Finally, FBT reaches the end of his Why We Game special - his quest to find the Doom Killer. Or does he? Let’s hope so, he’s not doing a part five.
Part Four: Black Mesa Inbound
By now the vultures are circling, watching as Doom breathes it’s last. It’s faced inventories, 3D, character classes, cut-scenes and storylines. Sacrilege. It’s been backstabbed by Quake, bullied by Build and had strips ripped off it by clone after clone. Yet it’s not only survived, Doom’s seen off all pretenders - even LucasArts no less. Doom keeps on killing it - and while 1997’s games have done everything they can to topple it, we’re yet to play a PC game that stands on its own. And that’s because we didn’t have an N64.
Shooter. First Person, Shooter; GoldenEye 007 (Aug 1997) is further away from Doom than any FPS so far; it was a huge leap and is the Doom killer. But it’s let off on a technicality; being N64-only limited Goldeneye’s chances of influencing the FPS genre the way Doom did - PC was safe in its vacuum. But, N64 players got a taste of the future. It seems every genre was stepping up; behind the wheel we had Carmageddon, Gran Turismo and Grand Theft Auto, f fight!-fans were about to get Tekken 3, RPG had the first Fallout and Lara was back in the seminal Tomb Raider II. The most amazing thing about the 1996-97 period is how many of those franchises continue today. Midsomer Murders premiered in 1997 and even that’s still on, what happened to Doom?
While the N64 was changing everything, all we in PC-Land had were sequels. Hexen II (Aug 1997) continues to move further away from Heretic - this time we have 4 classes and a sort of XP system; but as I replay Quake-powered HII I realise Quake was even more boring than I thought. While it has some stuff going on (sheep on catapults for one thing) HII actually looks and plays just like Quake; it’s an incredibly restrictive engine - Here is the world id have provided; play through it quietly, please. Hexen II might be fantasy-based, but it’s striking how distant it all feels after Build’s close-quarter world. But it’s not just the environment. Quake is like Dad’s Army to N64’s Bond; nonthreatening, almost comfortable. This is depressing. No mayhem, no trouble, no edge or dirt to it; Where’s the energy, the risk, the breathless deathrun for the exit? Hexen II does look good, and feels good but it never gets going and it’s hard to keep going, it’s all so flatline constant. At the risk of labouring the point, I would have loved to see it in the Build engine. Yes, I am blaming Quake for Hexen II. If it had been built in a more fluid, freeing engine, it might have been a lot more involving. I’m also blaming Quake for something worse; indifference - after Quake, FPS became more than what we’d settled for. We could forgive Doom for its simplicity because it was so raucous, but Quake’s lack of heart exposed that simplicity without stepping up the mayhem and it’s made FPS meh. Quake is so horrific it ruined Heretic too. Maybe Quake killed Doom by embarrassment. God, I hate Quake.
Luckily, the other sequel we got in 1997 was closer to Goldeneye than Quake; Star Wars Dark Forces II: Jedi Knight: (Sept 1997). Proving how far the FPS genre has come, JK is miles away from Dark Forces and therefore, Doom. There’s a cracking plot; Kyle Katarn, the arm we played in DF is on the hunt for his father’s murderer. Along the way he discovers he can use a lightsaber and that dark forces are looking for a place that focuses force powers. As we shoot and saber our way through every Star Wars reference, Kyle gains force powers and wrestles with revenge vs the Jedi path; and how we wrestle dictates the ending. The plot, much like Blood is told through cutscenes but this time they’re in glorious FMV, complete with panto actors having no idea what they’re doing, fuzzy rotoscoping and cheesy dialogue only George Lucas could approve. It’s an incredibly good game, epic yet focused with good shootouts and set-pieces; it’s as close as a PC gamer is going to get to Goldeneye, and the furthest we’ve gotten from Doom so far; a story, choices, subtle advancements and technically dual-wielding with weapons and force-powers – this is good. It has aged, the force-powers are clunky, the lightsaber is just button-mashing, it's blocky to the point of being blinding and the FMV is hilarious, but it sets a new bar. All we need now is for id to lower it again.
