In our postindustrial age it's difficult to create something new in computer games. It's just most ideas available at the present state of computer development with today's interfaces have already been implemented. Very often the ideas considered unique and innovating in fact used to be implemented in older projects, which hadn't got wide publicity.
On the other hand, technology development generates remakes of old hits implemented up to modern standards on an increasing scale. Think of Morrowind, for example, which was rather a remake of Daggerfall than its sequel. Return to Castle Wolfenstein, Warcraft 3 — old ideas put into the new setting. No clones, but great games of the past, which potential makes people constantly return to them and review the old creations.
From this point of view there is no surprise in the release of Doom 3. Only the "3" in the game title is unexpected plus the fact that the game has been developed by id Software itself instead of some satellite studio, like Raven, which is busy with Quake 4 now. This "3" is as absurd as the attempt to somehow bind the games with over a ten year difference in release dates.
New standards, new technologies, new methods – they all detach Doom 3 from the original Doom much faster than almost complete replacement of staff in id Software for this decade. Painkiller, which we reviewed earlier, is in fact a much better candidate for a title of a spiritual heir to the old Doom than the new "alleged sequel" Doom 3.
Doom was the first game, where the environment three-dimensionality did not look artificial to common people. Surely it still was a fake, the truly 3D engine in id Software games had first appeared only in Quake, but it was a trickery of high quality, a fake which often couldn't be told from reality. An interesting engine peculiarity of the first Doom was the capacity to build vast open spaces and populate them with crowds of sprite monsters without any special harm to the performance. Yes, the engine could do that, though the game inclined to dark, close passageways.
What concerns the engine in Doom 3, it can hardly build any considerable open spaces and it prefers to render not more than three monsters at a time. In this sense, the Doom 3 engine is much closer to the legendary Quake than to Doom. But they decided to call this game Doom 3, to lay the scene on Mars, to recall the Hell and unfortunate enabled teleporters.
At first let's talk about the new engine by maestro Carmac, since most base designs in Doom 3 are dictated by its capacities and limitations. As all the previous releases of this company, Doom 3 again raises the plank of expectations in graphics. This time, however, the main area of research was not in textures, geometry or even extremely fashionable shaders — for the first time Carmac has attempted to create a unified system of lighting instead.
What's a "unified system of lighting"? Unlike the previous engines from id Software, in the Doom 3 Engine all light sources are processed in the same way: always in real time, calculating shadows cast by the objects in the rays of light. There is no preliminary generation of light maps, peculiar to all generations of Quake engines. In Doom 3 editor you can set a light source and immediately see the results – the illumination of surfaces, shadows cast by objects.
The main advantage of the new system of lighting (besides the mentioned direct control of an artist over its masterpiece) is the capacity to render shadows in real time for every frame: passing by lamps, monsters cast dynamic shadows; moving light sources correctly shade the environment. In fact, it's the next step in the development of computer graphics.
The system is surely not devoid of certain limitations, connected not only with current capacities of video chips, but also with a necessity to support compatibility with previous hardware generations. Carmac has chosen so called shadow volumes as a shadow rendering algorithm, their main advantage is that an 8-bit stencil buffer in a video chip is sufficient for their operation. In fact, a stencil buffer is supported by all video cards supporting 32-bit colors, starting from such dinosaurs as Riva TNT. Besides, shadow volumes are comparatively easy to use, they allow objects to cast shadows on themselves and contain minimum "peculiarities", which often hamper the implementation of excellent in other respects algorithms in games.
However, shadow volumes have enough disadvantages. First of all, rendering such shadows is a process critical to the fillrate. And the more surfaces are in shadow, the more frame rendering time will be spent on shadow volumes. This is where GeForce video cards manage to take advantage of their capacity to double the fillrate when writing to Z buffer and stencil buffer. This is one of the reasons for GeForce FX 59x0 video cards (rather weak in most tests) to demonstrate fairly good performance in Doom 3. And the peak fillrate for Z buffers and stencil buffers in NV40 chips, on which GeForce 6800 series video cards are based, reaches astro-figures of almost 13 gigapixel per second – it can explain their total supremacy over Radeon competitors in Doom 3.
