Pretty pretty bang bang

Is Quake 3 too beautiful to live up to its promise as the "ultimate death-match game"?


Marc Spiegler
September 8, 1999 8:00PM (UTC)

Sometime before Christmas, Id Software chief John Carmack will sign off on the company's long-awaited Quake 3 Arena, unleashing a game of unparalleled beauty and unapologetic violence. Despite the fact that it hasn't been officially released, the game has already swept the online gaming world like a shimmering tsunami.

Following its usual testing tactic, Id put the Quake 3 test version online in May and has since posted several updates. Already, there are more than 1,100 servers worldwide where players can "spawn" into the game's stunningly rendered arenas and start firing away. There is no mission but to kill other players -- often and quickly, in teams or as a free-agent fragger. "We will return to plot-based games in the future," explains Id developer Graeme Devine. "But this time we wanted to make the ultimate death-match game available, and we expect it will remain that for a long while."

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On the myriad message boards where gamers trade playing tips, technical notes and unadulterated bile, Quake 3 already ranks among the hottest topics. In a typical exchange, one player on the Gamers Extreme site opined, "Q3 has nothing new or inspiring to offer and the gameplay is currently weaker than both [previous Quake games]." Minutes later, another riposted, "I played many hours of both previous games, and am really enjoying Q3. Yes, it is more evolutionary than revolutionary, but I don't think that is a bad thing."

This split in the hardcore gaming community runs as deep as expectations for Quake 3 run large. Id Software, the Mesquite, Texas, game developer, has built a powerful reputation with its "first-person shooter" games. Since its 1991 founding, the company has released Wolfenstein 3-D, Doom, Doom II, Quake and Quake II. Each game's success has fueled huge demand for the company's next product and the hype has brought thousands of new gamers into the fold. But a faction among the hardcore gaming community now looks askance at Id and Quake 3. Even the most lackluster student of American pop culture will recognize the meme at play here. There's always a certain amount of "I liked them before they were popular" prejudice, driving some who consider themselves hardcore to reflexively criticize Id for "selling out." Then again, there's no question that talented people do get swayed by market forces. Film buffs might think of director George Miller, for example, who went from "Mad Max" to "Babe: Pig in the City"; rock fans might cite Phil "Genesis to Michelob ads" Collins.

For some old-time Doom and Quake fanatics, the new game seems like a lot of overhyped eye candy; Id has dulled its edge, they charge, to create wider appeal. As King Diamond69 -- a dentist, dad and Ivy League grad who frequently posts in the forums of the Quake 3 news site, Q3Arena.net -- put it: "Lovers of realism are a little (to very) disappointed, because Quake 3 has not really broken any new ground. Younger players and fast-action fans are basically gaga over it, for the same reasons the realists are upset: the graphics are high 'wow' factor, and the gameplay feels a little faster than Quake 2 [which has taken plenty of heat for being slow], but allows for much longer firefights between two evenly-matched players."

What's got those hardcore gamers so worked up? For one thing, Quake 3 is, well, beautiful. "A lot of the other hardcore players don't like Quake 3 because it's so mass-market and so 'arcadey,'" explains Dennis "Thresh" Fong, arguably the greatest first-person shooter player ever. "The icons are simpler. They have cartoony boxes for ammo, and it's all color-coded in bright red and bright purples, colors you'd never see in the other Quake games." On the aesthetics charge, Id's Devine pleads no contest. "We purposefully gave Quake 3 an over-the-top, cartoony, comic-book look," he says. "Our big influences included games like Street Fighter and Robotron."

The game's use of curved rendering surfaces, lighting effects and highly detailed texture gives you the impression that you've dropped into a very violent section of a Saturday-morning cartoon. Two of the three arenas, or "maps," that Id has released evoke the game's more heavy-metal predecessors: The arenas are, essentially, dungeons -- albeit dungeons with mall-bright lighting. But the third map is a space station without walls, where one misstep launches you slowly into the void, the extant players' action taunting you until the screen goes black. Festooned with jump pads that launch you like a human cannonball, the arena tends to feature a lot of midair firing between opponents rocketing past -- or directly toward -- each other. Basically, it's "Toy Story" meets "The Matrix."

