Critical Contrast – E2DOOM3

So In the last CC we (well me, this isn’t a democracy) looked into what made the original Doom (1993) so memorable – a fast paced game of projectile avoidance and quick decision-making, where keeping on the move and at a distance is king. If we take this breakdown as red, then Doom 3 (2004) isn’t a very good sequel, trading the fast paced dance of death with multiple enemies for tight, claustrophobic environments sparsely populated with tougher, harder hitting denizens of hell, who ambush the player more often than giving them a fair chance.

It’s not a bad game though, flawed in some cases sure but still in my opinion underrated, and the main cause of the diversion is its focus on the aesthetics of Doom rather than its gameplay.

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Art by Agent Scarlet

Doom 93’s aesthetic choice is based on two ideas. Principally, Doom is a mirror and love letter to the late 80s/ early 90s culture of gory action, sci-fi and horror movies mixed with a love of Dungeons and Dragons and heavy metal. It’s also one giant, irreverent middle finger raised at the Satanic Panic rife in Reagan America. Its loud, brash, and dangerous, and perfectly in service to the gameplay.

Doom 3’s aesthetics naturally have similar origins, but they champion something else- ID tech 4, Doom 3’s new engine, whose biggest feature was realistic lighting and shadow effects.

Of the range of influences on offer, the horror genre suited these technical revelations best, and good horror isn’t loud and brash, its slow burn tension; the unknown, the fear of something lurking unseen in the shadows. A fast paced open bullet hell would run counter to this, so Doom 3 shed its run and gun roots and became a corridor crawl.

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Doom 3 is a slower, more deliberate horror shooter, immersing the player in the world of a dead-end corporate facility on Mars- a claustrophobic, industrial prefab, almost like a submarine in its cramped, utilitarian design. It’s denizens are characterised by cabin fever, stuck 225 million km from home and with no breathable atmosphere, and realising too late that mars is a shitty, shitty place to live.

Then demons invade and kill everyone.

Doom 3 replicates this feeling of paranoia by engaging the player in its lighting and environmental design, stranding them  in almost complete darkness, with nothing to light the way but a handheld flashlight. The Flashlight is equipped in lieu of a weapon- a somewhat clunky mechanic cynically ripped apart on the game’s release, but like Silent Hill’s lacklustre combat or Resident Evil’s tank controls, it deliberately put the player at a disadvantage, making them choose between lighting the way but being unarmed, or able to defend themselves with no idea where the next attack will come from. The latter is the optimal choice, forcing players to navigate the game’s horror atmosphere by the sparse light of blood soaked computer screens, the sci-fi clicks and whirls of industrial machinery, and the fiery eyes of hellspawn coming towards them. And they will come from everywhere.

The demons of Doom 93 draw heavily from the classic designs of hell- plenty of hooves, plenty of horns, and a lot of red skin on show. They’re colourful, popping out of the environments and easy to pick from the crowd and prioritise. Doom 3 forges its own visual path for the denizens of hell, and although it brings back all the old faces, it changes them to suit its new ideals, and introduces a few new faces to double down on the horror. 2004’s menagerie is grey skinned and bulky, letting them blend in with the shadowy base environments, whilst a predilection for large, thick foreheads and insectoid attributes lends them the unnerving horror of the other, highlighted in the new guys- the arachnid Trite and the half dragonfly, half baby, all disconcerting Cherub.

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Doom 3’s combat rhythm relies on the principle that the player is never safe from these horrors, and punishes those who’d treat it like the original, ploughing their way through the darkness and into an early grave. Demons hit fast and hard, and combating them requires a slow, methodical approach, accepting of the fact that an ambush likely lies around every corner, through every door, and especially upon picking up an item at the end of a corridor. This approach is rewarded however, and the player will soon pick up the environmental cues surrounding an ambush, and greet their devious foe with a face full of buckshot. If you’ve played a From Software game (particularly Bloodborne) it’s pretty much the same gameplay loop in Doom 3, albeit not as well executed, relying too much on teleporting demons behind the player.

So what we have in Doom 3 is a highly atmospheric survival horror, pushing the cautious player though blood soaked corridors characterised by fantastic lighting and sound design, wary of every turn knowing that one mistake could easily be their last. The problem? The title. Doom 3 changes so much but it’s what it keeps that hampers it most, and bringing along the same aesthetics and inspirations from the 93 original into a darker, more serious world of 2004 forces us to take them seriously.

To reiterate, demons from hell are invading mars in the future, and there are chainsaws, skeletons with built-in rocket launchers, and a weapon literally named the Big Fucking Gun- the work of an irreverent middle finger lacking in respect for those taking Satanic Panic seriously… being taken seriously.

This core conflict permeates everything, from undermining the System Shock 2 style audio logs scattered throughout the base (which more or less boil down to “Mars is a bit creepy at the minute” then a cabinet code containing supplies), the full roster of classic weapons, many of which in this new style of gameplay range from superfluous to too dangerous to use, to the demons themselves, who in losing their hordes ironically lose their individuality, charging at the player irregardless of their former roles and interesting quirks.

Sadly, Doom 3 is a good game hampered by its lineage.

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