Doom 3 Review ★★★★★

Through the beams of my headlights, I could see the FedEx shipping box propped up against my garage door. It was 10:10 pm on an unusually cool August night. I had just arrived home from work. I had the house all to myself, and the game that I had been waiting for years to play was finally here - Doom 3.

After a quick install and configuration, using FRAPS to ensure my framerate stays above 30, I settled upon "High" quality at 1024 x 768 with 4x aa, all while trying not to see too much of the game before I "really" began. Once set, I turned out the lights and cranked up the volume.

A commanding voice directs my spacecraft to land; I receive orders to search for a missing scientist. I had to see everything, spending a full hour exploring the Martian base before even firing my first shot.

And then, it begins. With the words, "The devil is real. I know, I built his cage," Mars City transforms itself into a 21st-century dark ride. When I was growing up in 1970's Pittsburgh, one of my favorite thrills was to ride the Ghost Ship at Kennywood Park. Ultraviolet skeletons and psychedelic ghouls popped out of the darkness. Even though I visited here every May with my school class, I still jumped at the "surprise" splash of water when the ride ends. I like being scared. Doom 3 was about to become my new Ghost Ship.

Kennywood Park's Ghost Ship

Kennywood Park's Ghost Ship

Except that this dark ride doesn't last just a few minutes. In fact, moving from one room to the next sometimes takes several minutes in itself. With each footstep a possible trigger for another zombie spawn, I moved hesitantly. The distant cries of Marines succumbing to God-knows-what were perfect examples of the imagined being more terrifying than the realized. Trap doors, false walls, and pitch-black corners held legions of the undead, ready to spring out at the slightest provocation. I played on a 76-inch projected screen with 5.1 surround sound. With the volume way up. In a dark, empty house. Suffice to say I was immersed.

Doom 3 was clearly capable of rattling my bones, but after a while I needed a break. The time was now well after midnight. I sat at my computer trying to clear my mind by surfing the Web. Not five minutes later, the power in my house went out and I heard a distant "pop."

I had just exited the terrifying dark corridors of Doom 3 to find myself, alone, in a dark, silent, rural house with nothing but the light of my cell phone to pierce the night. Why was the power out? There were no storms, no lightning, no wind. It could only be zombies. Surely the yard outside was crawling with the flesh-eating undead. I knew it was irrational to seriously think that this was anything other than a routine power outage. Zombies aren't smart enough to cut the power. I was terrified. I called my mother. I'm 39. I'm not kidding.

I have to give 5 stars to any game that scares me enough to call my mother in the middle of the night. (By the way, we talked for 90 minutes and after a few tense moments while she checked the TV for a possible Fox News Alert it was a fun call. I never did discover why the power went out, but BG&E had service restored by 3am.) Doom 3 has been critiqued by some as an old-school linear shooter, but it is such a well-crafted experience that I have had more fun playing this game than any single-player game I have ever played before.

The experience is intense like no other. Thoughtfully so. The decision to force either a flashlight or a weapon is a brilliant gameplay device. This ride is all about being scared, and that means sometimes fighting blind. It means not knowing how many foes are surrounding you, but getting a hint by hearing a nearby growl. Or several.

Game balance builds in intensity as the game unfolds. Newer, more powerful enemies are matched by your acquisition of even more powerful weapons. I played on the Veteran difficulty setting and was frequently overcome by the force of the heavier-hitting demons and occasionally by swarms of the lesser foes. Pacing is intense -- I needed frequent breaks and could rarely play for more than an hour at a time.

The story unfolds through in-game cutscenes, emails and audio journals reminiscent of those in System Shock 2. The voice acting is excellent. Especially noteworthy is the voice of United Aerospace Corporation. The contrast between the slick presentation in the UAE video disks and their catastrophic content is rather comical - "Safer worlds through superior firepower" - as is the satirical use of spam from Martian Buddy.

Doom 3's level of polish and scripting detail pushes gaming's production values to new heights. Hollywood blockbusters and video games may someday merge into a single form of entertainment. If that happens, it will have been because of titles like Doom 3. While some have criticized Doom 3 for being a repetitive shooter, which to me is like criticizing Myst for having too many puzzles, this game is in my mind a masterpiece - the current pinnacle of the survival horror genre. The way I see it is this: you can either roll with the fun and actually enjoy the thrill ride that is Doom 3, or you can hang with the too-macho-to-be-heard-screaming crowd. The choice is yours -- I'm having fun. Just so long as my mom is only a phone call away.

- Last Update 1/08/11