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Posted on Oct 30, 2005 in Electronic Games

Quake 4 – Game Review (PC)

By Brian King

q4_box.jpg

Warning Shot: Much like the Strogg cyborgs, this game is technically brilliant in its construction, but lacks the creativity, variability, and soul needed to make this an enduring classic. The game will appeal to those who simply want to be guided through a shooting gallery, blazing away at the evil Stroggs. Gamers looking for a fresh storyline (which doesn’t rely heavily upon ideas and innovations found in previous titles) will probably have issues with Quake 4.

Introduction / Deja Vu

In one of the most memorable cinematic intros I can remember in the Quake universe, the game begins with a massive capital ship arriving at the Strogg planet, ready to unload drop ships of marines tasked with the nasty business of putting boots on the ground of the enemy stronghold. Even now I can vividly see my tin can separating from the mother ship, music blaring, beginning a wild descent into a frenetic battle. On the way down my ride is damaged and forced to crash land well away from the landing zone. With music pounding, sounds of battle roar in my headset as the radio chatter conveys a desperate fight… As the player, I am totally immersed into this new world and feel pumped to be a part of this massive assault and an exciting new game! There is just one problem though… This intro is for Quake 2! While Quake 4 (Raven Software) has a VERY similar intro movie, it lacks the spirit of the original I’ve just described.

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Before you call me crazy, pull out your old Quake 2 disc and watch the intro movie. Whether it was intentional or accidental, the Quake 4 movie is almost exactly the same (pan on debris in space, show capital ship, show drop ship, damage drop ship, crash land, begin action). This would be forgivable if this were a remake of the old classic, but we are clearly told that this is taking place AFTER the events of the previous title. So, my first impression of a game I was HIGHLY anticipating is that with a whole universe of Strogg and mankind to draw upon, including a massive conflict on two planets, the best they could come up with was an intro pulled from Q2. I could somewhat forgive this mindset in Id’s Doom 3, as that was clearly meant to exhibit their new graphics engine (we can debate whether they took the right approach). However, now is the time to start using that engine for NEW material, not rehashing the old. Whatever the motivation, this immediately put me on high alert for other shortcuts taken in Quake 4.

The intro movie is visually flawless, but lacks the intensity and immersion of the original. Green goo dripping from the ceiling was well done, and helped give the game some character.

Gameplay / Interface

If we paint this game in broad strokes, it uses a pretty standard keyboard layout right out of the box, and other than inverting my mouse I was able to start playing with no tweaks to the controls. As with most First Person Shooters (FPS), you are given a gun, shown the enemy, and sent off to eliminate them. I would be shocked if anyone reading this doesn’t know the fundamentals of the FPS, so suffice it to say that Quake 4 is definitely a well-oiled machine in terms of interface, screen layout, and all other building blocks that can potentially hip check an otherwise decent game. However, if you have a decent game and want to make it great, the key is to take those fundamentals and employ them in a creative and enjoyable fashion. In my opinion this game utterly fails with the former, and is hit or miss with the latter. It really depends on what you expect to get out of this game.

For my part, I expected 2005 technology would be used to carry on the story started back in 1997 and take it in a new and exciting direction. Instead, imagine if someone took the original movie Aliens and decided that it was such a great adventure they were going to do another movie, and it would feature another group of Colonial Marines, but they were going to go to the same planet, and they were going to get stuck there again, and there would be much death and mayhem, essentially mimicking the original plot. For some, such as myself, I would consider it an insult to what is arguably one of the best science fiction action movies on film. For others, the story is secondary to the fact that the Marines are back and kicking ass and taking names. In a similar fashion, if you can overlook plot, Quake 4 might have something for you…and certainly the game shares the “kick ass and take names” bravado of the Colonial Marines in Aliens!

The major flaw in this game is not the code, but the soul. Gone is the immersive Doom 3 atmosphere we found by sifting through emails of dead workers or hunting Dr. Betruger. Gone is the curiosity as to the “why” behind the story. Absent are any challenges or puzzles to further bind you to the simulated world around you. In similar fashion to Doom 3 from which this game’s code was derived, you are given small directives by your superiors, forcing you down an iron-clad path toward a pre-determined goal. Find this. Escort that. Destroy this. Slay the boss. Going back to 1997, you’ll find the exact same mentality in the design of Quake 2 (in the form of a hand-held computer giving you your tasks). I had hoped that with tons of money, a very successful graphics engine, a highly skilled team of programmers, and eight years to think about it, the Quake 4 team could have come up with something a little more “outside the box” or “off the rail” than what I experienced here. Surely someone at Raven has played Far Cry?

