Review: More of a tremor than a ground-shaker.
Few companies have had as much impact on the video gaming industry than id Software. They gave birth to the modern first-person shooter genre with Wolfenstein 3-D way back in 1992, and defined it a year later with the revolutionary Doom, the first mass-market game to support multiplayer over a LAN. In 1996, id shook up the industry once more with the appropriately (and some would say egotistically) named Quake, which not only introduced true 3D environments, but also triggered the popularization of Internet multiplayer and user-created mods. Quake II marked id's first post-Romero project and was an instant hit with its stunning leading edge graphics and enhanced multiplayer features that made it the standard for the emerging ?sport? of professional gaming. That is, of course, until Quake III Arena was launched in 1999 to become one of the leading competitive gaming platforms. And just last year id upped the ante once more with the incredible jaw-dropping graphical power of the Doom 3 engine.
So here we are in 2005 with the long anticipated release of Quake 4. Can id shake up the industry yet again?
Actually, this time around id left it up to their good friends at Raven Software to rattle the Richter scale. Over the years id has been turning into more of a technology development house (and a darn good one at that thanks to the programming god known as John Carmack) so it is not surprising that they handed the reins over to the leading developer of games built on id engines. id still had oversight on the project, but Raven was given plenty of creative freedom to make their own interpretation of a Quake title.
Right off the bat the idea was to combine the best of Quake, which meant the thrilling single player campaign of Quake II and the insanely fast competition of Quake III Arena. In fact, the single player and multiplayer modes were developed by two separate teams within Raven, allowing each team to focus solely on the unique requirements of each. It was a strategy that worked perfectly ? in fact, you could say it worked too
It's d?j? vu all over again
In a very cool opening cutscene, you discover that the single-player campaign picks up immediately after the end of Quake II; thanks to a lone Marine, the evil Strogg leader Makron is dead. However, the invasion of the Strogg homeworld continues as the second wave of Marines arrives in a final effort to stop the Strogg and put an end to the conflict.
Not only does the story seamlessly pick up right where Quake II left off, but the gameplay does as well. Quake 4 feels exactly the same as Quake II, which is both good and bad; good because Quake II rocked and that's what the developers were aiming for; but bad because Quake II rocked over eight years ago, an eternity in video game years. Don't get me wrong; the single player campaign is enjoyable but today's gamers are much more sophisticated and expect a bit more than the simple days of the old school run-and-gun. That formula worked in Doom 3 thanks to the creepy atmospherics but in Quake 4, it's starting to get a little long in the tooth.
Gameplay is pretty basic; kill anything that moves. Enemy AI is also pretty basic; they stand out in the open and head right towards you. Actually I should clarify that the stronger enemies behave this way; the weaker ones are much smarter and will duck behind cover, pop-and-shoot, and leap and roll out of the way, making them a lot more challenging to take down. In continuing the id tradition, the strong enemies are really
strong, so having them bob and weave would probably make things a bit too frustrating ? thus using old school AI is somewhat understandable. On the flip side, however, enemies only attack you in small numbers, usually less than four at a time (it's only when you get towards the end will you be assaulted by more) so adding a bit more defensive intelligence certainly wouldn't have hurt and could have made combat a lot more interesting. Even in some of the later levels enemies are surprisingly sparse despite the fact that you are infiltrating vital Strogg facilities.
This isn't to say that the single player campaign is boring; it is actually pretty fun, although it really only gets challenging in the last few levels ? which again in id tradition are very tough ? and the bosses are a mix; some are nasty, some are quite easy. Rather, the old school style of twitch shooting gets a bit repetitive after a while, and the small numbers of enemies you encounter at a time doesn't help either. It just feels like you've done this before in Doom 3 ? and further exacerbating that feeling is the fact that the game looks almost exactly like Doom 3.
