Fifteen years ago, id Software released Doom 3, a game with enormous expectations. Join me as I consider the shortcomings that kept it from becoming a true classic.
Doom 3 is a conflicted game. Meshed within its shadowy corridors are two contrasting designs: that of a corridor shooter and that of immersive horror. Rare is it that I play a game in which every few steps I am being torn between two sets of conflicting design, yet Doom 3 has remained such an experience for me.
As a corridor shooter, it succeeds, but as a first-person immersive horror game, it underwhelms. This half-and-half design makes Doom 3 an example of a potential masterpiece that was held back, not necessarily by poor talent or bad design, but by conflicted and under-realized design.
The Phenomenal Doom 3 Hype
I think first it’s important to consider the enormous hype for Doom 3. Its hype was larger than life and, were it not for Half-Life 2’s reveal, Doom 3 would have easily been the most eagerly awaited PC game at the time.
id co-founder John Carmack first revealed the Doom 3 engine at Macworld in 2001. Henceforth, the consensus among the gaming press was that the Doom 3 engine was the most impressive graphics engine to date. At E3 2002 this was cemented further: Doom 3 won the show and the gameplay demonstration there left attendees in disbelief. It also hints at a very different game than what we received: a large Mars City area, a rougher industrial look, crouching in cover while monsters patrolled by, and a slower pace to the action with a more deliberate placement of enemies.
Every mouth-watering preview of Doom 3 from then and through 2003 and ‘04 showed off graphics from the future. They also demonstrated that Doom 3 would be a new step for id Software; this wasn’t just going to be Doom in a new graphics engine. This was to be an immersive horror experience. It would wrap us into a pulse-pounding narrative. Such a narrative and atmospheric focus was a new direction for the company.
Indeed, previewers like GameNow and GameSpot described the slower pace and the additional survival-horror components. These impressions came from preview builds, but the point stood: Doom 3 was going to be a different kind of experience. Whether it was the shadowy corridors, the tense atmosphere, the handheld flashlight, or the PDA entries, the design of Doom 3 was going to differ substantially from earlier games in the series. An interview GameSpot conducted with Tim Willits, lead designer on the game, suggests so as well.
It’s not that the game didn’t do this at all. Most of the game is dark and in shadows, and there are plenty of attempts at immersive horror. But there is no substantial change at the core of the experience. The E3 2002 demo, trailer, and the other peeks at the game suggested an experience more informed by Half-Life and survival horror, but the final result was still a basic first-person shooter at heart. There was a greater emphasis on corridor-shooting than in the first two Doom titles, which each had several large open spaces, but Doom 3 was still very much just an FPS. The design attempts at immersive horror and atmosphere were each underwhelming.
Nobody Does Corridor Shooting Better
First, I’ll look at what Doom 3 did right. While id may not have known how to craft an immersive narrative experience, they knew how to make a shooter. Doom 3 defied the “new age” shooters of the time. There were no vehicle segments or turret segments, you could carry up to nine weapons (10 if you include a special item late in the game), and the focus of the gameplay was squarely on shooting demons. Even though some contemporary tropes like a stamina bar were present, they did not compromise the shooter nature of the game. Suffice it to say, if you wanted to shoot tons of demons and baddies in shadowy corridors, this game delivered.
There was the occasional break in the action. One part requires players to operate a small crane to remove toxic barrels from a room, for example. There are some other segments that add a unique element to the flow of gameplay, like where you have to follow a large, glowing cryo-tube through a completely dark area. id also placed a couple “choose your path” moments. One of these is at a key story point. Overwhelmingly, though, the game is a linear corridor shooter. This part on its own is a blast. To this day I still don’t think there’s any team of people quite like id that can make an old-fashioned FPS—not a huge surprise, given they invented it.
Amazing Visuals (and Some Solid Audio)
One other positive: Doom 3 looked phenomenal. Seeing it in action, after having seen it only in previews, was awesome. I could hardly believe I was seeing such a game run on my PC. Doom 3 was the game from the future. Far Cry had given a little taste of the graphical prowess Doom 3 displayed, but Doom 3 still amazed. It looks great to this day and remains a testament to the genius of Carmack and the days when id was an independent powerhouse.
The designers knew they had an amazing graphics engine to show off. Throughout the game, you’ll see highly detailed machinery animating, usually around light sources. Indeed, Doom 3 is as much about looking at cool, intricate computer parts and machinery as it is about anything else.
