Quake Champions Provides Classic Quake Action, Despite Its Overwatch-Esque Heroes
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Initially, I was worried by the premise of Quake Champions: a Quake game with a diverse set of of character classes didn't sound like a Quake game to me. Almost immediately after sitting down with the game at PAX East, however, my concerns were wiped away.
Over my first few lives, I rotated between a handful of characters--known as champions--to get a feel for just how different they are and how deeply that variety impacts the gameplay. While they're certainly distinct, they don't impact the game in as meaningful a way as the characters in Overwatch or Team Fortress 2.
Characters have varying amounts of health and armor, as well as movement speed and a unique ability. These include a totem you can deploy to heal teammates and damage foes or one that causes you to rush forward, killing anyone in your path. While pick-ups on the map allow you to speed up their cooldown, these can't be used all that often. The abilities are not hugely impactful--they might win you a fight, but it doesn't seem as if using one is likely to be a match-defining moment, as can be the case with a well-timed Ultimate in Overwatch.
Ranger, whom you'll be able to use for free, quickly became my go-to choice. His movement feels like that of a classic Quake character, but he has the ability to launch an orb that can do damage or that you can teleport to. This was useful for flanking players who were caught off guard, but I still spent the bulk of my time playing no differently than I would in Quake 3: Arena.
In talking with creative director Tim Willits following my hands-on, I learned that my experience of realizing that, yes, this really is still Quake, wasn't unique: "We do feel that when you come and play, you go, 'This is the right way to play.' You still run and jump and strafe-jump and rocket-jump and stuff, so it doesn't really change. I think people are like, 'Oh my god! There's abilities in Quake; you're ruining the game!' Luckily, people that have gone through [our PAX demo] are like, 'This is good,' and they see what we're trying to do."
But how does developer id Software maintain the feel of Quake while introducing more modern concepts? "We needed to tap into that core DNA of Quake: skill-based, it's fast, everyone has the same weapons; no one has a weapon advantage. We have the holy trinity: rocket launcher, railgun, lightning gun--we'll never mess with that. That core game loop, the recipe for our cookie, is good. So then we just need to add on stuff and push, push, push--oh, that was too much, come back a little bit and then push, push, push.
"It's 2017, and we want to have a lot of people to play the game. We both need to make our Quake fans happy but also make the game approachable and new and fresh and allow people to feel good when they play it."
Asked why we're suddenly seeing classic shooter series like Quake and Unreal Tournament being revived, Willits commented, "The popularity of arena shooters right now really helps us out," he said. "The fact that there are some other arena shooters that have done well is good for Quake. So I think it's just kind of a natural evolution and cycle in gaming, which is why you see more games with abilities, because it's that natural evolution of the genre."
More than the different champions and their respective abilities, what might distinguish Champions from past Quake games is its emphasis on teamwork. Players are warned when the pick-up that provides quadruple damage is about to spawn, giving savvy teams time to form up and control that area of the map. A subsequent notification about who controls the buff is useful in and of itself--it's nice to know you won't round a corner and walk right into a quad-damage rocket. In another of the game's modes (I only played Team Deathmatch), the buff is shared with nearby teammates, encouraging them to stick together. Similarly, one character's ability provides an area-of-effect heal, presenting another reason to play as a cohesive team.
"Historically, most of our Quake games are free-for-all, so you have one winner and 15 losers," explained Willits. "So we definitely want to push people more into teamplay because you have a better chance of winning--a 50-percent chance of winning. And it allows, especially new people, to find a champion they like, be successful, not have the entire weight of the game on their shoulders, and have these successes that build over time so you can feel more comfortable as your skills increase."
One problem that occurred to me as I played was the possibility that Champions could end up with too many characters. Team Fortress 2 gets by on having nine characters distinct enough that you can distinguish them by their silhouettes, for instance, and both it and Overwatch are generally not the sort of game where you die in an instant. Being a more twitch shooter, quickly and easily deciphering everything happening on screen could be more of a problem in Champions. Willits didn't seem especially concerned, as id apparently doesn't intend to go overboard with expanding its character roster.
"Our plan is not to have a massive amount of champions," he explained. "We want to be smart and find some ability or some kind of unique--something special about them--that fills a hole. So I think we'll have a good balance."
Based on the limited number of matches I played, Champions does strike the appropriate balance you'd hope to find a game that's seeking to integrate new elements into a classic formula. With a closed beta on the way soon and a proclaimed willingness to change based on feedback, Champions looks like it could turn out to be the game Quake fans want--even if that doesn't appear to be the case at first blush.