And no, this isn't because it uses the Doom 3 engine; rather, the Strogg architecture and level design looks pretty much the same as the dirty industrial aesthetics of the UAC Mars base; similarly, the surface of the Strogg planet is barren and dusty just like the red planet. The Strogg buildings simply don't look distinctive or alien enough; they could be any generic space colony made with rusty steel, metal plating and exposed pipes, wires and conduits. Things change disturbingly the deeper you go into the Strogg complex, where you see a nightmarish melding of living tissue and industrial machinery, like headless torsos writhing in agony while clamped in some dirty metal mechanism. It gets much worse the further you go (the Strogg Medical Facilities and the Putrification Center are especially ghoulish) so this is definitely not a game for the squeamish. But again, it doesn't look that much different from Doom 3, even though Raven used hardly any artwork from id's creepy shooter except for minor background items like ventilation grates. A little more artistic creativity would have added a tremendous amount to the overall atmospherics and distinguished the two games much better.
distinct differences, of course; for example, although there are a lot of extremely dark areas you have to traverse, the Marines actually brought along some duct tape this time so your pistol and SMG have a flashlight attached to them. The levels are also a bit more open, with few tight hallways and no ?monster closets? where enemies would suddenly jump out of the walls and make you scream like a toddler and wet your pants. There are certainly moments when enemies will surprise you by seemingly popping out of nowhere but these instances feel much more realistic and not ?forced? like in Doom 3.
Breaking from Quake tradition, your character actually has a name, Corporal Matthew Kane, a tough-as-nails marine with a mysterious past and a new addition to the elite Rhino Squad. Having you play as an actual character rather than a nameless killing machine was done to help pull you deeper into the experience. You will also have the assistance of your squadmates, each of whom are unique individuals with their own quirky personalities. About a third of the game is played side by side with your squadmates who are very useful in combat. They use cover and advance techniques, are very aggressive and move with smooth realistic animation. Some squad members are specialists like medics and technicians who will heal and repair your armor automatically or on demand. Technicians can also upgrade your weapons to give them new attributes like increased ammo capacity, higher rate of fire, and even homing abilities. Nice!
Weapons include the Quake standards like the SMG, grenade launcher, rocket launcher, plasma rifle, rail gun and chain gun. The shotgun, an id favorite, is naturally present but the targeting reticle is unusually small, meaning you have to be much more precise with your aim than you might expect. There is no BFG but don't fret; instead, you get the powerful new Dark Matter Gun which fires what looks like a miniature black hole that instantly kills anything in its path. Sweet!
Another Quake first is the availability of vehicle combat. You will get to play through entire levels in a hover tank or mech-like walker, both of which have shields and armor that recharge when you are out of the line of fire. This is a good thing because not surprisingly, the enemies you encounter on these levels are pretty powerful. The vehicle missions are a nice change of pace from the run-and-gun but overall are not particularly ?special? or memorable. You just drive along, shoot a group of enemies, and continue driving.
memorable, however, is the painfully graphic and frightening Stroggification process that your character has to endure. You see, the Strogg are much like the Borg in Star Trek where they attack planets to harvest their people and forcibly convert them into mindless creatures melded with ugly cybernetic mechanics and electronics. Your character is captured about halfway through the game and is knocked unconscious. You awake to find yourself strapped to a gurney traveling down what is literally an assembly line. You watch helplessly from the first person view as a fellow Marine ahead of you is subjected to ever increasingly painful and nasty medical procedures, only to suffer them yourself seconds later. I won't go into the details lest I spoil it for you (besides, some of the procedures are really brutal and graphic) but suffice it to say that you are being turned into a Strogg. A control chip is even rammed into your brain but before it can be activated, your squad bursts into the room and saves you at the last possible second. They recognize you despite your horrific mutilations and once they realize you are not under Strogg control, they help you escape. Although you are now a Stroggified freak (and are coldly told as much from your fellow Marines when you return to your ship) your various implants have their benefits; your health and armor capacity increases, you can run faster, jump higher and most importantly, you can understand the Strogg language and interact with their technology, making you an invaluable tactical asset.
