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Doom III BFG Edition Review: Returning To The Nightmare

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DOOM
Bethesda

Doom is 20 years old next year, and this week is released in a boxed-set collection (Doom III: BFG Edition) which includes the original, its sequel Doom II: Hell On Earth and a graphically reworked version of 2004's controversial Doom III.

So how do the games fare after all this time? Are they still fun - and more importantly are they still scary?

There is a moment very early on in Doom II that still gives me nightmares.

The map is called Underhalls, and it starts simply enough. Fight a short battle in a makeshift bunker, collect a troublesome red keycard, double back to the start and follow the revealed corridor to a door shrouded in darkness as your newly-acquired double-barrelled shotgun bounces in your arms.

You enter, shoot the shotgun-wielding sergeants inside -

- and spot a hole in the floor.

It is dark. Below, you can hear the unmistakable moan of demons waiting to rip out your throat and burn you alive. Only, you can't see them. You know they are there, and they know you are there. But instead of storming in with a chainsaw, as you should, you hesitate. You listen to their screams. For a mad moment you think about hiding. But why? This is just a game. Save your progress - you can just reload. It's fine. But it isn't. And so you wait, listening to the growing roar, totally unable to move.

Now this shouldn't be frightening. The graphics in Doom and Doom II were then, as they are now, pixelated and clunky. The sound effects are pretty lo-res. And if you play these early levels like the badass, armoured marine you're supposed to be, it's not even difficult.

But I never played Doom that way. I played it like a terrified, angst-ridden 11-year-old wimp, because that's exactly what I was. Every screech of every demon tore down my spine like it was coated in blood-red scales. Every movement in every shadow, even in this game without lighting effects or 3D models, made me jump out of my parents' computer room chair. Even an unexpected 'clunk' of an elevator made me want to throw up in fear. I didn't play Doom as a Marine. I played it as myself.

Doom scared me. And, as it turns out, it still does.

The entire Doom series - Doom, Doom II and the controversial and relatively recent Doom III - are collected and re-released this week in a competitively prized boxed set, Doom III: BFG Edition.

The included versions of Doom and Doom II are unchanged from their 2010 download store re-releases. Yes, they've aged. Yes, playing it in an enforced 4:3 aspect ratio is annoying - and yes, for anyone who's played it before - on PC, console, Game Boy, iPhone and virtually every other device - everything is very familiar.

But they are also hugely fun and atmospheric. And standing outside that fateful door I felt just as I had back in 1995 I did not feel just scared - I felt worse than ever. Why had I been dragged back here? I had escaped this. I had moved on - gotten a job, a girlfriend and a life. But no, here I was, in exactly the same death maze I had left behind 17 years ago, and being stuck there with another rusty shotgun in my hands seemed just like a nightmare: vague, repetitive, ingrained, but deep. It was different to any other fear I've felt playing a game.

In general, Doom III is not regarded nearly so fondly as its retro predecessors.

One of the most hotly anticipated games in history on its release, it was adored by some for taking the ethos of the original - its powerful weapons and monster onslaughts - and adding fully 3D graphics, state-of-the-art lighting effects, a relatively fleshed-out storyline and an even darker, more frightening atmosphere to the experience.

For others, though, Doom III was a misstep, and not only for the notorious flaw - herein corrected - whereby it was impossible to shoot a weapon with a flashlight turned on. Many disliked the nervy gameplay, the ability of monsters to appear at will anywhere in a level, and the relatively cheap trick of endless dark corridors populated by suddenly appearing angry things.

If, to you, this mechanic is a flaw, it's largely corrected by the addition of a new level pack ('Lost Mission') which turns up the lights, equips you with the more powerful guns more quickly and throws monsters at you with the same reckless, straightforward abandon as the original game.

For me, however, Doom III's focus on fear above fun was not so much a flaw as an extension of the way I played the game in the first place.

Then - and now - my Doom was always a horrible, heart-pounding nightmare played out in a world of unbearable existential woe, and so I enjoyed the third game's sadistic sense of humour, realistic graphics and twisted take on the same monsters and guns I knew and hated.

The new BFG Update adds a few new features and graphical bumps via id Tech 5. You can play it in 3D, and the new levels are a welcome boost to a relatively short game.

But even without those bumps, Doom III stands up well both in graphics and gameplay. There certainly is a 'Crappy Canyon' that falls between games that feel 'modern' and those that feel 'retro' - but eight years on Doom III is definitely on the right side.

While it is impossible for any Doom fan to know how the game will appear to new gamers, it's hard to imagine that most won't enjoy Doom III's mix of horror, action and dark humour at this affordable price.

Yes, Doom I and II might be a stretch for a younger generation unable to see past its graphical flaws and retrospectively odd quirks - no jump button, no ladders and auto-aiming guns.

But if you grew up fearing the darker corners of the Doom universe, I recommend you give it a try. It's not about nostalgia. It's about the abstract thrill of returning to something both so familiar and so traumatic. It's probably the closest I ever come to experiencing the feeling of a true nightmare while playing a video game. And there is no amount of flashy 3D graphics, story-lines and open-world levels that can beat it.