Secondly, it's very hard to render muzzy, "soft" shadows prevailing in reality using shadow volumes. As a matter of fact, you will have to process each light source several times (the more, the better the resulting quality will be) by having set up several shadow arrays for each light source and then having averaged them. This algorithm is clearly not effective. Even Carmac admits that the alternative algorithm for rendering shadows — shadow mapping — has a chance to replace shadow volumes in future engines from id Software, because the problem of muzzy shadows can be solved really simple using shadow mapping. However, this algorithm has its own problems, which will have to be solved by new video chips.
Thirdly, summing up the two previous paragraphs we draw a conclusion that shadow volumes do not fit well for rendering shadows at vast open spaces. Shadows behind the window are almost always blurred: too many objects reflecting the light, plus the effect of the Earth atmosphere refracting and scattering the light rays. Besides, shadows on the open spaces can be practically endless. And the larger a shadow is, the more pixels a video chip must fill to render it, and the more fillrate will "go up" to render this shadow.
Thus, it's getting obvious that until video cards grow up (or until most problems of the shadow mapping algorithm are solved), the most successful niche for shadow volumes will be narrow games with minimum open spaces and with bright spot lights casting sharp shadows. In the last resort – with open spaces without any shadows at all, which will probably look worse than Quake with its static light maps, which was released eight years ago.
This is how the process of rendering a scene in Doom 3 looks in general:
Doom 3 uses normal maps for some models to "emulate" high geometry details. Theoretically, the bump maps we were so much told about by video card manufacturers are also normal maps, just tied up to textures instead of triangles. In both cases normal maps are responsible for the interaction of surfaces with their incident rays of light.
This way normal maps construct shadows, which are much more detailed than the objects which cast them — that's why counsellor Swann, having a hexagonal skull unique for a human, looks quite decent in his script fragments. That's why the imp throwing a fireball at you not only casts sharp but mathematically correct shadows at the surrounding walls, but also makes the normal maps on textured surfaces look 3D though they are utterly flat.
When Doom 3 was only in its initial stage of development, the stake on normal maps emulating real geometric details was justified — this method helped save on geometry processing, which could have quite become a bottleneck of the new engine spending an impressive part of its triangle budget on rendering shadow volumes. But these days considering geometric performance of modern video cards the correctness of this decision is not that obvious. Perhaps it would be more proper to give up a part of normal maps and to raise geometric details, using the freed video memory for storing usual textures in higher detail. Normal maps are just textures, aren't they. Besides they are poorly compressed by the standard S3TC algorithm. It's for them that ATI developed a special modification of the algorithm named 3Dc to increase the quality of compressed normal maps.
From this follows another "inborn" feature of Doom 3 graphics — relatively low details of main textures, which cannot be compared with Painkiller, to say nothing of Far Cry. No, this is not because id Software hires mediocre artists. It's just because good bump maps cannot be used in all surfaces in the game having retained the detail level of the main textures. To be more exact, it is possible, but the size of video memory in gamers' cards must miraculously double. But there are no miracles in the world.
In other respects Doom 3 engine is rather standard and is no conjurer. We can note nice post-processing effects: refraction of light in glass, warmed air and explosions (what is more important — they all happily coexist with MSAA), as well as a new audio engine, which turned out not that powerful as it must have been, but still good enough for today's requirements. By the way, Doom 3 is the first game from id Software supporting more than stereo. Ah, of course, there were experiments with A3D in Quake 3 Arena, which passed away together with Aureal...
Glitch in the Matrix
...He found it hard to understand what urged him forward along dark passageways soaked in death and otherworldly sounds. Nostalgia was sometimes so strong that his heart hurt: I was here in 1998, this display reminds of 1999, that dark corner — something from 2001. But distinctive like nothing on earth metallic clicks of a reloading shotgun took him back to 2004...
