Not Very Long Ago, A Choice Set Of PC envoys travelled to sunny Texas, redneck capital of the cosmos. There we ate plate after plate of Tex-Mex cuisine and breadcrumbed goujons and drank the cats' urine that they call 'beer'. We also visited the office of iD Software, a curious black obelisk like something out of 2001, which is on a freeway 20 minutes outside of Dallas.
We walked out onto the sixth floor and entered a strange office. It was as spacious as you'd expect, but very dark and quiet, bar the humming of the air-conditioning and the odd whispered conversation. Most of the 14-strong team work in closed offices, shared with a colleague or squadron of fellow grafters. The walls are coated with glowing reviews the team has received for games such as Wolfenstein, Doom and Quake, and every 12 feet or so stands a cabinet bulging with awards, cups, certificates and those weird glass trophies dished out by foreign magazines.
"We've built an entire world. It's not like Quake - four episodes of unrelated crap - we've built a planet and a race of aliens. We have areas in the game that people can identify with - bunkers, hangars, warehouses, power stations and stuff. And then we've established missions and goals for each area. We wanted people to believe they were in a real place."
This is Tim Willets talking. He's lead level designer on Quake 2 and he's doing - in the terminology of '70s TV - a 'smashing' job. The sequel is apparently a massive departure from the original, which was riled and moaned at for being 'Doom In A New Dress', with criticisms levelled at its dull single-player game, its bad weapons balance, its dumb creatures, its uninspired BluTacked plot. But all this has changed. The e ngine is smoother and faster. The sound code is better. There's coloured lighting and translucent walls and floors. There are shadows - real-time shadows. Objects can rotate on any axis and the levels are twice as big, if not in square footage then certainly in intricacy. And then there are units instead of episodes. Each unit has multiple levels, and each level has different goals and objectives. It's John Carmack, owner and coder at iD, who you should thank for all this technological advancement. "John's the pimp," says Willets. "He's so good."
Gone is the linear, level-by-level progression. In the first unit, for example, you're plumped deep inside the Warehouse. You can venture to the next unit, but it's pitch black and you get immediately spanked by a bunch of infra-red robots. The solution is to explore the Nuclear Core, the Coolant section and the three waste levels, searching for fuses which, when placed in the appropriate machinery, will 'turn on' the next unit and allow you to continue. "We've dropped all that 'get the key, open the door, kill the monster' stuff," says American McGee, level and sound designer on the project. "It got boring for us. We're doing a continuous universe now."
It's all so beautiful
Quake II is a beautiful game. And that's not a gushy come-on - it really is 'beautiful', aesthetically pleasing and good-looking. This is partly due to the sharpened artistic sense of the designers ("It has to look good. Every trap, every lava pit," says Willets), but mainly down to the orgiastic joys of 3Dfx-accelerated visuals. Well-drawn true colour textures are smoothed and shadowed to perfection. There's none of that messy eight-bit spaghetti of yore. And -oh mummy - the coloured lights. If you want realism, mood, foreboding and the visual addictiveness of a lava lamp, gawp at the screenshots and imagine them moving.
"With coloured lighting you can convey all sorts of things," says American McGee. He's showing us DM4 version 2, the Quake II incarnation of the popular deathmatch level. "You can make it look cool, damp or hot." He walks through a door to a junction. One passageway exhibits a faint red glow. "You see? You can tell straight off that that's a bad place to go, just because of the colours." We are scared. Very scared.
The boys have also been hard at work improving the synchronicity and sense of the levels. Instead of Quake's mindless mix of the medieval and mechanical, the levels are now moulded on their intended location. "We let the natural formations control the overall architecture of the world," says Willets. He's showing me an early level in the game, the Detention Area. "The first part is very blocky with huge cubes and blunt angles, but then the rocks slowly appear as you descend into the earth. We start mixing the man-made with the rock."
