RAGE

RAGE is the ultimate post-apocalyptic cowboy simulator. But instead of a Mysterious Cowboy Hero, you’re a nanotrite-infused superman who’s just woken up from a century-long cryogenic sleep. Instead of a trusty American Colt or other steed, you ride an off-road buggy with nitrous, dual machine-guns, and rocket launchers. And shootouts are very, very fun.

The future can make for some odd employment opportunities. An eccentric, Pickelhaube-wearing gentleman has just commissioned me to retrieve two bottles of his special “Blueshine” from an abandoned distillery. The journey inside was the easy part. The tricky part comes when I turn the machinery on to bottle the drink; the noise is a siren call to a horde of murderous mutants. The controls for the machinery are accessed via a catwalk that provides a great vantage point for the room’s only means of entry. I use the stairs to set up shop on the catwalk, equip my sniper rifle, and press the button to fill the first bottle. Inhuman shrieking commences almost immediately, and I wait for mutants to start streaming down the tunnels. Here they come! One barrels out of the tunnel to the left; it’s moving too quickly for me to hit it with the sniper rifle. By the time I switch to my assault rifle he’s already jumped onto catwalk’s railing and is intent on doing terrible things to my face. As I unload half a magazine into him and look down just long enough to notice more mutants coming in from the tunnels. My vision shakes and turns red. I got hit from behind. They used the stairs, too. Using a bandage to stay alive I switch to the shotgun and start blasting anything that moves. Eight shells are spent and I need to reload, but still more mutants barrel up the stairs. No time for reloading. It’s wingstick time. I press the button to unleash the three-bladed boomerangs of death at point-blank range. The last mutant to mount the catwalk has his head separated from his torso. Thankfully the machine shuts down and the onslaught stops. I have time to catch my breath before filling the next bottle. For the next wave I opt to deploy a sentry bot; a four-legged robot with a machine gun and a nasty swiping attack. After starting the machine a second time, my sentry bot heads down the stairs to meet the first wave of mutants. It can hold its own, but gets damaged quickly when foes get too close. I use my rifle to keep the mutants at bay from above. When there’s a slight lull in the action I deploy a second sentry bot on the catwalk with me. One mutant, two mutants, three; no problem! Another mutant pops over the railing and the bot leaps to take him out… and misses. I get off a few ineffective shotgun blasts as the mutant barrels straight towards me. Reload! I see my sentry bot shimmy slightly, like a cat ready to pounce. In that moment, I finally get off another shotgun blast which vaporizes the mutant. Just then, my sentry bot leaps towards the mutant that a moment ago was in my face. Momentum propels its powerful blow directly at me with full force, killing me instantly. Murdered. By my own robot. I stare at the monitor in bemused disbelief and press F9 to reload my game. It’s just another day in the wasteland.

That pod has been your home for the past 106 years.

RAGE is the ultimate post-apocalyptic cowboy simulator. If you think back to classic movies set in the American West, the protagonist was frequently a “mysterious stranger” that shows up in town to help the little folk. They’d usually fallen into despair from a pack of faceless bad guys who were around to do nothing other than be the “bad guys”. Mysterious Cowboy Hero steps in, devises some cunning plan to beat the bad guys, and comes out the victor in after few cool action sequences. By the end of the story he’d saved the day, won the girl, and rode off into the sunset. RAGE has a lot of similarities to those Western stories, keeping the core elements but changing the details to fit a more sci-fi apocalyptic vibe. For instance: instead of a Mysterious Cowboy Hero, you’re a nanotrite-infused superman who’s just woken up from a century-long cryogenic sleep. The little folk are a bossy bunch of leeches who have no problem letting you and your special abilities take care of everything. Instead of a trusty American Colt or other steed, you ride an off-road buggy with nitrous, dual machine-guns, and rocket launchers. And the shootouts are very, very fun.

The game begins with rendered cinematic sequence showing asteroid Apophis 99942 and its journey through the solar system, which results in a collision with and complete devastation of earth. Your character is part of the special people chosen to survive the apocalypse, buried safely underground in one of many survival pods called Arks. Resting in cryogenic stasis, you were supposed to awaken when the dust settled and then get to work rebuilding civilization. However, upon regaining consciousness you are alerted to your emergence being 106 years later than scheduled. Your Ark-mates are dead, and the only option available to you is to stumble forward into the brightness and face the wasteland. Ten steps later you almost die at the hands of mutants, twice, saved only by a kindly man with a rifle: Dan Hagar. He drives you back to the Hagar homestead in his buggy, and gives you a few starting weapons. Then the game begins in earnest.

RAGE plays like a first-person shooter with light role-playing elements added to it. There are two major game worlds, the North Wasteland and the Eastern Wasteland. Each wasteland is a large outdoor area with one central hub town and other locations which are explored in missions. Wellspring and Subway Town are the main hubs of activity, and from there you’ll get assignments to carry out missions elsewhere in the wasteland. Inevitably you’ll cross paths with other characters who will give you missions or other odd jobs to perform. Some of them follow the main story arc, such as it is, and some are non-essential side missions. It’s worth noting that each time a character gives you a potential mission, you seem to have the option to accept or reject that particular mission. It’s a false dichotomy, since rejecting the mission simply closes the interaction window. Talking to them again reopens the quest window with the same task you just supposedly rejected. It makes me wonder if there was a more complex quest system that got cut from the final release of the game. At any rate, completing missions will often give you a reward of money or resources or some other benefit. Accepted missions will show up in your missions list, and you can choose which one to pursue at any given moment. If you’re looking for a compelling story or some narrative thread that keeps you coming back for more, I’m sorry to say that there isn’t one. While you’re told five minutes into the game that there’s a struggle between “normal” folk and some authoritarian regime, it’s at least halfway through the game before this is explored in any depth.

