It’s 1996, and the hype machine is in full force. id’s next game is on the horizon. John Carmack has written a true 3D engine that runs just as fast as Doom with no extra hardware required. Gaming rags publish astounding in-game shots of spooky 3D castles and true rooms over rooms. The public-beta-of-sorts Qtest1 was out in February, giving connected gamers proof of all the claims and a taste of the gameplay (courtesy of functional multiplayer and hacked-in single player monsters). Duke Nukem boastfully claimed that he wasn’t “afraid a no Quake,” but maybe he should have been.

I’m still not sure if “Quake” is the realm, or a guy.

A decade and some change later, we find that Quake’s written legacy is that it was an amazing technological evolution with an average single-player campaign. It was a sure sign of beautiful things to come, but itself was rather brown. Its multiplayer was unquestionably the beginning of a new era of online gaming (and to a point, games in general), but the rest was pretty samey.

If you subscribe to that last opinion, you can count John Romero among your supporters. The story goes that Quake was originally going to be an RPG (with fourth-hand descriptions of the original design doc sounding somewhat like a true 3D Ultima Underworld, or, ironically, closer to what Hexen II would become), but bountiful crops of technical issues, and the desire of some id members to take a sci-fi approach instead, meant that Quake became the strange mishmash of medieval and near-future military that we see in the final product. John wasn’t interested in making Doom 3D (and maybe he was right about that) and this allegedly was the final straw that ended with him splitting off and creating Ion Storm.

No matter where you stand, the architecture on show here is hard to deny. These aren’t castles so much as cathedrals, with spires, shaped windows, and a real sense of ornamental design. Wolf3D and even Doom were stuck in a 90-degree mentality, with areas that suggested a purpose only through their textures. Meanwhile, many of Quake’s areas feel like places instead of simple functional areas to hold monsters. There’s the obvious engine showoffs (bridges and walkways you can pass cleanly under are everywhere) but also some neat facades outside buildings or inside major rooms. The idea seems to have been to see how far the level artists could go, and what shapes they could carve out of the 3D world.

Lighting was certainly advanced for its time.

On the lighting side, Quake takes what accomplishments Doom was able to make with lighting effects (flickering and strobing) and expands on that with lightmaps. The descending bridge on the first level is an intentional early showcase of this effect, with lights that activate as you get near them. The results are faked, of course, but as these lightmaps “turn on,” you get a sense that the lamp is popping up and casting a new glow on the walls and ceiling around it.

For standard level lighting, occlusion is modeled well and objects cast static, but realistic, shadows. Faded edges on them give a real sense of light turning to shadow, instead of the hard edges of the sector-based lighting used in Doom. This is useful in both making the areas look more believable, and in setting up a tense, creepy mood. Level designers aren’t afraid to hide monsters in dark corners, who spring to life as you approach unaware. Very cool. Pools of light also get used as directional guides, or triggers for wall-mounted traps.

Controls are accurate and easily defined. The defaults still rely on the arrow keys, but you can rebind running and strafing to something you’re more familiar with. True jumping is present and gets its own key, though your hop is pretty short and the level design doesn’t rely on precision. It’s mostly vaulting over large gaps. Swimming also plays a key role in many levels, with limited air to keep you panicked. Mouselook is fully supported, but not a standard yet, so you’ll have to activate it each session with a keyboard key or a console command (+mlook). Speaking of which, Quake marks the mainstream introduction to the console (activated with the ~ key), allowing a savvy player a level of control over settings previously reserved for developers.

Knock enemies right on their misshapen asses.

True 3D enemies make a rousing debut into popular gaming culture here. Though they’re low in poly counts, and look pretty hinky by today’s standards, they were awesome on release. Gamers were quite used to sprites and all their limitations by that time, so an improved alternative that legitimately worked was a big deal. And truthfully, not all of the models have aged poorly. The humanoid soldiers look the worst – blocky and somewhat misshapen. As you move away from something you have an easily-identifiable reference to, the models start to look better. The Death Knight, for example, looks okay because his bulky armor breaks up the smooth lines you expect to see. The oversized, inhuman Shambler similarly wears its polygons well.

Animations, however, leave much to be desired. Though they do offer a vastly expanded range of behavior – enemies can get visibly staggered or even knocked down – corners seem cut to keep CPU load down. If the engine is running at 30 FPS, the animations seem to be running at 15. Enemies move like jerky marionettes, while they don’t so much walk as micro-warp a few inches with each step. It’s definitely distracting from a modern perspective, but still playable. Smoothing animations out is also one of the first things the various fan engine ports worked on.

Polygon enemies also mean they can be broken into polygon parts, and that’s just what the rocket and grenade launchers do while particles of fire and blood fly. Though sprite-based games had been doing approximations of this effect for a while, it wasn’t until the bouncing 3D chunks (and likely, the competitive spirit of multiplayer) seen here that the satisfaction and humiliation of splattering your opponent into “gibs” was truly popularized. Though the game’s insistence on leaving behind perfectly-preserved heads gets a little weird.

The sound effects and music fit the atmosphere exceptionally. Guns boom, monsters utter otherworldly growls and groans, and the clanking of bouncing grenades gives you ample warning of their incoming arrival. Music was provided by Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails. I’ll avoid being a fanboy (eeeeeeeee!!) and just say that I liked what he did here. Only the title track sounds like typical NIN, and it’s high-energy industrial that gets you amped for the upcoming session. Great stuff.

Quake’s lava effects are pretty advanced.

