Quake 4 is one of the big games going into this holiday season for a couple of reasons. Obviously, it's the latest chapter in the Quake franchise, the series that practically invented the 3D first-person shooter as we know it. Second, it most likely will be an Xbox 360 launch title, so it will help usher in the next generation of consoles. So when Activision offered us a chance to play both the single- and multiplayer modes of the PC version, as well as part of the Xbox 360's single-player game, we of course jumped at the opportunity.
We should first note that Quake 4 feels like two entirely different games. The single-player campaign represents a return to the story arc that was established in Quake II, while the multiplayer game builds off the fast-paced, twitch-based combat that was perfected in Quake III: Arena. However, we should also note that both versions of Quake 4 are going to be as similar to each other as possible, and the single-player game on both platforms will have all the same levels, monsters, and weapons.
As we've noted in our earlier previews, the single-player story in Quake 4 picks up immediately after Quake II. In Quake II, you played a nameless marine who battled his way to bring down the planetary defenses of Stroggos, the home planet of the Strogg, an alien race of cyborgs that is at war with humanity. In Quake 4, you switch to a new character, Matthew Kane, who is part of the marine invasion force that appears in orbit moments after the defenses come down. In the campaign's opening cinematic, you see Kane and his fellow Rhino Squad members board their transport and fly toward the planet, only to be shot down by an enemy missile, in true Starship Troopers fashion. You wake up in the wreckage of the crash with a battle raging around you. Armed only with a pistol, you must get up, rendezvous with the rest of your squad, and turn the tide of the war.
You quickly discover that the marine invasion is going badly, as squads were scattered and dispersed during the landing. Before too long, you'll quickly encounter marines from other squads, as well as your first Strogg opponents, who you must, naturally, put down with extreme prejudice. In classic Quake fashion, you can pick up weapons and ammo along the way, as well as armor shards and health kits to replenish your character's health. We got our hands on the pistol, which has unlimited ammo, as well the assault rifle, and we also saw the railgun in action. For those of you with bad memories of the way Doom 3 (id Software's last game) didn't let you equip a flashlight and a gun at the same time, the good news is that here the pistol and rifle come with built-in lights that don't seem to run out of battery power, so you can leave it on all the time and use it for cutting through the darkness of the levels. The interiors of the Strogg base have that metallic look and feel that resemble the rusted metal corridors of Quake II, but we also saw some spacious outdoor levels, as well. And, yes, there are still plenty of explosive red barrels that are strategically placed around the game, which are useful for blowing up large groups of enemies. Just be sure not to stand too close to those barrels yourself, especially during a firefight.
We got to play through the two opening levels of the game, most of which we had already seen in action at E3 earlier this year, though this was the first time we actually got a chance to play them. In addition, we also got to play two later levels, both of which featured drivable vehicles. One of these vehicles was the hovertank, which was armed with a main cannon and a machine gun, while the other was a mechlike walker--basically a two-legged tank packing a six-shot rocket launcher (the launcher slowly reloads after the sixth shot) as well as a machine gun.
Both the hovertank and the walker feature regenerating armor and shields. So, like in Halo, if you take damage to the shields and the armor, all you need to do is find a quiet spot and wait a few seconds until they slowly regenerate. Of these vehicles, the hovertank felt the most unique to a Quake game. Since the hovertank hovers above the ground and doesn't create any friction, driving it feels almost like you're controlling a bumper car. You can slide left and right, and glide backward and forward, ram Strogg infantry (and see them tumble away thanks to the physics engine), and pound a target from a distance with the cannon. The outdoor levels are fairly large, though open and plain, and the level we played was reminiscent of the canal level in Half-Life 2, only without the water. The toughest part of the entire level was coming upon some sort of Strogg boss who locked missiles onto the tank. Thankfully, a warning Klaxon lets you know when they've got a missile lock, so then you can target and shoot down the incoming warheads.
Quake 4 is being developed by Raven Software in cooperation with id Software. Raven is a studio that has made a slew of first-person shooters using id's technology, including the Star Trek: Elite Force games. In fact, thanks to its squad mechanic, Quake 4 feels very much like Elite Force, from the way that Strogg bodies dissolve in a Borg-like manner after a few seconds, to the fact that you also play as a protagonist who is part of a larger squad. And, like your Elite Force squadmates, each of your fellow Rhino marines has a name and a personality; they're not just random, faceless cannon fodder (though there are plenty of those in the game, as well). For example, there's Corporal Cortez, the squad sharpshooter; Lieutenant Voss, the scarred squad leader; and Master Sergeant Bidwell, the grizzled veteran. In typical first-person shooter fashion, you'll meet up with these characters throughout the opening level, and they'll explain to you that there was a squad betting pool going on as to when you would bite the big one. They'll also give you orders or commands that will send you off on missions. Some may even accompany you, though there aren't any complicated squad commands. To keep things simple, allies follow you and provide support fire. They're smart enough to find cover and fire from a distance, and they generally won't get in your way.