At its best, the plot is filler that provides a loose context for the game. At its worst, there are a startling number of similarities to Half Life 2. Dystopian future? Check. Technologically superior authority imposing their will on the broken masses? Check. Robotic sentries that broadcast propaganda? Check. Mission where you break into a prison? Check. Long elevator ride up an impossibly tall tower? Check. At least in Half Life 2 you got to see the villain. In RAGE you’re told a few times that General Cross is the bad guy. He’s the one that rigged the ARKs so he could take power in the new world, leaving everyone else buried. But that’s all you know. You never see him in game or are given specific details about how the Authority came into being. Ultimately, it’s up to you to come to terms with the fact that you’re fighting the bad guy for no other reason than its what you’re supposed to do. RAGE would fall to shambles if the core gameplay itself wasn’t so fun, but I can’t deny the lack of a real story left me disappointed.

When the game begins, you’re at the mercy of the various townsfolk who inhabit the wasteland. More often than not, they’ll send you on what can start to feel like some annoying fetch-quests. Meet person at destination A, he tells you to go to destination B and meet someone. Meet person at destination B and he tells you to do something at Destination C. Do thing at Destination C and return to B, only to tell you to return to destination A. You return to destination A to learn that you have to talk to a different person at destination B. I was just there. But thankfully, the weird backtracking slows down once you’ve been introduced to the system. Once the game allows you to catch your breath and make a decision about what to do, the beauty of the system shines forth. In hub town of Wellspring, the mayor and the sheriff will give you story-based quests. Other inhabitants will request your assistance with side missions of various types. In addition, there’s a job board for other opportunities. Feel like driving your weaponized buggy? Join the sanctioned racing league and compete in different races to earn certificates, which can then be used to upgrade your vehicle. Deliver packages in the wasteland for the Stanley Express. Meet a bartender who offers you cash bounties to take out bandits. Gamble at a casino, play card games, try your luck at holo-chess, play five-finger filet, try memorizing guitar riffs, and on and on. For the most part you’re free to spend as much or as little time as you wish on non-story activities. These things have no real bearing on the story progression of the main game, but add a nice bit of depth and diversion to the wasteland.

The Scorchers DLC has some of the most beautiful vistas in the game.

And what a beautiful wasteland it is! In spite of a few warts, RAGE still owns a proud spot on my list of most beautiful games of all time. As far as I’m aware it was the second game to utilize something called megatextures. I’m not going to attempt to describe what they are here in this post, but here’s a good video about them if you’re interested: Reset Button: Megatextures. The end result is that megatextures allow every pixel of the game world to be unique and intentionally placed. As a result, RAGE’s wasteland looks and feels just like you expect it would. While it’s not quite realistic, it’s also not too far fetched. The overall art design favors a slightly exaggerated take on reality, which permeates every aspect of the game. Where it makes sense, locations are bleak and desolate. There are piles of junk, trash and other detritus where you’d expect them to be. No two rock formations look exactly alike. Unique graffiti dots the landscape. Scrappy shrubs and grass wave slightly in the breeze. Vast canyons and open areas prevent you from ever feeling like you’re stuck “in a level”. To me, the most impressive bit of level design goes to Dead City. The focus is a giant skyscraper of a hospital that’s gradually being taken over by some organic ooze. In order to get there you’ve got to navigate the ruined buildings surrounding it. Ruined apartment blocks, street corner shops, and even an inner-city highway form a natural maze are just some of the landmarks that must be traversed en route to the hospital. Even if the world design isn’t necessarily realistic, it makes sense. It rarely yields to immersion-breaking moments where you wonder, “Why can’t I go there?” Most of the unique locations get at least two missions devoted to them. In order to keep locations from feeling stale and overused, the developers utilized a trick most often found in racing games: the second time you visit a location, you’ll traverse through it backwards or via an alternate route. Generally I’d accuse developers who did this of trying to pad the game’s length, but the way the routes are laid out really feels ingenious. Odds are you won’t even notice what’s going on until the end of a mission, at which point you realize how clever the design was.

Click on this to see the full size; there are a lot of details on these characters!

The great design isn’t limited to the game environment. Characters in the game world are wonderfully detailed, both visually and in their animation. One character, Doctor Kvasir, has a shoulder-mounted robot head that tracks Kvarsir’s hand gestures as he speaks. Stanley of the Stanley Express delivery company, wears a bomber’s helmet and has stamps stuck to his face. One elderly woman wears glasses. But in keeping with the post-apocalyptic scavenging locale of the game, her glasses are clearly halves of two different pairs, joined by a wad of tape. There’s so much detail in the appearance and mannerisms of each individual that they actually feel like a character with a personality and life. They’re not just waiting around to give me my next mission. Unfortunately, not all the character designs are laudable. Most of the female NPCs are rather textbook examples of sexism and objectification in video games. Of the few female characters present, I only counted two that were actually clothed according to what you’d expect for a harsh apocalyptic future. The rest have quite a bit of skin exposed that’s disproportionate to any of the male characters. Sarah, start of The Scorchers DLC, even gestures to her overly-revealing outfit and asks, “Does this make me look fat?” This portrayal, to me, is a few notches below the tasteful standard for video games.

