I’ll admit that I’m somewhat of an id Software fanboy at heart stretching back to Commander Keen and the Softdisk days (which, if you know your id history, is some time ago.) Whether it was learning the ins and outs of Windows and DOS by hiding their games on our school network or wasting my parents’ tuition money skipping class so I could get to the next boss battle, I have many fond memories fragging every pixilated and human opponent the id canon could throw at me. So I’ve got a certain perspective on their titles.
Arguably, Quake has been the one franchise of id’s titles that constantly pushed the conceptual envelope. It abandoned its initial storyline of fighting the evil “Quake” with a more definitive opponent – the evil Strogg. Its contribution to multiplayer gaming can’t be denied, as many of the gameplay modes, like Capture the Flag and Deathmatch gained their widespread acceptance through this franchise. So you can just imagine my excitement when Quake 4 was announced and released. Having played through the entire game twice, I can honestly say that the single player title is a pretty enjoyable storyline to go through. Unfortunately for veterans of Quake 3 Arena, the multiplayer is pretty stale and unsatisfying.
The single player campaign picks up immediately after the events in Quake 2, and casts the player as Corporal Matthew Kane, a recent addition to Rhino Squad. An elite unit that specializes is succeeding in extremely difficult missions against the Strogg, Rhino Squad is immediately deployed to the alien homeworld of Stroggos to try to issue the death knell to the biomechanical monsters. Unfortunately, as you’re initially making your descent, your ship is hit, forcing a crash landing on the planets surface. When you finally awaken from the wreckage, you find yourself tasked with a variety of jobs, such as scouting out new paths for your fellow marines to follow you on, rescuing other soldiers or taking out vital objectives. Unlike previous Quake titles, you’ll find a number of additional soldiers – not necessarily from your squad -- that will often fight alongside you in different stages, providing a certain amount of cover or support fire against incoming threats. Depending on the classification of the grunt with you, such as a tech or a medic, you can be restored to full health and full armor when you’re banged up. This reduces your decision to make them cannon fodder and actually makes you care about protecting them when you’re in battle.
Eventually, you’ll reconnect with your team, get sent out on a mission that literally changes the life of your character, and discover that you’re the only one who can potentially end the war on Stroggos. To do so, you’re going to have to shoot and blow up a horde of strange monsters that are half human and half machine. Somewhat Borg-like in their M.O. and their appearance, the Strogg come packing a lot of health and a ton of destructive weapons. Fortunately, Kane’s arsenal is more than up for the task of killing these monsters as long as your aim is relatively true. You’ll gain ten weapons over the course of the game, each of which dish out damage in different ways.
If you’ve played a Quake title in the past, you’ve probably become rather acquainted with the arms that you’ll fire into your enemies. Like Doom 3, there aren’t any alternate fire modes, but a number of your weapons will get upgraded thanks to the numerous technicians with additional bonuses such as extra ammunition, homing bullets or bouncing shots. In place of the BFG is the Dark Matter Gun, which fires large balls of anti-matter at a target, sucking up smaller opponents and instantly killing them while inflicting large damage on bosses. And unlike Doom 3, two of these guns, the blaster and the machine gun have flashlights to illuminate your way.
In fact, the amount of darkness that you'll stumble your way through is significantly reduced because of the design of each level. While there are plenty of tight corridors to walk through, there's plenty of ambient light scattered from touch screen displays liberally thrown flares and other environmental sources. Many of your teammates will also switch on the flashlights on their guns as well in dark locations, so you'll often be able to direct yourself via their beams. You're also not constrained to the indoors at all – for a number of missions you'll cross the planet Stroggos on foot or in a number of vehicles, including a hovertank, a mechanized walker and behind turrets of convoy transports or other machines. These serve to break the monotony of your search and destroy missions, and are quite engaging.
The flip side of the vehicle missions is that these sections literally turn into shooting galleries. Every vehicle regenerates its shields and has infinite ammunition, so even in the most heated firefights, you'll be able to come away with relatively few scratches if you respond fast enough. Most enemies will pop out in front of you or from a specific direction, so it's easy to train your weapons and keep your finger on the trigger with a certain degree of success. In fact, the most dangerous opponent that pops up is the spider-like walker that you've probably seen in trailers for the game, but even it can be handled if you use cover.