The monsters follow the mantra for Quake II: "Nothing from the original will exist in the sequel." To this end, there is now a whole set of new cyber-biological bipeds to thwart your progress through the levels. All are exquisitely animated with the new interpolation feature of the engine, which means more frames and smoother motion - plus more than 500 polygons of detail compared to Quake's 150. The Grunts, for example, are now available in three strengths and look like gladiators with huge angular faceplates and thin bodies. In one of the death animations, a Grunt falls to the ground and struggles to get up again. He strains and strains and strains and then finally slaps back down to the ground, dead. Fantastiche, as the Germans might say.
The screenshots say it all really, monster-wise. Big berserkers, gunners and the Vore-like tank with a shouldermounted rocket launcher. More important, though, is the new artificial intelligence pumped into these angry little bots. Not only do they now duck, but they get kinda well, pissed off, and if you spill their pint they'll happily follow you all round the level. They'll also avoid the dumb-ass walking-along-a-path routine from Quake.
Willets showed us this section where he was hiding behind a crate with a monster patrolling the darkness beyond. He jumped up slightly and made a sound. The Grunt reacted instantly, whipping around and almost sniffing the air. He mooched around for a second looking for the source of the sound, and then resumed his walking with a suspicious air. Very creepy. Very cool.
There's now an open-ended inventory system for carrying useful objects and spots for eight weapons, which should make upgrades and alterations more seamless than Quake. Not that you'll need them though. The Q//weapons kick proverbial ass. The first few are the usual ballistic delights -a blaster, chain gun and uber-powerful shotgun. Then you get a grenade launcher, a kind of rocket launcher, and the rather cool Disintegrator which de-phases your opposition, rendering them transparent with one shot and non-existent with two.
The weapons have also been relocated to the right of the screen, instead of their usual upfront genital location, and feature all the pyrotechnic particle effects seen in Turokon the Nintendo 64. Oh, we simply cannot wait for deathmatch.
"We don't play deathmatch - I haven't played in two months," says Willets. "Come six o'clock we're still working."
American McGee still has his finger in the pie, so to speak. He's working on the deathmatch feel. "It's going to be great. Now you'll be able to see what the other guy is carrying as a weapon - people have been asking for that since forever. I'm planning to add tons of little things to deathmatch maps, stuff like lowering lava, translucency, rotating objects. And for the first time, thanks to windows, you'll be able to see people and not kill them." Rocket-jumping will still be evident, even though the iD boys didn't invent it. "Yeah, that was something we weren't aware of until somebody showed us."
The sound of music
McGee is also responsible for the sound and music. Contrary to popular myth, Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails had no involvement in the sound effects in Quake - it was McGee. The famous gargling 'euuugghhh' death sound and the legendary 'tonk' of pineapple on cobblestones all emanated from McGee's twisted imagination. And naturally, he's got some rather awesome new effects for Quake II.
"The sounds in Quake II are entirely different to those in the original. The Disintegrator, for example, has this cool 'phoom' sound. I went up onto the roof, loaded a firework into this long pipe, set it off, and recorded this excellent sound. For another effect, I merged the roar of a jet taking off with an explosion and a lightning bolt. And for the underwater explosion I wrapped a condom around my microphone and stuck it in the hot tub."
The whole game has this menacing ambience. As you stroll around, pooing yourself, you can hear lava bubbling, the wind moaning, machinery clanking in the distance, and the familiar yet disconcerting 'tzzzt' of faulty fluorescent lights. The music too is more reminiscent of Doom's memorable anthems, but with real guitars, real drums and real bass.
And with noisy three-dimensional sound ringing in our ears, our visit to the hallowed ground of iD is over. As we drive away, en route to yet another Tex-Mex emporium, we reflect on the oncoming mass of 3D death 'em ups queuing for a slice of the pie this Christmas. We can only conclude that in terms of gameplay, style, design, visuals, sound and feel, Quake II defecates substantially on the opposition. It is, we decide, going to be a great Christmas.
iD have released a three-level test, much like they did with the original Quake. This time however, it's not a network test, but more of a basic beta-test. It has a healthy selection of monsters, weapons, three nearly complete levels and loads of glorious little effects which ice the cake nicely. In short, it's a marvel. A spectacle. A masque. An extravaganza. A teaser of what's to come. A mono-sodium glutamate to get your games playing glands salivating.