I’m having a difficult time thinking how this screenshot could be worse…

So how does it play? Well, it’s been said that one of the original inspirations for the game was “muscle cars in a desert setting”. That game idea later morphed into something like “muscle cars with rocket launches in a post-apocalyptic wasteland”. Combine id Software’s famed ability to make great shooters with their newfound ability to make games with vehicle combat and you get RAGE. The first-person combat is as good as it’s ever been. Driving is fluid, responsive, and surprisingly fun. In fact, the driving mechanics are so good that many people, including myself, still hope to see id make a dedicated racing game someday. One of the reasons why it just works in RAGE is that you’re not really forced to do a lot of racing if you don’t want to. Your buggy is a necessary mode of transport to get from one mission to the next, and I quite enjoyed starting at the gorgeous scenery along the way. A few times you’ll be required to participate in races to further the story mode, but none of them are overly difficult. I for one enjoyed the varied race modes and spent quite a few hours on them.

Though the developers clearly spent a lot of time making sure the vehicle combat felt just right, they spent even more time making sure the shooting felt just as good. One thing that makes the gunplay so engaging is the varied enemy types. id did a great job giving each opposing faction a different combat style, so how you fight will be determined by the types of enemies you face off against. Mutants are fast, agile, and tend to rush you. They can make use of the environment to climb on walls and ceilings, swinging down from above. Don’t bother sniping unless you have the advantage of distance. Mercenary and bandit groups are better armed, use cover, flank you, and try to flush you out of cover with grenades. Authority forces are well armored and pack firepower, you’ll need to hit them hard and fast. There are a few other special enemies that require quick thinking and plenty of firepower to take out. Thankfully, weapons feel fantastic and responsive. Everything from the lowly settler pistol to the Authority pulse cannon are a joy to use, thanks in large part to alternate ammo types. Want your pistol to pack a bit more punch? Buy some Fatboys! Fatboys are larger bullets that deal twice as much damage as a standard round. Go one step up and use Fat Mamas. They do four times as much damage as a standard pistol round, and they can travel through enemies. Upgrade shotgun shells to pop rockets, essentially mini-grenades. Use the crossbow with standard bolts or explosive-tipped darts. Equip machine guns with armor-piercing rounds, and so on. The alternate ammo types ensure that each weapon remains relevant through the course of the game. Assuming you have enough of each ammo type, you’re free to approach every combat situation exactly as you want to. One of the things that makes combat so satisfying is the way your enemies respond to being shot. Hit a bandit in the leg while he’s rushing you, and he’ll stumble and fall over. Wing a mercenary and he’ll stop shooting in order to reset his footing. Land a shot in someone’s face and they’ll drop their weapon as they grab their head with both hands. It’s satisfying video game violence in the most entertaining of ways.

In spite of its flaws, I find RAGE to be a uniquely fun experience among shooters. Its pseudo open-world feels more meaningful than Borderlands and the action is clearly a precursor to 2016’s excellent DOOM. RAGE took a lot of criticism when it was released, and I think most of it was frustration with the game’s technology rather than the game itself. As a result the game’s reputation is tainted, and I’d say that’s rather unfair. RAGE stands the test of time and can proudly stand among the best titles ever produced by id Software. It’s the perfect game for those people who want to be a cowboy, taking their rocket-launching steed right into the heart of a pile of mutants.

Why you’ll love it:

  • Action, action, action. The shooting is done as well as anything id Software has ever released.
  • Vehicle combat is fun without feeling overbearing.
  • Gorgeous art style and visuals still look good today.
  • It’s a great game for people who don’t like to feel rushed.

Why you might not love it:

  • It’s not a true open world. At its core, there is still a sequence of linear missions.
  • Some of the visuals up close are pretty ugly – but please don’t let that distract you.
  • The storytelling is only a shadow of what it could have been.
  • The ending. You push a blue button.

Where to Purchase:

Steam – RAGE + Scorchers DLC – $14.98 (If you decide to buy the game, the Scorchers DLC is essential)

Compatibility / Configuration Steps:

Nothing major is required, but I recommend some tweaks to help with texture loading to minimize pop-in. A guide to do just that can be found here: http://steamcommunity.com/sharedfiles/filedetails/?id=122440311

Screenshot Gallery:

 

Doom 3

I’ve had an epiphany. Doom 3 just isn’t a fun game. It’s a sad realization to make since various aspects of the game had so much potential. In the end, none of them really mattered because they just didn’t contribute to an enjoyable experience.

Note: I played through the original release of Doom 3 with one slight tweak: I used a mod that combines Wulfen’s hi-res texture pack and Sikkmod 1.2. It makes the game look a whole lot prettier and offers a lot of optional gameplay tweaks. The only gameplay change I went with was increased run speed because the default run speed is just the worst. 

It’s been said that familiarity breeds contempt. While I can’t vouch for the original context of the saying I can tell you from personal experience that this statement can apply to video games. For me, it applies to Doom 3. After spending at least sixteen hours on a playthrough, many hours of deep and thoughtful analysis, and vainly writing and rewriting thousands of words in an attempt to convey my thoughts on the experience; I’ve had an epiphany. Doom 3 just isn’t a fun game. It’s a sad realization to make since various aspects of the game had so much potential. In the end, none of them really mattered because they just didn’t contribute to an enjoyable experience. Progressing through the game became a chore; a joyless trudge through an unrealized vision. “Playing” felt a lot more like “tolerating”. The breaking point came in a level called Recycling Sector 2, which is less than halfway through the game. There all of Doom 3’s flaws coalesced into a mess of frustration which had me checking my progress to see how much longer I had to suffer through it; but more on that later. Ultimately, Doom 3 falls flat because it tries to be multiple things but doesn’t really nail any of them. It makes a valiant effort to combine story-driven narrative, a tense atmosphere, and frenzied shooting action; but just can’t quite deliver any of those things.

