When Id said story was important in Doom 3, some gamers who aren't diehard fans of Doom and Quake began to scoff a little.
When it was announced there would be an Xbox version, I scoffed again, but some in the community chided me not to start criticizing a game I hadn't played. So I promised at to compare Halo 2 and Doom 3; the Xbox versions of two science fiction first person shooters, one by a studio long known for doing intricate plots and one by a studio long known for developing impressive graphics technology.
It's A Game, Stupid
Nobody's saying Doom wasn't-- or isn't-- fun. However, plot was never Doom's strong point. The original game had three pages of poorly proofread text that passed as story, to set up the next level and explain what it was had actually happened to you. The question becomes, how does a story, or the lack of it, effect the experience of playing a game, and how is the link between the essential gameplay mechanics and the story created?
After having played both, I believe that Doom 3 was actually a return to the style of storyline integration that Bungie used in the Marathon series, but abandoned in Halo, and that the overriding impression this integration created, in my experience, was that the writers and designers on the one hand created a game that could be played to its fullest with wilful ignorance of the story, while at the same time trying to plant as many storyline hooks into the gameplay as possible. I think this approach is solid, but in the case of Doom 3 the effect falls far short of its potential because the elements of the vastly expanded story are, for the most part, mundane and repetitive.
The central points of that story-- that teleportation experiments on Mars gone awry opened a portal to Hell with all the suffering, death, and demonic anarchy that implies-- survive intact in Doom 3. Instead of dumping us through a door with a pistol and throwing demons at us, Doom 3 gives us what has become a more traditional opening for the game. We get a short introduction to the situation on Mars, which is that weird stuff is going on and everbody is scared; that a mad scientist named Bertruger is up to something and the company-- the ubiquitous UAC-- has sent two guys to see what's going on.
The story is given a bit more depth as well; eventually we're clued into the fact that an ancient race on Mars once also experimented with teleportation, was invaded by demons from Hell, and eventually built a special device called a Soulcube to fight the invaders back before recording the whole story on stone tablets and then teleporting off Mars for good.
Why the advanced race would leave these records on stone tablets is never adequately answered, and you're never encouraged to ask.
I've Got A Bad Feeling About This
There are some very nice moments-- and even one very memorable line, during your first mission, to find a scientist that has gone missing near the old communications station. He says that the devil is real, and that he knows because he "built his cage."
However, for memorable dialogue in the game, that about does it. They might as well have hired George Lucas to script the thing.
Much has been made of the "GUI surfaces" in the game. While most of the time you run around as a disembodied gun, aiming at things, as in most shooters, in Doom 3 when you near the rare object that can be interacted with in some other way-- say, a door panel, or a storage locker, or a computer terminal, or an NPC-- you'll be prompted with a cursor that allows those other actions. Pulling the trigger while hovering the cursor over buttons will press them, to activate certain things, open doors, or punch codes into storage locks, which (most of the time) yields goodies like guns, ammo, and health.
While this might seem new, it's actually just an extension of the gameplay from the classic doom, which is to shoot stuff, grab keys, unlock doors, and repeat. Instead of the now-cliched red, blue and yellow keys and their matching doors, now there is a plethora of secure areas, lifts, airlocks, elevators, trains, planes and automobiles to be utilized.
Many of these employ three-digit codes; and here is where the game takes its chance to force-feed you bits of the story. Buried among hundreds of emails (including Martian spam) and dozens of audio and video recordings are the codes you need for various doors and storage lockers. In one particular case, to get a particularly powerful weapon you have to cross-reference an exchange of emails between two characters whose PDAs you have picked up, in which one asks for a door code to be changed and another replies that the desired code is invalid and substitutes another.
As a gameplay device, this is ingenious. This is a way to get the volume of text, audio and video needed to tell a deep and involved science fiction story within the context of a console-based first person shooter. If Marathon was remade this way, it would be brilliant.
Who's Your Martian Buddy?
The problem is, this isn't that game. It's Doom. What this means is that what you get is a huge number of emails and logs that repeat a lot of the same things-- mechanical failures, power outages, weapons malfunctions, insomnia and antisocial behavior as well as intraoffice politics. The messages and audio logs are all duly dated, but since the interface doesn't give you any way of sorting the information you receive other than looking at each individual person's PDA in the reverse order you picked them up in, it's no help in piecing together the progression of how things started to go wrong on Mars unless you take paper notes; not that it would yield much if you did.