This Halo-esque vehicle end-run comes across a bit flat. Another objective complete. I either found his wrench, turned on the lights, or destroyed an enemy facility.

One of the new features of this game engine is the vehicles. While some may tout this as something to celebrate, I don’t feel this any bonus at all, considering that vehicles have been around for a long time in other games, and honestly they are done much better elsewhere. Compare the tank in Battlefield 2 to the tank in this game and it seems more like a kayak spinning on ice rather than a powerful workhorse designed to support infantry or punch holes in enemy defenses. Unfortunately, the opportunity to try to make something happen with the tank is squandered, and it is simply used as a prop to carry you deeper into the Strogg world. Imagine the chaos and fun that could have been had if you had to enter a great tank battle between man and machine – a veritable killing field forcing you to get creative, formulate strategy, assemble your squad as support, and survive to fight another day. Instead, I am sent down a narrow path – with music that sounds eerily reminiscent of Halo, terrain and textures that seem vaguely similar to Halo, and even the tank’s shield recharges in a frighteningly similar way to Halo. I was very disappointed at the minimal creativity here, and I actually had to check the box to see if Bungie had some hand in the design (they didn’t). The other “vehicles” are essentially the one-man industrial walkers found in the previously mentioned movie Aliens. The slow and plodding beast throws the otherwise upbeat tempo of the game into neutral while you just try to drag yourself to the next level.

Yet, there are good things worth mentioning. After banging my head in frustration while playing Doom 3, I was very relieved to see the machine gun now comes equipped with a tactical flashlight so you can actually see what you are shooting rather than constantly swapping weapons with your Mag light (maybe someday the Marines of the future will have infrared goggles like soldiers do today?). As a huge fan of the original Q2 railgun I was happy to see it makes an appearance in this game. It now has some very impressive special effects as the depleted uranium rounds rip through the air around you. A solid railgun hit on a minor Strogg minion provides a very satisfying red mist as the enemy is vaporized. The nail gun from the original Quake makes a comeback here, as does the grenade launcher, rocket launcher, and all the standards of the mythos. The uber-weapon Dark Matter gun takes the place of the BFG from Doom 3 in the final slot. As weapons load outs go, Quake 4 is pretty good.

The maps and environments are a mixed bag, mainly because everything everywhere looked exactly the same to me. This is compounded by the fact that many of the environments will remind you of maps on Doom 3 (similar cranes, networking centers, heavy equipment, pipes, etc). Even within the game, there are three towers which all seem identical, especially when you are standing on top of them. At times I couldn’t tell you the difference between data storage containers and the Mr. Coffee equipment. Yet, to be fair, there are a couple of really interesting environments along the way. A ride on an armed monorail as you approach the first of the three towers (why it wasn’t done for the other two is a mystery) was fairly enjoyable, if a bit short. The interior shots of the Strogg computer system and the hubs of the three towers are truly fascinating. The Stroggification processing scenes are also morbidly interesting, and they are one of the few times you actually feel for your character’s plight. Finally, a cut-scene in the middle of the game contains a pretty cool crash landing into a Strogg facility (I actually expected to walk out of the wreck with a blaster just like Quake 2).

Creature effects are top notch. Friendly soldier modelling is overall very realistic, even when they are in motion.

Enemy behavior is akin to Doom 3, with enemies taking the odd dodge here or there, using boxes for cover and generally not walking blindly into your fire. Nothing outside the realm of expectations. Enemies are actually a bit more realistic in how they arrive on scene in this game, as you don’t find creatures stuffed in closets just waiting to pounce on you. For the most part the old teleport-behind-you trick is minimized, which was refreshing after suffering through a full game of it in Doom 3. It was disappointing to see that the concept of “bosses” is still around, but if you enjoy fighting these behemoths, there are several to keep your save/reload keys quite busy. For the most part, the room-to-room fighting was pretty good, although a bit claustrophobic at times. It would have been great to face off against the Strogg from a long distance, in the open (or at night!) forcing you to use the scoped railgun to pick them off before you could approach their base…

Graphics / Sound

The graphics of Quake 4 are, as you might expect, remarkably similar to Doom 3. It is pretty safe to say that if you liked the former, you will like the latter. Even with my very middle-of-the-road Radeon 9800 Pro, the details were crisp and vivid in presentation. One map had green slime dangling from the ceiling in a very believable fashion. Heat and fire are also well done, and I totally bought into the illusion of heat bending the air. This was most visually impressive when watching enemy railguns rip through the air next to my head. The effects of battle are also very well done, with most weapons giving a satisfying report or visual cue when they hit on target (this might be an explosion, a blood splotch on the enemy, or total vaporization!). One of the most impressive enemy attacks combines both graphics and sound – and I can only describe it as a “cone of silence.”

