The Quake series of sci-fi first-person shooters has always had a fairly sketchy history on console platforms. It has often represented the pinnacle of PC graphical capabilities, but translating those high-end graphics to affordable, mass-market consoles has usually proved to be a tough process. That trend continues with Quake 4 for the Xbox 360. Despite the 360's stature as the most powerful console on the market, it just can't keep up with this game's demanding visuals (which probably speaks more to the lackluster quality of the game's translation from the PC than to the system's power, judging by how well the 360's two other first-person shooters look by comparison). Quake 4 is a compelling game, but when saddled with an extremely unstable frame rate, it's tough to recommend.
Contentwise, the Xbox 360 version is similar to its PC counterpart. The single-player campaign is lengthy and fairly varied. The multiplayer has been cut back to an eight-player maximum, as opposed to the PC version's 16-player matches, but that's still enough to make the maps feel populated. The only real difference is in visual quality and performance. When running on a modern PC, Quake 4 looks fantastic, using the Doom 3 engine to display the alien world of Stroggos in a sharp, defined level of detail. A quick look up at the sky or at most of the game's wall and ground textures shows that the Xbox 360 version has significantly muddier textures. In addition, the frame rate is sort of a mess. Any time the action gets heated in a large or complex-looking area, the game starts to spin down to a surprisingly low frame rate, regardless of whether you're playing in HD resolution or on a regular TV. At some points, it gets so bad that the whole game starts to slow down, as well. You'll know when that's happening because the rate of fire on your weapons slows way, way down. Even when there's no action onscreen, just viewing the environments is enough to make the game run at a noticeably choppy rate. While there are still some cool-looking areas, the frame rate troubles drag down the entire experience.
Quake 4 also comes with a bonus disc, packed right into the case in a paper sleeve. The majority of the bonus disc contains a variety of trailers and gameplay footage from the game's development. The key inclusion, however, is a fully playable Xbox 360 version of Quake II. While it doesn't get online, it supports up to four players via split-screen and 16 over system link. It plays quite well with the Xbox 360 controller, and the silky-smooth frame rate is in stark contrast with Quake 4. It's a very cool bonus.
The three previous Quake games have all had very little to do with one another. The first game's story almost felt more like a retelling of Doom, dealing with inappropriately opened portals that spew out all sorts of horrific demons. Quake II ditched that storyline in favor of an Earth-versus-alien conflict that had you crash-landing on the alien homeworld in search of revenge. Quake III Arena was multiplayer focused, with no true single-player storyline other than that a wide collection of warriors--some taken from the Doom and Quake games--had been pulled out of their own timelines and into this futuristic battle arena. Quake 4 doubles back and picks up where Quake II left off. That nameless space marine from Quake II has apparently killed the Makron, the leader of the Strogg forces, and now it's up to you to get in there and try to finish the job. But, of course, things aren't quite what they seem.
In Quake 4, you play as a space marine named Matthew Kane, who has recently been assigned to Rhino Squad. In keeping with first-person shooter storyline tradition, Kane doesn't speak, but the marines around you will more than make up for the lack of chatter coming out of Kane's lips. You're the new guy, and some of the squad's even betting that you won't even survive for one day. With the Makron assumed dead, your squad is taking part in an operation to take advantage of the disarray and mop up the rest of the enemy forces on the Strogg planet. But your dropship gets hit and comes down hard, killing a large chunk of your squadmates at the opening of the game. From there, you'll pull yourself up out of the muck and get down to business.
Eventually, your squad will get extracted back to a capital ship for reassignment. You'll get to explore the ship and meet some of its crew, and then you're back out on a new mission designed to disrupt the Strogg communication network. And the story continues from there. While the story itself isn't particularly gripping, it's designed well enough to keep you interested in what's happening. There's also a potentially interesting plot twist in the game that, unfortunately, was revealed by id Software almost immediately, when the company first started talking about and showing off the game. It's also the crux of a trailer that plays if you leave the game on the title screen for a few seconds. We won't repeat it here, in case you've managed to stay away, because we have to imagine that the twist would have been a lot more interesting if you didn't see it coming. Just know that a few interesting things happen over the course of the game's 10-to-15-hour campaign, but nothing that happens totally changes the way the game is played or anything like that.
