Roaring Back to Hell and Glory

It wasn't difficult to guess what Elik Kushnir of the computer games chain Freak was preoccupied with last Thursday afternoon. The usually laid-back shop owner sat in the restaurant next to his business chain-smoking, glancing at the mobile phone on the table every few seconds, waiting for news from the cargo terminal at Ben-Gurion airport.

It wasn't difficult to guess what Elik Kushnir of the computer games chain Freak was preoccupied with last Thursday afternoon. The usually laid-back shop owner sat in the restaurant next to his business chain-smoking, glancing at the mobile phone on the table every few seconds, waiting for news from the cargo terminal at Ben-Gurion airport.

At around three o'clock he was told that the eagle - two cardboard boxes with the first 70 copies in Israel of the new computer game "Doom 3" - had landed and was going through customs. But Kushnir refused to relax.

"A lot of things can could go wrong and hold up a shipment at the airport," he said nervously. "Until I see it in my store, I won't believe it has arrived." The strange glint in Kushnir's eyes every time he talked about the game showed how worried he was that a mess in airport bureaucracy might prevent him from keeping his promise to his customers to be the first store in Israel to have "Doom 3" - the official distributor, Hed Artzi, will start importing the game only in September. Even worse, he might not have the game for himself.

It's not difficult to understand Kushnir. For the world community of gamers, which has been in a state of absolute hysteria for several weeks, the release of "Doom 3" is an event on the scale of the Beatles getting back together for music lovers, or a rare observation of Halley's Comet for astronomy freaks.

Since the Texas-based Id Software declared four years ago that it was starting to work on a modern version of one of the most important computer games in the short history of the genre, anticipation in the computer industry has been at fever pitch, unlike anything every before seen in the industry. The original game Id Software released in 1993 contributed more than any other to turning computer gaming from the esoteric hobby of a few geeks to a major element in the recreational activities of millions of people.

The formula that made the game into such a great hit was simple - viewing the world through the eyes of a tough, nameless marine, the player has to ward off an invasion by the forces of hell into a futuristic space station, using any means at his disposal.

There were games before "Doom" that presented the gaming world in the first person and enabled players to navigate through a three-dimensional space - Id Software invented three-dimensional games with "Wolfenstein 3D." There was something special about that game.

The 3D engine that John Carmack wrote in 1991 managed to draw on the screen more complex, broader and better designed scenes than in the past, and enabled the player to move among them quickly in real time while fighting hoards of pixelled monsters. The fast pace, murderous weaponry and especially the atmosphere of horror that the game created turned it into the undisputed great hit of the glory days of shareware.

Ferrari lineup

In an article from early 1994, an amazed "Dallas Morning News" writer reported on clients downloading the game by the thousands "using telephone lines, almost bringing the Internet and global web to its knees."

The same writer was stunned at the financial success of "a bunch young people who refuse to report their sales figures, but talk of buying new homes and point to a line of new Ferraris worth $200,000 each parked in front of their houses." To sum up, he quoted members of Id, who at the time were up to their neck working on "Doom 2," as promising fans that next time the experience would be, "bigger, meaner and better." And that is exactly what happened.

"Doom 2" not only managed to bring into Id's bursting coffers tens of millions more dollars, but also marked the Texas company as one of the most significant forces in the industry. One after another, its games defined the new technological standards for first-person games, convex surfaces and dynamic lighting. At the same time, every new 3D engine that Id developed soon became the platform upon which the leading games of the previous decade were built, and the company found a very significant income channel by selling its technology to other game developers.

On the other hand, Id showed little interest in building plots for its games. The "Doom" and "Quake" series all threw slews of monsters and demons at a lone hero. In "Quake 3" of 1999 Id decided to do away with even its framework story and created a plotless web game that "strips the genre down to its most basic elements," as Carmack and others explained to those who complained.

However, after completing "Quake 3," some at Id decided they did want to create a game with a narrative, and after power struggles that caused a number of the company's founders to leave, they decided to recreate the original Doom using completely new technology. Last week the new game hit the stores.

After a fairly long installation, which requires a monster 2.2 gigabytes of space on your hard disk, we are given a glimpse into what Id has been doing for the past few years. For the first hour of the game, it's difficult not to sit gaping in front of the computer, slack-jawed, tongue hanging out, in sheer amazement at the most beautiful computer game ever created.

The new graphics engine makes it possible to present ultra-realistic beauty, making the game's lighting - mostly dark and shadowy in fact - create a gloomy and scary ambience that is completely dynamic. Every source of light in the game world illumines every pixel in the picture, creating a complex play of light and shadow.

The textures of the floors, walls and ceilings are created using "bump mapping" technology, giving them an illusion of depth. The pixel engine makes objects move very realistically, the details are extraordinarily rich and the images look bone-chillingly alive. In addition, the game comes equipped with an advanced sound engine that supports five speakers and a sub-woofer, yet another contribution to the terrifying atmosphere.

Dark and deadly

As in the original game, the player acts the part of a nameless, voiceless marine who arrives at an outpost on Mars controlled by a mysterious corporation. After he receives a hand-held computer on which he is given his orders and is armed with a gun, he is required to track down a missing scientist. He soon starts to realize that something dark and deadly is going on in the outpost.

But Id never put much store in building up tension for too long, and already after ten minutes of playing, the gates of hell open - literally - and the space colony is overrun by nightmarish demons and zombies from another dimension. Now, in the middle of all this bleeding chaos, the player has to fight for his life and try to send the hellish creatures back to where they came from.

After getting over one's initial amazement at the game's graphic capabilities - although you need a monster computer to see them best - some drawbacks become obvious. The game's plot is at best, silly. The progression in the space station is completely linear and the gaming is no different from most first-person action games that have been issued in recent years.

The element of fear and horror that shroud the gaming experience in its initial hours wears off when one realizes that even if you can't see them yet, the monsters are lurking right around the next dark corner.

The artificial intelligence that Id has boasted about is not especially impressive. On occasion one can detect certain limited ability for teamwork among the enemies, usually they simply keep rushing forward in suicidal fury, just as they did in the original 1993 game.

The game's internal logic also leaves a lot to be desired. It's not clear, for example, why in the 22nd century, the player doesn't have a simple night-vision device instead of a puny flashlight, and why he almost constantly has to replace the flashlight with one of his weapons. Already in the 20th century, real soldiers had flashlights attached to their rifles.

Nor is it clear why, unlike in other games, the hero cannot look around corners or lie down on the ground, or how the base can be overrun with such ease, and why the invulnerable robots that are supposed to guard the base sometimes decide to fight on your side. These logical flaws cannot but impair enjoyment, especially when they appear in a game in which Id tried to create a convincingly realistic world.

Also, and unrelated to the other complaints, the "Doom 3" web game is limited to only four players, and includes game situations whose lack of sophistication seems to defy many other web games on the market.

Yet, despite all this, and even after 15 hours of playing alone, it is difficult to leave "Doom 3." While it may not have reinvented the gaming wheel, it certainly presents it in the most spectacular way seen so far on the computer screen.

Hezi Hayat, a 36-year-old computer technician and one of the 35 lucky customers that bought the game from Kushnir on Thursday, said before even starting the game that he wasn't afraid of being disappointed. "I remember coming to work on Friday to play the original Doom game because I didn't yet have a computer at home, so I know what to expect from Id's games. My wife is not home, the computer has been ready for ages, and I plan to shut myself in the room, turn off the lights, and turn on the sub-woofer. What more could one need?"