Oh no, no, no...I'm a Rocket Man
When it comes to multiplayer, Quake 4 will probably remind you very much of earlier Quake multiplayer games, especially Quake III: Arena. After all, id and Raven realize that they'd have to be pretty crazy to fix something that's not broken. There's an old-school quality to Quake 4's deathmatch, and that's partly because a number of classic levels from earlier games have been remade for Quake 4. You'll recognize some of these old favorites, such as Q3DM17, otherwise known as The Longest Yard (although we didn't get to see this one ourselves). Yet even in the new levels, there's no mistaking Quake's unique multiplayer, from the spinning weapons, red armor power-ups, and highly competitive action. We had a chance to try out several of the game's weapons, including the machine gun, the rocket launcher, the grenade launcher, the railgun, and the energy gun, among others. Nearly all of Quake 4's weapons have appeared in previous Quake games.
From what we can tell, Quake 4 multiplayer games will start you out with a machine gun (like in Quake III), rather than a pistol (in fact, the pistol doesn't seem to be present in Quake 4's multiplayer at all). If the weapon placement in the levels we played is any indication, then the machine gun is apparently intended to be a competitive weapon, rather than the nearly useless last-resort weapon it was in Quake III. If nothing else, it's much louder and has a tinny, strident report that has a tendency to give away your position in a hurry. This is why it was preferable to seize and control the other weapons on the map in deathmatch play. As we mentioned in our QuakeCon impressions story, the weapons that seem most different from Quake III's are the machine gun and the shotgun. The shotgun in particular now kicks back with some serious recoil like in Doom III, rather than being the fast-firing weapon it was in Quake III.
Otherwise, many of the other weapons looked and felt like they did in Quake III, with just some minor tweaks. The grenade and rocket launchers, for instance, both seem to be hybrid versions of their Quake and Quake III counterparts. Both fire faster and have a much higher muzzle velocity, but their projectiles still don't accelerate much and they tend to "float" a bit when launched from a distance. The railgun, the infamous sniper weapon from Quake II and Quake III, seems to be pretty similar to the Quake III version, except that it overlays a transparent display when you zoom in. It also seems that the power has been decreased in the weapon itself and it doesn't seem to instantly kill its targets as reliably as it did before. The nailgun seems to pack more punch than it did in the original Quake, though it also has a noticeable warm-up time before it actually starts firing rounds. The hyperblaster (a rapid-firing energy gun) seems about the same as it was in Quake II, while the lightning gun's properties seem exactly identical to those of the Quake III version--though both have snazzy new looks to them. In fact, even though most of the weapons have appeared in previous games, all of them have new weapon models.
During our hands-on time, we were able to play only a few rounds of deathmatch, team deathmatch, and capture the flag (which will accompany the arena capture-the-flag and tournament multiplayer modes when the game ships). The maps we played seemed like small- to midsized areas for 8 to 16 players and, as we mentioned previously, seemed to place weapons somewhat sparsely on the map, which suggests that players will be expected to lean on their default machine guns a bit more. Otherwise, the design of the levels we played through seemed to recall many of the best elements of Quake III's head-to-head and team-based maps, featuring plenty of open-ended architecture and vertical variety in the form of multilevel maps connected by jump pads and teleporters. Those who are fans of utterly embarrassing their foes will be pleased to hear that the Quake III melee weapon, the gauntlet (essentially a spinning blade attached to a metal glove that lets you pummel your opponents to death), also makes its triumphant return in Quake 4 multiplayer, so you can make your opponents have a less-than-triumphant time online.
The Xbox 360 version was also in attendance, and we got to play a few single-player sessions using the wireless gamepad. Perhaps the most impressive thing we can say about the Xbox 360 version is that it looks a lot like the PC version, though the PCs we played on supported higher-res textures and what appeared to be larger color depth. Still, all the levels, all the monsters, and all the weapons were intact in the Xbox 360 version, right down to the scripted events that showed the evil Strogg aliens doing horrible things to our human marine buddies. However, the ability to basically port the PC version to the Xbox 360 version perfectly does raise some interesting questions that Raven and id are trying to solve. For example, the control scheme is something that they're still experimenting with, as it was clear that some sequences on this version are still optimized for the precision of a mouse and keyboard, which the Xbox 360 version won't support. We're told that they're looking into a Halo-style solution, where the cursor "slows" a little over an enemy, making them easier to shoot if you're using a gamepad. Your weapons' crosshair may also be enlarged a bit (and your area of fire along with it), to make aiming a little more forgiving with a handheld controller. Also, the game will be rebalanced for the Xbox 360, since certain areas were designed and balanced specifically for the PC version.
While we didn't get to see the multiplayer on the Xbox 360 in action, we are told that it will feature the same modes as the PC version. The levels themselves will be tweaked to be more gamepad-friendly. For example, while using a gamepad, it can be difficult to execute a rocket jump (an extremely high jump you can perform by aiming your rocket launcher at your feet and jumping just before firing it), so items in the PC version that are reachable by rocket-jumping will be moved around in the Xbox 360 version. Also, the player limit on the Xbox 360 version is still being determined, since the Xbox 360 lacks the dedicated server of the PC version.
We came away from the session with the sense that Quake 4 is certainly on track for release later this year. And while Activision and id won't commit to a date, it's a safe bet that the Xbox 360 version will certainly be a "launch window" game, if not a "launch day" game for the platform. At this point, we're told that both versions are currently being tested and tweaked, and from what we saw, they looked and played pretty well. The versions also feel pretty much like Quake, which is what the fans are looking for. If all the pieces fall into place, Quake 4 will offer cutting-edge graphics, a solid story, and some of the most competitive multiplayer around. Look for the game later this year on both the PC and the Xbox 360.