Review: Quake II

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The generation of first-person shooters that followed the original Quake represented an enormous leap forward in many ways. Consider that in the span of a single year, from December 1997 to November 1998, the world saw the releases of Quake II, Unreal, and Half-life. This was also the first generation to support graphics accelerators (what we now simply call video cards) right out of the gate, which doubtless helped make the hardware an industry standard. Unreal and Half-life obviously brought new features to the table by virtue of being new IPs but Quake II advanced the traditional iD shooter experience in ways that can still be appreciated now.

One great leap forward from Quake is the presence of an actual plot, as well as gameplay that integrates with the story beats. Earth has been sucker-punched by the Borg’s trailer-trash cousins the Strogg, and humanity elected to return the favor in fine Starship Troopers fashion. The delightfully 90s CG opening shows Earth forces in orbit around the Strogg’s dirtball planet, raining drop-pods of hard-assed marines that get mysteriously wiped out. Your pod avoids destruction, landing far outside the enemy’s nerve center, and it’s up to you to frag an entire planet of cyborg things for the fate of humanity.

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The way this plays out is in clusters of interconnected levels that you move between to complete objectives. Arriving at the Strogg supply depot, for example, you make your way to the upper levels of the Ammo Depot to access the Supply Station and Warehouse. The Warehouse is powered down so you head to the Supply Station, blow up the logistical train, and take power cubes back to the Warehouse to advance to the next hub. F1 brings up a helpfully succinct summary of your current objective so you know what to look out for while you blow Strogg into tiny meaty bits.

This, of course, is the meat of the game, blowing Strogg into tiny meaty bits. Here the game borrows from its lineage with high movement speed and vicious weapons that dismember your many enemies. There’s a greater spread of guns than in the previous Quake, including classics like shotguns and launchers, callbacks to Doom like the chaingun and BFG, and a few new inventions like the railgun which itself has become iconic of the series. You have a wide array of options when approaching enemies, and the mix of foes in large battles can call for different weapons, especially once you factor in the varied terrain.

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Your enemies follow a similar vein as the original Quake enemies in that they have unusual combinations of threats and quirks that must be learned. The Enforcer, a common chaingunner foe, can duck projectiles and fires wildly in certain death animations. The Gunner packs both a machine gun and a grenade launcher. You’ll also face flying enemies, several flavors of melee enemies, a foe that can revive dead enemies, and more. Unlike original Quake all of these are thematically connected as Strogg, an alien race constructed from the biomass of other races (mainly human, it seems) and cybernetic enhancements. This theme is touched on not just in the monsters but in the levels themselves, with adventures through the Strogg factories where they are produced and reared.

And that’s really the thing I want to commend Quake II for, the effort made to weave the storytelling into every aspect of the game. Levels aren’t just halls and platforms to frag around, they’re designed as recognizable, functional places for the Strogg war machine. You’ll break captive marines out of prisons, sabotage power plants, and shut down factories of war. All of this is done under radio chatter from your side reporting on efforts underway, while you come across corpses of fallen marines almost every time you locate a new weapon or supply cache. It feels like a cohesive world you’re besieging, made all the more compelling by the soaring, brutalist architecture and detailed, identifiable rooms.

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The look and feel of Quake II is unique even now, and really deserves to be experienced. The palette for the game is surprisingly warm, with rich orange skies, red-flecked concrete, and glowing golden particles everywhere. Special effects rely heavily on the chunky particle system, giving lasers a visceral sizzle and the railgun a thick, gratifying trail of annihilation. Enemies burst into meaty chunks and aerosol sprays of blood with the smallest provocation. There’s something quintessentially 90s about the whole presentation, almost like a Rob Liefeld comic book come to life. Your guns are huge, your enemies are weird and lumpy, and everything is over-the-top fast and brutal and saturated. It can be an intoxicating experience fragging through dense battles and leaving trails of gibs through the sprawling levels.

The only nits I can pick are similar to the technical issues Quake 1 suffers from, that the CD soundtrack is absent and you’re not really going to be playing the multiplayer out of the box. Both of these can be corrected with a little research and modding, but unlike Quake 1 it’s not really that necessary. Quake II was a huge landmark for multiplayer but the singleplayer campaign should not be ignored, for reasons I’ve rambled on enough about already. The graphics are plenty clean for their age (your Vaseline-smeared weapons aside) and the sound design is that special sort of unique that sticks in your mind years after the fact. I will freely admit a little bias here because I’ve finished the singleplayer multiple times and got my original FPS chops in the multiplayer, but if that’s not an endorsement in and of itself I don’t know what is.

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