In the end, first-person shooters still come down to their armory. In Quake 4, you'll be armed with a fairly standard collection of weapons that may have originated in the Quake II universe--but that doesn't mean they're all identical. You'll start the game with only a blaster, which has infinite ammo and can be charged up for a more powerful shot. But this quickly gives way to the machine gun, which is versatile enough that you'll probably be relying on it throughout the entire game. That's mostly because the machine gun has a flashlight mounted on it. Even though the game isn't trying to spook you by having enemies jump out of the shadows, seeing better is always a good thing. Plus, lighting up some dark corners is a good way to find extra ammo and armor.
You'll eventually get a shotgun, a grenade launcher, the energy-powered hyperblaster, a rocket launcher, the railgun, a nailgun, the lightning gun, and so on, up to the game's version of the BFG, the dark matter gun. Right off the bat, most of these weapons aren't much handier than the stock machine gun. Reloading the shotgun takes too long, the nailgun has a long, chaingun-style spin-up time, and so on. Along the way, you'll run into marines who can upgrade your weapons. Your shotgun will eventually be modified to be a clip-fed weapon, making reloading a snap. The nailgun gains the ability to lock onto targets and shoot homing nails that make it behave almost identically to the needler from Halo. The lightning gun upgrade makes it chain off and attack other enemies standing near your target. The hyperblaster upgrade makes its shots bounce off of walls. And the railgun gets a power upgrade that makes it much more useful. The rocket launcher gets an auto-loader that loads up three rockets at a time, letting you fire them off in faster succession. While you'll still rely on that machine gun in a lot of situations, most of the weapons come into their own later in the game, giving you some good, tactical decisions to make as you fight.
You'll also fight alongside some other marines at various points in the game. While they aren't perfect, they do seem to fight a lot better than you'd expect from squadmates that are completely out of your control. They also seem to take a lot more damage than you'd expect, but that doesn't mean they're invincible. If you let one of the game's key characters catch too many hot ones, they'll go down, and you'll lose as well. Incidental marines that you encounter along the way, however, are free to die without any real penalty, but seeing them through safely often gives you some achievement points. Some marines are flagged as medics or engineers, who will heal you and repair your armor, if asked. Fighting alongside other marines brings some variety to the game, as do the game's vehicles. You'll get to pilot a hovertank and a mech, and at one point, you'll work the gun on a tram to defend it from enemy attackers. The vehicles heal themselves over time, just like the shield system in Halo, which makes these sequences very easy. Still, rolling around in the game's vehicles and blasting stuff is decent, and the sequences are short enough to not get in the way.
While the single-player game doesn't feel like a throwback, firing up the multiplayer side of the game is like going on an archaeological dig. As you dig, you'll unearth a take on Quake III Arena's multiplayer for up to eight players. While the goal was clearly to duplicate Quake III Arena's fantastic deathmatch, the feel of the game isn't quite right, and aside from the inclusion of a few maps from previous Quake games, it doesn't manage to pull off the nostalgic feel it was probably going for. Instead, it's sort of like a relic, delivering the barebones standard modes of deathmatch, team deathmatch, one-on-one, and two versions of capture the flag. The game's frame rate troubles rear their head here, as well, which sucks some of the fun out of the experience, especially because it's designed to move at a much faster rate than the single-player.
The weapons from the single-player side are included online, but they're streamlined to not force you to reload your weapons. The level design is full of Quake III-style jump pads, and you'll have the same sort of air control that you had over your airborne combatant in Quake III. Even the announcer sounds virtually identical to the one from Quake III and makes the same kind of commentary you've already heard a billion times if you were a Quake III fanatic. The frantic multiplayer has its moments, but it's disappointing how little the multiplayer has evolved.
Quake 4 has good sound that helps highlight the experience. The weapons sound appropriately tough, which is always key for a shooter. But the game is much more than the sounds of weapons and explosions. The voice work is sharp and believable and helps give a little more life to the marines around you, though the voices seem really quiet when compared to the rest of the action. Additionally, sometimes you'll hear different radio chatter repeat frequently, especially if you're taking your sweet time getting to that next objective. Also, sometimes you'll get radio transmissions in the middle of a fight, and the voice gets drowned out. Fortunately, that speech is never too important. The game's music is understated, but it fits in with the atmosphere. There are even a few musical stabs in the game that play when you open a door and see an enemy on the other side, almost as if it's attempting to poke fun at Doom 3's constant "what's behind the next door?" scare tactics.
Quake 4 could have been a great game, but the performance issues are so heavy that they have a negative impact across the board. The gameplay suffers both online and off because you often can't see exactly what's going on. With the Xbox 360 launch already stacked with quality first-person shooting, Quake 4 sits squarely at the bottom of the pile.