Quake 4 vs Doom 3 (vs HL2, Doom and Quake 2)
Making use of the Steam Winter Sale, and other sales around this time, I've finally managed to acquire copies of Doom 3 and Quake 4 at prices I'm prepared to pay for them (less than a fiver each).
Some impressions of them:
The first thing that struck me about Doom 3 was the ugliness of their human models. There's something uncomfortably unrefined about the generally blocky, spherical faces and odd body shapes that unsettles one - consider that this game came out at around the same time as Half-Life 2 and Vampire: Bloodlines, both of which managed much more "normal" looking character designs.
On the other hand, the lighting model is still genuinely impressive, even now. The shadowcasting, in particular, is rather effective, and used for some of the more effective atmosphere building tactics, although it does lead to the game being, in general, a bit too dark to really show off the graphical engine.
The rest of the atmosphere and scare tactics are just as hackneyed as the reviews said - lots of monsters hiding in cupboards, or just behind you or behind doors you're about to open. And the Villain, Dr Bertruger, of course, taunts you melodramatically and non-scarily throughout the later sections (Half-Life 2's Dr Breen did this much more effectively, with his more "reasonable" suggestions that you were on the wrong side). On the other hand, these taunts are also used to some better effect in the second Doom music remix "album", Delta-Q-Delta - I'd been wondering where those samples came from originally.
The level design is hit-and-miss for the most part - the base levels are a wee bit confusing, especially in the dark, but the external Mars environment is visually striking the first time (and adds another element of useful tension with the lack of air). The Hell level is the best thing about the entire game - the styling is most visually impressive (although a little cod-medieval - just for once, I'd like to see a proper frozen-over Hell, or something more like Tartarus), and reminded me quite strongly of American McGee's Alice, as did the final form of the Villain in the ending cut-scene. It's also the only thing that Doom 3 does better than the Half-Life series - it's also a bit like Xen, but done better.
As far as reinvention and homage to the original goes, the demons are obviously a lot more effective in proper high-polycount 3d, and this is helped by their new agility. However, the "new" demons added to the game aren't as good for the most part - the Cherubs, in particular, are a bit silly, really - and the spidery Trites just made me miss Arachnotrons from the original games (okay, so I thought they were sort of cute...)
Obviously, id were trying to make a more "grown-up" game, adding more grotesque monster design, and attempting to do the System Shock thing with the PDAs with voice logs from the recently dead. Unfortunately, there's something very "studio-recorded" about the voice logs, which detracts somewhat from their effectiveness. The cut-scenes don't help much either, serving to emphasise the nameless marine's intentional lack of personality in the worst possible way (while Half-Life 2 intentionally lampshades Gordon Freeman's "silent type" persona).
I'm also not totally sure about the Soul Cube - it could have been worse, and at least it manages to add some background to the tissue-thin plot - but I'd have preferred my Doom without a semi-Total Recall recycled super extinct Martian race.
(Just having started the expansion, it is clear that the few modifications to gameplay are sops to the criticisms of Doom 3 vs HL2 and possibly the Max Payne games. The expansion's 'grabber' is just as hard to use properly as the Gravity Gun, but with the additional disadvantage that you can't hold stuff for more than 5 seconds. So, not a massive plus, except against the annoying small enemies that swarm you. And the "Helltime" slomo mode is... well, a slomo mode.)
Quake 4 -
For some reason, I enjoyed playing this more than Doom 3. I think a lot of this is due to the generally more "social" gameplay - you're part of a large-scale military operation and as such you're almost always working in co-operation with your teammates. In addition, the level design seems a lot better, and I think I only got lost once in the game.
The vehicle sections probably also helped - the change in tone was good to stave off any potential boredom, and also allowed the game to introduce more more powerful enemies early on (as the vehicles are both considerably tougher than, and more heavily armed than, the lone marine).
Talking about armaments, there's clearly an attempt been made to both consolidate the Quake series and distinguish it from the Doom games. The BFG 10k has been whipped out and replaced by the visually distinct, yet game-play nigh-identical "Dark Matter Gun", thus removing the only direct connection to Doom. Conversely, the nailgun and lightning gun (again, with visual makeovers - the lightning gun now looking like something from Return to Castle Wolfenstein) have appeared from the original Quake, which otherwise has nothing to do with the setting of Quake 2.
Oh, and the fluff now claims that Strogg have no freewill, which is strangely at odds with the fluff for Quake 2 (where they have internal power struggles to decide their leaders) as well as their actual behaviour in Quake 4 itself. Very odd.
Because this is much more like a Jerry Bruickheimer movie than Doom 3 is, the level designs don't build tension so much as "excitement". That said, the first level featuring Iron Maidens (also the best redesign of the Quake 2 monsters - the originals being considerably more sexist and misogynistic) manages to very effectively develop atmosphere, with the activation of critical systems leading to previously quiescent wall-mounted pods disgorging Maidens one by one, accompanied by a warning hiss of pressurised gas. (The visual pun of the Iron Maidens being stored in, well, high-tech Iron Maidens, is a minor plus.)
The only other strong emotional response Quake 4 managed to evoke in me was self-disgust (and disgust with the game) at the way in which I was made to kill the Strogg stroylent processing creature (a massive, malformed, sessile beastie used to produce processed food for the Strogg military machine, which you are made to destroy in the course of the military assault, essentially by force-feeding it to the point of explosion). The pitiful attempt it makes at fending off its feeding tube is horrifying, and I did have to pause for several moments before I could continue. I know dehumanising your enemies and everything associated with them is part for the course for military-themed games, but... (it's also why one of the works of genius in Half-Life 2 was bringing back the enemy Vortigaunts from the original Half-Life, sans the slave-collars forcing them to work for the enemy, and showing that they were generally nice guys, in the "wise inscrutable alien" mould).
As a final comment, both games have the same odd glitch in their internal logic. Presumably to keep in-game poly-counts down, killed enemies "vanish" once killed - burning to nothing in the case of demons, and being teleported back to reclamation facilities in the case of the Strogg. However, both games have allied units engaging in research on apparently dead samples of their enemies. One does wonder how they ever managed to acquire these...
World of Goo is still my game of the (last) year though. And, perhaps its a sign of growing up that I found both Quake 4 and Doom 3 somewhat lacking and overly callous in tone... and that I'm very apprehensive about Doom 4. Shall we hope they've learned something from Valve in the meantime?