Friday, October 6, 2023

Quake Begets Quake

It's been a while, so lets talk vidya!

If you know anything about video games, you almost assuredly know about the original DOOM, from 1993. The revolutionary game that more or less invented the first person shooter as we know it (Wolfenstein 3D laid the groundwork, but it was DOOM that set the standard) was quite the wonder when it released. The game was fast paced, immaculately designed, simplistic and yet deep, and contained nearly limitless possibilities. Needless to say, it was a phenomenon. To this day it is still thought of as one of the greatest games of all time.

It didn't stop there, though. 1994's DOOM II added the super shotgun to the already impressive arsenal and a handful more enemy types, going all out with the level design and showing all the potential possibilities it had, but there was little else to build on beyond that. They more or less nailed it the first time, and this was a victory lap for developers id Software. DOOM remains one of the greatest games of all time, and there was little way to improve on those first two games. This was proven when 2004's DOOM 3 instead changed focus to be more of a survival horror experience instead. What more could one really do to improve the rock solid formula, after all?

But back in the mid '90s, developer id Software had to do just that. Not only did they have to follow up one of the best and most revolutionary games of all time (It was easily as popular as Mortal Kombat, Sonic the Hedgehog, or Super Mario Bros. back then) but they also had to jump into the third dimension. Yes, DOOM is infamously a 2.5D game, one that pushed the second dimension to its limit in what could be achieved. Aside from Build Engine games like Duke Nukem 3D, Blood, and Shadow Warrior, the three genre classics that pushed 2D graphics as far as they could at the time, the industry was screaming for 3D.

So id Software had to oblige.

I'm not going to go into the total cluster fudge that was the development of their follow-up to DOOM, but I'm sure you can guess how much pressure there was for them at the time. Think about it: How in the world do you follow-up something like DOOM, a game that completely changed the entire industry?

Suffice to say there were a lot of discussions and arguments around what their follow-up game should be. Everything from a full-on RPG with a protagonist named Quake to a third person adventure game inspired by Virtua Fighter, of all things. However, since there was so much pressure on them to deliver, and do it quickly, they decided on making another first person shooter. But this one ended up being quite a bit different than expected, even for the time.

It also ended up being the last game the famous id Software dream team would make together as a group. Thus there is quite a lot of mystique around this title, and almost as much hate from those who hated the shift. Needless to say, the final product is an interesting thing to talk about, because it actually does represent the end of an era, but not quite the start of a new one.

I will get into what that means, but let us first go into the game in question. Yes, the topic of today's post is Quake.

The infamous Quake released in 1996, the year 3D completely overtook gaming as a whole, and it was a revolution for both id Software and the industry. John Carmack created one of the most important engines for game creation and John Romero was allowed to let his hair down and finally use all three dimensions to torment players as he had in DOOM. This was quite a unique and special occasion. The end result is one of the few early examples of a full jump to 3D that still manages to hold up to this day. There are a few reasons for that.

The first question you might have is if Quake is merely just DOOM in 3D. After all, surely all the creative interference and paring down of ideas in production must have led to a safe, bland product for mass consumption. Would it not have made sense to play it safe then? Safe is not what I would describe Quake as being. In fact, it is not at all. While DOOM is one of the most influential games in the entire industry, Quake also ranks up there, as well. That is quite a hard trick to pull, but id Software managed to weave through development issues and create a classic in its own right.

The main difference with Quake is that while it is a shooter, it is not a fast paced run n gun like DOOM. Because it was early 3D and they could not yet afford the speed or enemy count of 2D, id Software played it smart and changed focus to that of a horror game. There were horror aspects to DOOM, obviously, but the feeling of helplessness and dangerous exploration through eerie territory took a backseat to the frantic action. In Quake, it is about quick thinking and exploring the towering 3D labyrinths filled with traps and dodging the incredibly dangerous enemy horde in claustrophobic spaces. There is still a focus on combat, but it is chunkier and the player is at a disadvantage due to the level design and enemy behavior tied to it. The shooting is still satisfying and powerful, but you will find yourself counting bullets and learning to manage them well. Quake is more environmentally involved than DOOM is, and that ends up changing the entire focus.