A company-branded PDA that exists solely for exposition? Yup, that’s Doom!

Doom 3 is the first game in the series to make the story a primary focus. As such, the game begins with a combat-free playable introduction to set the events of the game and introduce the player to the world. You arrive on Mars via shuttle and are free to explore portions of the game’s opening environment: Mars City. While your character is nameless and silent, he is still able to interact with other characters and objects in the game world. Walking up to another inhabitant of Mars City will prompt them to deliver a line of dialog, usually one that has to do about how spooked everyone is by the “secret experiments” going on. Select computers and other equipment will allow you use their interfaces to open doors, turn on lights, or perform other ultimately trivial actions. The primary vehicle for delivering the story is through the use of the PDA. In-game PDAs are what we might call tablets or iPads today; they function exactly the same way. Used to store emails, audio logs, and other personal information, you can pick up and access the information contained in any device you happen to come across. It’s an effective way to build the atmosphere of the game, even if there are some clunky aspects to its implementation.

Audio logs can’t be paused, nor do they have a seek function. Since there’s no text transcript you’ll almost always have to remain at a standstill or stare at the PDA until the log finishes playing to be sure gameplay sounds don’t overlap the audio recording and cause you to miss something by accident. Quite frequently audio logs will contain access codes for storage lockers which contain ammo or other items, which is handy, but it highlights another limitation of the PDA. Since all of the information is all stored according to the names of the characters who owned the device, there’s no way to filter or search for specific content within these logs. For example: If you encounter a given storage locker, the only way for you to know if you have the access code for it is if you remember that specific locker being mentioned in one of the PDAs you previously picked up. The game seems to realize this kind of information would be cumbersome to keep track of, and the end result is that most PDAs will be discovered ridiculously short distances away from whatever thing the PDA would provide access to. Even with their shortcomings I actually love how using the PDAs builds the world within the game. It makes you stop and imagine what the “normal” game world might have been like before things went terribly wrong.

What's the point of the access code? Why not just give me the ammo?
They may as well have just left the locker open…

Contributing to the sense of world-building, the visuals do more than their part to immerse you in Doom 3’s version of Mars. While the original release of the game looks pretty good overall, there are some downright muddy or chunky-looking spots. The more you focus on those spots the worse they look, with many detailed surfaces looking downright terrible when you get close enough to them. If you play the game now, you need the texture mod I linked to at the top of the post. Thankfully, Doom 3’s lighting effects are truly timeless and serve as the major source of the game’s atmosphere. Now when I say “lighting effects” what I really mean is “shadow effects”. Make no mistake: Doom 3 is dark. There’s a reason UAC space marines are given flashlights as a standard issue: their bases apparently have a low lighting budget.

Notice the updated textures are less "chunky", and that there's more depth to the surfaces.
Notice the updated textures are less “chunky”, and that there’s more depth to the surfaces.

Quite frequently the only option available to help you find your way is to holster your weapon, pull out the trusty flashlight, and navigate through the darkness. Yes, you read that correctly: You can’t use your gun and the flashlight at the same time. This intentional design decision has been almost universally panned by reviewers and gamers ever since the game’s release. The year is 2145, surely the capability exists to outfit soldiers with some kind of hands-free lighting device? Sure it’s possible, but it just wouldn’t fit the game. The developers must have felt, and I agree, that giving the player both a flashlight and a gun at the same time was too empowering. Darkness is used as a method to control the player; something to maximize the feeling of helplessness and thus emphasizing the tension.

And tension, really, is the focus of this game. Doom 3 does everything it can to create a horrifying experience for its players, even though its legendary predecessors consisted of nothing but over the top action. All of the members of the demon horde you remember from the first two games are present here, though now they are presented with the objective of instilling fear in the player. Most new enemies are introduced via a dramatic scripted cinematic, which attempts to highlight the specific, unique threats each enemy introduces rather than lumping them all into the category of “mindless cannon fodder.” You’ll rarely engage more than three or four enemies simultaneously, and one could interpret this as an intentional decision designed to reinforce each demon’s perceived threat. It may sound like sacrilege to diehard Doom fans who are used to running full-tilt and firing thousands of bullets at legions of enemies in a single level, but the new approach of Doom 3 actually works. For a while. The first few hours of the game are unforgettable. You’ll genuinely feel tense as you explore Mars base, searching for whichever route will let you progress forward. For a while demons seemingly pop up out of nowhere, sending your heart racing. And then after a few hours of gameplay the realization hits: the demons do literally pop up out of nowhere!

MonsterClosetThe term “monster closet” was coined to describe a room or space in a game’s environment that serves no other purpose than to hide an enemy and put the player at a disadvantage when it is revealed. Monster closets are Doom 3’s mantra. Demons behind doors, demons behind walls, demons under the floor, demons in the ceiling, demons in the shadows, and sometimes for good measure demons will just appear from a spontaneously generated and conspicuous haze of orange plasma. It’s an element that works well in the opening stages of the game to generate heart-stopping scares before the player learns to expect them. There are some genuinely frightening moments there, but the more frequently they occur the more you notice just how scripted these once-scary moments are. These aren’t organic encounters; the result of a player being put in a “genuinely” scary environment with monsters that have their own agenda. No, this is a virtual haunted house where every scare and every surprise is carefully designed in an attempt to elicit a response of fear from the player.  Eventually you’ll learn to recognize the warning signs of these scripted scares, at which point you’ll loathe the moment and fear will be replaced by annoyance.