Unfortunately, this same complaint can be lodged against the standing monsters as well. While they don't pop up behind you or leap through walls (at least, not frequently), just about every Strogg steps out from behind cover and lays into your position with their guns. Some of the enemies may charge you or even leap forward, but for the most part these are huge walking targets waiting for you to put them down. Considering a number of recent shooters have displayed more realistic AI during firefights, the enemies feel like relics from older titles with shinier graphics. Taking them down isn't too hard considering that some of your weapons are so ridiculously overpowered that you'll come to rely on them to get you through most of the game. While slow, the shotgun is strong enough to take out most minor and even some mid-strength opponents with a few blasts. What's more, as you start picking up some of the stronger guns later on, you really won't find yourself relying on your machine gun or your blaster for anything other than a flashlight.
One of the other hiccups of the game is that the single player missions feel extremely linear, which doesn't really match the global sense of down and out warfare that the game presents. In some ways, it feels more "Doom"-ified than this widespread Full Metal Jacket style war, just without the emails and memos. That's forgivable to a certain degree, because the game is probably going to direct to down certain paths before you can continue, but there are some logical inconsistencies that make very little sense. For instance, if later on in the game you're the only person that can advance into The Nexus or other areas, why are there other marines or human weaponry in these places? Why aren't you able to wield unique or specialized Strogg guns in these locations that you can't find anywhere else? Things like this aren't a major problem, but it is somewhat unbelievable.
Single player issues aside, it readily becomes obvious that the campaign is the primary focus of the game. The multiplayer mode, which Quake was known for, really hasn't expanded since 1999's Quake 3 Arena. In fact, if you've played that game, you're pretty much aware of the included maps, some of which have been recycled for this go around. You're only given four modes as well: deathmatch, team deathmatch, capture the flag, and tournament, which pits players against each other one-on-one in a ladder style contest to see who is best. Compared to that of Quake's competition, this is extremely sparse gameplay wise, and feels behind the times when placed side by side with titles like Far Cry, Call of Duty or its main competitor, the Unreal Tournament series. Add to this the 16 player cap for each map and you understand just how old this feels. That isn't to say that it's not fun, which it is, but it's just not as impressive as fans would hope.
Using the Doom 3 engine to present an extremely cinematic experience, Quake 4 takes many of the visuals and ratchets them up a couple notches. Sure, you'll still experience those cutscenes that quickly zoom into your character's head to give you control over a battle sequence, and character models are still extremely large yet dwarfed by the scale and detail of their environments. Unlike the plastic, He-Man style visuals of Doom, Kane and his companions look a little more realistic. It's not a massive difference, but it is rather noticeable. This extends over to the enemy models as well, some of which have received a facelift from Quake II. What's more, the level of detail that you notice on the biomechanical influence around the game becomes much more apparent as you get closer and closer to your final objective. Perhaps the largest hang up comes with the visual requirements – the minimum requirements don't really do the game justice, so you'll really need a beast of a machine to experience the game the way its supposed to be played.
Dialogue is nicely delivered in this game, and while there are a few lines that fall short, the commentary that you'll hear feels rather appropriate to the onscreen action. You'll hear a number of marines screaming for help as they're slaughtered by Strogg, dropship communication echoing over headsets and tons of hisses and roars. Ditto with the sound effects – if you happen to have a good set of speakers you can hear and practically feel every bullet impact. There's a little bit of muddiness to some playback, such as when characters talk over each other or sound clips play directly in the middle of heavy fire, which drowns out some words. You're also going to want to be careful of who you play this one around, as some dialogue isn't for kid's ears.
Quake 4 delivers an enjoyable single player game. Kane and the battle against the Strogg are handled nicely, and there's enough direction placed in the story to accurately host an expansion pack (which you can probably bet will be on its way next year). Hopefully they'll explore much more of the character twists and the rest of the Rhino Squad. On the other hand, you're much better off firing up a copy of Quake 3 Arena if you want to get your multiplayer on, since Quake 4 really steps backward in the online arena.