One of the best things about Quake is its HP Lovecraft influence it is swimming in. It isn't the typical "Lovecraftian" copy paste job most such products went for (though there are some name drops, it isn't obnoxious) but for the crushing terror of the unknown and cold, choking atmosphere where insanity is a hair's breadth away. The enemies are almost as disturbing as the creatures in DOOM, but all of them have far different roles and ways of dealing with them. On top of it is the foreboding soundtrack by Nine Inch Nails that really sets the tone that you are roaming where you should not be. The entire game oozes atmosphere of the kind few ever had before, or have had since.

You play as a nameless ranger, much like in DOOM, sent out into portals to worlds of gothic terror, gutted military bases, and abandoned dig sites where horrid creatures were found long ago. You are just a normal soldier who must use your wits to survive and stop these impossible creatures from getting to Earth and wreaking havoc there. It's really that simple, as it should be, but like DOOM it offers much in the way of gameplay possibilities.

The fascinating aspect of Quake is that while the core game at times might feel like the concept isn't quite as fleshed out as you would like (there is no Use key, for example), the expansion packs actually do exactly that--they really expand just how deep Quake can go and how many possibilities it has in such a primitive 3D space. It turns out there is much under the surface here, much like the world of Quake itself. This is what has helped it maintain its level of popularity over the decades. Quake's modding scene is still one of the biggest in the genre.

That alone should make Quake one of the greatest games of all time. It might feel dated today, but that is part of its appeal. The creaking old corners of the world matches the gameplay and adds to the impression that you are being thrown into a place that simply isn't right.

In essence, Quake feels like a sequel to DOOM, emphasizing different elements of the formula and striking out on its own. The story itself also still has those references to satanic interference, implying the creatures you are fighting might have higher allegiances than originally thought by what the plot description tells you. The portal technology now instead of opening a portal to Hell has been mastered for man to invade his enemy's territory instead. Although, much like DOOM, this is probably something that would have been better left untouched as it opens paths to places where man should most definitely never roam.

All this contributes to create a stone cold classic, one whose stature has only improved with the passage of time. To this day, there is still nothing like Quake.

But we are not ending today's entry here. 1996's Quake is only half of today's subject. We have a bit more to cover.

Needless to say, Quake was a revolution in the industry and became one of the highest rated games of the year, a huge seller, and quickly made many gamers' top game lists. It was exactly the follow-up to DOOM that was needed, and did as well as it needed to, solidifying id Software's stature as kings of the genre and the industry itself. Despite everything working against them, the team managed to pull off a grand slam.

But the cost was huge. Developer id Software was almost destroyed by making Quake and the majority of the Dream Team that made them one of the best in the industry more or less left the company after the game was finally released. In essence, as said earlier, Quake is more of the end of an era instead of the start of a new one. This game, in many ways, was their swansong. The change that the company would go through happened much faster than you would think.

So the game came out and was a big success, okay, but what about afterwards? How did id Software capitalize on the massive success of Quake while also recovering the heavy losses occurred when developing a whole new game engine and losing so many key members?

That's easy, they put out a new game a year later. Much like DOOM II came out one year after DOOM, id Software did the same again. The main difference here is . . . well, we'll get to it. Suffice to say, it wasn't the first time they've made a sequel directly after the massive success of the previous game. Where it differs here is in execution.

The remaining members of the dev team worked on a new game while Carmack also put out a new engine, the legendary Quake II Engine, and used it to make one of the biggest and most popular games of the 1990s.

This would of course be the famous Quake II.

It is impossible today to really go into what made Quake II so huge at the time. If Quake I was a huge hit, then Quake II was a megahit. It was almost instantly praised as being a quantum leap forward from the first, was given as the reason many got into PC gaming for the first time, topped countless GOTY and best game ever lists, and more or less set the standard for what shooters have become today. In the 1990s, Quake II was one of the most popular games period.

And yet nowadays most people who like it will tell you it is underrated. You will hear about how it is forgotten and needlessly spat upon by the general public, if it is remembered at all. Where did this mindset shift come from, and why does it seem to prevail even to this day? Was Quake II overhyped, or is it just mindless hate?

