Quake Champions Keeps Things Old-School And Does It In Style [PAX East Preview]

When I saw Quake Champions on my day-one PAX East docket, I thought “Oh, that will be fun.” And as expected, it was. But it was also the most fun I had with a game the entire day.

Quake fans already know the score with Champions, but for those who don’t, the series’ upcoming return is something of a big deal. Dormant since 2005, Quake has not seen a proper release in over a decade, and during that time many of its arena shooter genremates have let its core credo fall by the wayside. This isn’t a failing on their part; the genre has simply evolved. Luckily, though modernized, Quake Champions has no plans of following along with it.

Nobody knows this better than id Software creative director Tim Willits, who I had the chance to speak with after my Quake Champions deathmatch had concluded. “People from the current generation who play, they immediately say ‘where’s my loadout?’” It’s clear he finds their confusion amusing. In Quake you gather ammo and weapons, it’s always been that way, and it isn’t changing.

Of course, a large part of the game’s planned traditionalism is out of obligation, not just nostalgia. Tim explained that id has already received ample feedback from pro players throughout development, and take it seriously to the extent that an entire game mode was heavily altered because of it. “Without the core Quake players, we probably wouldn’t be able to do another Quake game.” If that’s why Quake isn’t drastically transforming, then I’m fine with it.

One modern craze the series is adopting are eccentric, easily identifiable playable characters, as you may have guessed from the “Champions” part of its name. During my demo I had the chance to try each currently announced champion, from the raptor-like humanoid Sorlag to the more cool, collected Nyx and many others. Importantly, these champions all seem to stand out with unique, compelling designs, but also importantly (as is expected with Quake), they’re not actually that different from one-another to play. Each has a special ability, but otherwise you’ll be frantically hurtling around stages in search of pickups just the same.

For my demo the chosen arena was the Ruins of Sarnath, an impressively detailed stone dilapidation featuring a massive, quivering eyeball imprisoned near one of its main vestibular paths. Matches begin with champion selection, then weapon selection (nail-gun, machine gun, and shotgun are your options), but the rest is up to the player. The map was strewn with the usual weapons, ammo, and health, but also featured launchpads and wide-open spaces for sneak attacks and the like. In other words, it’s still Quake. It just looks like a game made in 2017.

I asked Tim about the technology working under the hood, and he confirmed that though it isn’t the full-on technical prowess of Doom, the hybrid Saber and id Tech engine working overtime here is plenty capable. Gameplay aside, I was immediately inclined to agree; Champion character models looked highly detailed and realistic (within reason for Quake’s arcade style), and environments featured their own independently operating quirks and systems, like the weird eyeball I mentioned earlier. For non-pros, Quake is an experience deeply-rooted in pickup-and-play, so adding eye-candy to keep that rhythm going feels like a plan that certainly can’t hurt.

From a pure gameplay perspective there isn’t a lot that’s terribly new, but aiming and movement did feel “right” and were plenty responsive. I asked which Quake game Champions draws from the most heavily, to which Tim immediately responded “Quake 3.” I asked a show-goer his favorite Quake game, and he responded in an instant the exact same. It seems what people love about the series was codified way back in 1999, and apart from modern amenities and visual polish (of which I observed plenty), there’s little reason to recklessly revamp what isn’t broken.

Quake Champions intends to smoothly transition through closed and open betas in the coming year, with an ambiguous release date scheduled for sometime after that. Closed beta signups are live now, so if any of this sounds appetizing to you I’d suggest you act quickly. I mentioned to Tim that when shooters first started moving away from Quake’s template years ago, it felt refreshing. But now that Quake is returning, it’s the nostalgic antiquities we haven’t seen for years that are suddenly the most thirst-quenching.

Regardless of whether Champions drums-up the mass interest of old or simply appeals to professional players and fans, I do look forward to a shooter than can be played by non-gamer friends that doesn’t exclusively feature squids and kids. Plus, Sorlag can wear an awesome dinosaur-egg backpack. It holds no strategic value, but I think that’s what I like the most about Quake anyway. Strategize if you want, but against your friends, key-slamming and spastic clicks ought to work just fine.

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