While visually stunning, at least some of the audio is noteworthy. Much of the atmospheric ambiance is very well done. There are several moments, such as after the monorail cart has crashed and you’re outside Delta Labs, or in closets or storage areas, where there are engaging sound effects. One of my favorite sections in the game, Central Processing, has a sequence that reminds me of a Thief mission in sound: levels of computer systems and network cables are enlivened with a delicious set of moody beats.
If Doom 3 had just been a corridor shooter with great graphics and atmospheric audio, it would have excelled. However, there was that other part to the game: the immersive horror narrative part. In that regard, Doom 3 failed to achieve anything special. It barely made a thud.
The UAC's Weak Worldbuilding
First, Doom 3 simply did not establish a sense of place. To create an effective horror atmosphere, especially one in the vein of “something’s gone wrong,” you need to craft an engaging place and make it believable. Doom 3’s opening was like Half-Life’s in purpose, but whereas Half-Life created a connection to the Black Mesa Research Facility through chilling suspense, Doom 3 had a mildly engaging introduction that failed to connect players with the UAC.
The most effective part of Half-Life’s tram-car ride at the start is how it established Black Mesa as a place. You were taken through much of its structure while a narrator explained different parts of the facility and the work going on there. An ominous music track played in the background to set the tone. You were then given an area to walk around in and become acquainted with the personnel. While Doom 3 had something of the latter, there is nothing like the former. A tram ride through areas of the UAC base and across the Martian surface, while derivative of Half-Life, would have much more effectively created a connection between players and the UAC as a place. There is a monorail ride later in the game, but one would have been more appropriate and effective at the start. Maybe in the original Doom this kind of thing doesn’t matter, but given what id was purportedly going for in Doom 3, the UAC needed more realization before Hell broke loose.
As is, Doom 3 starts with an in-game cinematic of a transport ship arriving on Mars, then you’re dropped into a cramped and claustrophobic area. You continue to watch in-game cinematics as the camera comes out of the player’s face and off toward other people speaking. Proceeding from here, you only see small areas of the base, most of it empty or sparsely filled.
After the introduction, Doom 3 fails to ever establish a solid sense of place. The UAC is neither believable nor fully abstract. It lies somewhere in between, not quite the enticing quasi-realness of the original Doom’s maps nor the lived-in and believable Black Mesa. This works against the game's atmosphere because you don't get a sense that something has gone wrong. One of the brilliant effects of Half-Life's world design was that you felt the weight of the Black Mesa incident. Everything seemed wrong, and the aliens felt out-of-place: they shouldn't be here! This was just another day at work in a normal place, and now everything is messed up! In Doom 3, you don't get that sense. The demons may as well be at home in the UAC, like it's where they've always lived. You don't get a sense that a grand incident has taken place that has compromised the UAC. It feels like the UAC was built for the demons, ready to house them as the player walks through. It's just another game world backdrop—a research facility level.
I imagine the Doom 3 designers encountered some of their greatest challenges from melding classic Doom with a new, pseudo-realistic environment. Unlike in the original Doom, with abstract design right from the beginning, Doom 3’s UAC is supposed to be like a “real place.” It’s more comparable in idea to Half-Life’s Black Mesa research facility than it is to the original Doom’s UAC. There are office areas, eating areas, kitchens, soda machines, information terminals, and then other areas that represent the scientific or military presence in the base.
Juxtapositions of this environment with Doom tropes is odd. The BFG-9000, for example, has its own information terminal, treating it as a serious scientific invention. The oddest moment comes with the berserk powerup. A Doom staple, it feels out of place in Doom 3.
In Delta Labs 2B, there is also a section with information terminals on some of the captured demons. The scientists very conveniently began nicknaming the big one a “Hell Knight.” But when they didn’t know the place they were was studying was Hell, why would they have come up with such a name? To match the classic Doom demon, of course. “Behemoth” or “goliath” would have been more plausible in this circumstance.
Even more out of place are the “monster closets.” You will pick up an armor shard and have a section of the wall fall down right in front of you with an imp behind it, leaping out, for example. Some of these monster closets will occur two or three times in a row. Doom 3 will try to create a realistic environment, but, while constructing that, will be more than happy to throw it away in favor of something as obviously game-y as monster closets.