As usual, the truth is a fair bit more complicated than that.

What I said earlier still applies. Quake II almost instantly pushed the original Quake out of the spotlight when it released in 1997 and overtook it in popularity pretty much instantly. How did it do this after everything I had just described of the original? Well, you have to put your mind back in 1997 and see what it is that Quake II actually did.

The first thing that should be said is that Quake II is not a sequel to Quake I. It is a completely original FPS that merely bears the same name. And the games are so different that one could hardly ever confuse the two. That aside, there are plenty of design decisions that change the game entirely, even aside from the tone.

Quake II's missions changed the structure of all FPS games going forward. Each mission, instead of being one map a player goes through to find all secrets and items before moving on to the next one, was instead a set of around 3 to 4 maps where players had to go between them to solve objectives and battle enemies along the way. The total game length was still about the same length, but the levels became more complex than they had been before simply due to this.

Another change is that Quake II is slower than Quake I, but so are the enemies, which allows for more reaction time. There are more wide open spaces compared to Quake I, more enemies in the levels themselves, and the enemy types don't hit as hard as the ones in the last game . . . for the most part. In essence it does feel like a deliberate step towards DOOM and away from the original Quake as far as general combat goes. Quake II in a lot of ways is a bit of an anti-Quake, a reaction to what they think went wrong with the first game.

Lastly, the setting was made far more straightforward. In Quake II you play as a space marine sent to a planet of body horror aliens who wish to dissect humanity for themselves. The game portrays their final assault on the home planet. Your mission is to complete objectives like shutting down satellite arrays and destroying space lasers and the like on your way to finally conquering the big boss alien at the end. It's typical Space Opera stuff, but that wasn't common in games then, never mind in FPS games. Even Blake Stone was more James Bond than Captain Future.

All of this was new in 1997, it had never been done before in a video game, and this explains why it was huge when it released. Quake II became a template for the genre going forward, and they didn't really look back.

However, this also explains why the game isn't as highly regarded today as it once was. The biggest problem with Quake II is that the next twenty years of FPS games would be trying to outdo Quake II, and many of them have beaten that horse deep into the ground. Oddly enough, it's success is why it isn't as highly thought of as it once was, despite the fact it is designed very well. Quake II is a victim of its own success.

So what exactly is the problem? Let's try to dig into it a bit.

Unlike the original Quake, Quake II actually does feel like a new era in the genre, one that would eventually be cribbed from with games like Halo and the millions of other space marine games over the years to come to the point that anything unique it might have had was buried in the context of the time it released. There really isn't any way to express how much of a change it was when its changes have been so ubiquitous in its genre over the years.

Does this new reception mean it was overrated at release? Were gamers blinded by hype? Is there anything fundamentally wrong with Quake II that holds it back?

No, not really. Quake II is a good game. It can even be very good at times. The bigger problem is that it is not particularly great. There isn't anything particularly unique about it to recommend playing it, unlike most other classics of the genre. Quake II feels like a game going through the motions, doing what id Software was expected to do--turning them into "the FPS guys" instead of a developer with wild ideas that could do anything. There is a reason the team fractured after making the first Quake. Compared to DOOM or Quake I, Quake II is just kind of there--a product for the market. shaking that impression is very difficult playing it outside of its original context.

It should also be mentioned that the changes from the original game, thought to have been revolutionary (and actually were) at the time, turned out to be a double edged sword. A lot of this might be the reason it isn't as well thought of as the original these days.

There isn't anything truly terrible in Quake II, but nothing I would call outstanding.

The level design is solid, but because of the concept of maps basically duct-taped together, there is a lot of dead space and repeatedly wandering over areas where enemies had already been cleared out earlier. This makes the levels drag on and not feel as snappy or player friendly as older games. Because of this there are no real memorable levels, and most of the aesthetic consists of colorless military bases of the kind the genre would be mocked for in the era ahead. The entire experience bleeds into one long level, which was the point, but it takes away from the pick up and play nature of the genre.