As we have already said, it's difficult to be unique these days. Moreover, it's often not only difficult but also unnecessary and dangerous. Proper recombination of old ideas is almost surely more successful, better implemented, and easier for public to accept. To say nothing of the old proverb about the wheel invention, which is raised to the rank of law in this business.
id Software didn't even try to be original. Some air of Aliens vs. Predator, a little style from System Shock 2, slightly modified Half-Life plot. Put a speciality sauce made of infernal paraphernalia, demons, and pentagrams all over it. You say it's bad? No and... yes. No, because there is no need to reinvent a wheel. If someone has already implemented what you want to see in your game, why not use these old ideas? The entire progress is actually based on perfecting and developing what was already done before.
Say, is it worth being original and trying to replace script fragments that first appeared in Half-Life? I guess, no. Or, for example, invent a special introduction instead of slightly modifying the first 5 minutes of Resident Evil? How many gamers will watch this intro? Or half of them will immediately press Escape?
However, in some places id Software overdid the borrowing thing. Let's say that the System Shock 2 atmosphere on several levels gets too obvious, so that the Doom 3 genre gets in conflict with the recollections of the brilliant five-year-old RPG. The atmosphere in these levels requires more detailed elaboration of the game world. It requires skills and weapon modification systems. It requires higher variety in everything. And then Doom 3 starts to look like a bobtail of a great game, which System Shock 2 had undoubtedly been.
That's where the original ideas rush to help. Yes, unlike Call of Duty and Far Cry, Doom 3 has really original ideas, otherwise is would not have been a game from id Software.
The system of gear control: no more ridiculous buttons, only sensor screens, jumping to which from the game world is as straight as the brilliant idea of automatic doors in Quake, which helped to get rid of the Use button forever. This is also one of the merits of Doom 3 — to create gameplay not inferior to Half-Life in its complexity, having retained the entire control to a single mouse button.
Impressive effect of camera "rolling" into the back of the head of the main hero. Do you remember Gabe Newell, president of Valve Software, saying that it's wrong to show the main hero of the game (of course he meant Gordon Freeman) sideways, because it ruins the integrity of the atmosphere? On the one hand, it's really so. On the other hand, safeguarding the atmosphere tends to limit available artistic devices. They found a compromise in id: a hero can be shown sideways, but the camera always rolls out from behind your back, then the video clip is played, then the camera rolls back in.
The result is unexpected. Instead of script fragments pulled out of context we get plotline fragments naturally inserted into gameplay, in which we directly participate. When we enter a room, the camera flies out of our eyes and shows a wall, though which with roars and shrieks tears a hell knight, twice as tall as we are. The camera demonstrates details of our gloomy future and neatly returns to the back of hero's head. A second of suspense, an attempt to cope with trembling hands, selection of a deadlier weapon — the gameplay becomes a logical extension of the overseen issues.
Of course it's trivia, but in these days such trivia make a difference between some Chaser and Doom 3. Attention to details, perfect elaboration of the game world, nothing redundant, but no flaws as well. As a matter of fact, it's not that hard to develop such a game. It's much more difficult to polish it, to add something new to its gameplay, and to improve the old ideas instead of ruining them.
Take "the feeling of the air", for example, which became a hot topic right after the release of Doom 3. Have you ever been irritated by the stupidity of most sci-fi shooters, where a player roams the jungles in an unknown planet (Jedi Outcast) or rocking asteroids (Elite Force 2) and always feels good breathing freely? After Doom 3 it will be hard to miss such glitches.
And no revolutions, just minimum observance of "the terrestrial atmosphere" notion. Which is much thicker than that in Mars, as is well known. So when a pot shot breaks a window in a passageway, the shot hole starts to suck in the air. The air reserves in your suit are limited to about 30 seconds, so the scurry in search of the nearest airlock is guaranteed. Again trivia, but it's quite possible that these trivia make Doom 3 an excellent game, while Elite Force 2 is just a mediocre.