However, I must reflect upon a few visual issues I noticed while playing. The exterior landscapes were much less impressive than in Doom 3, as there was no sand blowing around, you weren’t fiddling with oxygen tanks, etc., perhaps making it easier to notice the flaws with the world at large. If looking into “the distance” on this world, you’d see a blocky, pixilated view of the Strogg installations – which looked like something H.R. Giger would draw. Having H.R.Giger-esque landscape is not in and of itself a bad thing, except that the rendering literally makes it look like a drawing, rather than a real location on the planet (sort of like a stage set with a painted background). This is most noticeable when you are on top of the three towers in the Nexus Core portion of the game. Finally, the sinewy, curvy drawings of the Strogg buildings on the horizon are the polar opposite of what you find in every Strogg facility when you actually get there, which is the linear, boxy, mechanical layout that was started in Quake 2 and continued in this game.

Ducking a railgun blast. My personal choice for best special effect in the game. The storyboard landscape makes it difficult to see it as more than just a set.

The sound was pretty well done overall, but not quite as immersive as Doom 3 (remember hearing heartbeats in your headphones as you cowered behind your chair?). The voiceovers of the various characters were simple and unobtrusive, although it was a bit humorous that everyone on my team seemed to be from Eastern Europe or Latin America. One annoyance that evoked horrible memories of Halo was my fellow Marines screaming the same inane “battle cries” over and over whenever we were in firefights. This got old real fast and often made me want to just want to let them get killed (was this wrong?). The music wasn’t very memorable for a major title like this (I can still remember Trent Reznor’s music from Quake 1 for example). It seems like a lost opportunity to not have someone like Reznor reprise his role and create something remarkable for Quake 4. All in all, the music and sound effects are technically proficient, but lack the heart and soul that could have made it great.

Conclusion

I am not ashamed to say I had very high hopes for this title, given its heritage. For its day, Quake 2 was my favorite First Person Shooter, and despite scores of FPS titles I’ve played in subsequent years, Quake 2 still brings warm feelings to my heart. In fact, I coaxed several additional years of mileage out of that title with such mods at Threewave Capture the Flag, Loki’s Minions CTF, Lithium, and as recently as last year I was out on a Quake 2 server playing railgun-only against some friends. That engine certainly helped fuel the FPS genre in ways that modern titles probably have no hope or desire of emulating. In that light, Quake 4 can probably be looked upon as a “safe” title which will do well in the near term, but have little staying power beyond its initial run. If true, it explains why there are so many aspects of this game which feel like they were taken from previous innovators (see if you don’t think multiplayer reminds you of Unreal Tournament). Why innovate if you are only looking at short term profitability, or console ports? Even uniformly bad reviews of an Id-stamped product probably wouldn’t deter people from cleaning the shelves for Christmas; and look around at the reviews – they are all over the map when it comes to scoring Quake 4.

As a reviewer I can see why the spread is so wild when trying to rate this game. From a strict, narrowly defined technical standpoint, this is a pretty good First Person Shooter. You enter the visually crisp world of the Strogg, you have a variety of weapons to use, a variety of locales to use them, and a variety of enemies to use them upon. If you are looking for no more than that, this game can probably deliver for you. Likewise, for younger enthusiasts who may be unfamiliar with the game’s lineage or don’t care about the broader genre, Quake 4 would probably deliver a satisfying kill fest – although I have to say that while overall it is less intense than the demons and blood-soaked rooms of Doom 3, there are some Stroggification cut-scenes and visuals that are not appropriate for younger gamers. Ironically, these scenes along with about three superfluous uses of the F-word will probably keep this game out of the hands of just the type of gamers who would most enjoy this sort of straight ahead fragging adventure (the game is Rated M for Mature 17+).

If you are the type of gamer who asks the tough questions along the way (Why don’t they just nuke the place? Why can’t Joe Marine find his own lousy box of floppies? Why must we fight bosses like we did in 1982?), you may find this title less enjoyable. For my part, I believe gamers of all ages deserve a product which contains a story that is as cutting edge and interesting as its graphics. Quake 4′s story would have worked back in the late 90′s, but I don’t think it’s too unreasonable for this day and age to demand a little bit of an extra effort from companies as well-known as Id. This game’s on-a-rail approach and lack of originality was certainly well below what I expected from a sequel of this magnitude. I’ll just go back to watching my Quake 2 intro movie and dream about what a great sequel this could have been…

Armchair General Score: 74%

26/40 — Gameplay
13/15 — Graphics
07/10 — Sound
15/15 — Interface
05/05 — Installation and Technical
05/05 — Documentation
03/10 — General’s Rating

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