December of 1999 marked the first time that FPS stalwarts had a real choice to make. Either intentionally, or just because the industry was naturally heading in a multiplayer-centric direction, venerable id Software was squaring off against upstart Epic MegaGames. Both were releasing anticipated arena deathmatch games in their respective franchises, and in the same month to boot. I think history rewards Unreal Tournament with the win (due to its greater variety of game modes), but Quake III also handily proves why worldwide deathmatch is competitive catnip.
Unfortunately, you’re not going to be reading any fond “back in the day” memories from me. I count myself firmly in the camp of those disappointed that this wasn’t a single-player follow up to Quake II, and despite playing a few Half-Life mods along the same lines, never really developed a taste for deathmatch. I could regularly hit the tops of leaderboards on public servers, so I’m not saying this from a point of ignorance, or from being shit at the games and holding a grudge. Quake III just wasn’t the release for me. This is strictly a multiplayer shooter, with only a limited single-player “campaign” made up of bot matches providing the offline action.
What’s the game’s story? No, you’re not listening. There is no story, except a loose suggestion of a Running Man-esque galactic gladiator tournament you’re trapped in. The single player campaign is made up of six “tiers” of four maps each, with each tier introducing a somewhat better skilled group of bots. The seventh tier is a boss fight with the alien overlord controlling the tournament. That’s pretty much it for single player, though you can set up separate skirmish matches at any time. Skirmish is also the only chance you’ll get to explore other modes offline – capture the flag and team deathmatch are included, but not part of the single player ladder for whatever reason.
You won’t find anything here that’s a radical departure from original Quake’s online deathmatch. Instead, everything’s leagues more refined. Quake III’s engine is blazing fast, with sharp textures, fog effects, bright explosions, and curved surfaces (allowing for arches and circular lobbies). Environments still look like a mishmash of 80’s metal covers, and brown and red make up most of the palette, but multiplayer deathmatch is hardly the place to take in the scenery anyway. Instead, it’s all about the ambiance – red shadows from lava flowing under a grate, shimmering satin bands on fluttering flags, and, of course, id’s trademark fusion of organic and technological. Netcode is as sharp as it ever was, taking advantage of 56K modems up to cable speeds then proliferating into homes and universities.
There’s 30 deathmatch and 5 capture the flag maps with the base game, all smartly designed. Rooms have multiple entrances, so it’s hard for anyone to camp and hold a safe hallway. Many maps empty into a central area that turns into an appropriately chaotic free-for-all during the course of the match. There are plenty of pits to surprise the unwary, or knock them intentionally into. Respawn points are never too far from a weapon. Health and armor pickups usually dot the hallways connecting rooms, allowing you to stock up on your way to the action. Stronger pickups like mega armor or the mighty BFG10k are usually stocked in quasi-secret areas requiring players to slip out of the normal rotation of the arena, or find a few uncommon jump pads.
Playing, you quickly get the sense of why people like to attach the “sport” label to this kind of game. I’m among the last to believe kids hunched over a keyboard deserve “athlete” status [loud jeers heard from the crowd] but agree that there’s more going on here than running in a circle and shooting everything you see. Good players are recognizing when their current armor status or weapon puts them at either an advantage or disadvantage. Will the armor you just picked up let you survive a few hits and finish off this opponent? If you charge this guy with only the machine gun, will you just be giving him an easy kill? (Yes.) There’s a real ebb and flow to the matches, and a player whose down by a few points can suddenly find a string of enemies that pushes him back to the top. Even the best player can find themselves rounding the wrong corner at the wrong time and eating a shotgun. Your goal wasn’t to live forever, it was to take out as many fools as possible before you finally fell (the famous kill/death ratio).
Yet, while skill is a factor, luck feels just as critical. You could win every encounter, but still lose the match to someone more active and successful at finding opponents. You could spawn in a perfect sniper’s nest, or maybe just as an opponent passes whose been weakened enough to finish off with the default machine gun. I can’t count the times an opponent jinked the wrong way and stepped into the path of my mid-air rocket. Opportunism is also key, and “kill stealing” is just a way of life. I have never played a deathmatch game where firing explosives indiscriminately into a clustered group of enemies fighting each other hasn’t worked out well. You may find it cheap until you get the chance to blast a distracted foe or two yourself!