Quake II (December 1997). This is a new id engine so I’m going to give id the benefit of the doubt and assume they loosened some of Quake’s vacuum-sealed grip and really put us in the boots of whoever the hell the Quake character is; it does actually have a storyline, so I’m sensing a change in the air. Is id actually going to kill Doom?
The oddest thing about Quake II is it has nothing to do with Quake. It’s rumoured QII wasn’t even a Quake game during development, id just couldn’t come up with a better name. Just how unimaginative were id by this point? Quake II is set in a sci-fi environment where a Space Marine named Bitterman (Bitterman would have made a better title) is split up from his company when they’re deployed on the home-world of the Strogg, an invading force attempting to take over earth. A blazing opening scene sets the story in motion, unlike anything we’ve experienced before and exactly what I was looking for. This is epic, against the odds stuff! Finally, a war-movie shooter; tight, claustrophobic, brutal … wait. Goddamnit. The game is nothing like the setup; no desperation, no frantic firefights, no overwhelming odds, no ‘oh shit’ moments. The corridors are better looking than before, and the bad guys move with a fluidity we’ve not seen before, but it's plain, straight shooting. QII doesn’t add anything to the experience, there's nothing wild or unexpected; Bitterman is Doomguy with a name tag and while being more cohesive than Quake, having a singular forward-pushing level design, against Goldeneye and Dark Forces II, QII offers nothing; it’s a throwback on a shinier engine. It was hailed on release, but again that’s just the Multiplayer talking; at first I thought id were timid – unwilling to step away from their comfort zone, but no more excuses; QII, actually, is arrogant. id - you thought this would do? At least Doom II turned it up to 11, made you work for it; this is just filler. That’s it. id, you’re dead to me.
So that was 1997, a year where IBM’s Deep Blue beat chess master Kasparov. Afterwards he claimed the machine made imaginative moves, implying human interference but considering IBM dismantled Deep Blue immediately, I think it become self-aware and they shut it down before it could launch missiles against Russia. They should have given Deep Blue a job at id.
Once, someone (me) likened id to Nirvana and said Doom was their Nevermind. Now they’re corporate MOR, the kind of thing you’d find on Jeremy Clarkson’s Driving Anthems CD, given away free with the Daily Express. But thankfully, we had our Foo Fighters; Epic. Unreal (April 1998) follows JKDF II’s form and gave PC gamers their Goldeneye. This could be the Doom killer - just when I thought Doom died of old age.
You play an unnamed prisoner enroute to space-jail when the ship crashes, leaving you the sole survivor with a legion of baddies between you and freedom - but there’s another layer; the planet's peaceful inhabitants are subjugated by the baddies, forcing them to mine a valuable ore abundant on their planet. Our hero fights through the invaders as per standard, but saves the locals in the process. Or not. As an escaped prisoner, it’s your (moral) choice.
Unreal seems to understand what’s been missing; it draws you in as much as you draw your pistol; this is a FPS that feels exciting but rather than Doom’s pure ‘oh shit’ mentality, you’re playing with a sense of curiosity and against a subtle threat. This is the most compelling world we’ve seen yet. You feel like you’re on an alien planet; it’s full of odd, weird but logical things, spread across a world you progress through. Diaries and notes left by the aliens and other survivors fill in the background of a world filled with puzzles, interaction and situations - Unreal gives you an exploratory feel as you find your way, and how you make your way is dictated by various power-ups and improvements you can make to yourself. Helping the aliens feels good, not just level-up friendly, while the slavers are brutal and varied enough to keep things interesting. It looks dated of course, but you don’t notice; you have a world to save. This is how it’s done; Unreal is real. But did it kill Doom?
Unreal wasn’t a Doom killer, it was an id killer. They never recovered after being roundly punched off their pedestal. Instead of striking back with something new, they dropped all pretence and returned with Quake III - as multiplayer only. They’re going backwards. But Epic were ready for them. Unreal Tournament and Quake III battered each other Oasis vs Blur style but that was the beginning of the end for id. Carmack once dismissed the Unreal engine with “you’re just never as big when you’re second in line”, and I could just end on that quote, leaving it to linger like a Redneck fart, but I can’t let it go; what did id do to justify their first-in-line status? Doom 3. Like I said, backwards.
