I recently began replaying the Doom series from beginning to end, partly because I hadn’t done so since the launch of 2016’s reboot and partly because I needed something to fill the gap in between the releases of Pokémon Let’s Go and Super Smash Bros. Ultimate.
I don’t have much to say about the original Doom and Doom II that hasn’t already been said by others – they remain two of the most significant games of all time, having both contributed to the creation of a genre that has now proved to be one of the most popular and lucrative in gaming history. Combining a death metal aesthetic with fast-paced, push-forward gameplay and a dark sense of humor, they remain as charming to me as they were the first time that I played them.
However, the game that I was most excited to revisit on this replay – and one that I feel constantly gets forgotten in the grand scheme of the franchise’s history – was Doom 3, 2004’s reimagining of the original 1993 Doom. Well, perhaps forgotten is the wrong word – the game was critically acclaimed upon release, and marked a significant step forward for both id Software and the franchise in general. However, there’s no denying that in the pantheon of Doom games, Doom 3 is rarely discussed as much as its predecessors - especially now that 2016's Doom has embraced the style and tone of those original two games.
If Doom and Doom II were homages to the gung-ho, schlocky action films of the 1980’s then Doom 3 is Doom done in the style of Half-Life: a lone marine working his way through a devastated scientific facility scenically located on Mars, waging war against an army of demons while attempting to uncover exactly what happened to unleash this horror. At the time, it was an inspired direction in which to take the series, although one that brought criticism that id had ceased innovating in the genre and had instead begun to follow trends set by other studios.
Doom 3, in its efforts to serve as a more realistic interpretation of the events of the original Doom, strips away that game’s tone in favor of a more reserved approach. No longer does it feel like you’re moving at the speed of light with a godly arsenal of weapons that would strike fear into the heart of Satan itself; rather, Doom 3 depicts Mars City’s demonic invasion as one might imagine it would happen in real life, replacing your sense of power with one of dread as you anticipate a demonic attack around every corner. While the gunplay still feels like Doom, it’s couched in the overall aesthetic of a survival horror game, aided by some phenomenal lighting and sound effects that still hold up fourteen years later.
There are hidden compartments everywhere – despite presenting itself as far more linear than its two forefathers, Doom 3 still rewards exploration, with hidden ammo caches and health drops hiding where you might least expect them. However, the demons can also exploit these hidden areas – you’re constantly encouraged to watch your back for fear that a wall might suddenly fall away to reveal a stray zombie, or that an imp might have scurried down to your level from a vent in the ceiling. You’re encouraged to treat health and ammo as valuable resources not to be expended lightly, as one surprise attack could render you in dire need of medical attention with little aid to be found nearby.
Doom 3 also replaces the series’ iconic death metal soundtrack with something altogether more unsettling – ambient noise. Rattling pipes, strained metallic groans and hissing steam all pervade the halls of Mars City, forcing the player to remain ever-alert. Was that just steam from a vent, or was that a door opening? Did that sound come from the ladder that just dropped, or is something waiting for me at the top? Was that a crying baby I just heard?
This ever-present sound goes a long way towards making the UAC’s barracks, sewers and labs feel like an actual, hostile place rather than a welcoming sandbox. And make no mistake, this sound is ever-present, even when accessing your PDA to review e-mails and listen to audio logs; this means putting your gun down becomes a tactical choice, one only to be made when you’re sure you’ve cleared an area. In Doom 3, every action has a consequence.
Doom 3’s storytelling is also some of the best that id Software has ever produced – one of the benefits of Doom 3 being a reimagining of the original is that the writers clearly put thought into how such a cataclysmic disaster could take place on such colossal a scale.
The answer, as it turns out, is corporate ignorance.
Throughout the game, you can collect the PDAs of fallen UAC staff, each of them containing various e-mails and audio logs chronicling the final days leading up to the fall of Mars City. These missives are written with care, each one feeling unique despite the fact that id was clearly working with a limited stable of voice actors and resources, and each one granting you a different angle through which to view the cataclysm before you.
Some of these are clearly designed to induce dread or foreshadow the inevitable, such as when reports of missing personnel and weapons are revealed to have been increasing in the weeks and months leading up to the demonic assault. Others, however, are downright hilarious, such as when two technicians, in e-mail correspondence, note the absolute absurdity of the notion that the UAC would readily supply a Mars outpost with an overstocked shipment of chainsaws. Another memorable interaction reveals that a supervisor changed all of the storage locker codes in his jurisdiction to 1-2-3 because his employees couldn’t retain anything else. Despite the adoption of a horror-based atmosphere, id still managed to infuse Doom 3 with a sense of humor that provides significant levity in the midst of dark moments.
At the end of the day, I find Doom 3’s interpretation of the UAC chilling because of its sense of personality – by the time you’ve put together most of the pieces regarding how the invasion started, it all feels frighteningly realistic. Specifically, it feels like the result of a badly managed company; PDAs reveal complaints of lack of proper communication between different departments, ignorance of the psychological toll being taken upon UAC staff, and the sense that the UAC is a company that values its products more than its employees. By the end of the game, Doom 3’s most pressing question isn’t “how did a demonic invasion take place on Mars?”; rather, it’s “why on earth would anyone work here?!”
Yet there are also moments of humanity sprinkled in between the exposition – employees arranging to get together after work to decompress, or touching e-mails from family back on Earth. In one memorable e-mail, two UAC scientists bond over their mutual experiences with sexism perpetrated by an engineering supervisor. In another, an arrogant lab technician expresses petulant anger at the notion that he hasn’t been invited to the staff D&D game. All of these moments flesh out the UAC staff to the point where it’s easy to feel genuinely sorrowful for some of them – most of them were just passionate workers who had homes and families to return to when the work was done – and now it never will be.
When placed in comparison with the 2016 reboot’s UAC, which is really just a Satanic cult disguised as a powerful conglomerate, Doom 2016 feels somewhat hollow. There’s no sense of redeemability to any of what’s happened to UAC employees in Doom 2016 – they’re all just unabashedly evil. In Doom 3, you get the sense that what happened on Mars could have been avoided had the right people been in charge – it feels like an impressively timely story, even fourteen years later.
In this game, the UAC is a company making brilliant scientific strides – they’re creating renewable fuel sources and studying ancient civilizations. Then one bad seed goes awry, and suddenly demons are on Mars. The true villain of Doom 3 isn’t Hell – it’s corporate mismanagement at the highest echelons of power, which feels… accurate.
Especially in 2018.