I’ve got 96 problems and Quake II is… well, it’s complicated
It’s the 25th anniversary of Personal Computer Gamer magazine and that’s as good an opportunity as ever to look back on all of the times that somebody’s gotten very excited and slapped the biggest number out of 100 – 96 – at the end of a review. This hasn’t happened very many times, and it’s happened even less for games with the number two in the title. So, bolting an arbitrary conceit to another arbitrary conceit, I’m going to spend this month revisiting PCG’s highest-rated sequels.
I can absolutely understand why Quake II was so exciting in its time. It is a tremendous technical advance over the original, and back when we were all still waiting for a big VR helmet to descend from the sky and sweep us away many of its details were mind-blowing. Alien grunts sit up before they die and fire a few shots off in spite. Drones sweep across hot red alien skies and bad man-robo-dogs shoot their tongues at you. The shotgun sounds and feels like somebody throwing an old timey cash register into a skip full of bubble wrap, and that’s all I really want from an id game at the end of the day.
Here’s the issue, then: I miss the original Quake a lot more. All of the compromises involved in the original Quake’s creation have made it more
memorable than its sequel after the fact. Its developers didn’t bother to settle the question of whether they were making a fantasy game like Hexen or a sci-fi game like Doom, so they made both. The last boss is an albino tree stump surrounded by freaky yetis and the rocket launcher looks like a big whistle. It’s a weird game.
Quake II is let down by the fact that it was conceived by somebody with a coherent plan. And do you know what a coherent plan for a videogame looks like in 1997? It looks like aliens. Cyborg aliens. Dog aliens. The movie Aliens. There are cutscenes and mid-mission voiceovers featuring all of your favourite characters, from Shouty Marine to Scary Computer Woman. It’s dizzyingly generic because there have been so many games like this since, and the only thing that elevates it above the pack is the sheer fact that it’s royalty.
It’s still fun to hop about in mazes blasting grunts. That’ll never change. And there’s no diminishing the achievement of Carmack et al when it comes to laying the groundwork for the first-person shooter as it is now understood. But that’s what Quake II feels like today: groundwork. Specifically, groundwork for
Half-Life: the game that would come along and do the sci-fi shooter better, the immersive shooter better, and would adopt the multiplayer and mod communities of the Quake series and give them a new home. Was it worth 96 in its day? Absolutely – we weren’t to know that a bigger 96 was coming. Is it a 96 today? Honestly, probably not. But I really don’t want to be the guy who knocked points off
Quake II, so.
It’s dizzyingly generic because there have been so many games like this since
Look! The happy jam man! Look how he capers!