Making the Stroggification even more brutal are the incredibly detailed graphics. Not surprisingly, the whole game looks stunning, from the impressive normal-mapped characters to the blood-stained machinery, and from the incredible light and shadow effects to the pretty explosion, flame, smoke and particle effects, this is one fine looking game. Although it was made during the same time as Doom 3 and the developers claim they didn't do much tweaking with the engine, something has definitely changed between the two because the hardware requirements for Quake 4 are significantly higher. If you have a PC that was just able to run Doom 3, chances are Quake 4 will chug pretty hard even with every graphical setting turned down.
For those of you lucky enough to have a kick-ass gaming rig, you will enjoy what is essentially a much prettier version of Quake II. That's not a bad thing but in this day of sophisticated AI and intense non-stop action like in Call of Duty 2, I expected a bit more out of the latest edition in a franchise that used to be the FPS market leader.
Back to the multiplayer future
Since Quake 4 will become the standard for professional competitions, the online multiplayer component had to be next to perfect. The goal was to create an updated version of the previous standard, Quake III Arena, where gamers compete based solely on skill, speed, accuracy and situational awareness. In other words, there are no vehicles, no different character classes, no big wide open maps. It's all about who can get the shot off first.
And they succeeded undeniably ? which like the single player campaign, is either a good or bad thing. Multiplayer is exactly what the developers wanted: an updated and prettier version of Quake III Arena. In fact, some of the old maps even return albeit in a revised form. The 14 maps all share the same design philosophy that encourages one-on-one battles with tight hallways, multiple levels and pathways, vertical and horizontal jump pads, teleporters, and tons of weapons, ammo and powerups. The developers even brought back the ability to ?bunny-hop? (using the rocket or grenade launcher to help you jump higher) and using the nail gun to scale walls.
Gameplay is insanely fast; you literally cannot stop moving for a second otherwise you're dead meat. Players who like to camp will find themselves dying with alarming frequency because this is a game that requires fast reflexes and constant movement. Unlike many shooters where people can lazily sit back and snipe from afar or go on a rampage in a vehicle, Quake 4 is truly about mano a mano skill. As such, it may be too fast for some gamers. Newcomers might be intimidated by the speed and brutality but once you get the idea that you're going to have to actually work to earn your kills and learn from your mistakes the hard way, you will have an incredibly fun time. The player count is limited to 16 which sounds a bit low, but any higher and you start losing the ability to have the competitive one-on-one battles the game is intended for.
You will be able to play as various Marine or Strogg characters (the differences are only visual) in classic deathmatch, team deathmatch, CTF and Arena CTF. Also available is Tournament mode, which is a set of competition brackets that pit players against each other one-on-one until two finalists remain for the championship game. Players who are eliminated can still watch in spectator mode and cheer their favorite.
All of the single player weapons are available with the addition of the Gauntlet, a weak buzz saw-like melee weapon that should really only be used as a last resort; however, if you get a kill with it, you will earn a much satisfying ?Humiliation!? award (in fact, my very first kill was with the Gauntlet. Woot!). At the end of the game, your performance is summarized in comparison with the other players. Several medals can be awarded in categories like accuracy, getting the most kills with no deaths, assisting with flag captures or defense, and so on. But the emphasis is on kill or be killed; the medals are just an added bonus.
Although multiplayer is designed for serious competition, don't worry if you aren't a serious gamer; even casual gamers ? and there are a lot of them ? can enjoy the online mayhem. One of the most interesting maps is called The Longest Day, which is appropriate because playing it will feel like a long day indeed. The map is tiny, consisting of small wide open platforms floating in space, all filled with a ridiculous amount of jump pads and weapons. Your lifespan is measured in mere seconds on this map, be it from your opponents or by simply falling off the platforms, but the violent pandemonium is crazy fun.
Multiplayer is undeniably entertaining but again it feels like ?been there, done that.? It resurrects the Quake III Arena formula very well but the opportunity to add that intangible ?more? feels squandered. Overall, you will enjoy multiplayer ? just don't expect anything new or special.