...He got really scared only in Delta Labs, when the base structures started to come apart under the influence of something really incomprehensible. And this strange counsellor Swann with his bodyguard — could he trust them? But then again, it borne in on him, what had caused it and who was behind the whole thing.
He took the plasmagun in his left hand and shone the flashlight into a suspiciously dark passageway. In places like that lamps used to fall right on his head. Fortunately, the everlasting problem with fire power had been solved a couple of buildings backwards on the approaches to the energy reactor. Having put away the flash light, he reloaded the plasmagun and stepped into the shadow...
While id Software practically borrowed the main game mechanics from Half-Life without any special remorse, the feelings brought forth in Doom 3 resemble those in Alien vs. Predator 2, its first human third, to be more exact. Periodically System Shock 2 also comes to mind, but being from another genre it hardly fits into Procrustean bed of FPS.
id Software did not deceive us when promising to scare us all to grey hair. Only unlike the Silent Hill series, where the overall oppressive atmosphere usually ends up in a stupid and far from scary fight with monsters, in Doom 3 the fear does not release its hold even for a second. The main role in its build up is surely played by the all-absorbing darkness of the martian UAC base, where it's so convenient to construct shadows using shadow volumes. The darkness is closely followed by script scenes, a soundtrack rich in gloomy sounds, and a unique design partially dictated by new engine features and partially purposeful.
You should play Doom 3 at night on a large screen with a high quality multi-channel audio system. A powerful video card of the latest generation is a must. It will allow all effects, anisotropy, and antialiasing. Otherwise you won't feel the atmosphere of the game, and it will seem like another usual FPS, one of many games released for the last years. But Doom 3 is perhaps the best by its atmosphere FPS since the release of Half-Life in 1998.
By the way, what concerns Half-Life and its long awaited second part, which is soon going gold. It so happened that the drought in 2003, when we were fed mostly with cross-platform releases, merged into the shower of AAA-games for PC in 2004, which started with Far Cry, continued with Doom 3, and has all chances to end with Half-Life 2.
Of course we can argue which FPS of the three is the best. But in our opinion they are too different, each one opens up its own side of the genre, and we shouldn't compare them. Far Cry is unique with its tropical graphics and a relatively free gameplay, though locked up into the dotted line of way points. Besides, Far Cry united several detached lines of further development of the FPS genre.
Doom 3 brought back a rare for this platform atmosphere of pandemonium, draping it into perfect technology and design from id Software. Carmac has again raised the plank of graphical expectations. F.E.A.R. from Monolith, which will be released in the next year, parades the same stencil shadows as in Doom 3. There is no denying the fact that this game will be a new reference. This game does not have that many innovations, but all of them fall into the section entitled "why haven't we guessed it ourselves?!"
Half-Life 2 will probably be worse in graphics but better in psychological escalation of the events. Just remember one of the Valve bosses reasoning about the technologies to increase gamers' sympathies to the computer hero a couple of years ago. The first Half-Life was not a brilliant FPS as well, but subtle perfect ways of influencing the psychics of the gamer bought it a ticket to the eternity. However, we shouldn't forget about Counter-Strike either — it would have been hard to guess the rating of Half-Life, if CS had been developed on the Unreal engine for example.
Another masterpiece from id Software. Minimum innovations, maximum professionalism in design and technology. Solid adrenalin rush, which you absolutely cannot tear yourself away from and where you want to return and play until The End appears on screen.
However, you shouldn't be mistaken. Doom 3 is not a continuation of Doom 2, not a single pixel of it. It's an absolutely new game built in the same universe. Not a remake even, but rather a creative interpretation of what had been done ten years ago, packed up into new technology standards. Doom 3 is not even an ideological continuation of Doom 2 — gameplay in the new FPS is totally different from its predecessor.
Danil Gridasov (firstname.lastname@example.org)
September 24, 2004
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