The weapons are fine, but this is the game where the FPS standard loadout was more or less solidified. Pistol, shotgun, machine gun, grenade launcher etc., none of the weapons are all that interesting. At least DOOM set the bar and also had the Super Shotgun and BFG, and Quake had things like nail and lightning guns. The weapons in Quake II do the job, but they don't feel that satisfying to use a lot of the time. The original release of Quake II did not even have muzzle flashes which lessens the impact even more.

The enemy types are okay, but after fighting demons in DOOM, and disturbing Lovecraftian mutants, living knight armor and swords, and shambling behemoths in Quake, fighting body horror machine aliens is a step down in creepiness. The Strogg are just not that interesting to fight, overall. This doesn't even mention the annoying feature that EVERY basic enemy you kill has an annoying habit of shooting shots off at you after they're already dead unless you either wait patiently for them to fall and die or waste more ammo to blow up their still-standing corpse so they can't do that. This slows the game's combat to a crawl and at times makes exploration tedious.

All of this could have been looked past when the game was new, but the passage of time reveals a base that simply isn't as fantastic as originally thought. The developers made a good game, one worthy of success, but it is easy to see why it no longer wows after a look back to the era and where the industry went not long afterwards. There just isn't much there that you can't find somewhere else, not something id Software was known for doing.

The game deliberately being an anti-Quake is what hurt it, because those aspects are what the game is more remembered for today. It is not known for what it did otherwise.

And it wasn't as if id Software didn't know their own goals going in:

It was a conscious decision [to change Quake II's direction] and controversial inside the company. We weren't happy with the [original] Quake story. [John] Romero was gone, so there was no one left to defend it. Kevin Cloud headed up Quake II and he wanted to make it story-driven.

— Todd Hollenshead

This is all well and good, but it is the Quake I story people remember and still influences today because it is unique enough to still stand out both in atmosphere and simplistic execution. The Quake II story was completely outdone by Halo a mere handful of years later. Not a single person plays Quake II today for the story.

The harsh truth is that the only reason to play Quake II today is if you want to play another good '90s shooter, you have nostalgia for it, or you want to play through all the id Software games. It is absolutely worth playing today, though. Just don't be shocked when you find out DOOM 3 is considerably more interesting and unique, and that game has a surprisingly large hate base. There just isn't much there to recommend over their other efforts.

Quake II is a game defeated by its own success.

It is truly interesting how the passage of time changes perception. Now Quake II is considered underrated when it was once thought of as the greatest game of all time at release. Not bad for a game where critics said that Quake II was "the only first-person shooter to render the original Quake entirely obsolete."

And yet nowadays most would rather play the original.

The thing that made me write this piece you are reading was, oddly enough, the recent 25th anniversary remaster Bethesda gave Quake II. Now is the best time to play it and revisit just what made it tick, making it more relevant than ever. I had never really clicked well with Quake II, so I decided to give it a go and play through the whole thing to see if I was missing something.

My general impressions of my playthrough, however, remained unchanged from the last time I went through it. Quake II is a good shooter. It's fun. It's worth playing. You'll have a good time. But it's not a great game. It's definitely not one of the best games of all time. It's missing the spark of id Software's best work--the intense pace of DOOM, the creeping terror of Quake . . . it's just a solid game for fans of the genre.

The expansion packs are terrible, too. I played them hoping for some sort of revelation like I had when playing the Quake I expansions that showed how much was really under the hood of this whole concept. The first game's expansions are legitimately great and well worth playing. The second game's expansions, however, were worse than the main game by a considerable margin. There wasn't anything to see except bullet sponge respawning enemies and more taped-together maps in very similar environments. It was actually quite a downer playing them.

However, there is an exception.

The brand new episode made for the new remaster, Call of the Machine, changes the entire game. This expansion has you play as different space marines dropping on different worlds and digging into the Strogg's true plans for galactic conquest. This simple set up allows the developers to make each mission a stand out experience from the rest, and inject a lot of life into the game. Just about every change it makes improves on the original game in every way.

The developers found a way to make back tracking less boring, constantly add new sights and sounds and ideas, and even managed to inject some of the horror atmosphere back in again, though said horror is a bit closer to DOOM than Quake, at least for the most part.

