Ask a random gamer, PC owner or not, for opinions of Doom and you’ll be lucky if you get one. Ask them for memories and you’ll get a dozen. Even those who’ve never shot the barrel and turned the imp into pixel mush remember it as if they had, its greatness written in lost man-hours, failed exams, smuggled serial cables and soiled pyjamas. Little wonder, then, that creator id Software chose to apply that legendary brand, almost a decade later, to a game that arguably didn’t need it.
As recently as 2008’s QuakeCon, designer Tim Willits and id CEO Todd Hollenshead have leapt, fiercely at times, to the defence of their studio’s biggest commercial hit. “There are three people on the internet that keep making these posts that Doom 3 was ‘bad’,” said Hollenshead in, “and they get no credibility from any other people. There’s some mass misperception out there.” Then Willits, a month later: “Games that sell over three-and-a-half million copies are not bad games.” They’re right, of course. Statistically, the three-million-and-rising club is something of a critical elite. And, yes, there are people out there who found the game difficult, whose opinions have since decayed into the kind of dismissive grunts Hollenshead describes.
Doom 3 was a kludge, part FPS, part survival horror, part modern and part anachronism. As a rollercoaster, it was meticulously plotted, winching players to the precipice with a great opening act, then plunging them into cramp-inducing terror before retrieving them, often with as literal a device as a carriage on rails, back into their comfort zone. And as an environmental mind-game it was ruthless, able to regulate pressure as strictly as a Martian airlock to a point where you could almost feel its grip around the lungs. But somewhere in the mix, things got slightly messy – something often put down to a ‘funhouse’ approach that stems exclusively from 1993.
The analogy was, you suspect, never designed to make Doom 3 a better game so much as a compatible one – a rightful heir to the chainsaw, the fist and that hair-metal grimoire of zombies, Cacodemons and biomechanical titans. ‘Boo!’ was its motto – and what better template, it figured, than the dangling skeletons and Jack-in-the-boxes of a mechanical ghost house. Ask many what they remember of this Doom, though, and they’ll recall a game so spring-loaded you could almost hear it creak. They might even boil it down to one recurring scene. A pile of ammo sits in an alcove black with impenetrable shadow. Knowing the outcome, you reload what you can and prepare to jog the mouse wheel through an increasingly desperate arsenal. You grab the pickup, the place glows red with Satanic glyphs, and you backpedal through weapons and corridors until the ambushing creatures are well and truly dead. Then, somewhere around the next corner, the trap resets.
Fun? Many insist that it is. Some will even call you names – nasty internet names, no less – for not jumping on that trigger, diving into the shadows, chomping the ears off those commie bastards and spitting them into the sky. Those with a milder taste for red meat tend to sit on the fence, paying due respect to some very well-manufactured – but manufactured nonetheless – terror. Others, though, find the relentless, mathematical precision of the whole thing annoying, and eventually numbing. Hitchcock said something about anticipation being better than a bang. Whatever your opinion, you have to concede there’s bang by the truckload here.
If it isn’t in your face, throwing the camera every which way with claws or teeth, the game’s behind you, throwing the camera every which way with claws or teeth. Or it’s bowling fireballs, launching homing missiles and diving across the room in less time than it takes to pull the trigger. It has a casual disregard for the time between visual and physical contact – a time in which many of the best horrors enjoy so much of their action. It’s the time in which Resident Evil 4 teaches you to fear its enemies but also admire their cunning. Silent Hill has you marvel at the bizarre and despair at the tools you’ve been given. BioShock lets you watch its society tear itself apart before its eyes turn on you. And Dead Space, makes you do the lot, mixing things up to make a copycat game unique. The biggest issue in Doom 3 isn’t that you’re given too little time to recover and reset before the next big scare – it’s that you’ve too little time to fight.
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