Monster closets and surprise encounters worked in the early 90s with the original Doom because the game was abstract enough that none of these tricks felt out of place. Sure there were alcoves and hidden enemies galore, but they were fitting considering you were essentially running through a virtual haunted house – with guns. Doom took a certain pride in its cheap scares and traps because they never proclaimed to be anything other than that. In Doom 3, where the player is supposed to be traversing a cohesive and coherent world, every scripted encounter feels like a cheap shot. This scripting ultimately chips away at the established atmosphere and takes you out of the game’s world. Mars Base turns into one boring corridor after another where your only thing tested is your ability to guess which door the monster is hiding behind and how fast you can get your finger on the trigger. Due to the understandably claustrophobic level design, your only option in a firefight is to backpedal slightly and hope you’re spraying enough ammo forward that the enemies die before you do. There are no tactical options available here. There’s no room to run and gun, especially since the game will repeatedly lock you in the same enclosed area as the newly spawned enemies. With no room to maneuver, even two measly imps can kill you in about 20 seconds flat. If it doesn’t sound fun, that’s because it isn’t.

"Here we see a Revenant far outside of its natural corridor-dwelling habitat"
“Here we see a Revenant far outside of its natural corridor-dwelling habitat”

Games are supposed to be fun, and I couldn’t deny that Doom 3 was starting to become quite wearisome about a third of the way through. Wearisome, but not intolerable. I kept telling myself that any moment now, some new mechanic or monster or element would be introduced to add some enjoyment back into the game. When I got to what I thought was going to be the monorail sky bridge, the corridor collapsed in front of me and dumped me on the martian surface. What’s this? Is the game really going to let me freely walk around a wide-open space? And blast enemies that are more than ten feet away? Is this the change I was hoping for? Hoping against hope, I began to believe the game was going to open up a bit and offer some more spacious encounters. My oxygen supply is finite and rapidly running out, but at least there’s a certain freedom of movement here. All too soon I had vanquished the few enemies present in the outdoor arena and was left furiously hunting for air canisters so I don’t suffocate. After a few more moments I make my way to an airlock and return to the claustrophobic corridors I’d begun to loathe. But surely this first experience in a larger area was a sign of things to come!

Doom3 2016-04-10 18-59-23-14
Oh look, poisonous gas. Too bad I don’t have a self-contained air supply. Wait a minute, I do! Why is this a problem?

No. No it wasn’t. Turns out my trip to the great martian outdoors was just an inconvenient detour before traversing back to more deadly enclosed spaces. I had just entered Recycling Sector 2, where it all falls apart. A scripted sequence in the opening moments of the level reveals that Malcom Betruger, the game’s main villain, has been endowed with some sort of evil powers and is now directing the legion of hell to find and destroy you. He has apparently realized that you, the unnamed marine, are the only potential threat to his nefarious plans and wants you dead immediately. He somehow causes the environmental controls of the Recycling Sector to fill the air with toxic gasses in an attempt to suffocate you. Yes, you read that right. Less than ten minutes of game time after your combat suit with its supply of fresh air allows you to battle hellspawn on the surface of Mars, the game’s main villain tries to poison you with gas. Why didn’t our major villain know this, and why can’t I now use my independent air supply to survive indoors? Just as my mind is trying to find the explanation for this logical error, the old man starts yelling into my headphones. Apparently one of Betruger’s super demonic powers gives him the ability to project his voice anywhere on Mars because he now talks to you, hurling insults or other scary phrases at you in random moments. Here’s a sampling of the supposedly menacing dialog:

“Your soul will be MINE!”

“Making progress marine? Your journey is futile. You will die, and your soul will be MINE!”

“My patience with you is wearing thin.”

“Look around you marine, everyone is dead! And soon you will join them.”

“Your friends are with me now. Soon, you will join them.” 

The meaning lurking underneath the surface of these quotes brings two surprisingly relevant questions to my mind. The first one is: Who are these friends of mine that Betruger has supposedly already claimed? The character you play has no name and no backstory. He’s a new transfer to Mars Base and knows nobody on the entire planet. Why on earth would they include a line like this in the game? Am I supposed to have felt some kind of connection with one of the other characters introduced by the game? Or is this a subliminal attempt to get the player thinking about his own friends in real life, and project the fear of loss onto them? Unless the developers were extremely certain their psychological experiment would work, I really can’t understand how these lines made it into the game. From what I can figure, the best case scenario is that this was the result of some horribly sloppy writing that nobody fully thought through.

The other question is: what exactly is hell in the world of Doom 3? Obviously it would have to exist as some sort of literal, physical place, but what is it? What are the demons doing in hell? Who is in charge? Why does the leader of hell need to give Betruger any authority or control of invading Mars? Why do the residents of hell need a human-made teleporter to get to Mars? If the demons can flood Mars via some sort of portal, why do they need to take spaceships to get to earth? (Using spaceships to get to earth was supposed to be a major plot point prior to the Recycling Center). Why can’t they just use the teleporters to get there? Considering the human world of Mars is rather meticulously mapped and planned out, it’s rather jarring that hell exists just for the sake of existing. Some of these questions may be answered in the PDAs scattered about the later levels, but considering how much impact the answers to these questions would have on creating a cohesive story I’m surprised they wouldn’t be more overt.