The rest is more like background ambiance. Lots of sustained notes; lots of tones more than identifiable sections. With the exception of an occasional haunting wail, there’s nothing like wind or pulsing that’s supposed to be generated by anything inside the level; it’s more tuneless themes designed to build dread. I originally thought I would want something more “actiony,” but the results perfectly match the lighting and architecture, and support rather than interfere. Again, great stuff. If you bought this digitally (such as on Steam) you may not have the music, so you’ll need to locate the tracks, burn them to a CD, and have the CD in the drive when you start the game.

So how does Quake actually play? I’ve heard the single player called dull and boring, but I think that id did a commendable job transferring the spirit of Doom into a true 3D world. Finding keys, looking for the exit, and fighting the occasional monstrous boss all still apply. The environment is used well for both traps and puzzles (rising staircases allowing access to new areas, etc). Monsters are nasty in their own individual ways, and every one of them can overpower you if you’re not careful. Like Doom, the genius of each level is how each disparate monster type interplay with each other to create new challenges.

Weapons are almost directly ported from Doom, and each type still fills a special role, governed by awfully limited ammo for just about everything except the shotguns. The new grenade launcher makes great use of the 3D world and allows you to bank shots through windows or around corners, but the rest are point-and-kill thundersticks. There’s also a few weapons that become essentially useless as new ones are gained – there’s little reason to use the twin-barrel nailgun over the quad-barrel nailgun, fewer situations where the grenade launcher is better than the rocket launcher, and distance makes the only reason to use the single shotgun over the double-barrel.

Action is a balance of sometimes frantic (when leaping Fiends or thundering Shamblers show up) and sometimes cautious and tactical. But it’s always fluid. 32 maps across four episodes (with four difficulty levels) should be enough to keep the interested entertained. Quake also works on an interesting hub format. Not only do you pick your difficulty in-game by going down particular paths, but you also pick episodes in a similar way. You can select any episode from the hub, but you’ll have to beat them all on one save file to unlock the final boss. It’s a nice break if you’re used to episode hopping from the main menu in other FPSs.

Zombie enemies keep getting up, so you might as well explode them from the start.

But I need some things to complain about to earn my salt, don’t I? My biggest gripe is that the game loves the Ogres far more than I do. The chainsaws they carry are plenty dangerous, but their grenade launchers are just annoying – groups of them will shoot grenade after grenade that either hit you and explode, or bounce around and cause you to do the “grenade dance” to try and avoid their eventual blast. Aside from surgical precision with placing their ‘nades, they’re tough enough that taking them on directly will often give them enough time to launch at least one explosive at your face. Once or twice per level? Fine. But to have them the most prevalent enemy in later maps? Well, that’s just mean.

There’s little difference between the four episodes. Each one begins in a technical complex with soldier enemies, as you fight your way to a “slipgate.” (Who’s the enemy army here is never explained). After that, you’ve warped to one of the four new dimensions, which really only differentiate themselves through texture color and not in design or atmosphere. You can’t carry your collected arsenal into the next episode, so each one starts you over from the beginning.

Commendably, Quake does hold back enemies to surprise you later. I think it works out to one “new” enemy per episode. What doesn’t help is that they’re pure annoyances. The spider-like Vores shoot homing explosives in a callback to Doom’s Revenants. The nimble Slimes hop around like mad and explode when you finally kill them – you’ve got to try to take them out quickly from afar. They’ll bust your balls at higher difficulties, and I can’t imagine trying to take these guys on with only keyboard controls. It feels a bit like a cheap way to be challenging.

Other small complaints; They improved the switch-flipping somewhat over Doom, but the whole idea of seeking out switches to open up blocked areas can still be troublesome. Frequently you’ll happen upon a switch, have no idea what it did, and have to backtrack to find out. Quake adds helpful messages (“The central bridge has changed…”) to ease this, but it’s still an occasional problem that ends up in you being lost. Oddly, there’s no in-game map for any of the levels – perhaps because they’re too complicated for gamers to easily read in a simple design view.

Quake’s original DOS release actually looks pretty good

Maybe petty, but worth mentioning – to make up for the lack of actual generated light (such as the glow from your guns), weapons like the nailgun use an orange overlay effect to simulate barrel flash. I’m used to that being the indicator that I’m taking damage, so every time I shoot the gun, I think I’m getting shot. Guns themselves sound great and work well, but look dull. Without reload animations or small details, most of the guns are lifeless polygon blocks.

I could talk about multiplayer, but that’s probably an entire article unto itself. I will say that if you’re looking for multiplayer, you want QuakeWorld, as the netcode that shipped with Quake was designed more for LAN play. QuakeWorld (an official id release, and not a mod) is what actually started the whole ranking/ladder/cybersport scene, as well as user-run dedicated servers. A master server even used to keep player rankings, until there were just too many players to handle. Both arena deathmatch and cooperative modes are supported.

It should also be mentioned that two basic versions of Quake exist – the original DOS release and a Windows-based OpenGL version. Surprisingly, the original is perfectly capable, and OpenGL primarily just smooths out the textures, opens up higher resolutions, and gives actual support for transparencies (instead of the splotchy explosions of DOS). Various engine mods are also out there if you want to tack on more modern effects.

Quake’s great fun and the forefather of modern 3D shooters. At the time, it maintained enough FPS conventions to be familiar, but also showed off its new effects well enough to herald the start of a new era. Looking back at it, there’s still enjoyment to be had, but the lack of a story or absolutely breathtaking levels leaves just the standard “shoot everything that moves” gameplay that’s little different and less advanced than today’s shooters. Its step backward in color and level detail also gave “2.5-D” games like Duke 3D a brief chance to hold on, but the 3D revolution was coming, and Quake certainly deserved to lead the way.


The Good

It’s really 3D this time! Excellent tech showcase with classic FPS gunplay. Multiplayer is on a whole other plane of existence.


The Bad

Sometimes drab levels. Not much of a story. Few new gameplay ideas.


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