I’m okay with Quake 4. It’s not great, but it is large and clean and straightforward and devilishly well-made. I’m more okay with Quake 2, which came on a bonus disc with my copy of Quake 4 — it’s brown but it’s got a certain je ne sais quoi that makes it more compelling than it has any right to be.
Quake has nothing to do with Quake 2 or Quake 4. Here we are, though, 19 years late to the party, and the legendary original has finally been released on GoG.com. Step into the slipgate to begin…
I have always found the premise of Quake a little bit fascinating over the years, especially after reading Kawaiik. Unlike the alien cyborg Strogg of Quake 2 and beyond, it has a weird hodge-podge of dark-age enemies ranging from medieval knights to demonic creatures, occasionally armed with rockets and chainsaws and sometimes just throwing themselves at you. Instead of battling through sprawling military-industrial complexes you gleefully slide through strange castles and dungeons.
Indeed, individual levels are very short and tight, each taking between five and ten minutes to run through (if not to find all secrets, ahem). In design they seem to tend towards the cyclic dungeons more recently seen in the likes of Skyrim — more often than not, the natural path of the level will take you to a locked door, then a side corridor will lead you around a loop to the key that ultimately deposits you right back at the door without having to backtrack too much.
The quick-fire levels do give it an air of arcade-cabinet compulsion. “Just one more level,” you’ll say to yourself, then find you’ve gone on to do half an episode. Death is not the end and simply requires you to restart the level; given that levels are so short, it’s often easier to just run through the level again than bothering to save and load all the time. You can almost taste how Quake 2‘s larger levels made it more of a drag to restart any particular scenario, which ultimately led to the invention of the quicksave key.
The environments don’t have quite the same grandeur as the industrial monoliths of Quake 2, though; the bite-sized nature of the levels, presumably a limitation of the hardware at the time, precludes any truly breathtaking scenery. Indeed, many of the levels feel almost cosy.
Even so, each tiny level hides at least two secrets, ranging from areas that are simply off the main level loop to secret doors activated by switches that can only be seen from specific angles. Each of the four episodes has a whole secret level somewhere in it, so you need eagle eyes to get at all the content.
Beyond secret levels there’s not really much with which to reward you, though. Like Quake 2, it really drops the ball on the weapon front: most weapons are in fact upgrades of each other; you start with the shotgun and then get the double-barreled shotgun, then find the nailgun and the supernailgun, then find the grenade launcher and the rocket launcher.
Maybe I’m just spoilt — after all, my first FPS was Unreal Tournament with nine very distinct weapons each with two distinct firing modes. Okay, fine, Unreal does pull the wool over your eyes with the pistol versus the minigun, but that’s the only overlap and they’re still quite different weapons. Shotgun and double-barrelled shotgun are… well…
Speaking of weapons, another funny thing you’d never think would be so important is that there are no weapon-switch animations. When you run out of ammunition in the nailgun and it swaps you down to the shotgun, the change-over is instantaneous and in the gloom and with the distration of combat it often takes a few seconds to realise something is wrong.
Previously, I would have (perhaps naively) considered switch-over animations an artistic flourish, but now I realise they’re actually quite necessary — as those moments of switch-over down-time give you vital and unmissable visual cues about your status.
Quake doesn’t have a crosshair, which means it is not as great as it could be. The monsters are not animated smoothly, they walk in stop-motion until their meaty chunks fall smoothly in death. The creature textures are so muddy that in areas of even slight dimness they become completely indistinguishable from the background.
Ultimately, though, Quake seems to embody the concept of the “minimum viable game” that I want to aim for. It has no exposition in-game, it has a limited suite of enemies and weapons, its levels are small and tight. It was originally built by a small team, and they did everything right down to the graphical renderer — with the advent of modern technology doing all the hard stuff for you, a one-man team can most surely achieve this level of results.
That’s the dream.