On The Richter Scale
Some games are best played with a jug of moonshine. Not because they're bad, but because if they don't live up to their potential, you need to deaden yourself to the disappointment. Quake Wars – made in the style of Battlefield 2142 and based upon the generally inexplicable Quake setting – is one such game. Many of its grand ideas strain to burst from the fallaciously shiny plating bolted over the game, but in the end, it's heavy and unwieldy. Just like me, after half a bottle of Johnny Walker.
Quake Wars is mostly an excuse for online team-based gameplay. A lot of background elements - the modeling of the environments and the characters, and the “story” hinted in the opening cutscene - were spot-welded in without much effort. Levels are large and pretty but mostly empty and unoriginal, while ugly soldiers bump around shooting their guns at one another. Envision a pack of homely teenagers running around playing laser tag in Yosemite valley - and they all have either acne and poor fashion sense (the red team), or square jaws, grim mouths, and unibrows (the blue team). That's what Quake Wars looks like, though the draw distances are impressive and the Strogg are a bit prettier than those teenagers.
The sound, however, is truly a thing of wonder. The bad kind. The Strogg sound predictably lame and ultra-aggressive, but the real stumbling block is the humans. Their default voice is just awful, and there's no alternate option, Clearly, in the dystopian future of Quake Wars, every human soldier has a chip implanted in their brain that makes proper etiquette trigger an enthusiastic orgasm: “I'm a medic!”, “HEEEEEEELP!”, “THAAAAAAAAAAAANK YOU!” “Oh, YOU'RE WELCOME!” Insert some squishing noises, and a YouTube parody video is born. Please, YouTubers, don't take that as a dare.
Fortunately, playing the game turns things from being laughably bad to curiously decent. If you've played Battlefield 2, or Battlefield 2141, or Star Wars: Battlefront, or... you can fill in the blank, it's basically that, except with Quake plastered over it. The one difference is that Quake Wars includes a neat new option: campaign mode. Here, you select a side of the war and run through three missions. This might sound boring, but each mission has a set of objectives for each side that isn’t just “steal his flag or territory, and protect yours”. You'll destroy barricades and key enemy equipment, build bridges and guard towers, hack devices, and gather intelligence to a capture point. Though this might all feel familiar, each set of missions brings different objectives together in a fresh, connected metaphor of play that isn’t seen often in this fairly stagnant genre.
On the issue of balance, the Strogg and the GDF (Global Defense Force – another stereotypical three letter acronym, I know) accomplish very similar things but in different ways. Many GDF weapons use clips – fire the gun so many times and you have to spend three seconds reloading. Of course, you could take a momentary lull in combat to reload, like any other shooter. The Strogg, on the other hand, use guns that don't have clips but can overheat instead, which forces you to wait for about three seconds for the gun to cool down. But if you slow down and pace your firing, you can make these guns last long. Beyond this is a rather simple distinction, it's the little flairs that distinguish both sides in a more tangible way than most team-based online games manage. With interesting variations in vehicles, turrets, and weapon options for classes, each side is ultimately equal, but still have their strengths and weaknesses. I leaned towards the Strogg for playing assault or vehicle-oriented segments, while the trusty GDF shotgun became my favorite in close-quarters combat and sneakier work. I am, by the way, the Shotgun Ninja – stealthiest buckshot this side of Kentucky.
Being the Shotgun Ninja, by the way, is a total blast. Quake Wars handles extremely well, with solid moment to moment gameplay. Controls are tight and responsive even on less auspicious servers. Weapons all have a secure feel to them and none of them are crap, and gameplay is too fast-paced to worry about much more than getting to the objective and scoring. Who cares about the smacktards of the inertubes? You have bombs to plant and tanks to drive and people to shoot!
Like many in online battlefield titles, teams are split into different classes. Quake Wars offers five major classes: assault, support, engineer, medic, and special ops. Given the variety of weapon choices, each major class can actually fill several different roles, though each class has a primary function they perform regardless, and just about every mission will require a balanced team. Following in the footsteps of the Battlefield series, characters gain experience as the battle wears on and kick more and more ass with promotions and rewards. Rewards run the gamut of extra health, faster sprinting speeds, better handling with vehicles, and extra weapon choices. For the most part, these benefits don’t disrupt the balance of the game, and since they don't persist between battles, you'll rarely see anyone graduate up to the 'Bruce Lee With Guns' level.
While the level design of Quake Wars offers a great deal of variety, minor issues on certain missions prevent the game from feeling entirely fair. For example, in one mission within the European theatre of war, the GDF attempt to defend a downed Strogg ship from a Strogg recovery force and must fall back to a base surrounded by cliffs right. Unfortunately, the Strogg have access to vehicles that can get units on top those cliffs with relative ease, so an enemy Stroog team just has to line up on the cliffs and snipe GDF players as they spawn. There’s nothing like being a sitting duck that will shred your resolve to keep playing.
In other areas, the level design suffers from being too balanced. While there's always a defender on every map – and therefore a default winner if time runs down – there are several maps that degenerate into a stalemate. Just like making love for the thousandth time with the same person in the same way, running face first into the same impossible firefight for the umpteenth time gets stale. Unlike Team Fortress 2, Quake Wars doesn't have the moment-to-moment polish and variety to make a stalemate interesting. But hey, perhaps the defenders aren't too disappointed with the assaulters' lack of stamina.
All said, though, the variety of objectives, combined with classic solid Quake action makes for fine gameplay. You feel like you're a part of a battlefield, and you won’t have any time for navel-grazing, dwelling on how fun it all is, until it's all over. As such, most of the game's weakest aspects fade into the background of frantic firefights and heavy artillery. Quake Wars is that odd girl you find at the bar at eleven o'clock on a Saturday night. She may look like a repressed librarian, but when you've drunk enough to stop caring about how she looks, she'll take you along for the ride of your life.