Not all enemies are born equal
You start in a beaten up communications centre. There are a few dead bodies splattered around. Holes in the walls. Sparks fly from dangling cables. Your first weapon is a piss-poor pea-shooter, poking out from the side of the screen. It fires a slow moving fairy light which leaves a trail of pixie dust behind it. A throbbing manstick of rocket launcher it most certainly ain't.
A further scurry around the start area reveals lots of breakable glass, ladders (look up and press forward to climb them), and some itsy-bitsy crawl spaces, ideal for utilising the new crouch feature. Then, suddenly, the moment arrives; your first encounter with a bad-guy. It's a grunt, with a big gladiatorial head and a puny body. Pah, you say, levelling your pea-shooter and letting rip some 'magic dust'. The grunt effortlessly ducks your slow-moving projectile and lets rip a couple of his own. Owl Ow! Dead.
Ah the ignominy. Being slaughtered by the weakest foe in the game within the first forty-five seconds. On the next visit, you take an alternate route, leaping down a hole and into a sewer area, where coloured lights, dripping water and a very low ceiling add a sense of menace to every footstep. You're now beginning to recapture the feeling you had when you first played Doom. Everything was new and scary. You didn't know what to expect...
Later, in a warehouse area bathed in orange and red light, you have another hair-raising encounter. Several large ogre-like cyborgs emerge from behind boxes. There's one on the rafter above you and another coming down the stairs. They're all sporting gatling guns and they're all deadly accurate. In any other game, you'd simply stay on the move and smack them one by one. It's not so easy here. They track you effortlessly, duck your shots, and take seven or eight shots to dispatch completely. Luckily though, hiding behind one of the crates is a single barrelled shotgun. It creates a healthy spray of blood, but beware, the reload times are achingly long. You take a shot, dance around like Zorro, and then let off another. Better still, you find some cover, crouch behind a box, and then dart up intermittently and lay down some suppressing fire. Either way, the fire fight lasts a good two minutes and by the time it's finished, you're sweating. In real life.
There. A little reportage from the frontier of Quake II. For the next paragraph I am going to make a very rare foray into the first person because my opinion differs rather radically from others in the PC..
I think Quake II, thus far, is great. I think visually, sonically, and atmospherically, it's great. It's glossy, very well artworked, and still retains some of the characteristic iD house-styles (dark, grimy, scary, bloody etc). More than all that though, Quake 2 has a distinct and unique feel, far away from the relentless knife-through-butter of the original Quake, miles away from the speedy run-fight-run rhythm of Doom, and beyond the start-stop too much going on Duke Nukem approach. There's an actual feel that you really are out-gunned, out-manoeuvred, and out-thought as you mince around the levels. In Quake you just have to grab the rocket launcher and you're Superman - the world is your oyster. In Q2, you have to furtively use every last bullet, every grenade, and every health kit. You're going to have to crouch through every crawl space, check every corner, use the barrels and boxes for cover, and basically stay on your toes all the time, as a relentless stream of well-placed, aggressive, and clever monsters hunt you down.
What do you mean, a re-count?
Managing your resources, aiming well and creeping around will make the difference between finishing the level and getting your arse smeared against a wall like peanut butter over a Digestive biscuit.
The only doubts surfacing currently seem to be about iD's thinking behind the Q2TEST launch. Popular belief contends that you shouldn't let the public make decisions for you. You should always be your own barometer. Already iD have conceded that they will change certain animations, a few spot effects and the bit-mapped explosions because of a few comments made about Q2 by Internet folk. This is a dangerous precedent. How do you decide what stays or goes, if 50 per cent of the world like crouching and 50 per cent don't? What if there's another round of wholesale slagging when the proper demo materialises? What do you do? Push the release back further and further? Release weekly betaversions until you please all of the people all of the time?
iD contend that this is a bug-test, the perfect way of testing their codebase on a couple of hundred thousand PC's around the world. Mmmm. It would appear that it has already evolved beyond that. Think of it more of a trailer or a message in a bottle to everyone who might be doubting or distracted or producing their own Quake spawn that Quake II is and will be "rocking". You can download the Quake II test demo from idsoftware.
