It's been almost a year since Quake II infected me with its eye-catching graphics and addictive deathmatch, but to be honest, I haven't played it in a while. I've always loved Quake and Quake II, but I grew tired of deathmatch after six months of constant play (either that or the competition no longer gave me any challenge). But even when I hung up my hat, I knew I'd come back once the Ground Zero mission pack released. I heard about this mission pack months ago, looked at some of Rogue's early work, and was excited. Now that it's released, I'm glad I've gone back to Quake II, even if only for a short while. While Ground Zero doesn't promise anything drastically new, as expansion packs go, it's pretty good.
As Quake games go, the story for Ground Zero isn't too bad. The Earth fleet attacking Stroggos is stranded in orbit due to a Strogg gravity well. You've landed on the planet (presumably before the gravity well went up) with one mission: destroy the gravity well.
The thing to remember with this pack is that it's not a new game. If you buy this mission pack expecting something radically different from Quake II, you'll be disappointed. This is still Quake II, but with a few new weapons, monsters, and levels. The textures aren't anything new, except for a little more colored lighting and glowing patches in rock walls. For the most part, you'll think you've seen these levels before. The sound also isn't noticeably different. The new levels generally follow Quake II's design, but there are some surprises in store in several of the levels (falling rocks and monster-triggered traps), and more logical level transitions. Granted, there are the mandatory red keys to grab, but you'll also have to turn on the power for a subway train to take you to another part of the base or shut off all the valves in a cooling plant to overheat a Strogg power plant.
The new weapons aren't too bad. The new default weapon is the chain saw, which brings back some fond memories. The second weapon you acquire is the ETF (explosive-tipped flechette) rifle. It's basically the nail gun from Quake, except that it pierces armor. This is great in deathmatch against plated human opponents, but in the single-player game, the ETF rifle isn't a sure thing by any means, even with its armor piercing capability. The unfortunate thing is, this weapon looks and sounds just too much like the original nail gun. The other two new weapons are the proximity mine launcher and the plasma beam. Of these two, the plasma beam is by far the most impressive. It fires a continuous beam of scorching energy. Not only does it have unlimited range (unlike its inspiration, the Quake lightning gun), but it doesn't use energy cells too quickly, and its knock-back ability also helps to keep enemies away. The proximity mine, which fires mines that explode when an enemy approaches, is more useful in deathmatch than in single-player mode.
The power-ups are actually very cool. The tesla mine fires lightning bolts at any nearby enemies and is a good weapon for keeping monsters busy or protecting power-ups and weapons in deathmatch. The defender sphere is the only sphere available in the single-player game and provides protection from damage and also helps out by firing little blaster bolts at enemies. In deathmatch, two other spheres become available, the vengeance sphere and hunter sphere, both of which punish enemy players that hurt or kill you by firing off rockets at the perpetrators. Another deathmatch-only power-up is the doppleganger, which creates a double of you that you can use as a decoy. Those who played Duke Nukem 3D will know how useful this power-up can be.
The two best features of this level pack are the improved monsters and enhanced AI. The new monsters are the turret and the stalker, both of which are nasty beasts. The turrets are positioned on the ceilings and can fire down lasers or rockets at you. Their high perch makes them tough to spot, and their constant presence throughout the game will teach you to circle-strafe up. The stalker is a tough monster (it can take two point-blank rocket blasts) that can dodge your fire by jumping up onto the ceiling. It can spit lasers at you or slash you with a melee attack. Thankfully, they are solitary monsters.
The enhanced Quake II enemies are the medic commander and the daedalus. The medic commander can revive fallen monsters or attack with a hyperblaster. And unlike in the original Quake II, where the medic often neglected fallen comrades, the medic commander will revive anything within range that has not been gibbed. The daedalus isn't too tough to fight, although it sports twin blasters and a power shield. All monsters, though, have better AI. Now monsters will attempt to follow you throughout a level, something they were supposed to do in Quake II but never did. Admittedly, I never let a monster live long enough to track me across an entire level, but I could see them navigating obstacles to come after me. They even jumped down cliffs or elevators after me, following me through doors and lifts. Monsters will also pin you down when you hide behind boxes or walls, firing at your last known location. So don't think you can just leave a room and then run back in expecting the monsters to be idle again. Odds are when you run back in, you'll be walking into a hail of bullets. This doesn't happen all the time, but enough to make you realize that these monsters are smarter than they were in Quake II.
Quake II is a year old, but the new weapons and power-ups make the game interesting again. The two boss monsters are also very nice (I won't ruin them for you), as are the new monsters and enhanced AI. I don't think the single-player experience will be that compelling once Half-Life and Sin release next month, but in the meantime, you could do worse than play Ground Zero, especially with its numerous new multiplayer maps. Rogue did a good job on the mission pack, and as long as you action fans realize that this is just an expansion pack, and not a new game, you won't be disappointed.