The Age of Doom

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QUITE A SKULL SET: Carmack is the mind behind a generation of computer games

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As radical as it was 11 years ago, Doom looks pathetically crude compared with Carmack's new brainchild. A first glance at a computer screen running Doom 3 is confusing to the eye: the illusion the game creates is so realistic. The secret? Light. Carmack has spent the past four years painstakingly studying optics, and he has figured out how to make photons bounce around in a virtual space in much the same way that they do in the real world. Suddenly, pebbly surfaces cast pebbly shadows. Air ripples from the heat of a broken steam pipe. There is a crispness to details, a weight and solidity to objects and figures, a lifelike sheen to surfaces in Doom 3 that is unlike anything we've seen before.

The original Doom told a rather disposable story about a space Marine posted to some kind of high-powered research facility on Mars. An experiment goes wrong, yada yada yada, and a portal to hell opens, flooding the station with demons, which the player must dispatch with an assortment of high-caliber weapons. Doom 3 tells the same story but this time treats it with surprisingly artistic tenderness. Carmack's light engine allows the game's designers to paint the story the way a film director would, with light and shadow, like a noir mystery. Scenes are lit by broken light fixtures, flickering and swinging, or cut up by the shadow of a spinning overhead fan. id's designers have worked wonders, despite the newness of the technology. "It's like making a movie while you're inventing the camera," says Tim Willits, the game's lead designer.

As virtual worlds go, Doom 3 is big. To play through it just once, never mind multiplayer matches and replay time, takes upwards of 30 hours. (Take that, Peter Jackson!) Despite its size, it is meticulously detailed. The monsters of the original Doom were barely animated blobs of pixels; this time the game is populated by a gallery of fascinating grotesques and gargoyles created by Kenneth Scott, id's soft-spoken lead artist, whose work references Francis Bacon and cheesy fantasy artist Frank Frazetta with equal reverence. The ghouls are excruciatingly detailed. As you're being devoured by a swarm of demonic cherubs, you can admire the iridescent patina on their insect wings. To play Doom 3 is to feel your skin prickle with atavistic fear. It's a bit too lifelike for comfort.

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