The World-Wide Reaction
It may be because of the incredible nit-picky nature of the Internet. Or maybe just the incredibly nit-picky nature of people given a voice on the Internet. Who knows? Who cares? Suffice to say, reactions on the intergalactic bulletin-board were at best predictable, at worst downright anal. We trawled through Usenet group rec.computer.games.quake.misc to find the cream of the spooging. Remember Quake was slagged off ad infinitum when it first appeared, by the same people who now own a personal ISDN and ensure that even their mothers refer to them as Lord UberFrag Of QuakeWorld.
"Well, I downloaded the "demo/test" of Quake II. I must admit. I'm somewhat disappointed. Visually, Quake I had some palette problems (namely it was all greenish) and unfortunately Quake II seems to be continuing the tradition with a switch from all green to all grey. Most annoying was the over-use of coloured lighting. In every corner, from every rocket blast, vibrant flashes of colour burst forth..."
"That is funny. You argue that it is too grey then argue it has too many colours in the same paragraph!"
"Based on what I've seen so far, I give Quake II only two stars."
"I was playing Q2TEST yesterday, and couldn't help but draw comparisons with Doom. I must explain that up until now NO game has excited me like Doom did (and I'm thinking about episode one of Doom I here). Duke3D, Quake, Dark Forces, Hexen... naahh. It was episode one of Doom that did it for me. The overall feel of the Quake III have experienced now seems very familiar."
"Haven't seen the flying creatures yet, but the parasite is amazing. The first time I saw one, it killed me. As I lay dead, I watched it scratch behind it's ears. The believability of the animation was incredible."
"I was mightily impressed by the enemies' evasive Al. I don't know if I'm imagining things or it was just a pain frame, but it seemed to me that, besides dodging and ducking, they also jump over your shots." "I still feel that it is closer to Duke3D than Quake. Even the sounds seem like they've come straight from Duke. Quake was dark and earthy. Quake II seems a little too glitzy and sterile."
"Good points: the overall setting, similar to Doom, the areas are larger and there is a lot more to explore; more substance to the single-player game - there are goals that need to be accomplished; the enemies have better Al than Quake."
There are some beautiful animations. For example, among the squadrons of aliens you face, there are the lowly grunts. When you gun them down they may collapse immediately, struggle to get up, but then manage to get a few shots off before they die - all with appropriate pain-filled sound effects. The bitmapped explosions of the demo have gone, replaced by vector-graphic mushroom clouds. There's coloured lighting, an extraordinary feature which makes Quake II actually look, er - obviously we strapping men are reluctant to use this word but, well - Cbeautiful'.
The gameplay is fairly basic. Instead of episodes, we now have eight units: small to large sections made of interconnected levels, often united by a distinct goal (turn off security systems, turn on the reactor etc). The monsters are very definitely clever. They run in zig-zags, get all panicky, and circle you. They also react better to sound, although not always.
There's too much to say really. And most of it is positive. You want some bad points? Okay, here are the only three we could come up with. They're very specialised:
1) Keeping Quad damage in deathmatch. Part of the weakness of Quad is the 30 second time limit from the moment you pick it up. How many times have you grabbed it and scoured the level trying to find people - and not found a sole? With the Quake II inventory, you can carry it with you for as long as possible and then activate it when you need it. Result: depressing nightmare. Most people learn to lurk around the Quad damage room, wait for people, turn on the power-up, slaughter everyone and then repeat ad nauseam. Also the distinctive 'uh-oh, here he comes' glow has gone. You can, of course, turn off various options, but you can bet most on-line servers will keep this option ticked for months.
