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Summary3D engine for sale! 3D engine for sale! (oh yeah, there's a game here too)
The GoodThe Quake Id Software intended to make was quite different to the Quake that actually got released. 1995-era gaming magazines were awash with hype about a fully 3D, fantasy-themed FPS with detailed lighting effects and morphable terrain and an RPG-style class system and everything but the kitchen sink.
Somewhere along the line id's development team must have realised that the hardware required for this sort of game did not exist yet. They ended up releasing a stripped-down tech demo that was only a shadow of what they had originally promised. It is completely 3D, but just about everything else was sacrificed to make it 3D.
Everywhere in Quake you see the signs of a game laboring under technological constraints. The levels are absolutely tiny, and mostly made up of cramped rooms and corridors (large outdoor areas like in Doom? Forget it.) The textures are bland and of low detail. The tradeoff for realistic lighting was that everything in the game is rendered in dull browns and grays. It's rare that you'll have three enemies on the screen at once. Five enemies is a gratuitous bloodbath.
Thematically the game is a continuation of Doom. The settings and plots are pretty much the same: you are a marine who is the last man standing on the site of an alien invasion. But rather than the Aliens setting of Doom, Quake is far more Gothic. Castles and dungeons are the rule here rather than space stations and moon bases. In fact, you could easily believe that this game was originally intended to be set in the Middle Ages.
The action is fast and lean. The monsters are weak but deal out massive damage, and since you don't have much ammo the game becomes a frenetic and tense reflex match. The game's realistic lighting works in its favor by giving monsters the ability to hide in shadows where you can't see them. The game's scariest moments come when you're walking down a well-lit corridor and suddenly the lights go out...and you can hear growls and snarls.
Quake's monsters are pretty cool and one of the best things that came with the game. There are zombies, werewolves, and flesh-eating fish, and lethal killing machines such as the Hell Knights and Vores. But pride of place is reserved for the Shambler, a hulking behemoth who can shoot lighting and absorb massive amounts of damage before dying; and can be regularly found on "Best Ever Monster" lists around the net.
The game's 3Dness makes it aesthetically incomparable to the 2.5D games of the day. Perspective is rendered correctly. There can be rooms on top of rooms. Your viewpoint can lean and rotate at any angle. You can look straight up at the sky. You even have the ability to swim underwater! These things gave the game the needed wow factor to become a hit, and just as well because that's all Quake has going for it.
The BadLike I mentioned before, the content side of the game was severely hamstrung so they could get it in 3D. Basically, everything about the game unrelated to technology sucks.
There is no story, and zero originality. Even though the FPS genre was only a few years Quake effectively stagnated it with boring levels, hardly any features, repetitive and derivative design, etc. This is the first game I can think of that was literally designed around its engine and graphical capabilities. Take away the 3D-ness, and Quake is worthless bargain bin material.
The levels themselves are so factory-produced and generic they might as well have been generated by a macro. The game over-uses the "monsters hiding in shadow" trick until it's not funny anymore (and the game has an annoying habit of spawning monsters behind you, the precursor of Doom 3). You'd think that with fully 3D terrain the door would be open for all sorts of cool levels, but for the most part Quake's levels are the same as Doom's levels: lots of hallways and staircases and the occasional elevator.
Weapon balance is way off, the hatchet is a worthless piece of crap and once you get the rocket launcher you're set for the whole game. And the game has a "weak, medium, strong" approach to weaponry, so that if you get a super shotgun your regular shotgun becomes useless and if you get a super nailgun your old nailgun becomes useless. The result? There are eight weapons in the game but you only ever use two or three of them. What's the point?
There's no originality, no attempt at a story, and nothing that advances the FPS genre at all. Any last chance of Quake being a good single-player game is drop-kicked in the nuts by a moronic final boss fight. I'm not one for hyperbole, but Quake has the lamest, most anti-climactic boss fight of any Id Software game (and that includes Commander Keen!). Shub Nigguruth is a giant blob that does not even move but just sits there doing nothing while you run around and kill a few monsters (like you've been doing all game) looking for a hidden switch that kills the boss and ends the game. And as a final insult, there isn't even an ending cutscene.
Although much can be said of the game's technology, Quake is not a pretty game. As mentioned before, the color palette is extremely limited and the whole game is brown and gray. The polygons are blocky and the monster animation is very choppy. Probably the best thing one can say about Quake's graphics is the distortion effects underwater, and the lighting. And although some would call Quake a masterpiece of Gothic horror, praising Quake for being dark and suspenseful is like praising a 1920s-era film for being sepia-toned and artsy. It only looks like that because of technological restrictions, and attempting to translate that into artistic genius on the part of the creators is nothing more than Emperor's New Clothes syndrome.
But wait! What about multiplayer? The game was a huge multiplayer hit over the internet, partly because it was so easy to set up and find opponents. But the game's rushed design can be seen here as well, as almost all the maps that come with the game are crap and full of bugs and imbalances (example: in one of the levels there is a 100% health powerup, a super nailgun and a quad damage right next to each other). Not to mention that Quake only started to become really popular after user mods had ironed out all the nuisances and issues, basically a continuation of Id's policy of "let the community fix our games for us". Hardly anyone plays Vanilla Quake.