The Quake 4 Review

(Updated 30 Oct) Quake 4… the game I wanted to hate.

I hated the trailer

I didn’t go into detail in the First Impressions post, but the video trailer of Quake 4 that was shown at E3 left me seriously unimpressed.

Why? The plot seemed utterly predictable… and it pretty much is. The interaction with other characters seemed limited… and it is. The graphics looked a lot like a revamped Doom 3… and they are. The whole thing seemed tired and unimpressive…

But it’s really not. Not when you’re playing it.

The game won me over

Despite all my reservations and all the good reasons to dislike it listed above, Quake 4 is really rather good. But why?

I’ve been thinking a lot about this. And the short of it is: Quake 4 is actually a lot of fun, in the way that those old-school shooters so often are. The plot isn’t going to win any awards for originality, and that’s partly because Quake 4 is a victim of Quake 2’s plot.

Let me try to nut this out:

Perhaps the Strogg plot seems tired because it’s the same plot Id trotted out in ’97, which could be summed up as Borg-slash-Techno-Vampires-cum-Zombies attack humans because that’s what they do. It was the first time Id had really tried to come up with more than an afterthought of a plot for one of their games, and it wasn’t bad… it just wasn’t particularly good. Everything was laid on the table in Act I, Scene I, and the shark was not only jumped, but de-fanged, laid bare and felt up on that same table. Contrast that with something like Halo, which borrows heavily from Iain M Banks for plot inspiration, and is still holding major nuggets of plot back after its second outing, and you’ve got Star Trek: TNG versus Firefly.

So if the plot’s simple, the game’s rubbish, right? Well, no. Not really. While the overarching plot is still that alien invasion thing (whichever way around), the actual execution of the game keeps you doing interesting things, in different environments.

The lesson’s been learned from Doom 3 here – you’re not left doing the same thing in the dark repeatedly, you’re constantly trickled new updates and objectives. If you were to analyze them, they’d largely fall into the “get from A to B and do C, then come back to A again” bucket of switchhunt we so love in FPSs, but there’s enough variation that you’re usually both interested in what the next area’s going to look like, or what the next enemy’s going to do, or what weapons to choose when you’re in close-quarters combat, versus mid to long range, or where the next health pack is coming from, and so on, that you really don’t notice the same things as when you’re just a spectator and don’t have to concentrate on the game.

So that’s it, in short: there’s a lot of interesting stuff going on, the environments vary a lot, and not all rooms seem to be copies of each other. The game keeps you busy having fun. And that’s what a game is about, isn’t it?

The graphics are brilliant, with the only criticism being the darkness factor. Even in what’s possibly meant to resemble full sunlight, nothing seems Far Cry bright and colourful, or Day of Defeat HDR cheerful. The twilight-even-in-daylight aspect actually keeps the mood appropriately sombre, but I’d still have liked a larger contrast. The screenshots are biased towards the darker areas because I liked the way they looked, and didn’t bother getting more outdoor shots (I was too busy getting shot at).

The voice acting is typically well-cast and executed. Peter Stormare seems underutilized so far. The rest of the cast do a good enough job, though after this many “soldier” games, I’m wondering if they’re all not just parodying each other. It’s not as bad as the hilariously overacted and laughably scripted voice over guy in Brothers In Arms: Road To Hill 30 (which still makes me chuckle just thinking about it).

The sound overall is pretty bloody good. No complaints. Music is used sparingly, and I’m really only noticing it when it cuts out suddenly (eg, I die and have to reload).

What isn’t so good?

The plot, if you stop to think about it.

The characters are not believable as soon as you have to interact with them. There’s usually one line any given character will say, like techs that always say “Hold still while I work on you”, or “have this weapon upgrade”. It’s not enough – any variation – and seriously, one extra response would have been better than none – would have broken up the tired monotony of Stormare’s/whichever tech’s rendition of “I can’t work if you move around.”

I’m conflicted about the vehicle sequences: so far, a hovertank (which handles quite well) and a mech (which handles quite badly). On the one hand, they’re an interesting diversion. On the other, they’re still linear, and they typically reward camping/sandbagging tactics, as if you run into a fight with guns blazing, you’ll just die. Better to hang back and pick stuff off from long range. Still, it’s a minor gripe, and it’s nice to have something other than a human to control.

What’s downright sucky?

Single Player: A very early map, in the trenches, contained a mapping flaw. I got stuck on a wall trying to jump back down into a trench.

It’s totally linear. There have been about three occasions so far on which there has been a minor fork in the map paths.

It’s too demanding to play in 1680 x 1050 on my poor 128MB 6600GT, so I’m in 1280×1024, non-widescreen. Not that I notice when I’m in the thick of it. Also, that resolution isn’t even selectable. Picking 16:9 as the aspect ratio doesn’t actually change the resolutions. Come on id, if Valve can support just about any crazy-ass widescreen resolutions in fullscreen mode without having to fiddle at the console or rely on monitor stretching, so can you.

Multiplayer: There’s No Co-Op Play, at least not on the PC. I miss it. I like co-op.

And then, there’s the multiplayer

Let’s get something out in the open right up front: I am terrible at multiplayer Quake. I got absolutely smashed in my first online game of Quake 4, and couldn’t get off the bottom of the leaderboard in my next few rounds. Maybe it’s just too demanding for my system; maybe I’m just getting old. I don’t care either way. It’s something other people are already really good at. This might create a rather high barrier to entry for casual players (try playing Quake 3 online after a two year break).

Playing Quake 4 multiplayer would best be described as Quake 2 multiplayer, crossed with Quake 3 multiplayer, crossed with the Doom 3 engine. It’s fun, it’s hectic, and it’s typically more than 8 players. It’s very fast, too.

To sum it up…

Quake 4 won me back. I’m forcing myself to write this review rather than hop straight back in and try to finish the single player game. I honestly don’t know if I’ll be playing the multiplayer game this time next year (but Enemy Territory: Quake Wars is a definite possibility if the pace is more measured, like Wolfenstein:ET), and I doubt I’ll be re-playing the single player game, but it’s actually quite tempting to try it again on “General”-level difficulty, and that’s not a bad recommendation.

Update, 29 October 2005: I was wrong

When I said “75%”, I was a fair bit off. Since publishing this review, Quake 4 pulled sixth gear, and bugger me if it isn’t even better than it was before. Let’s see: the Waste Processing Plant was squishy and scary. The drop sequence thereafter was a load of fun. The following Tower was an amazing piece of level design, with some stunning architecture. And the monsters – I’ve seen three previously unseen monsters in the last few hours’ play, and I think the end is actually now in sight. I’m having a ball playing the later levels. It’s great. I rated it 7.5 at first, but I think my final rating is going to be higher than that.

Update, 30 October 2005: Done

There’s no other way I can put this: the later levels are absolutely amazing, architecturally, gameplay-wise, and for the boss sequences. I haven’t been this impressed with the way a game looks since… oh, a long time ago. Raven totally saved the best till last.

Final Score

I-finished-the-game-and-all-I-got-were-these-lousy-Stroyent-implants Final Score: 8.5/10.
It’s really a great game, perhaps falling short of a genre-redefining classic.

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