Meanwhile, Epic’s Unreal engine became the industry standard, powering not only hundreds of games, but exploited in non-game applications too; the FBI use it for crime scene training and the US Army for IED defusing tactics. It’s been used in Hollywood for pre-vis work (by Spielberg amongst others) and it did real-time, on-set rendering of ‘Kay-Tuesso’ on Star Wars Rogue One. And it generated the virtual sets on Lazy Town; now that’s cool. id? id who? You mean the guys who followed Doom 3 with … Doom 3 remastered? Then Rage, aka Doom in the Desert? Least they came up with a new title. Then followed that with … Doom 4 – which was so bad it didn’t even get a release. id, get second in line.
There’s no denying id’s influence. They are gods. Carmack changed the world with his engines, but game wise, id couldn’t even get cloning right; the King of Clones, Call of Duty has been punting out a reskin for nine games in a row yet it’s huge, primarily for the multiplayer – which id pioneered. Somehow, id forgot how to game.
Knowing what’s coming, Unreal could be argued as the new Wolfenstein. Which makes SiN (Oct 1998) Blake Stone … Set in some not too distant future, our beefy hero, Blade (the last of the classic era hero names) is head of some security firm investigating a super drug which turns folks into mutants. The Sinclaire Megacorp, headed by the unnaturally sexy Elexis Sinclaire is behind it so Blade shoots through various locations to find her and the antidote.
Elexis is one of those characters you’re not quite sure how to take. Either a parody of sexism or just an incredibly sexist fantasy figure, she’s Jessica Rabbit meets Anna Nicole Smith at a Motley Crewe video shoot; so sexualised it’s difficult to watch without blushing. But she has her smarts. It’s a shame SiN didn’t do better, let us *ehem* explore her further as Elexis is not only a great boob-hiss villain, but has the opportunity to be a parody or celebration of feminism or sexism; the ending, a nod to Basic Instinct’s favourite moment is amusingly intercut with Blades utterly transfixed face; female empowerment using physicality to manipulate the male sex-driven psyche or just smut? I dunno, I’m gonna play it again to be sure – and there is a hidden scene where you catch Elexis masturbating in a hot tub. Not sure that helps the satire argument. Thank god we’re not playing as Lo-Wang.
Problem is, Blade’s world is as under-developed as Elexis isn’t. The AI, once out of scripted moments is idiotic and the level designs are hugely lacking, sparse and unfocused; you wander rather than push forward and worst of all, we’re playing someone we’ve already played; Blade is a muscled tough-guy with a dislike for orders and a huge weapon compensating for something; but unlike Duke, Blade is a strictly straight-to-video star; I’ve never played a game where the hero is so completely upstaged by the villain – I’d rather be working for Elexis.
There are some advances to be fair. Blade is also aided by a hacker called JC who works nicely to set the scenes, damage you deal relates to the body-part you hit, there’s a (not very good) interactive computer element, tons of destructive environments and some hairy non-linear moments; choices can make later events easy or a right pain.
SiN could have worked as a satire/throwback had it been a bit more polished, but what really sinks SiN is it just wasn’t quite ready to leave behind classic FPS; sticking to the kind of stuff that would amuse Lo-Wang is half its downfall - the other half was life; SiN was rushed to beat Half-Life to the shelves, and suffers for it.
With Unreal and Goldeneye out there, you can see exactly what needs to happen to deliver the killing blow, and SiN misses the mark. I’m kinda sad about it really, there is a game to be had, but it’s frustratingly out of reach. SiN did manage a not-quite sequel; intended to be split across DLC episodes, Emergence was the only one released and that showed some promise, a nice mix between solid gunplay and Elexis in a bikini.
