Disturbed workers and marines talk in hushed tones. They relate tales of fear and unrest. No-one knows what they’re scared of, but everyone knows that they’re scared of the same thing. Something is wrong in this place. As you work your way through the marine base, through a relatively cheery decontamination check, past off-duty marines talking in the mess hall, past a traumatised worker being subdued in a medical bay, the sense of foreboding and repulsion quietly becomes choking. It’s a perfectly-paced ‘calm before the storm’ sequence.
Nothing bad happens. Nothing really bad has happened. And certainly at this point no-one can imagine just how wrong this really place is. But the sense that something unknown and all-consuming is invisibly, unstoppably seeping through the walls of reality and ready to take hold is a feeling tangible enough to drown on.
And then, when you eventually complete your goal, having met your commanding officer and navigated the black, industrial nightmare of the underground engineering floors to find the missing scientist you were sent to secure, the whole world goes away in a split-second and an angry snarl of red.
It’s impossible to explain the impact of those fearful, panicked seconds, and the way they bleed rapidly into minute upon minute of horrifying, never-ending, ever-escalating brutality as you work your way back along the now irrevocably changed path you took to get here. I’ll just repeat what I wrote about them in our '59 levels to play before you die' feature a few years ago, because it still stands true today.
You’re suddenly alone in a dark and noisy world of fear and confusion. The people you met earlier are dead, dying, and torn to pieces. Wrecked doors block your path, but reveal enough to show you glimpses of something utterly foul on the other side. Broken screams and prayers crackle over a failing comm system as the whole world is irretrievably torn apart and the building shakes to pieces around you. You’re drenched in that feeling of hopelessly drowning in evil usually reserved for nightmares, and things have only just begun. It’s the best ghost train ever made.
And it is. And while you’re eventually, briefly allowed to calm down and regroup, Doom 3 on the whole does not let up from that point on. Of course, it’s not all-brutality, all the time, but this is a game that wants nothing more than to horrify you into a coma on a consistent basis. And the impact of your birth into its raging, murderous world never leaves you.
And there are so many little things that help the horrible immersion. The manual computer controls that require you to operate their touch-screens as you would in the real world. The discarded PDAs and audio-logs of the dead, which provide you with hints and pick-ups based on their personal experiences of the UAC base, but also draw you a little way along each victim’s personal story, letting you dip in an out of lives past as you try to save your own. Of course, these things have been used countless times in games since, but Doom 3 cemented their use and utilises them as effectively as any game since.
Don’t believe the anti-hype
And then there are the set-pieces. While some interpreted Doom 3’s relentless oppressiveness as one-note, there are brilliantly frantic and creative moments dotted throughout its run time. The frenzied sprints across the bare Martian landscape, searching for oxygen supplies as your breath becomes more panicked and more laboured with every step. Being forced to follow a moving light source as inestimable numbers of hellspawn leap and skitter out of the unfathomably vast, inky black darkness around you. The descent into the almost-Lovecraftian, Escher-inspired stomach of Hell itself…
Above: Kansas. We are no longer there
That second example makes particularly strong use of Doom 3’s strict torch rules, whereby you can only equip either a gun or a flashlight at any given time, meaning a tense play-off between having knowledge of the immediate environment and having the means to immediately deal with it. Again, it was lambasted by many as a cheap trick to heighten the scares and the difficulty, and maybe it was. But for me, the key point is that in respect of that aim, it worked. It really, really bloody worked. But the fact is, even if the stringent torch-rationing isn’t to your taste, it need not be a problem. In fact most of the criticisms levelled at Doom 3 – the slow character movement, the lack of auto-sprint, the seemingly unavoidable, rear-attacking closet monsters – can be easily ironed out in the PC version.
A couple of quick and easy console commands and the download of a small mod or two, and you can be running, gunning, and shining light in the faces of the dark, spiky hordes to your heart’s content. It’s not cheating and it’s no sign of failed design if you feel the need to do so – id puts that console and mod support in so that you can make exactly these sorts of customisations if you want to – and it certainly never detracts from id’s horrific intentions for Doom 3. It just lets you enjoy them in a way optimised for your own play style.
Above: These will haunt your dreams. Might want to get ready for that
So Doom 3, for all the shock and rejection it inspired in certain quarters of the series’ fanbase, is far from the un-id game many believed it to be at the time. Get past the initial knee-jerks caused by the lack of Cyberdemon mobs and the relatively linear, cramped level design, and Doom 3 is quintessentially an id Software game. This is, after all, the company that turned the messy, sinewy impact of the shotgun blast into an artform. The company that values visceral, intense, meaningful second-to-second experiences above all else. The company that, more than any other, leverages powerful, innovative technology in the cause of creating believable, evocative worlds. So when id pours its rich and individualistic DNA into making a pure horror game, whether a pure horror game is what you expected or not, it’s bound to turn out exactly like Doom 3. And that, my friends, is a very good thing.
Just play it in bursts of an hour or two, for the love of God and the sake of your own mental health. By halfway through my first play-through, just powering up my PC would intimidate me to the point of mild palpitations. It will do the same to you, I can almost guarantee it. But you’ll press that power button anyway.
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