Best deathmatch, hands down
This game is a legend, and anyone that even remotely loves online deathmatch, CTF, or other FPS type games should know what I'm talking about.
First of all, the graphics for the time period are simply amazing. I can remember running this game on a 4 meg Diamond Monster 3d card and it was blazing fast and quite simply beautiful. The sound and music are top notch as well, and Trent Reznor (of Nine Inch Nails fame) takes credit for that.
Next, the level design is fantastic. Playing deathmatch and arena or other mods reveals just how well thought out the levels are. American McGee among others are responsible for very well planned environments. You can tell that this game wasn't just thrown together, and one can even imagine Id's offices a big mess with drawings and print outs in regards to level design posted all over the walls.
Furthermore, the game is fully customizable. Quake is either the first, or one of the first games to feature the use of the console in game (something that is now standard on all FPS games). With a little instruction one could enter commands into the console to alter the settings of the game in real time. There was so much versatility and control given to the user, that you could even manipulate the way your online connection functions (like eliminating delta from the tcp/ip function with commands like cl_nodelta 1), what information is given to the player, which models are drawn on the screen and which aren't, the list is exhaustive and goes on and on. The level of customization afforded to the end user was so powerful that Quake could run on just about any machine, and not only that but look and play entirely different on different PC's.
The multiplayer is unbelievably fast. I used to ping 16 with an ISDN connection, and had a friend on 56k that could ping 90. Yes, with some in game tweaking ultra low pings were possible. Furthermore, you could be in a big deathmatch, rockets flying all over the place and 6 or 7 people on your screen with the settings maxed out, and never have your ping move or your framerate drop, all while playing on a p133 with 64mb RAM and a 4meg video card. Phenomenal!
The deathmatch modes are the real meat an potatoes here. I've yet to find any DM type FPS games that are as fast or as hardcore as this game. There isn't much in the way of fancy items or powerups save for some armor, extra health, and occasional quad damage or invulnerability. This game requires raw skill, precision aiming, and knowledge of map layouts all of which take months or even years to perfect.
There are lots of user created maps and add-ons. Clan Arena and Rocket Arena, along with QuakeWorld were my favorite mods, but they also had Team Fortress and other ambitious mods. Now that the game is open source, the sky is the limit.
The single player game is weak and mostly worthless. I had first played in single player mode and this made me quit the game for a couple of months until I started hearing from everyone about how untouchable the multiplayer was.
Learning console commands might be discouraging to some, but then again knowledge of their function is not a requirement for play. On the other hand, to have any chance of success during serious competition a working knowledge of the commands is a must, and a .cfg file must be tested and tweaked ad naseum in order to achieve one's full potential. This can be good or bad depending on your disposition.
Some complained that the colors were drab and got old. Lots of shades of brown and gray throughout the levels.
The Bottom Line
Quake is the single best DM game hands down, even today. Even though it was released in 1996, people are still playing it regularly, although the online population is only a fraction of the size it used to be. I played the game from 1996 to 2004 when I finally retired, and there were still big clans, ladders, competitions, and public and private servers available. The speed of the game, multiplayer code, meat and potatoes deathmatch, and customizing options have made this game one I'll never forget.