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Opinion – Doom 3 Is A Bloody, Forgotten Gem

by Javy Gwaltney on May 19, 2016 at 12:59 PM

Id Software’s latest take on Doom is finally out. Good news: it’s pretty great. I finally got to play a few hours of the campaign last night and really enjoyed the velocity and brutality of the action. It strikes a fine balance between the chaotic difficulty of the first two games as well as the drip-fed progression and upgrade systems of modern first-person shooters.

Also, there’s a button dedicated to whipping out a chainsaw. What’s not to love?

Still, something I’ve noticed over the past few days as reviews and impressions have come in is a resurfacing of criticism aimed at 2004’s Doom 3, id Software’s previous effort to modernize the franchise. That game was a much more aggressive attempt to bring the series into a new era, leaning hard into survival-horror instead of frantic action. Though the game received a decent critical reception, Doom’s diehard fans weren’t really sold on the genre shift.

Without the explosive action that defined the series, Doom 3 just didn’t feel like Doom. It is fair and probably accurate to say that 3 is a bad Doom game and probably the weakest entry in the series. However, the third game, when removed from its brand, is actually a pretty great, spooky time. Imps lurk in the dark waiting to melt you with fireballs while possessed scientists and maintenance workers stumble in your direction, swiping at your face. Blood-covered PDAs and touchscreens feed you information about what caused Mars’ demonic invasion. You’re not an all-powerful badass taking down monster after monster but a considerably weaker standard issue marine who has to use his investigative skills nearly as much as he does his combat abilities.

Again: Doom 3 is very, very un-Doom. But it makes sense. By the time the third game had come out, titles like Half-Life, System Shock 2, and Deus Ex had brought about a sea change for the first-person shooter genre. Arcadey shooting was in decline. There was now a focus on giving players choice, letting them choose how to approach combat, as well as a push to tell compelling, interactive stories. These are things that Doom is not known for but truth be told, fan expectations not withstanding, Doom 3 did a pretty good job of embracing the genre changes and delivering a genuinely interesting experience, one that holds up more than a decade down the line.

Part of what makes the third game work is that its atmosphere is effectively creepy in a way that few games have pulled off, offering a mix of disturbing environmental storytelling as well as jump scares that, while cheap, get the job done, like the “They Took My Baby” scene:

Gameplay scenarios often had you forced into tight corners and dark spaces, frantically firing at imps as they leapt about pipes. One of the most memorable bits of Doom 3 has you leading a poor, doomed scientist through a dark part of the research facility, his lantern the only source of light for the whole level. It’s a segment that successfully shows off what makes the game such a different beast than its predecessors, forcing you to navigate a labyrinth of horrors with the odds against you at every turn.

It’s important to note that Doom 3’s genre shift doesn’t shield it from a number of criticisms it’s received over the years. Even outside of the context of the series' fast-paced violence, Doom 3’s movement is clumsy and often frustrating. The vast majority of weapons feel underpowered, especially the shotgun, and the machine gun is one of the most unsatisfying assault rifles I’ve ever used in a game. But in a strange way the disappointment of these weapons feeds into the third game’s appeal just as much as it does its weaknesses, because Doom 3 operates in a space where you’re both all-powerful, thanks to player agency, and incredibly weak thanks to the tools at your disposal. This combination is nothing new for survival-horror games but it was for Doom and it resulted in a fascinating, if somewhat rough, experience.

Sure, Doom 3 might not have the same gruesome, balletic form of action of id’s latest, but it does stand on its own as a strong action-horror game and one worthy of praise and recognition.

Be sure to check out our Replay of Doom 3.