By the time you hear anybody in an audio log say anything about "demons" your response is most probably going to be "no shit, Sherlock" since at the time you're already in Hell, having been zapped there by the mad scientist Betruger through a teleportation device. Why he does this is not at all clear. What is clear is that this important artifact/weapon, the Soulcube, is in Hell. From the designer's viewpoint, of course, you have to go to Hell to get it. However, since this is the only weapon you can use to ultimately defeat the forces of Hell, you really have to wonder why the heck Betruger sends you there himself. For me, the most tension the game generated was when I knew that the teleportation pads were being used to send people into what you know is hell, even if nobody calls it that, and an NPC you meet tells you that using the pad is the only way to get to other parts of Delta Labs. I felt sure that I was going to zap myself into Hell on one of those trips. However, after awhile this doesn't happen, and even the tunnel-of-blood-and-guts that is the teleportation effect starts to lose its impact.
Hell Is Other Demons
Also true to form, as you begin each new level, the game gives you a chance to catch your breath (usually) by throwing you a few easy enemies. So, contrary to all logical expectations, what you face in Hell at first is quite a bit easier than what was in Delta labs, despite the dire predictions of the disembodied voice of the maniacal Dr. Betruger.
Despite the demonic imagery, spooky sounds, and other hellish bits of atmosphere, the two Hell levels are actually much less scary than Alpha or Delta labs. I think the primary reason for this is that Hell is such an otherworldly environment that seeing otherworldly enemies in it is simply not much of a shock. While I myself have never walked the corridors of a research base on the surface of Mars, it looks like a real place inhabited by real people-- corridors, doorways, computers and coffee cups. So when that world is invaded by dark and fiery foes splattering blood hither and yon and popping out of the cupboards, it's scary in a way that the most literal visualization of Hell cannot be.
Seeing a bloody skeleton suspended upside down from the ceiling, spinning and bobbing wildly, isn't of much notice when the window next to you shows lakes of fire, the entire corridor is lit only by candles, and the other room fixtures are huge goat heads and bloody pentagrams. However, when you turn a corner into a small office and the ordinary-looking desk chair is populated by a skeleton, it's scary. So much of the game is like this-- it builds up tension and then doesn't know where to go with it.
A Monster In Every Closet
The addition of what would otherwise appear to be a coherent storyline also raises other problems for the traditional game mechanics. Halo and Halo 2, for instance, rarely do what Doom did and Doom 3 still does-- which is either to teleport enemies in directly in front (or, for better effect, behind you) or to have them reveal themselves dramatically from behind a door or access panel or floor tile. The game does this so often that before you're a third of the way through, you are already expecting it everywhere, meaning it builds up tension where it can never be let off since nothing happens, and that it feels blase when an Imp lunges at you when you open a door because it's about the thirtieth time it's happened. If you're walking down a long hallway with no doors, it's a good bet that midway down you'll be attacked from the front and then from behind, and the game does this so reliably and predictably that it's possible to develop a mental script for handling encounters that works pretty well and takes most of the drama out of the game.
But that isn't even the problem. When Doom was nothing more than a computer game that wanted to scare and entertain you, this kind of thing was almost forgiveable. Since the enemies are demons unleashed by a teleportation experiment, it becomes understandable, if still annoying, that they can appear out of thin air in order to torment you. They are, after all, demons.
What's a lot less forgiveable are the massive number of "monster closets"-- tiny little square rooms that aren't even recognizable as rooms until some otherwise completely ordinary bit of wall slides back to reveal a zombie, an imp, or some other demonic spawn to leap out and attack you. But what the heck are they doing in there in the first place? Is this the devil's plot-- to hide behind the door to scare you into giving up?
Bungie at least tries to make it appear as if enemy units behave more or less logically and are constrained to follow the rules of the universe. They try not to let you see enemies pop into place; they try to place them in such a way that it appears they are they for a reason other than waiting for you to show up. They're guarding something, or attacking something, or otherwise engaged in furthering the Covenant's agenda of collecting artifacts, fighting the Flood, and finding the Index. When reinforcements show up, they arrive the old fashioned way-- on spaceships or other vehicles. They don't just pop out of thin air or turn out to have been hiding inside a cardboard box. Doom's enemies, however, have nothing better to do than fight you, it seems-- which really makes you wonder why they wait to do so in groups of twos and threes instead of all ganging up on you at once. Like opponents in a Bruce Lee movie, they all line up politely to take their turn, most of the time, which really makes you wonder how powerful the devil really is.
Out Of Their Depth
Halo has got a pretty deep and complex story, which leads you through bits that prompt you to ask certain questions, guess at the answers, and then builds on those answers going forward. It presents you with new information that makes you question the conclusions you drew in the past. However, the integration of the story into the gameplay is quite shallow and simplistic. The story is told through cutscenes and through a few scripted encounters during gameplay; your reward for surviving from level to level is a cutscene that advances the plot.