There’s only a handful of weapons, but all are balanced well based on the situation. The gauntlet and shotgun are terrors up close, the railgun has pinpoint accuracy from a distance, and even the lowly machine gun has its uses (especially if you grab the Quad Damage powerup). Damage modeling feels great. I don’t believe there’s anything – even the railgun – that outright kills a fresh player in one shot. However, this only prevents you from getting wasted as soon as you spawn. No one’s running around without a little damage, making your opponents quite susceptible to shotgun blasts, splash damage from a rocket fired at a nearby wall, or a solid stream from the lightning gun. Armor and bonus health (up to 200) noticeably protect you, allowing you to shrug off a few rockets or slugs to seal your kill. But never too many, and both kills and deaths are never but a few shots away.
There are 95 player choices, though many are different skins over the same model. These include stars from the Doom and Quake series, cyborgs, id employees, a guy on a hoverboard, a walking eyeball, and the cigar-chomping mascot “Sarge.” You can even define the color of your railgun shot. Animations are pretty standard, as you would expect, with the exception of some flair to the jumps based on the model. You won’t see any difference on your screen, but players will see your model backflip, do splits in midair, and similar acrobatics that seem to make you additionally harder to hit.
Bots are fairly intelligent, and certainly mimic the online experience. Difficulty level doesn’t artificially inflate their health or stats – with the exception of supernatural railgun aim at the Nightmare difficulty – so they have to play by the same rules you do. Instead, difficulty seems to affect how aware they are, how likely they are to stock up on armor and guns before seeking you out, and how frequently they go get the map’s key powerups. Some bots even have distinct habits, like a propensity to crouch, a favorite weapon, or the chick on skates that jumps around like a fucking jackrabbit. They’ll even sass each other in the chat during a game, though they’re actually fairly polite overall. This is the only time in the history of multiplayer gaming you will see someone compliment you on killing them skillfully.
As said, there are four modes out of the box – Deathmatch, Team Deathmatch, Capture the Flag, and Tournament. Of these, only Tournament needs an explanation. Here, you fight in a series on one-on-one matches with the rest of the server acting as spectators. When one player gets knocked out, a spectator takes on the victor. The host’s only out-of-box options are defining frag or time limit. There are no persistent stats outside of the single-player ladder. You’ll never be able to look back over how many flags you capped, or how many opponents you… well, also capped. This is pretty bare-bones stuff, but that’s what mods are for.
I suppose it’s not entirely fair to be surprised at how “vanilla” default Quake III is, but it certainly is, and especially compared to Unreal Tournament. Quake’s modes feel unimaginative compared to UT’s Assault or Domination. In-game server creation tops out at 12 players, but most maps feel designed for loads around 6-8. There are no secondary fire modes to any of Quake’s weapons, leaving another notch of variety on UT’s belt. UT also features a “smart” auto-pickup that would be useful here; Q3 has no way to avoid auto-switching to rockets or the like, you can only turn auto switch on or off. Not to mention, Unreal Tournament’s tournament is a much more refined single player experience than this one. Here, your only rewards are disconnected CG cutscenes that look like they were leftovers from a plot cut early in the design.
Obviously, single-player aficionados need not apply. Bot matches just feel like something to tide you over while your Internet is down, and online was where the game lived. In that regard, Quake III is everything it needed to be – fast, balanced, and flashy enough. Unfortunately, it feels like it was just refining the multiplayer component of the games that came before, while Unreal Tournament was doing that and innovating at the same time. Everybody had to pick their favorite flavor in 1999, and this one wasn’t mine.
Lovely engine for the new millennium. Action is fast paced and netcode is robust. Weapons are balanced well, as are the maps. Bots put up a reasonable challenge, with tangible difficulty levels. Plenty of mods to choose from and still has support today (620 servers responding in the in-game browser as of this writing).
Doesn’t try anything new as Unreal Tournament does. Still the ol’ brown and grey environments. Nearly pointless single player tournament.
“i can’t believe a girlie like jgr fragged me!” — Biker