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Saturday, 4 January 2014

Quake Review


ID software’s 1996 classic. This game was one of my favourites growing up, with the shareware version being pre-installed on the first PC the family purchased back in the mid 90s. I used to get up early on Sunday mornings (we weren’t allowed to play games on a Saturday.... parents....) around 6am so I could sneak in a couple of hours before anyone else got up and kicked me off. Quake, Quake 2 and Quake 3 were a big part of my gaming childhood. With the re-release of Quake on Steam, and my limited time to game, Quake naturally fell into my inventory of games I could easily play on the go.

But this was the first time I had played Quake in almost 12 years. Does the game still hold up today in the modern world of dynamic lighting, 1080p, and real time environmental physics? Read on dear viewer!

Story

The game does have a story - one that it shamelessly ripped off from ID software's older title: Doom. Scientists experimenting with teleportation technology accidentally connect their transporter network to that belonging to the evil demi-God like creature Shub-Niggurath (code named Quake), who proceeds to send monsters through the teleportation network to take over the human bases as a first stepping stone in a plan to take over the entire human realm. The first wave of human defenders sent in to stop the attack were slaughtered and reanimated as grunts fighting for Shub-Niggurath. You, as the last surviving member of Operation Countstrike, are tasked with singlehandedly stopping the invasion.

But just like Doom, the story of Quake is little more than an excuse to have you blasting monsters. The game is split into 4 episodes plus a final boss battle. And at the end of each episode you are given a wall-of-text giving you a simple exposition. Instead, Quake is a first person shooter in the purest sense of the term. There are no cut scenes. No dialogue. No squad mates. No branching story. No plot twists. No relationships. And no mission objectives. It's just you, a pile of guns, and 28 levels full of bad guys that need to be dispatched in the most efficient way possible. That's it. The story is simply the briefest excuse for the on screen carnage, and Snub-Niggurath is the PC equivalent of 'sorry Mario, but our princess is in another castle!'.


In the current era of gaming where even the most basic of shooters have some sort of dramatic story telling element, Quake's story and exposition has fallen woefully behind. Does this matter? For me it didn't. This is exactly what I wanted as I was only going to be playing in occasional half hour blasts. Still, the game makes many references to the Cthulu mythos of H.P. Lovecraft including the names of several maps, the end boss Shub-Niggurath, the episode 1 boss Chthon, and monsters like the shambler. Playing the game I had the feeling that there was supposed to have been a more intricate story involving the Lovecraft mythos which had been cut during development.

If you are a heavily story driven person, or enjoy deep well thought out worlds, then I could see Quake getting fairly boring fairly quickly.

Graphics

Graphically this game was a beast back in the day, and the graphics still do look good. Obviously not mind blowing compared to today’s AAA titles – but certainly acceptable given the age of the title. For the most part the PC managed to avoid that awkward, and sometimes very ugly, ultra low polygon count 3D with ultra low res textures that blighted many console games of the the Nintendo 64/Playstation generation. And Quake is no exception.

Something that I wasn't able to do as a child was play the game in opengl mode - 3D accelerator cards being hugely expensive at the time it was completely out of my reach. Today opengl mode helps pull the graphics to a very acceptable standard. The environment artwork is very sharp; while the textures are a little pixellated they don’t tend to be muddy, everything looks like what it is supposed to look like, and it is easy to determine different objects in the game world from one another. There is a little texture stretching here and there where the developers have applied a smaller texture to a larger surface where it wasn't designed to fit, causing the texture to become deformed. But this is limited, and you likely won't notice it unless you are actively looking for it. There is also little obtrusive aliasing, with lines and edges looking crisp and sharp for the most part.  

Grunt (image http://quake.wikia.com)
The character models are also very well done, with character frames having a reasonably high poly count, and skinned with reasonably detailed textures. Character and weapon animations are also very fluid.

And this is before you even get to the many fan made texture mods which have come out over the years which easily push the texture graphics and lighting up to something more reminiscent of a game released in the mid 2000s.

On the down side, the graphics engine doesn't seem to support curved environmental elements. As a result every room in Quake is made up of straight lines. Rooms and corridors are often perfectly box shaped, with perfect 90 or 45 degree angles everywhere you look. There are no arched doorways or windows, no curved ceilings, and columns are square. Everything in the Quake environmental design is rectangular. The game also features no true outdoor spaces, and very few decorative elements (trees, statues, wall panels and such). Finally, while the wall textures are very well done, the walls themselves are perfectly smooth. Tactile texturing (for example the curvature of rivets on a wall, or the gaps between floor tiles) was achieved by using shadow in the 2D wall textures to depict a 3D shape. 

All this does tend to give the levels a little bit of an inorganic, artificial, plastic feel. It doesn't really feel like you are battling through an actively lived in and used military base or other dimension stronghold. Instead the levels tend to feel fake, missing that little something to push them over the uncanny valley. Most of the time this was inconsequential, but I did find my immersion and suspension of disbelief rattled a few times over my play through.

But all in all, for a game that came out in 1996 the graphics are exceptional and should put no one off trying the game. 
Quake 1 level select and level 1 screen shots



Gameplay

Excluding the two bosses, Quake features a total of 13 unique enemies to fight against. The enemy roster includes fish, rottweilers, grunts (possessed humans), enforcers (laser gun wielding possessed humans), fiends, knights, death knights, zombies, ogres, scrag, spawn, vore, and shamblers.

