Review: Quake III Arena

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If you weren’t around for the release of Quake III, you might be shocked at the furor its announcement kicked up. In the wake of heavily story-driven FPSes like Half-life, Unreal, and even Quake II, the successor of one of the biggest franchises moving to multiplayer-only was seismic. Despite the doom-saying and gnashing of teeth among series fans, Quake III proved to be an instant classic for online FPSes and helped establish the multiplayer-only genre as legitimate. But how does an online-focused classic fare nearly 20 years after the fact?

I want to make fun of Quake III’s story, but it’s honestly about as much of one as Quake I has. Some bunch of space assholes called the Vadrigar have been grabbing badasses from across the universe to mash together in their own little lethal playhouse. This means you can play as the venerable Doom Guy, grunting wonder Ranger from Quake I, luckiest space marine ever Bitterman from Quake II, and a bunch of cooler dudes like a neon skeleton and an eyeball on legs. There’s upwards of 30 characters to choose from, but honestly after Party Skeleton they seem kinda superfluous.

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They’re put to good use though in the game’s campaign mode. See, there actually IS a single-player mode in Quake III, but it pits you against bots across seven tiers of simulated deathmatches. Starting you out one-on-one against slow-moving opponents in small arenas, the game soon expands to fragfests with half a dozen foes across industrial complexes and eldritch hallways floating in the void. As predictable as they can become, the bots provide a solid challenge at each of their five difficulties so it’s actually not a bad place for newcomers to learn the art or veterans to practice their technique.

The weapons are simple enough to come to grips with as well. I don’t know why the Quake series is so content to have incredibly generic arsenals, but it makes it easy to keep track of here. You start with a standard low-damage machine gun and can locate shotguns, rocket launchers, railguns, and plasma guns around the map, each with its own color-coded ammunition. There are health and armor pickups as well, along with a few stand-by powerups like quad damage. This pickup system, common in the Quake era, makes matches more about map control than anything else and can be a welcome change from modern loadouts and class systems.

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This isn’t going to matter a whole lot if you can’t find actual humans to play with, of course. All the games of the Quake series still have fanatics playing them but they are just that, fanatics, which means they are limited in number and absurd in skill. It’s not reasonable to expect newbie-friendly servers or anything other than pros to spar with so be prepared for that if you are diving into the scene solo. On the other hand, there are few things more sublime than some classic deathmatch with your closest buddies so if you have others you can take the plunge with this is an easy sell.

Barring any graphical weirdness (which for me was remedied with disabling the Steam overlay) Quake III remains a very clean and polished experience, from the sharp if simple graphics to the tinny, growling announcer. Your weapons feel thick and threatening, the gibs gush freely, and the low electric growl of quad damage taking hold never gets old. Without a story-based singleplayer to work through this one does threaten to wear out its welcome. However, a little courage and effort diving into the online community that persists will reveal a world of wonders you might have thought died long ago.

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