2) Weapons available. Undoubtedly the most annoying feature of all, it seems to be impossible (unless we're missing something really obvious) to know what weapons you're carrying around without pressing F1 to bring up your personal computer, which takes up about a third of the screen. In the heat of deathmatch, you do not have the time, space, or inclination to do this. And in the same acrid humidity of death and squalor and screams, you have even less inclination to take notice of what huge chunk of humming metal you're picking up. Result: irritation and no small amount of over-estimation.
3) RAM requirements. Okay, the Quake 2 engine has taken gaming technology to the cliched Cnext level', but not everyone on our tired little continent packs a Pentium II 300MHz with 128Mb of RAM and a 16Mb GL card.
Quake 2 runs like a dog on a Pentium 133 with 16Mb of RAM and a GL card. It might be something to do with sound caching. It might be just a raw processing thing. But you get jerks and slowdowns and delays. Our advice: upgrade. Now.
These three meagre little criticisms, we're afraid, are all we can come up with. There are some other minor niggles: there are no dedicated deathmatch levels (but then iD promise to rectify this with an official patch within a month of release). And the single-player game has CD copy protection, so playing your own musak during play is a no-no.
Other than that, Quake II is pretty much perfect. And it's got open architecture which means, in a few months, brainy Internet people will start improving it. How do you improve a perfect game? Who knows? Just check out the score.
I Have To Admit I Had My Misgivings. And so will you. The press doesn't sound encouraging. iD have repeatedly er. repeated the fact that they were working on a single-player game, first and foremost. And we all know that Doom and Quake were meant as network games from inception. Your first taste of networked Quake II will be disappointing. The rockets move too slowly. The players run too fast. You can't tell what weapons you have. The armour shards are distracting. Crouching is a bit useless. Rocket jumping isn't quite as powerful as it used to be. And there are no good deathmatch-only levels (although 'Security' is a good starter). After a good half an hour, and after you've turned respawning power-ups off, you'll start to get into it.
Like the single-player game, Quake II deathmatch is hard. The expansive three-dimensionality of the architecture makes tracking down and dealing death blows to your opponents harder. The hi-res workspace and the tighter, true hit-locating bounding boxes increase your margin for error - I mean, you have to aim extremely accurately to score a juicy hit. Unfortunately this makes the Uzi and the chaingun the almighty weapons in the game. For a while. Then you realise the railgun can kill with one well-aimed shot. And that the super shotgun is now as mighty as it once was in Doom (one direct ot will kill anyone).
Despite the configurable aspects of the characters (sex, head, colour), it's still hard to tell who's who, but it really doesn't matter. You're playing on a quicker cycle. You die and respawn almost as quickly in four-player Quake II as you do in 16-player Quake on DM4. It's definitely more of a sniper's game as well. Picking out disorientated newbies has never been so much fun.
There are some more configurable aspects. You can turn off falling damage, for some cool manoeuvres. You can switch between deathmatch one (weapons stay when you pick them up) and two (weapons disappear and then respawn after 30 seconds). You can also toggle random spawning or farthest spawning to avoid frustrating respawn deaths.
After a good 24 hours playing it, I conclude that the weapons are a little imbalanced. The BFG 100K takes too few energy cells to fire. You can get a good three or four shots out of it - devastating in an open space. The rapid-fire machine guns are still too powerful, despite the Uzi's recoil and the Gatling gun's spin-down time. The hand grenades are useless and would be much better as proximity or timed devices. And yes, the rocket does move too slowly, but it can be an awesome weapon when used correctly.
All in all, no particular bells and whistles, but a welcome return to the emphasis on skill, mouse co-ordination and reflexes that Doom so perfectly honed. Network Quake was, at best, a three-weapon game. Quake II is definitely eight to nine. This is not the death-knell for network Quake. The sequel and the predecessor (especially with all the TCs) will continue side by side for quite some time.
Processor: PC compatible,
OS: Windows 9x, Windows 2000 Windows XP, Vista, Win 7, Win 8, Win 10.
Game Features:Single game mode