While the enemy roster is limited ID did a great job of giving the enemies diverse AI. Yes, human enemies, dogs, fish and knights can be dispatched by sneezing at them, but most of the other enemies have unique attacks and weaknesses. Zombies can only be killed by explosive weapons. Ogres will spam you with grenades from a distance, and will rush you with a devastating chainsaw melee attack if you get too close. Fiend's will run at you with speed and jump at the last moment to avoid your shots to land a massive melee attack. Scrag can fly, attacking you from multiple angles. Vore attack from a massive range with tracking missiles that can chase you around corners. And the shambler is a massive waking bullet sponge with a long range lightning attack. On there own each monster is fairly easy to take down. But when put together it does make for some genuinely intense, and extremely fun, battles. 

ID also did a great job with weapon designs. The game features 8 weapons ranging from a melee battle axe, shot guns, nail guns, rocket and grenade launcher, and lightning gun. Each weapon feels genuinely powerful, and satisfying to use. And each has its own weaknesses and strengths that you will need to master to get through the game. Unlike modern titles you can carry all the weapons at once. And if you want to survive in Quake you will need to know under what situations to deploy each weapon to maximise damage and ammo.

At its best Quake's combat is twitchy, it requires quick assessment of your surroundings and even quicker reflexes. It requires quick cycling of your weapons the keep on top of the changing situation. You have to keep on top of your often very limited ammo. And you have to be able to anticipate which attack type is going to hit you next, and from where. The game doesn't hold your hand; there is no regenerating health, no cover system, no assisted aiming. In short, when it's done right, combat can be an absolute a blast.

Grunt vs battle axe

That said, in my recent play through I did find that Quake could become fairly repetitive. Not to the point where I wanted to stop playing over the course of the week, but I couldn’t see me sitting down to an 8 hour marathon session. I think the gameplay has two major problems;

1) Limited artwork. The 4 episodes each feature 7-8 levels, with each level going into a loose sci-fi, medieval, or fortress/cavern theme which does provide some aesthetic variability. But the colour pallet is dark, the number of unique textures and design elements very limited, and with all levels comprising of tight square corridors and caverns with little additional decoration the levels do begin to feel a bit samey. From a purely graphical standpoint when you’ve seen one dimly lit grey and tan hallway with a gold pentagram switch on the wall you may as well have seen every dimly lit grey and tan hallway with a gold pentagram switch on the wall. 

The limited artwork is not helped by the fact that the 4 episodes arrange the levels in more or less the same order; sci-fi military bases, followed by medieval environments, followed by fortress/caverns.  There were certainly times when I thought 'hey have I played this level before in one of the other episodes?'.


Ogres - get used to these guys... (http://quake.wikia.com)





































































































2) Variety of enemies. While the AI diversity is good, each level only uses around 4-5 of the available enemy types. Rottweilers, possessed humans, and knights are only present in the first 1-3 levels of each episode, while at the same time death knights, shamblers, spawn and vore are only really used from levels 3-4 onwards. On top of that zombies are sparingly used during the first two episodes of the game. And you can commonly go an entire level without seeing a single fish. 

This direction was obviously taken to give each episode a ramping difficulty between levels. But it means that you will be fighting against the same 4-5 enemies A LOT. Ogres seem to make up about 85% of the enemies that you will fight in the first episode.



Finally, while the combat in Quake can be absolutely fantastic when done right the truly great battles only occur towards the end of the game in episodes 3 and 4. Even then they are fairly few and far between, and given the small number of available enemies often play out in a similar way. Most battles in Quake are fought against groups of 1-3 units of the same type - and are fairly linear in their execution. At least this was true of the normal difficulty level which is what I played through.


Level design

If anything it is the level design where Quake is its best. I'm sure everyone is familiar with the image of FPS map design that appeared on reddit a few years back. Like all ID shooters of this period Quake really exemplifies this. Each level is a maze requiring you to find your own way through, collecting keys, flipping switches, finding secrets, and killing bad guys. The level design is absolutely superb - no levels feel particularly too large or frustrating to find your way through, but provide the right amount of difficulty to make you feel like you've accomplished something in getting to the end. 

Quake is a classic, and alongside titles like Doom, Duke Nukem 3D and Half Life deserves its position as one of the influential FPS titles of the 1990s. Quake has aged remarkably well, and many of the short comings are from game play philosophy of the time rather than outright pour design decisions. That said in many ways Quake is a difficult game to recommend to a modern audience. 

Personally I really enjoyed my latest play through of Quake, playing the game over the course of a week in half hour to one hour stints. If you are a retro gamer wanting to experience ye old games of yor, or chasing a nostalgia buzz, then I absolutely recommend revisiting the game. There is nothing here that should put you off giving Quake a go, and as long as you know what you are getting into then you will have a great time.

But can I recommend Quake to a modern audience who never played the game before? Arguably more modern titles have done what Quake did, with more advanced graphical engines and sound assets. Painkiller: Hell and Damnation will give you a similar experience to Quake while providing arguably better gameplay and, depending on your tastes, more interesting weapons. So while Quake is a very good game in its own right, more recent titles may be of more entertainment value to a modern audience.



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