Doom3 2016-04-17 18-08-21-70
At least hell has interesting art direction.
Apparently in the ancient martian language, "cube" meant horribly spiky murdery thing".
Apparently in the ancient martian language, “cube” meant “horribly spiky murdery thing”.

Coming into the game too late to make much of a difference, is a genuinely interesting story thread about archeological ruins found on Mars. As it turns out, there was an advanced alien civilization that used to reside on Mars. This civilization used a combination of their sciences and religions to use portals for traveling to the different planets in our solar system. At some point in their history this alien species also accidentally opened a portal to hell. Various PDAs and computer terminals will provide details unearthed about this society and how they struggled against the demons. Eventually, this race sacrificed itself to create a weapon capable of killing the demons and closing the portal to hell. Say hello to the Soul Cube. The alien weapon may actually be the most interesting gameplay mechanic in all of Doom 3. In order to use it, you must first “charge” it by killing five other demons. Once it’s charged you can use it to instantly kill any other enemy and transfer its health directly to you. It brings a sorely needed element of strategy to the close-quarters firefights. No longer are you just pressing the fire key, you’re actively picking out the weakest targets first so you can use a charged Soul Cube to take out the more powerful foes. It’s a shame neither the alien backstory nor the Soul Cube is introduced until the last quarter of the game.

There’s a lot I could still say about the gameplay of Doom 3, but I feel like it would just be a waste of words. The story had potential, but it unfolds too slowly for you to really care about it. The atmosphere is, up to a point, incredible. There are plenty of fun and entertaining elements present, but you’ll experience almost all of them before the game is a quarter finished. If Doom 3 got anything right, you would expect it to be the shooty bits, but that’s not the case. There’s a reason I didn’t talk about the game’s weapons; nearly all of them are pathetic, and none of them are fun to use. The gameplay might be passable in small doses, but the thematic and story miscues really put the nail in the coffin for me. If it’s horror and action your looking for, there are other games to spend your time and money on. Doom 3 does have an expansion called Resurrection of Evil which contains new content and supposedly remedies a lot of the issues I have with the original game, but it will be quite some time before I’m ready to step into the world of Doom 3 again. Until then, I’m going to spend some time on games that are actually enjoyable.

 

Doom

But how is it that the various aspects of Doom managed to be cutting-edge in 1993 and yet not distractingly obsolete in 2016? In short, the game’s many components are finely designed with an elegant simplicity that manages to capture an essence of timelessness. What matters here is not so much the obvious age of the technology or gameplay mechanics that may seem basic when compared to modern titles; what matters is that Doom fully utilized the best tools of its time to create a cohesive whole that was complete in and of itself. Great visual design serves the whole rather than detracts from it, and that statement holds true no matter how old the design is.

Navigating down the curved hallway of brown stone deep within Deimos Lab, I notice an irregularity in the angle of the wall. Upon closer inspection there’s a small hole in the floor: a passage down. At the bottom of the passage there’s a hidden room containing only a plasma rifle and a teleporter. I pause for a moment to steel myself for whatever comes next. Doom never gives you anything for free. I step on the blood-red teleport pad to be whisked away to destination unknown. As the green energy burst fades I check my map and confirm that this is a room I haven’t discovered before. Directly in front of me stand two large demons within arm’s reach: A Pinky and a Cacodemon. They don’t know I’m there yet so I weigh my options against my meager supply of ammo. The room is too small for rockets, my shotgun will be too slow, and I have barely any bullets. Guess there was a reason I just got a plasma rifle. Taking them both of them out used about a fifth of my cell ammo and I can still hear more demons somewhere nearby. After checking the small room for and failing to find any hidden features, I slowly walk down a curved hallway and reach an intersection with another corridor. The chorus of grunting is louder now. There are more than a few enemies nearby. My health is 44 percent and I have fewer bullets than I’d like, but how bad could it be? I dash out, gun blazing, mowing down a pair of imps with ease. They weren’t alone. Three more imps send fireballs my way and a burst of pink plasma heralds the arrival of a trio of Cacodemons floating down from the ceiling. Running away to gain some maneuvering room brings me face to face with not one but two Barons of Hell! As their green energy projectiles sail towards me I run back towards my entry point, making the unfortunate realization that this narrow corridor I’m trapped in is nothing but a circle. With nowhere to hide I start firing off everything except my rockets, not stopping to be meticulous. After what feels like an extended engagement both my guns and the demon horde is silent. Narrowly avoiding death, I claim victory – for now. My health is down to 23 percent, my supply of ammo is lower than it’s ever been; only 4 rockets and 39 shotgun shells; and once again my only means of progress is to step on a teleporter to destination unknown. When it seems like I don’t have any options left, I realize I have the same option that I always had: kill more demons.

