It was probably a bad idea to come to Quake III Arena so late. Indeed, by the time I had actually got around to inserting the CD into my drive and clicking the relevant buttons, I had already played through - and loved - some of its descendants. One of the most popular engines to have been licensed, it forms the basis for such luminaries as Return to Castle Wolfenstein and Jedi Knight II; impressive children indeed. But how does the parent compare? One of the most popular online FPS games of all time must, surely, be worth playing? Eager to find out what I'd been missing, I get about giving it a go.
Quake III Arena is, as its name suggests, the third of the Quake series, but the first to explicitly promote multiplayer as its raison d'être. Previous games in the series have had a single-player campaign, which while never being the most well-fleshed out of stories, were still worth a play and were by the by enjoyable. Quake III dispenses with that; its offline component merely sets up a number of different predefined arenas populated by bots, to be played through in sequence. In addition, the usual 'instant action' mode is provided for, allowing the player to pick a map and play with bots to their heart's content.
Speaking of bots: the game comes with plenty to choose from, with a wide range of models and skins to pick from. Some are culled from iD's history: the Doom marine makes an appearance, as do representations of Quake and Quake II's player characters.
Equally well-represented are the game's weapons, with many taking direct cues from earlier titles. There's the typical Quake rocket launcher (point at enemy, admire new red wallpaper), the grenade launcher (complete with satisfying Quake sound effects), and the railgun for those with a fondness for sniping. Even Quake's lightning gun returns, reminding us all why playing with high voltages is dangerous, if compelling to watch from a safe distance.
There's a remarkably large range of maps shipped with the game, and although the visual style is hardly diverse - pentagrams, fire, and lava all present, as per iD Level Design Guideline #23 - each map has a distinctive feel, and many bring fresh challenges to the player. Q3DM10, for example, apes Unreal's "healpod" level, providing a chamber players can use to heal themselves (while providing a perfect location for their foes to find them). Few of the maps will leave the player finding unique, only-in-Quake-III touches, but by and large they're professionally designed and play well.
By this point, you're probably wondering, "Golly, Matthews, you sound really enthusiastic about this game. Why did you give it such a low score?", to which I would reply that it serves you right for skipping to the end of the review.
The fact of the matter is this: I found Quake III simply not very much fun to play. On paper, it should be elementary: iD are one of the masters of the art, having brought us fantastic FPS games every few years and effectively creating deathmatch as we now know it. They are, presumably, good at their jobs. And as a technical achievement, the game is perfectly competent.
Yet I can't shake the notion, after ten minutes or so playing, that I'd really rather be doing something else. My chief argument in favour of this would be the words 'Unreal Tournament'. Everything Quake III does, UT one-ups, with the sole exception of sheer graphical prowess; Quake III still looks quite impressive, while UT (despite its many charms) hasn't aged quite as gracefully.
Offline play, which to me still holds many joys, is barely comparable. Where Quake III has a barely-concealed ladder with barely a paragraph of explanatory text to tell us why we're running about gibbing everyone, UT presents a much more enjoyable campaign, with multiple ladders for each variation of gameplay (deathmatch, capture the flag, and so on), with individual trophies for their completion and a hugely satisfying final boss. Quake III's single player is tedious; defeat one set of opponents, and you move straight onto the next, with no variation to be seen; not even CTF or team deathmatch. Disappointing.
The weapons in Quake III feel unsatisfying, too; the rocket launcher has punch, but many (such as the shotgun) have no feeling to them, and seem to be highly arbitrary when it comes to actually using them. To this day I cannot quite work out how the shotgun seems to be utterly lethal one minute from across the room, and yet the next fails to graze my opponent point blank. Compared to UT's arsenal, almost everything (save, alas, the Ripper) feels much more exciting.
Unreal Tournament boasts voice taunts from its bots, whereas Quake III can only provide written responses, as if the bots had typed them in, which may have been a shade more realistic given the general lack of voice chat in online games at the time, but does betray a desire on iD's part not to allow a bot backchat gap.
The Bottom Line
Really, the biggest criticism I can level at Quake III Arena is, again, that I simply do not find it particularly fun to play. While this opinion probably makes me about as popular as malaria in sub-Saharan Africa (That's enough - Taste And Decency Ed), it remains my continued and unrelenting feeling as I plow through another grimy, brimstone-tinged map, shooting the same bots over and over, wondering quite where iD went wrong.
It's a perfectly capable game, and as a technical demonstration of iD's ability to craft an engine, astounding; but I remain at heart a player of games, and not tech-demos. 6/10; and honestly, I expected a lot better.