'em down.
"You would think that if Doom's developers id knew how to do anything, it would be to make a gun that bangs and splats with a bit of welly - but no."
But even when it's just about blasting, Doom 3 never quite hits the heights. The restrictive environments play a major part in this; they feel far more enclosed than the first two games and regularly produce fish-in-barrel bulletfests. Doom and Doom 2 were about doing the same thing over and again - and it's worth mentioning, for the three people who haven't played them yet, that both are included in the BFG Edition package. Doom 3 shares that much, but the saminess here begins to feel attritional, even predictable.
This comes down to two things. The world may change textures, but it all-too-rarely changes shape. And the more disappointing factor is the weapons. You would think that if Doom's developers id knew how to do anything, it would be to make a gun that bangs and splats with a bit of welly - but no. From the starting pistol, which is the crappest I have ever used, right the way up to the BFG itself, this armoury is a generic collection of peashooting duds.
The sound effects make them sound like cap guns, while any impact on enemies is minimal until the moment the damage threshold is crossed. At that point the Imp or zombie or whatever apologetically keels over, almost instantly frazzling out of existence as if in shame. This series' greatest pleasure was always getting a shotgun and going as close to a monster as possible before pulling the trigger and booming it into a pile of pink mush. Who could forget the way that enemies seemed to split from the internal force of a good shot, their ribcages bursting out as the viscera unfolded in gooey layers? Doom 3 just doesn't match up.
"Doom 3 is part of the most iconic FPS lineage gaming has, so your mind tries to make it fit that. But in the end, it doesn't."
This is not to say that Doom 3 is a terrible game, because that would be daft. It is even now a competent shooter, and the then-stunningly detailed visuals still hold up, with a bit of squinting. More troubling is the feeling - no, the certainty - that in the last few years we've played countless first-person shooters that effortlessly outstrip this in every other regard.
Doom 3 never stretches to extremes, even when slavishly following its predecessors. It's a game that can startle you, for sure, but one that more often bores, the gunplay a low thrumming drone rather than a high-pitched screech of rage. Doom 3 is part of the most iconic FPS lineage gaming has, so your mind tries to make it fit that. But in the end, it doesn't. The truth about Doom 3, and it breaks my heart to say it, is that it just isn't very good.