But there's more to the critiques than just the look of the game. For two years, players have complained that Quake II plays slower than the original Quake, which in turn plays slower than Doom II. Many of the players in Fong's Death Row gaming "clan" preferred the older, faster game. Keep in mind, of course, that when Fong talks about a game playing slower, he's mostly talking about millisecond differences; it's somewhat like Michael Jordan complaining that the humidity in a stadium is affecting his shooting. For any newbie, or even the average online gamer, the first few hours in the online arenas will seem like a bad amphetamine trip. Your adrenaline surges are constantly cut short as you watch your bloodied character fall prone, head askew. Most matches last around five minutes, but it's pretty easy to play 20 matches back to back without flinching. Eventually, you find your bearings -- and really start losing track of time.

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Fong suggests that Id may have deliberately slowed down the game to draw a broader audience: "Quake was so fast-paced, it wasn't a true mass-market game. Some people just couldn't handle the speed or were intimidated by it." In Quake II, the action slowed a tad and turned away from close-quarters fighting toward a more strategic game; aggression got you killed, and fast. And while Quake 3 does play faster than Quake II, it does not mark a return to the spine-twisting blur that made Doom II akin to an adrenaline I.V. drip administered through your mouse.

Fong, whose Firing Squad Web site tracks the gaming industry voraciously, says he completely understands Id's position: The developer can hardly be expected to ignore the fact that increasingly fast connection speeds and processors make the mass market a potential gold mine. In an early review of the game, Fong wrote: "All we, as hardcore gamers, need to do is remember one thing: [Id's] intended audience is not us. They are listening. They want to make everything fun and fair for us and give us the best competitive experience, but they at the same time have another 2.99 million gamers to cater to."

George Jones, editor in chief of Computer Gaming World, calls Quake 3 a perfect entry point to the genre, pointing out that complete newbies can train against the game's artificial-intelligence bots to hone their skills rather than just getting slaughtered online for weeks on end. And Garth Chouteau, a spokesman for the Professional Gamers League, which promotes video-game championships, points out that Quake 3 will make a much better spectator sport than its predecessors. "There's absolutely no question that Id was thinking about Quake 3 from a spectator standpoint," he says. "I don't want to make it sound like Id was taking orders from us, because they weren't. But by making all the spaces better-lit and details like flashing the names above each player ahead of you, they've created a game that novices and nonplayers will be more able to understand."

These departures from the previous games' more "realistic" environments draw immense criticism in some quarters, of course. So does the fact that Quake 3 characters "spawn" into the arena with 125 health points, 25 more than the maximum available during normal gameplay (the extra points serve as a buffer against instant annihilation during the first few moments of play). This change, Devine explains, is engineered to defeat an old tactic: snipers ambushing barely resurrected players with a single shot from the rail-gun. Under the wrong conditions, a player could die several times in a minute without even firing off a shot in defense. Quake 3's extra health points at least give them a chance to sprint away -- damaged but not dead -- while the sniper's rail-gun languorously recharges. To hardcore gamers, who endured such hazing years ago, that seems like mollycoddling the newbies. Then again, it's hard to generate much sympathy for players whose tactics make them blood brothers to the deer hunters who use roof-mounted spotlights to hypnotize their prey.

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Naturally, Devine strenuously objects to any implication that Quake 3's design has been much shaped by market forces. "We built the game with the Id staff as the target audience," he says. "That includes everyone from John Carmack to Donna Jackson the receptionist, and we value our view over everyone else's." Whatever the motivations for its design, Quake 3 is almost a guaranteed hit when it finally comes out. (As usual, Id is honing to its tautological "the release date is the day we release it" policy.)

As Fong points out, "Id might lose some of the more hardcore audience, but they're gaining 10 to 100 times more new gamers. And even people who thought Quake II was inferior still continued to play the game. A lot of people will switch just because it's the newest game from Id Software."


Marc Spiegler

Despite frittering away many hours playing computer games, Marc Spiegler has written for Wired, Metropolis, Details and New York, among others. He lives in Zurich, Switzerland.

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