Opinion: Doom 3 Retrospective
Released in 2004 to a veritable tidal-wave of hype, Doom 3 saw id Software resurrect their famous, groundbreaking FPS IP in stunning fashion. Preceded by an understandable buzz of expectation given the special place that the earlier games held in so many gamers’ hearts, it brought the first-person shooting, demon-blasting action of its now severely dated predecessors kicking and screaming into the 21st Century, complete with a much more overt horror aspect that utilised dark environments, horrific adversaries and copious ‘jump-scares’ to frighten the player.
The game put you in the shoes of the same kind of nameless space marine as in the original Doom, but this time around you were present to witness the emergence of hell into the UAC Mars base, rather than simply strolling in to clean up the aftermath.
The proceedings opened with you arriving for duty on another seemingly uneventful day in the corps, being scanned in through the main entrance and receiving firm orders from your brusque Sergeant to locate a missing scientist over in the communications building. So you made your way over to your destination, picking up a sidearm and security armour on the way, and passing the civvies working down in the engineering rooms, with no immediate semblance of danger upon you. But then you found the scientist in a frantic, desperate and nonsensical state, and all hell – quite literally – broke loose.
From this point on the game thrust you head-first into a chaotic maelstrom of monstrous attackers and gun-blazing action, as you began to fight your way through a base overrun with fiendish demons and zombified or possessed soldiers. Hordes of enemies attacked from the start, necessitating the use of brute force to cut a bloody swathe through these opponents, taking them apart piece by piece with your humble pistol or blasting their heads clean off with a close-range shotgun blast.
Any notion that the metallic corridors, deserted rec rooms or shady science labs could be negotiated through stealth or avoidance strategies was simply laughable. Many of the corrupted human enemies wielded guns and the fireball-tossing imps were the least of your projectile worries. Run and you were dead: this is a game that wanted you to stand and fight.
To this end, you had shedloads of ammunition to draw upon and all the series’ favourite weapons returned, along with a few tasty new additions such as the assault rifle and – proving absurdly powerful – the flying, bladed Soul Cube. Also back for the ride were the much-feared enemies of old; no longer the jerky, pixelated creatures they once were, but now startlingly rendered in all their gory glory.
Every beast, from the humble imp to the bloated Cacodemon, had been super-sized and viciously beaten with the world’s biggest ugly stick, producing genuinely messed-up, hulking entities that had real presence and impact. Then there were the even greater abominations of the boss fights, including a giant humanoid-spider creature, the mutated Sergeant – now grafted into a hover-tank, and wielding a BFG 9000 – and, naturally, the gargantuan Cyberdemon.
Doom 3 did not try to be subtle, and give you long stretches of quiet exploration before springing its surprises. Rather, it was a non-stop rollercoaster ride of thrills and spills; a constant orgy of mindless, and thoroughly enjoyable, violence. That’s not to say it wasn’t scary, of course. When played alone in the dark it could be a hair-raising experience, thanks largely to its horrifically unnerving creature design and prevalent ‘jumps’ that were fairly effective at startling the player, with monsters bursting through doors or attacking suddenly from behind.
One particularly crafty method that id used to instil fear was the thoroughly illogical but undeniably effective flashlight mechanic, whereby the player couldn’t light the way forward with their torch and wield a weapon at the same time, but had to alternate between the two. This meant that you had to choose between prowling pitch-black hallways, vents and rooms with your gun at the ready but immersed in total darkness, or using your torch to increase visibility at the risk of being unprepared for a sudden attack. The subject of widespread parody due to the seeming ineptness of the solider in not being able to simply graft a flashlight to his gun, a ‘duct tape’ mod was soon created, allowing the torch to be ‘attached’ to particular weapons.
The horror tactics wielded by Doom 3 can be justly termed ‘cheap scares’. They are undeniably effective at producing moments of shock (in terms of jumps) or disgust (in terms of creature design and gore) but are ultimately short-term, simplistic horror strategies that the player can rapidly adapt to and immunise themselves against. Initially, the game proved scary and horrific, but once you got used to the constant darkness, the frequency with which enemies jumped-out and the ghastly appearance of your foes, the fear-factor dropped considerably. Clinical psychologists and therapists can cure people of phobias by exposing them either gradually (systematic desensitisation) or suddenly (‘flooding’) to the objects or circumstances they fear; action-horror games like Doom 3 actually indulge in a form of this themselves, as the player becomes gradually used to being confronted by the things they are afraid of, until the sense of panic is gone altogether.
There is a distinction then, between the sophisticated psychological horror of a game like Silent Hill, which disorientates, unnerves, constantly toys with expectations and is ultimately about fear of the unknown, and the blunt action-horror of a game like Doom 3, which startles, shocks and is ultimately too predictable to truly overwhelm the player. The latter approach may make you leap out of your chair, but it’ll never haunt your dreams.
That said, there’s no denying that Doom 3 was a triumphant success as an action game with a horror focus. It boasted thrilling, pulsating and satisfying bloody action, and the game-playing public lapped it up. Millions of copies were sold on the PC alone, while critics praised its technical qualities and accomplished updating of the Doom series’ classic gunning and running gameplay.
There’s also no doubting that Doom 3’s success – paired with that of another action-horror reboot in the shape of Resident Evil 4 a year later – helped pave the way for action-oriented titles to dominate the horror genre. It certainly helped cement the growing perception that audiences in America and Europe had begun to tire of slow-burning, atmospheric chillers that relied on scant resources and less-than smooth combat mechanics to instil fear and panic. Indeed, a prevailing school of thought suggested that what Western gamers really wanted was action-packed adrenaline. Bucket-loads of it.
With id’s reboot making such a formidable splash, and games like The Suffering also proving successful, it appeared that Western developers – who had previously, with a few notable exceptions, been outclassed by their Japanese counterparts in the horror genre – now had a chance to establish their brand of balls-out action-horror as the new dominant force, with the previous buzz-word of ‘survival’ being tossed out in favour of full-on confrontation.
The BFG Edition of the title, set for release on PC, Xbox 360 and PS3 this Autumn, will doubtless see many fans of the horror-FPS revisit the UAC Mars base – not to mention a good number of intrigued newcomers, who are in for a simultaneously sweet and nasty treat…
This is an edited extract from Mark Butler’s book Interactive Nightmares: A History of Video Game Horror, available to download for Kindle, PC, iPad, iPhone and Android.
Get it for just $2.98 from Amazon.com
Get it for just £1.91 from Amazon.co.uk