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After the horrors of the E3 convention centre, we can fully comprehend the concept of a massive demonic invasion. At times, the deafening din of a dozen big name publishers trying to outdo one another coupled with the whooping of thousands of frenetic and sweaty gamers all desperate for their very own DS stylus toy was enough to convince you that this was the very entrance to Hades.
Despite the obvious excitement of getting to play Doom III on Xbox after the interminable wait, it was almost a challenge too far for this embittered hack. Feeling not dissimilar to a five foot girl caught in the mosh pit at Glastonbury, the throbbing mob seemed determined to make the queuing process a memorable one. Next time I'll bring body armour. Scratch that, a cattle prod will do nicely. Security don't check that closely anyway.
Unlike most booths, the Doom III area of the Microsoft stand had the foresight to supply headphones to blot out the cacophony of whooping Americans busy getting pumped, psyched and takin' names. It was to prove one of the masterstrokes of the show. Doom III with headphones is the future.
The demo kicks off in typically moody style, but technically an entire universe away from where it all started 11 years ago. Stuck in a darkened room somewhere on Mars in the Alpha Labs, with just a torch, machine gun, pistol and grenade for company, it's a surprise to see the Xbox carry all this meticulous detail off without too much in the way of compromise, save for a few moments of frame rate loss, which given the game is a few months away from completion is forgivable. Sweating in the glow of blinking console display lights and long sinister shadows, it's hard not to be instantly taken with the visceral intensity. With a background drone of indefinable effects creating an equally vile atmosphere, it's clear this is more than your average run and gun. It's a template for fear.
Clicking a nearby console switch, the door lock releases, and you get your first taste of the action. As far as FPSs go, this is as basic as they come; vile creature from hell emerges out of the shadows, chases scared space marine, space marine pumps lead and vile creature from hell dies a quick death as it crumbles into its own skeleton and vanishes. Rather than overwhelm you with clusters of baddies, from the evidence of the Doom III demo, it's about tight corridors and encounters in ones and twos. We can't speak for whether this is representative of the entire game, but the Alpha Labs sections we've seen over the past two years all appear to follow a similar pattern.
In terms of level design, there's little to say other than it's about as linear as you could possibly imagine, with occasional backtracking to grab a key or enable a console switch. We're unsure how this will translate in the full finished product, but we'd fully expect things to develop from a demo that surely must have been deliberately simplistic for the purposes of the show. Meanwhile, the controls feel slick and the weapons pack a punch - in true Id style, you're looking forward to the weapons as much as the progression of the game itself, and that's always a good sign.
What is undeniable is the fear factor the sparse use of light and shadow engenders. Add in the sound layer and it's almost an unbearable exercise in being alone in the dark as the otherworldly din kicks in to remind you you're somewhere near hell. Regularly zombie marines and the variety of other twisted, malformed and thus far unnamed hell spawn creep up from behind from an area you're sure you'd cleared beforehand.
You can't take anything for granted in Doom III. It's vital to reload after every firefight. The chances are, that next corner you walk round or the next door you walk through will be your next opportunity to snuff it. It might seem like a cheap trick to just keep using the shadows to launch the next assault, but in the right environment (at home, alone, curtains drawn, 5.1 surround set up turned up) the eerie, maniacal and deliberately hellish atmosphere will plainly work. Even in the bowels of hell that is the LA Convention Centre it was a plainly uncomfortable playing experience - and if that's the point, then job done, Id.
You might wonder how on earth Vicarious Visions has managed to do such a fine job of converting the game. So did we. Okay, the PC obviously offers a much better visual experience, with better texturing and sharper resolution, but as far as console games go, you won't find many titles pushing the machine this hard. The character models might not to be everyone's taste, but in technical terms there's little in the way of compromise - and take the possibilities of FPSs to 'a whole new level'. The shambling zombies might not be the most imaginative thing in the world, but in this context it'd be stupid not to wheel out this most overused of gaming clichés. Still, as mighty fine as the backdrops undoubtedly look, with the most insane level of detail possible right now, it's a shame there's little evidence of destruction - other than pre-defined moments when monsters decide to burst through walls or whatever.
Where Doom III undoubtedly succeeds is through sheer technical brute force, overlaid with a surprising degree of subtlety in terms of its atmosphere. No-one should expect a revolution of gameplay design, but as an experience that pushes the right buttons it does precisely what fans of Id titles would hope. With Live play thrown in, there's plenty to look forward to, and we left with our cynicism buried. Check out the official Xbox trailer and die.
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