The world of shareware is a vast place. Thousands of programs, a good number of which are games, are available to download from BBSs or purchase from shareware distributors. Many of these games are mediocre, and some of them are genuinely awful. Some of them, however, are major works created by talented individuals that will keep players happy for a good long time and are easily worth the modest registration fee the authors request. One such game was Wolfenstein 3D, created by Id Software and published by shareware giant Apogee.
Released at about the same time as the first Ultima Underworld, Wolfenstein used a first-person perspective much like Origin's game, allowing the player to move about a Nazi prison in real time. What was remarkable about the game was that the player moved freely, not from square to square; the term "virtual reality" became plastered all over Wolfenstein very quickly. The game's goal was simple: kill all Nazis (and their dogs) you see and collect guns, ammunition, and treasure. Fast scrolling and previously unheard of freedom of movement combined to make Wolfenstein an intense action game. Almost as soon as it was released it became one of the most successful, controversial, and talked-about shareware games of all time, spawning additional missions (a powerful incentive to register) and the commercial adaptation Spear of Destiny.
Several months ago word leaked to the press that Id was producing another game based on the Wolfenstein engine, a vile, creepy first-person shooter called Doom. Since then everybody and their mother with any knowledge of Wolfie has been trying to find out when Doom is coming out and how they can get a copy before anyone else. Doom may be the first shareware game ever to feel the same release-date pressures associated with commercial games. Finally, after a few months of delays, a pre-beta version of Doom has been released to the computer game press. After four months of anticipation, I have seen a glimpse of what those sickos at Id have been keeping to themselves.
Although no written storyline came with this pre-beta version, the premise is said to go something like this: you are a space marine with the boring task of guarding a scientific space station. One day you are summoned to duty by emergency klaxons sounding. It seems those well-meaning scientists have accidentally created a rip in the fabric of reality and created a portal leading directly to hell. (Do not pass purgatory, do not collect two hundred dollars!) Your fellow marines present when this infernal blunder took place now resemble Linda Blair with guns, and a bunch of the most gruesome demons you've ever seen are on the loose. Before things are over you'll have to travel to hell, mend the dimensional rip, and make your way back to the space station to clean up the mess. A Nazi prison sounds like cake in comparison.
Although the version I saw was far from complete, enough of the game was intact to allow me to do some serious playing. The first thing I noticed was the quality of the graphics, which are much improved over Wolfie. Walls are depicted in lush detail and have a wide variety of textures ranging from stone to wood to human flesh. Doors and walls are liberally adorned with all kinds of things, such as skulls, computer terminals, and, in certain areas, damned human souls.
At this point in development, Doom's system requirements are steep, requiring a 486DX for optimal play. (The program will be much more efficient when complete, and is expected to run on a 386SX.) On a fast computer, scrolling is fast and smooth, although not quite as smooth as in Wolfie. When you stop moving forward, your character takes a couple more steps, as if trying to halt a brisk jog. When you move, your weapon bobs slightly side to side.
Speaking of the weapons, there's a bunch to play with. You can use your fist, but this will get you about as far as the knife did in Wolfie. A pistol is a weak weapon, but the shotgun, while slow (you cock it automatically after each shot), has some kick to it. There's also a gatling gun, a rocket launcher, a pulse gun, and something called the BFG9000. (I'll leave it up to the reader to figure out what the initials BFG stand for.) In this version the BFG9000 was basically an automatic version of the pulse gun, but this will be redesigned before the game is finished. My favorite weapon, just in terms of raw sickness, is the chainsaw. Yes, you can actually run up to an enemy and hack them to death with a chainsaw! It's crude. It's disgusting. It's lots of fun!
Scattered around the levels are items to pick up, just like in Wolfie. Weapons will give players much-need firepower. Ammo can be found in its many forms. (You can't load bullets into a shotgun. It just doesn't work like that.) Various health-rejuvenating items can be found to delay death a little while. Color-coded keycards will open doors that otherwise prove to be rather stubborn. Bonus items that don't have a function but boost the player's score also abound in the form of demonic daggers, evil scepters, unholy bibles, and other hellish trinkets.
An earlier version of the program had the monsters included, but they weren't active; they stood in one place and did nothing but die when shot. The version I saw has the monster up and running--at least most of them. (Some monsters still remain idle, but come to life when shot at.) Even in pre-release form the monsters are aggressive and powerful. It was a genuinely scary experience to spring a hidden door only to have a muscular obscene-looking demon with a terrifying mouth come charging at me. These demons are handsomely drawn and are effectively creepy-looking. A Nazi with a machine gun seems like kid's stuff compared to a fiery floating skull blasting you with its deadly stare.
The most impressive thing about Doom so far is the construction of its levels. Three levels were included in this copy: one from the initial release which takes place on the space station, one from the descent into hell, and one from the return to the station. Unlike the simplistic layouts in Wolfie, Doom's levels are labyrinthine masterpieces, and are no longer restricted to walls placed at right angles to each other. Staircases, elevators, raised platforms, and sunken walkways are also prevalent, making each level a multi-altitude trek that requires a great deal of exploration to fully chart. Luckily, Id has seen fit to include a very handy automap, which is the only way to keep from getting lost at certain points. Secret doors abound, and some of them require a switch to be thrown or sensor trigger to be tripped before they open. Like in Wolfie, these hidden areas are never imperative to finishing the level, but they provide a lot of exploration, demon killing, and treasure grabbing for the adventurous.
Hand-in-hand with level construction is the addition of light sources, and the subsequent removal of light when there is no source to be found. Like most gamers, I never even wondered how the Nazis kept their fortress so well lit in Wolfie, but I now realize I should have. In Doom, objects materialize out of the gloom as you approach them. Certain areas are so poorly lit that I didn't see a hungry demon until its fearsome teeth were inches from my face. In other areas, emergency lights will flash bright for a brief moment, then quickly fade to leave the player in total darkness. On one level, there's even a pair of light-intensifying goggles tucked away for players who want to see a little further in front of themselves.
As playable as this version is, Doom is not yet complete. There are still some major bugs, such as not being able to hit targets at certain angles and situations that result in an immediate drop to DOS with an error message, which the people at Id are well aware of and plan to fix. At this point there is no joystick or mouse control. I hope that in the final version Doom will support the 4-button Gravis GamePad as Wolfie did. The final version will also include multi-player options: two people may play via modem connection, and up to four may play on a network. The levels will have to be linked together in a logical fashion, and I expect an introductory sequence may tell the plot. I believe that the current plans are to release the first level only as shareware. The rest of the game will be made available either as part of a registered package or as a commercial release. The latest release dates I've heard from Id are December for the shareware level and sometime in 1994 for the full/commercial release. That's a pretty broad release date, I know, but at least they shouldn't have to reschedule, which is more than I can say for just about every commercial game out there.
Before I wrap this preview up I'd like to take a small amount of space to thank Id for including two things that make reviewing the program much easier. The first is the built-in ability of this press version of Doom to take its own screen shots by use of the F10 key; this keeps me from having to run third-party screen capture software and hope it works with Doom. The second thing I wish to thank them for is their inclusion of the cheat codes (codes that provide invulnerability, unlimited guns and ammo and other such amenities) in the documentation, without which most of the pictures that accompany this article would have been impossible to take. It's hard to tell a soul-hungry demon to smile for the camera when you're lying dead on the floor.
Doom isn't here yet. You'll have to be patient a little while longer. But from what I've seen in this press-only pre-beta version, the longest part of the wait seems to be behind us.