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Shedding light on Doom 3

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There’s a slight glitch in the instantaneous transport system that Union Aerospace Corp. (UAC) is developing in its Mars labs — it opens the portals of Hell.

One moment the station is clean and pristine, though a little bit cramped. The next, it’s decrepit and littered with mangled bodies. Worst of all, it’s crawling with zombies, monsters, mutants and demons.

Welcome to “Doom 3,” the most visually advanced computer game in history.

From a technological standpoint, this title boasts a raft of breakthroughs. Over the next five years, other games will be created using technologies and techniques created for “Doom 3.”

Because its a first-person shooter, you don’t just control the one remaining space marine who must defend the UAC labs from demonic possession, you are him.

The first-person perspective makes “Doom 3” all the more personal, but it is the unbelievably crisp graphics and ultra-intense plotting that make the experience so chilling. From the moment you touch down on Mars, you are battered by the claustrophobic feel of living in a tin can. And once all Hell breaks loose, phobia turns to paranoia as vicious enemies lurk behind every corner.

Computer graphics, and this goes for the graphics in movies such as “Shrek” as well as games, are composed of tiny, flat shapes referred to as polygons or triangles. These shapes are placed together like tiles in a mosaic to create three-dimensional objects.

The conventional wisdom has always been that the more polygons graphic artists have to work with, the better their art will look. But while other companies continued to chase after the almighty polygon, id Software, the company that makes the Doom games, decided to pursue a different logic. Instead of emphasizing raw polygons, id went after passes — the process in which lighting, shadows, textures and other effects are added to polygons. Other companies created graphics-rendering engines that generated single-pass polygons; id created an engine that allowed for multiple passes, which opened the way for all kinds of improvements that make games look more realistic.

“Doom 3” has zombies, some of which are covered with flames, behemoth creatures that look like a cross between a buffalo and a dagger fish (those deep sea fish with the giant teeth), and mutant commandos with tentacle arms. The range of these fiends is mind-boggling, everything from tiny trites (upside-down human skulls with spider legs) to hellknights (3-meter bruisers).

You take care of these vermin the old-fashioned way, with rockets, grenades, shotguns, chain saws and other conventional weapons. Shoot them. Pulverize them. Kill them. In the U.S., “Doom 3” has an M rating, meaning it’s for players ages 17 and up. You can bet the brutal violence, demonic creatures, seas of gore and disturbing images have everything to do with that rating.

Central to all things Doom is dynamic lighting, something new to gaming. In the real world, light is often less than cooperative. It bounces off some objects, reflects off others, and creates shadows. In gaming, however, lighting has generally been a matter of brightness and dimming.

In past iterations of Doom, for instance, lighting has been created using gamma controls. If you wanted a bright room, you simply set the gamma level at 9. To make a room dark, you might set it at 3. The light fixtures that appeared in rooms were there for cosmetic reasons. And when you saw shadows, they were only animations that looked like shadows. In the industry, these were referred to as “cheats.”

The dynamic lighting in “Doom 3” behaves like real world lighting. Rather than setting gamma levels, id’s designers light the rooms of their Martian laboratory the same way they would their own homes, one fixture at a time. All lighting comes from in-game sources. Shoot out the lights and you will find yourself in the dark.

And in this case, real lighting means real shadows. The shadows in “Doom 3” are created by the in-game lighting. If you walk under a swinging light fixture, you will see your shadow moving with the light on the floor.

Dynamic lighting may be more trouble than it is worth for many games; but for a horror game set in a demon-possessed lab on the surface of Mars, it’s perfect.

When people say that the animation in “Doom 3” is like the animation in “Shrek,” they may be more accurate than they know. Fred Nilsson, lead animator at id, worked at DreamWorks and animated Princess Fiona in “Shrek.”

Nilsson and one other animator may have brought the tormented demons of “Doom 3” to un-life, but it was a team of artists who created the monsters in the first place. Led by Kenneth Scott, these artists built the seemingly endless list of props and characters it takes to fill an entire Martian space station.

Many of the machines actually work. Designer Patrick Duffy created thousands of graphical user interfaces that control everything from cranes to security cameras to the various characters’ personal data assistants.

But the real star of “Doom 3” is the mood it evokes. This is the most realistic haunted house ever played by man. With its dim lighting and eerie settings, the environments alone will scare you. Then throw in relentless monsters and a plot to bring the evil to all mankind, and you’ve got yourself a war.