At one point there is an area clearly setup just for the chaingun: a series of hallways that lead to a room where the gun is on the floor. There is no purpose to this area for the UAC; the only point to this area is to create a dramatic reveal of the chaingun. These monster closets and similar, unjustified areas are straight out of classic FPS map design. The problem is id operated on this design at the same moment they wanted to craft a believable world, and thus continually compromise their efforts either way.
In addition to weak world building, there is no cohesive atmosphere of dread. Doom 3 relies on jump scares and separate “pockets” of atmospheric horror to frighten players. Since a believable sense of story and atmosphere is not established, the jump scares and horror areas are disconnected from the main drive of the game.
Even the most effective jump scare moments don’t click. In one of them, during Alpha Labs Sector 4, you can walk into a corridor off to the side. This corridor turns left into a shut door that won’t open. At this door, you’ll hear a little girl’s voice behind you say, “Come on, hurry.” After this, little bloody footprints appear on the floor, and horrifyingly come step by step toward you. On its own, this moment could have been much more frightening than it is. But there is no reason to be frightened by a little girl’s voice here. There is no mystery about the UAC, as little mystery as there can be when every horror it houses jumps right into your face. The only adversaries you have been engaging in Doom 3 are dozens of demons. Had there been a young female character established, or some sense of mystery and suspense, moments like these might have worked. But in Doom 3, you know your enemy and fight them nonstop. Thus this moment, and ones like it, break the flow and seem odd and random.
A central issue here is an identity crisis with Hell. The center of Doom 3’s horror is Hell. This is where the suspense lies. But which is Hell: hordes of demons to shoot, or whispers, laughs, and cries of “help me”? It is neither fully serious nor fully ridiculous, but somewhere in between. This leads to silly contrasts: one moment you’re blowing away an army of demons, then the next you’re climbing a ladder and hearing someone say “help me.” There is simply no contextual reason to be scared, and there is a large disconnect between those two moments of gameplay.
Speaking of Hell...
One of the most questionable design choices behind Doom 3 is the length and placement of the Hell segment. Rather than being an endgame level, Hell lies roughly after the first two-thirds and before the last third. Additionally, it is a short segment. So much of the game takes place within the confines of the UAC, and larger breaks from it would have improved Doom 3 dramatically. Hell is the one true break from it, and it ends as soon as it begins.
Hell is supposed to the big climax. Every bit of suspense in the game is leading up to Hell: the mystery of what it is, what it’s like. Once it’s been revealed, the shadows of the UAC are less creepy. The problem is that the id designers continued to place suspenseful moments in the game after the Hell segment. But now that you’ve been to Hell, what surprises are left? What mysteries remain? None, which is why the cries and screams and attempts at atmospheric horror fall even flatter in the last third of the game than in the first two-thirds.
Pacing wasn’t off with just Hell. Delta Labs - Sector 1 sits apart like an odd level out. It demonstrates both the greatness and the weakness of Doom 3. Suspenseful and slow-paced, it’s one of my favorite segments of the game and a showcase for what the Doom 3 designers could do. But it’s hard to be gripped by Delta 1 when the cat’s already been let out of the bag. As part of the game’s introduction, such pacing would have been excellent. As is, all the sounds you hear are of demons you've faced hundreds of times. Why be scared by all these roars and stomps when I’ve already slaughtered a million of them?
The late game suffers from this drawback, too. In the Caverns levels, you continue to hear the odd noises—footsteps scurrying, someone crying—every now and then. By this point, you’ve not only been to Hell and back but have blazed through additional armies of demons afterwards. You’re careening towards the endgame. Why be scared of anything? You can’t try to create suspense when there is nothing left that’s a mystery, but that's exactly what the id designers seem to be doing even in the late game.
The placement of Hell and off-the-norm areas like Delta 1 aren’t just examples of weak pacing. They also are instances of a rare exception in Doom 3: breaks in the action. The only break from the UAC is the brief Hell segment, and otherwise it’s nothing but research facility. Half-Life was also mostly the research-facility environ, but it was successful because of the variety in enemies and gameplay it offered. Doom 3 has no equivalents to Half-Life's ingenious touches: the arrival of the marines, the large tentacle beast in “Blast Pit,” the outdoor break of “Surface Tension," and so on.