Doomsday 2016-02-26 21-19-59-18

I still remember my first exposure to Doom. Sometime in the summer of 1994 Jon, a friend of my oldest brother, brought a “legitimate” copy of the game over to our house. He installed it on our family computer and introduced us to the plight of that single green-clad marine waging a hopeless war against the spawn of hell. Many moments from that fleeting demo are permanently etched into my gaming memory. The nervous sideways glances of the Doom guy. Exploding barrels of green goo. A pulse rifle with a sound I can only describe as an “electric rebound”. Floors a shade of blue not seen in real life. The anguished moans from zombies after you graze them with a shotgun. The frighteningly weird hiss of the floating red Cacodemon. My brothers and I loved it. My parents hated it. After the evening’s dinner was finished and Jon went home my parents broke their polite silence, “Get rid of it”. The battles of the Doom guy would have to be waged in someone else’s home, at least for a little while. Over the years Doom and I had an on again, off again relationship. Sometimes it was upstaged by shinier and more fancy games. Sometimes I was just too busy to bother with it. Sometimes I thought it was too simple for me now; compared to new games old Doom was just kid stuff. And yet, Doom has always been there. Somehow, id’s pioneering shooter from the early 1990s has proven its staying power time and time again. After paying attention to the little details on my last playthrough I can confirm one thing for you: Doom is just as good now as its ever been.

Doomsday 2016-02-24 17-01-32-03

Given that video games are pieces of media that all too frequently tend not to age well, it takes a special combination of factors for one to provide an enjoyable experience both at the time of release as well as two decades later. But how is it that the various aspects of Doom managed to be cutting-edge in 1993 and yet not distractingly obsolete in 2016? In short, the game’s many components are finely designed with an elegant simplicity that manages to capture an essence of timelessness. What matters here is not so much the obvious age of the technology or gameplay mechanics that may seem basic when compared to modern titles; what matters is that Doom fully utilized the best tools of its time to create a cohesive whole that was complete in and of itself. Great visual design serves the whole rather than detracts from it, and that statement holds true no matter how old the design is.

Doom’s visual design definitely evokes a feeling of art, abstract art in particular. Most of the game’s designs and specifically the level layouts are open to subjective interpretation. It’s something you examine for a moment and while it doesn’t necessarily bear an immediate resemblance to anything in particular, the intention of the artist is unmistakable. Sure, there are levels and areas that definitely try to look like something, but either through the lack of graphical fidelity or intentional design decisions you’re never looking at something and think to yourself, “Man, they screwed that up.” It’s a large part of why Doom is still tolerable today. You can play through level after level without being constantly reminded of how poorly older gaming technology was able to replicate the vision of the artist. Your imagination can make these locations into whatever you think they need to be. For a prime example look to the opening level of the game: E1M1: Hangar. Though this is arguably the most famous level in the history of first-person shooters, I’ve yet to see any explanation for why the level has the name it does. There’s nothing here that even remotely resembles a hangar. Nowhere is there a space large enough to contain a ship, an airplane, or any other spacefaring vessel. The only open space is filled with green toxic goo. And just why is there so much radioactive green goo around in the first place? Why in the heck are there golden candelabras near the exit? These and other questions will pop in the back of your mind frequently as you explore such locations as “Central Processing”, “Military Base”, “Spawning Vats”, “House of Pain”, Slough of Despair”, and “Tower of Babel”. Clearly, the level design was intended to evoke a feeling rather than to serve as an accurate emulation of any particular locale.

The major difference between the levels of Doom and works of abstract art is that works of abstract art don’t try to kill you when you admire them. The opening levels of the game start with fairly straightforward and uncomplicated layouts; all that is required is for the player to navigate from the starting point to the finish and press a button or step on a pad to end the level. Additional hazards are gradually added into the mix. Some parts of a level may be sealed off and require you to find a keycard to gain access. Other levels are laid out like a maze, either by their physical layout or through the use of teleportation pads. Very frequently the level design embraces the game aspect of Doom and will throw you in the midst of all manner of traps, chokepoints, or other puzzles. The only resources at your disposal to help you navigate the often deadly labyrinths are your wits and a handy automap. There are secret areas containing weapons and powerups hidden in nearly every level. Some are marked by intentionally misaligned textures or offer other visual hints as to their existence, and others are implied only by a switch with no obvious purpose. If you wish, you can spend as long as you like exploring each area searching for hidden goodies. The only thing standing between you and passage to the next level is you.

Doomsday 2016-02-26 17-20-15-74
Here sits a lightly defended red keycard surrounded by a plethora of exploding barrels. Be wary. Be very wary.

Artistic interpretation notwithstanding, it’s hard to deny that some of the later levels of the game are just plain weird, if not disturbingThe cold metal of military bases gradually gives way to nightmarish interpretations of hell, replete with walls of flesh, corpses impaled on spikes, scrolling walls of tortured faces, demonic and satanic symbols, and other oddities. It’s been said that some of the game’s artists often used videos and images of surgical procedures to find inspiration for their designs, and it’s quite obvious a lot of those ideas were implemented. This all plays well with the idea of Doom as a form of abstract art though it’s safe to say that many people will find the game’s content objectionable. I can appreciate a good imagination as much as the next guy, but I still look at certain visual elements and can’t help but wonder, “What were they thinking?”

But I guess it takes a certain kind of imagination to dream up, or have nightmares about, what an army of hellspawn might be like. Doom paved the way in its design of enemies, creating the archetypes that are still followed today. Soldiers and Sargents are your nominal cannon fodder that can be surprisingly dangerous when you’re low on health. The brown, leather-skinned imp is the slightly tougher humanoid that hurls fireballs instead of instant hit bullets. Pinkies are your obligatory melee-damage-only enemies that can take a beating. Cacodemons are an aerial threat with a ranged attack in addition to being bullet sponges. Lost Souls are the original annoying enemy that combines small size, flying, and a shrieking rush attack that’s never fun to deal with. Barons of Hell are giant, lumbering brutes that hurl green plasma that explodes on impact for splash damage. There are bosses, too, but those are more fun to discover on your own. Prepare to do a lot of running.