Each mission feels like a standalone episode of its own, bringing back the better pacing from the older games, and allowing far more variety than the same three repeated locations from the original game. The entire thing is never really boring (aside from one of the early missions with rising water levels feeling a bit sluggish) and almost all of them vary from run n gun to slower horror at varying degrees, always keeping you on your toes and mastering enemy placement in a way that utilizes their attacks instead of stonewalling the player into an endless circle strafing battle. The expansion is actually quite invigorating to go through, and breathes new life into Quake II, thereby making it the game I wish the original was..

The elephant in the room is that the new expansion ties Quake I in with Quake II, and in the process breathes a lot of life into Quake II's more flat atmosphere, also returning a lot of the tricks and traps from the original game as a more important part of the level design, including an ending that makes it all feel like it came full circle. Honestly, I think Call of the Machine is far better than Quake II proper, and would actually call it great and very much worth playing.

After beating Quake II's remaster and playing these expansions, I decided to actually go back through Quake I the same way, and there really is no contest. The original Quake is simply the better overall experience.

The truth is that Quake I's particular datedness has helped it age better than Quake II's has. Playing Quake felt like playing Quake, a feeling you won't get from anything else. Quake II never really gives me any comparable feeling, aside from the excellent new expansion that, in my mind, is a huge leap over II's campaign. Even without the Quake I references, it's just a much more fun and engaging adventure to go through, and gives an experience you simply won't get anywhere else. And that's what really counts.

Again, it's really fascinating going through the two games. Their design philosophies just come across so different from each other that it makes comparing them interesting. It also helps that neither of them are intolerable to play, either.

So in my final judgement I would obviously say the original is the better of the two games, though they really show how much the industry changed in such a short time. Looking back at the two Quake games is like looking at the first real fissure in the gaming industry.

As time passed, the genre became little more than highly scripted hallways punctuated by cutscenes, the atmosphere and player input becoming more and more limited, until all that was left was reskinned version of Call of Duty and little else. The industry that allowed games like Quake to flourish was basically gone.

Then, in the middle of the 2010s came that Boomer Shooter wave, gamers who grew up in a much different industry ready to fold their influences into new games. This is how you get games inspired by the original Quake like DUSK. who build their own brand new experience on the shoulders of giants. No one could have foreseen such a change coming, until it did. As a result, the way we look back on the past has changed and we can see it from a refreshed perspective. The entire landscape and history of the genre has been recontextualized, and it will never be the same again.

It really goes to show you how strange the world of art and entertainment is. I highly doubt anyone who made Quake thought it was anything but a disappointment compared to what they could have made. Half the team left and the other half instantly began on another game intentionally ejecting everything the original even was. And yet those who played Quake at the time, and even now, see it as a genre classic and one of the best games ever made, it's influence living on to this day. You never know just what the influence you might have will become years later and detached from your own thoughts and intentions.

Perhaps it is better to keep a clear head when assessing what works and what doesn't, but that doesn't stop the passage of time from making those decisions for you. No one could have foreseen where the industry would go, after all. 1997 was a different country; 1996 even more alien. We are looking back at a whole other world.

All this going on to say, just be honest with what you want and make it the best you can. There is nothing else to be done. At least we can say id Software never chased trends and made their own way, for better or for worse. Maybe that's the key.

Regardless, thanks for reading. I have a few levels of a Quake expansion left to wrap up. I've got a universe to save.


  1. I've started playing Quake II a couple of times and didn't finish either time. First time, my PC melted down and I just lost my progress. Second time, I just lost interest and started playing other stuff. I think id missed Romero a lot more than anyone wanted to admit at the time. The guy really does have a brilliant game design mind, especially for FPSs.

    The funny thing about Quake is that at the time, I remember there was real spirited debate as to whether it was even better than Duke Nukem 3D. Quake had the technical advantage being full 3D, but Duke had the level destruction capabilities of the Build engine and some crazy weapons and just a lot of personality. The two games coexist more comfortably now.

    1. 1996 was a strange year for the genre. Don't think anyone would've been able to call how influential both Quake and DN3D ended up being on the current wave of shooters back then.

      But it's good to see their influence lives on. They both hold up great.