Doom 3's story, on the other hand, is shallow and simple. However, Doom 3's integration of that story into the gameplay is quite deep and complex. This integration includes the many video recordings which can be viewed on UAC terminals throughout the game, copies of which are also availalable on discs you can pick up in certain locations. These recordings, most of which are promotional videos for the UAC itself, are very nicely done. The PDAs with their emails and audio logs could also have been used to great effect. The problem is that many of these characters sound the same, and most of what they have to tell you is redundant. You hear a lot of the same things from different sources. And combing through the recordings to note locker codes only becomes more annoying when you arrive at the locker in question to find the code displayed on a nearby computer or tacked up on the container itself (although you should be careful with that one). Instead of the story being the payoff for playing the game, the mechanic is reversed-- the locker codes you need to get guns and ammo are the payoff for trudging through the story. It's as if the designers are apologizing for the story-- here, we're sorry you had to sit through that, so here's a cool new gun!
Clearly Doom 3's makers were worried that people weren't going to bother with the story. So they made the story elements so repetetive that unless you made a conscious effort to avoid reading anybody's PDA, you were probably going to get about the same amount of story information as if you'd read them all studiously. At the same time, they were also seemingly afraid that if you avoided the PDAs you'd be frustrated with needing the door and locker codes, so many of those are provided through several channels as well.
Both games prompt the player to ask questions for which the game itself has no answer. However, with Doom most of these questions reveal apparent internal inconsistencies in the logic of the game world, whereas in Halo they prompt the player to imagine portions of the game world that lie outside the context of the immediate story.
Doom 3's story, simply put, is one of a large corporation, seeking new technology, which unwittingly unleashes Hell, and a mad scientist takes advantage to his own devilish ends, whatever those may be. The whys and wherefores of it are not really important. Other than that they created the Soulcube, you never find out anything about the Martian race that lived there before-- a UAC recording tells you as much, and the game doesn't encourage you to ask because it has no bearing on anything that will happen later.
What Betruger's goals really are, and whether his actions in-game are consistent with them, are really not addressed all that well. He sends us to Hell at a time when the only weapon we could ever have against the Cyberdemon is there. If he had left us alone in Delta Labs, would we have found our own way there? Wouldn't it have been scarier, more intense, to force the player to push the button to send himself to Hell? I was expecting this and dreading it, but it didn't happen.
Betruger also seems glad the fleet is arriving, because he plans to use those ships to send demons to Earth. This seems a bit silly. Why would Hell need to use Mars as a stepping stone to get to Earth? Wouldn't it have been far more logical to try and get the teleportation equipment moved to Earth, and let demons exit Hell there? Why tell the marine anything about his plans at all?
It is obvious that a lot of work was done to flesh out the Doom universe; to make the Mars base a real place, inhabit it with real people, and use this to accentuate the terror created when demons from Hell invade that place, take the lives of the UAC employees and their minders, and finally threaten Earth itself. That story itself, though, is just so straightforward that it doesn't warrant the kind of close examination that Bungie's universes have gotten and so richly deserve. Nobody is going to pen lengthy missives on what Betruger was really after or why. These simply aren't questions to be asked, the same way players of Halo wonder who the Forerunners were, where the Flood came from and why they exist, where the Ark is and how it works, or what the Prophet of Truth expects is going to happen when Halo is activated.
What would truly be a treat would be a game that combines the depth of Halo's story with the GUI surfaces and multimedia richness of Doom-- to have the story of the Haloverse presented to us from many angles, to absorb not just the large story events but the small as well, and to have objective-oriented gameplay that relates to story events that take place outside of cutscenes. Right now, that material is presented to gamers outside the context of the game, in the three Halo novels. Why not put some more of that material back into the game for those with the patience to seek it out?
A Madness To Their Method
As an aside, it was also mentioned in previews of Doom 3 more than a year ago that it would be a "methodical" shooter, meaning it would "present you with a relatively small number of difficult targets, rather than a room full of somewhat less-dangerous, less-intelligent ones as the original Doom did."
That's what they said about Quake, too. And as then, it turned out to be untrue. Encounters with targets in Doom 3, outside of boss fights, are not much longer than encounters with units in Halo, which exhibit much greater artificial intelligence. Demons in Doom 3 never hide, never flank, and never work in groups or even give the apperance of doing so. They either advance on you while attacking or wander around a preset area. Facing off against two or three Elites in Halo 2 on legendary is more challenge than any fight in Doom 3. And since you can pick up and carry as many weapons as you like, there's no tactical challenge in managing your ammunition or choosing your weapons. Instead, the challenge is to get access to the right weapon when foes materialize in front of your face. Even with the ability to map certain weapons to D-pad presses, you'll find yourself constantly remapping the settings and still coming face to face to with targets while holding the wrong weapon and taking damage because of it.