Just coming in under the wire, the original clone closes out the era. Heretic II (Oct 1998) deserves a mention just because I love Heretic. HII gives our Heretic arm an entire body called Corvus (The genus for Ravens, geddit?) and puts him on the hunt to cure a plague that’s turned everyone conveniently into targets. Built on the Quake II engine and looking pristine yet vacant as only the Quake II engine can, HII isn’t remotely connected to Heretic OG; Ovum spell returns though. Still a classic. Rather than being a Doom Clone, HII is a Tomb Raider clone, an action-adventure-puzzler. In fact, Heretic II doesn’t even belong in a FPS review – it’s 3rd person for a start but I couldn’t miss an excuse to play in Heretic again. Raven, give up the CoD grunt work. I’ll even play Singularity if it helps.
And then, Valve released a game that during early demos, was as seen as an ego-piece. What was this Microsoft Millionaire Gage Newell doing, playing in our shooter sandbox? Stick to MS Minesweeper, leave the gaming to id. But somehow, Valve’s Half-Life (Nov 1998) got it exactly right; instead of a killing machine we were an unwilling lead – a scientist, a geek, one of us, finding a way out of this mess unlike every other shooter where you were looking for a way in. I’m no scientist but career choices don’t matter when there’s headcrabs on the loose. The story was as simple as it was effective; our science project goes wrong, opening portals from which all manner of nasties spill out. Armed with a crowbar, Gordon Freeman (Gordon; even the name is normal. No Duke or Blade here) begins a brilliant trek through the lab to get help, aided by less-able scientists and security guards all called Barney. Meanwhile, the army are making their way in, making sure we don’t escape and tell id this is how you make a next-gen shooter. Freaky creatures, a mysterious G-Man watching our progress, great AI from the soldiers, Half-Life is perfect start to near finish (The ending in Xen still grates) and despite Gordo being silent, you develop a strong desire to get him out of this mess. We’re invested. Best thing is, Half-Life was built on a jury-rigged Quake engine. This could have been id, they could have killed Doom. After Goldeneye, Jedi Knight and Unreal, Half-Life ironed out all the kinks and with SiN proving old-school is out, Half-Life’s wasn’t the exception; this was the standard. Doom doesn’t come to mind once.
Doom; 1993-1998 RIP
What a decade that was. It wasn’t the 60s – it was better. The 60s, the decade of change? Everything and anyone that was a vanguard of change got shot. The Sixties as an idea for the future failed. The nineties saw huge disruption in music, movies, art and gaming, plus changes in politics, equality and society that no decade has been able to top – Plus the nineties gave birth to the internet. Top that yer hippies.
As I mourn for Doom I realise now it couldn’t have gone any other way; I began this journey on the hunt for where it all went wrong, where FPS drifted from Doom’s pure experience but what went wrong was us; we killed Doom, the moment we deathmatched - once we were into Quake’s reign, and Deathmatch went Online, Multiplayer became the driver and the single player mode was just offline mode. It took Half-Life to convince us to save the day not the flag. Turns out I killed Doom?
There’s some who argue that Doom’s influence and impact is overstated, that it’s innovations would have happened naturally. I’m guessing they never played Doom in 1993. Its brilliance wasn’t the technical leaps, it was id’s capturing excitement and turning it into pixels; that joy is missing from games now and that came from a mutual understanding; the developers and gamers never met but we were mates - all those games I played; there’s love in every pixel programmed and we loved every pixel we played. That’s why Doom was incendiary, why it’s one of the best games of all time. Nowadays, I don’t imagine a developer I’d have a beer with, I see corporate nonsense; marketing, research. Games like Doom and it’s Clones are gone forever; gaming is worth over 90 billion dollars a year (compared to Hollywood’s 40 billion) and the mega-corps that run those empires don’t take chances. Those publishers wouldn’t have given Doom a second look.
But maybe, with GOG.com’s commitment to indie titles and Steam’s Greenlight, the Shareware era isn’t over. One day another Doom may slip by and make us go ‘the fuck just happened’. Until then, we still have Duke, Doomguy, Caleb and all the other arms sticking out the bottom of the screen. Come get some.