Quake is back! Although, I guess it was only a matter of time given every other IP under the sun is getting the reboot treatment. Just over the horizon, the Quake we know and love, cloaked in modern graphics, is marching itself unapologetically into the over-saturated free-to-play era bearing tidings from the bygone age when arena-based first-person shooters ruled the earth. A time where everyone brought their computers into the same room together to play video games, and we weren’t sure how F.R.I.E.N.D.S would end. Quake Champions doesn’t have a launch date yet, but I got to spend a few hours getting my ass handed to me in the press/test closed beta over the weekend, and now I can give you my first impressions.
For those anxiously awaiting a judgement, I have good news: Quake Champions is fun. It is fun even though I am pretty bad at it. It is fun even though I only got to play Deathmatch and Team Deathmatch modes over the weekend. It is fun despite recurring minor graphical glitches that we can probably (hopefully) forgive because it’s still in beta. It is fun even with the spectre of F2P hanging over it. It is fun because it is basically Quake, updated, brought to life with new matchmaking for the 2017 market. Upon reflection, Quake probably never stopped being fun, it’s just that we all found other things to do and ended up forgetting about it.
But forgetting the legacy, for a second, Quake Champions itself is fun because it feels superb to play. It is fast, fluent, featherlight and twitchy. Compared to the modern military shooter, playing Quake is like having a dream about flying. I’d forgotten that relative weightlessness in shooters could be a positive thing, but here’s the reminder. You run and jump around, collecting brightly coloured weapons and icons, shooting at people, dying quickly, respawning almost instantly, doing it all again and again and again until after a quick ten minutes or fifty frags, it’s game over. And then you hit the search button and go again.
Quake Champions is held together by a design which is pleasant, functional and not without an element of nostalgia. The game looks pretty in an understated, artificially dated sort of way. The character designs are fine, not too over the top, while the arenas themselves are quietly beautiful. I don’t quite understand how, but they’ve managed to retain a semi-cartoon aesthetic that wouldn’t be out of place in 2002, except this looks and feels fresh and functional. Your opponents have large red markers over their heads which you can only see if they’re in your field of view anyway, which is a great inclusion so far as avoiding visual confusion goes. No hiding in plain sight in this game. It’s a little, hardly revolutionary thing, but I also really like the dynamic footstep noises, which tend to let you know that someone’s around the corner long before the firefight begins – they just seem done extra well here.
A returning Quake staple is the drip-feeding announcer, the one that mostly talks about fragging, which you’ll remember is Quake’s particular word for killing. Generally, the announcer speaks up to let you know that you’ve killed someone, or that you’re continuing to do a good job at killing multiple people, or sometimes confusingly just letting you know that you’ve shot someone with a shotgun from close range (but not necessarily killed them). I find the announcer helpful for maintaining my enjoyment because they selectively don’t mention how many times I’ve been dying, so I’m able to feel disproportionately good about getting a few kills here and there even if I’m languishing near the bottom of the leaderboard.
The arenas are all relatively small by contemporary online shooty-game standards. Deathmatch mode seemed to max out at 10 players while Team Deathmatch hit 4v4 as standard. The balance felt pretty much correct – I’d never be too far from a fight, but nor did it ever bottom out into total chaos. I think it’s probably good the developers haven’t given into the pull of bigger, more populous maps, but who knows if this is something they’ve got up their sleeves for the future.
The current weapon roster is mostly familiar from what I remember of the old Quake games, and it seems to have all the broad bases covered for a simple but functional fun shooting game. There’s a machine gun, shotgun, nailgun, rocket launcher, lightning gun and railgun. Plus the gauntlet; can’t forget about the gauntlet. A quad-damage pickup spawns periodically throughout, which usually results in one or two people cashing in to the detriment of everyone else. It’s like late-capitalism in microcosm. You get used it.
I suspect the main point of contention in Quake Champions will be the whole “Champions” aspect. Basically, there are a number of champions that you can spawn as. Some of them are new to the series, some of them might be familiar from Quake 3 Arena. Each champion has different health, armour and speed attributes, as well as an ongoing passive ability. More noticeably, they each have one unique active, most of which seem to have a cooldown timer of thirty seconds, give or take. Regarding gameplay, I quite liked the variations and options these abilities provide, although perhaps it’s where purists might disagree because it introduces asymmetry.
My personal favourite champion, of the ones I tried, is a hulking monster named Scalebearer. I liked him because he has a lot of health (making up for my general inability to avoid getting shot) and a unique skill that allows him to sprint-charge for a short distance. This deals a heap of damage to anyone in his path and results in a lot of “roadkill” as the announcer kept calling it to my repeated amusement. Like in many other character-based shooters, you can reselect your champion every time you spawn, so there are ways to change things up mid-game if your strategy isn’t working out.
I say “of the ones I tried” because I only managed to try about four different champions during my couple of hours with the game – these champions need to be bought or rented to be unlocked, and as such you could only really unlock a few at a time during the beta period. Players can earn in-game currency from “playing well” – winning games, hitting achievement markers and that sort of thing. This can be used to temporarily unlock other champions for 24 hours or to buy cosmetic upgrades (which I am yet to care for in any game and can’t see myself beginning to care about here). The player will also be able to theoretically spend real money in exchange for a different in-game currency which can then be used to purchase champions permanently, although for obvious reasons permanent purchases weren’t an option during the beta.
However, my guess is that anyone who knows they’ll want to spend any sizeable amount of time in Quake Champions will just buy the Champions Pack outright to unlock everything, removing the main F2P component from the game, because honestly dealing with the F2P components here, as anywhere, can be tedious and painful. This all depends on how much it costs, as there’s no news yet on this front. I don’t begrudge id/Bethesda for going this route – so far, if they stick to their initial statements, it looks more like it’ll be a way to let people trial the game for free rather than an attempt to infinitely monetise it. Is this naive of me to think? Time will tell!
Quake Champions looks good, sounds good, and feels fun to play, even at this early and somewhat limited stage. This is a good sign. The F2P model has the potential to annoy, but it isn’t the worst I’ve seen, and so long as we can affordably buy our way out of it, it won’t be a deal-breaker. I’m looking forward to seeing what else gets added as the game ramps up to launch, and then to seeing if this classic arena shooty game can make the same kind of splash that DOOM’s relaunch did last year. Let us rule nothing out just yet.