Review: Quake II: Ground Zero

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If you’ve ever played user-created levels for a game, you know there are huge gulfs in quality between them. One level might look as good as the real deal, and the next might look like a teenager gave up halfway through making their school. Coming off of Quake II and The Reckoning, Ground Zero is a real shock to the system, not in how it looks but in how it plays. And there’s no amount of polish that can make up for how low its lows are.

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Turns out that every chapter in the Quake II story starts the same way, with your hard-assed marine’s drop-pod getting clipped by something and ending up where it shouldn’t. This time you get ditched into an underground mining facility, which you’ll need to escape to take out a gravity well generator that has the human fleet trapped over the Strogg homeworld. Just like the rest of the series, this means battling through units of interconnected levels to accomplish goals and proceed to more important locales.

Ground Zero starts promising enough, with colorful, atmospheric caverns and mining complexes. There are exploding crystals you can shoot, mine carts to ride, and excavators to Kool-Aid Man through walls. The pack vomits guns at you almost immediately, setting you up with half the arsenal not two levels in. Your foes are varied and scattered, with an unusually heavy emphasis on fliers of all kinds. All the elements are there for a different, interesting Quaking experience.

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Then you reach a point where you’ve killed everything on the sizable level and don’t know where to go. Maps in Ground Zero use a lot of loops and alternate paths without clear landmarks, making it hard to tell if you’ve even been somewhere before if there aren’t bodies littering the floor. There’s very little logic to the layouts of each area, with most designed first to slow your progress with meandering paths and second to provide an adequate challenge. The F1 mission objectives do nothing to help either, giving only vague orders to proceed to a new map or defeat all resistance.

By the time you reach the Tectonic Stabilizer you’ll have spent a good bit of time wandering aimlessly through depopulated levels. It is here that you will be tasked to destroy sixteen small capacitor-looking things mounted on walls around the map. Sixteen. Afterwards, you must flip three switches, which triggers a 45-second countdown to escape the map. If you fail, you die. This all takes place on a dark cave map with multiple loops and crossing paths and indistinct chambers.

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I was not kidding earlier, it is legitimately shocking how painful some of the levels in Ground Zero are. The Stabilizer isn’t the only one with instant deaths, either. To even reach it, you’ll have to brave a number of cave-ins in the proceeding levels that can crush you dead in an instant. Every single thing you do requires scrambling around winding paths to push a button that lets you get a key that opens a door to another path, and most of the time the goal is just to get to the next map.

Don’t expect the new enemies or weapons to redeem this, either. There’s a neat ceiling-crawling spider foe but the other additions are reskins with obnoxious gimmicks and fucking ceiling turrets. The new rifle and mines feel very low-impact and situational compared to the base arsenal, and ammo for the expansion gear is far more prevalent than regular ammo, forcing you to make them work over keeping to your standbys. Weapon moderation is part of the challenge here, but the real challenge is sticking out the annoyances introduced.

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Honestly, I couldn’t get more than halfway into this one. Ground Zero is aggressively bad. It will go out of its way to waste your time with overly twisting levels, tedious backtracking, and instant death out of nowhere. The new enemies and weapons bring nothing to the table, and even the story is so much thinner than that of its predecessors. Fans of Quake II, I implore you, finish the base game and The Reckoning and then seek out community maps if you must. This just isn’t worth the hassle.

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