Doom 3 does have some exterior segments, but these are very underutilized. The brief treks in the Martian atmosphere could have both served as exciting environs to explore and a way to establish sense of place. In Doom 3 there are only brief instances where you go outside, and only one of them, in the Monorail Skybridge level, is substantial.
Doom 3’s got some problems with its demons: they end up being anticlimactic. The main demon of the game, the imp, is a grand example of this. The first encounter with the imp is dramatic; a cinematic shows it crawl from the surface of two pipes before leaping down onto the floor in front of you. However, this is followed by you very likely blowing it away in one shotgun blast. Why instill a sense of fear in the player if it is to be immediately taken away?
There is a similar issue with the small, spiderlike enemy called the trite. This is potentially a very horrific enemy: a spider with an upside-down face as its body. The designers set up the trites' entrance with webbed human bodies and a large spidery shadow while the player is ducking into and crawling between some pipes. But then the drama is killed as soon as a trite jumps out and you shoot it. It immediately pops into a green splat of blood.
The designers also chose to have these enemies come at you dozens at a time. In the first area you encounter them in, they come out of ducts along the flooring nonstop. Half-Life’s headcrabs seem subtle by comparison. Were these frightening arachnids given such subtlety, they may very well have achieved the horror their design should have brought. The trite enemy is Doom 3’s horror design in microcosm. It looks scary, but easily pops, and is poorly implemented such that all potential it had is lost.
Another demon whose horror potential is immediately removed is the cherub. This enemy is half human baby and half locust, and should be terrifying. However, whenever you encounter them, they, too, come by the dozen it seems. As they leap and claw at you, they cease being frightening and become only an annoyance. Why the Doom 3 designers thought that spamming enemies to a ridiculous degree at times was a good idea is beyond me.
Anticlimactic encounters with demons happen throughout the game. In Delta Labs 2B, there is a loud thud near the map’s start and, soon after, a “flame” zombie runs at you. One shotgun blast blows it backwards, flying. Suspense leads to an anticlimax, yet again. The demons never give you a chance to be scared.
The way the demons die doesn’t help, either. As soon as you fell them, they fly backwards like popcorn, and then, not like popcorn, immediately disintegrate into ash. There have been mods created for the game that keep the corpses in place, and technically it’s understandable why this was done for the base game, but the effect takes demons away almost as soon as you encounter them. There are no gnarled corpses to gawk at; every monster in the game vanishes quickly.
This is another example of Doom 3’s grand problem noted above. So often the developers attempt to unsettle you, but when you’re blowing away most everything in your path, you hardly ever feel unsettled. Other first-person games do this very well. The presence of a reappearing child’s ghost in F.E.A.R. lent that game a legitimate sense of unease, and likewise games like Thief achieve horror by making the player feel weak. However, Doom 3 has neither of those traits. It tries to frighten the player when there is nothing to be frightened of.
Now, the larger, more powerful demons can put up a fight, but they are very rare. One of my favorites, the Mancubus, only appears in two levels. The Archvile, one of the late-game baddies, is easy to bring down if you get in close with the shotgun. You feel neither weak nor afraid. True, this is Doom. The original Doom was straight action, and the 2016 reboot embraces the fact that you, a powerful protagonist, are blowing away demons. But Doom 3 was going for horror, yet the designers still made you feel like a typical classic FPS hero: unstoppable.
Conclusion | Good Parts, Bad Whole
Moments in Doom 3 break out that make you think it could have been the masterpiece its leadup promised. On the level of moving through an impressive graphical world while blasting demons, Doom 3 succeeds. Beyond that, it has pockets of great audio ambiance, but ultimately it all failed to connect together into a cohesive whole.
Doom 3 is a game in conflict, a result of id meddling in immersive-narrative realms they should have stayed away from. Yet, I still play it and love the heck out of it after all these years. I check out mods for it. Doom 3 is one of my favorites. Perhaps the answer, then, is to not think too hard about its lesser qualities but, instead, to just enjoy the graphics and demon shooting. If only there weren’t such awkwardly out-of-place and weak attempts at immersive horror to distract from the well-oiled FPS engine and jaw-dropping visuals at the heart of the game, Doom 3 could be a classic.
If you've never played Doom 3, or the original two Doom titles, you can check them out via Bethesda's recent re-releases on Switch, PS4, and Xbox One.