Doomsday 2016-02-27 08-53-56-72

Photos don’t do justice to the enemy design in Doom. There’s just enough of a convincing menace in the animation of your foes that you will feel threatened by them, sooner or later. If visuals alone don’t do it for you, the aural experience will. While the sound effect library is small by today’s standards, the engineering is perfect for conveying the tortured nature of the beings you’re dealing with. This is due in large part to the use of animal sounds where one might expect to hear sounds recorded by humans. From the anguished moans of the shotgun-toting Sergeant to the hiss of the Cacodemon to the bizarre trumpeting call of the Baron of Hell, the sounds of Doom effectively convey that you do indeed battle against an army that is not of this world.

Sometimes, the enemy of your enemy is your friend. Your foes in Doom can and will become embroiled in fights between the ranks, and it’s always a good idea to do what you can to encourage those fights. Before long you’ll learn to use your speed to try and catch different types of enemies in their own crossfire. Once one enemy retaliates against another all you need to do is stand clear and watch the survival of the fittest. Doing this is usually just a bonus, but there are a few maps where causing this infighting is absolutely essential to your own survival.

FightFightFight!
Notice that I haven’t fired a single shot here.

Also essential to your survival is learning to master Doom’s arsenal, though it really is pretty intuitive. At your disposal are your fists, a pistol, shotgun, chaingun, rocket launcher, plasma rifle, BFG 9000, and a chainsaw. Each weapon has its own set of strengths and weaknesses, that lend themselves to particular situations. The pistol, while seemingly useless, is a good choice for long-distance engagements when you want to conserve ammo. Your pump-action shotgun, now a mainstay in first-person shooters, is a good all-around weapon that just can’t fire fast enough when the hordes are thick. While each bullet of the chaingun doesn’t do a lot of damage, the continuous-fire nature of it serves to “interrupt” the attacks of your foes, and can buy you some much needed time to maneuver. Rocket launchers are not good to use in confined spaces. Ever. Doom’s rockets also move with a conspicuous slowness which can mean it’s not the best for long-range engagements. The plasma rifle is a versatile weapon that’s good in any situation, provided you can find the ammunition for it. It works best when fired continuously, as letting up on the trigger leads to a substantial reset time before you can fire again. When something or a small group of somethings needs to die right now, bring out the BFG 9000. It’s slow rate of fire and slow projectile movement gradually unleash a green firestorm of devastation, but it really works best in relatively small environments. And then there’s the chainsaw. For a long time I thought it was only a weapon of desperation, but there is actually a strategic use for it. When dealing with melee enemies, Pinkies or Lost Souls, work your back into a corner and let them come at you. The chainsaw will do the work for you.

BarrelBlast
Doom’s shotgun is the best ever. Period.

There’s certainly more that could be written about Doom: the movement mechanics and how the Doom Guy is able to run at a constant 30 miles per hour, how throughout the campaign you never really notice the technical limitation that prevents vertically crossing layers (there can’t be one story of a building directly over another), the story set-up present only in the game’s paper manual, the implied narrative and geographical narrative movement in the level design and loading screens, and more. To try and do all that would require a whole series of posts, and while I’m open to exploring those topics more in depth to do so here would distract from my main point. And my main point is: Doom is still around for a reason. One of the first games of its kind, it’s still one of the best of its kind. It’s just as fun in 2016 as it was in 1993; and that’s saying something.

The Final Raving – Full Endorsement

Anyone who plays video games should give this a try, even if this is a genre you’ve never been interested before. 

Granted, it’s not for everyone, but anyone who considers themselves a gamer owes it to themselves to play at least the shareware episode of Doom.

Good:

  • While not the first first-person shooter ever made, it’s the most influential
  • Tight gunplay and fast action in spades
  • Two decades of user-created mods ensure near limitless options for a new spin on an old classic

Bad:

  • Disturbing themes may be too much for some people to handle

Ugly:

  • The visuals of the vanilla, unmodded game are a bit hard to take

Compatibility Considerations: 

  • The original game works flawlessly on modern computers, but it’s just a bit too ugly for my tastes. Thankfully the Doom community has been able to make a lot of improvement to the game engine, allowing for higher resolutions and better visual effects. The two most popular upgrades are GZDoom and Doomsday Engine. GZDoom will give you an experience that’s a bit closer to the original game, but I slightly prefer Doomsday Engine since it allows for unrestricted mouselook. Both are worth a look.

Tips for New Players:

  1. Play it on a difficulty that’s hard for you. It makes the game more interesting and will help you write your own stories within the world of Doom. I played it through on Ultra-Violence and enjoyed a good challenge. Be forewarned that the difficulty jumps by a noticeable amount when you get to the fourth episode: Thy Flesh Consumed.
  2. Circle-strafe. Move sideways and keep your enemy in the crosshairs to literally run circles around them. It’s an essential skill to learn if you want to survive.
  3. Everything is a trap. See a keycard? Trap! Is there a button nearby? Trap! Has it been more than thirty seconds since you last encountered an enemy? Trap! Always be ready to move and shoot.

The Details:

Release Date:

  • Original Game: December 10th, 1993
  • Final Doom (Thy Flesh Consumed): June 17th, 1996

Developer: id Software

Publisher: GT Interactive

Where to buy:

Steam – $14.99 – Bundle includes Doom, Doom II, and a bunch of expansion levels

GOG.com – $9.99 – Bundle includes Final Doom and Doom II