Awesome deathmatch redeems this meatless meal
In 1999, id Software did something that, depending on who you ask, was genius or stupidity: release an FPS game that almost completely eschewed single player gameplay and focused on multiplayer. Released side-by-side with Epic's Unreal Tournament, it became a cult FPS and is regarded by many as id's magnum opus. Which is surprising when you consider that Quake 3 is less
of a game than any of its predecessors.
Quake 3 condenses the FPS genre into the simplest form possible. Realism, story, and design have all been given the shaft and what is left is nothing more than the raw basics of the genre. You pick up weapons, pick up ammo, and try to kill your enemies more times than they kill you. Doom is rocket science next to this. Predictably the game was the subject of a lot of backbiting and criticism, and many claimed it typified the style over substance trend gaming had gotten into. But I'm willing to forgive Quake 3 simply because it was the most fun deathmatch game of its time when released, and even today more than holds its own.
The core of the game, deathmatch mode, is a blast. The transparent pick-up-and-play design to it that makes it very easy to get into, and whether you're a novice or a pro there's something for everyone. Everything in the game is just right. Your characters move at just the right speed, the weapons are all perfectly balanced (for the first time in history, we get a default weapon that is not a total piece of crap), the powerups complement the gameplay perfectly, and in another first for id Software the maps that come with the game actually do not suck. I'm sure all veteran deathmatchers have horror stories about the terrible Quake maps, but Q3A's maps are almost flawless, speaking of endless playtesting and tweaking on the parts of the level designers. No longer does the first person to find the rocket launcher win, and no longer can you rack +20 frags by camping. "The Longest Yard" in particular must be one of the most fun and well-rounded FPS deathmatch maps ever.
The game becomes drastically different depending on how many players there are. If it's just you and a friend the game is a tense affair filled with stalking and stealth. If you've got sixteen players the game becomes a crazy mosh pit where you're frantically shooting non-stop at everything. Just about everything is user-configurable allowing for weird situations where every bullet kills or where players can only move at a snail's pace.
While Quake III Arena's focus may be its multiplayer deathmatch component, it does have a single-player mode. When playing alone, you can go up against artificial intelligence-controlled bots. The bots do their best to act like human players, and while I won't say they have the greatest AI ever they still put up a good fight. Each bot has different characteristics that govern the way it fights. The portly biker chick Lucy tends to duck a lot. Xaero, a Zen master and the final boss of the single-player mode, is also master of the railgun. There's also a tournament mode where you duel with increasingly tougher bots.
id Software's calling card has always been their boundary-pushing graphical engines, from the EGA graphics on Commander Keen to the realistic 3D environments of Quake I and II. With Quake III Arena they upped the ante yet again, delivering every cutting-edge effect in the book from volumetric lighting to curved surfaces, allowing the map designers freedom to create environments that go from hard edged industrial to squishy organic, all with geometric detail that is impressive even by today's standards.
And like all of the Quake games, it was built from the ground up to be user-modifiable. This spawned a lively modding scene that remains active to this day, tweaking the game's extremely flexible engine to produce everything from unofficial patches to completely new games. id Software actively supported this by releasing the source code and all their early design docs. That's one thing you can say about them, you never feel like a criminal when you're messing around with their games.
And I love the industrial metal soundtrack Sonic Mayhem did for the game. Seriously, I've got it on CD.
Quake 3 is unapologetically a one-trick pony. It's about deathmatch, deathmatch, and deathmatch. Outstanding deathmatch perhaps, but once you're sick of deathmatch there's nothing else here.
This is not a criticism that can be applied universally across the genre. Unreal Tournament had a wide variety of multiplayer modes, including capture the flag, domination, and many others. There are people who spend as long learning to play Counter Strike as a grandmaster does learning chess. Even games like Duke Nukem 3D and Blood have combined great multiplayer modes with compelling single-player components.
Or look at it this way. Relatively few people play vanilla Quake 3 any more. It's all about mods like Rocket Arena and Urban Terror. In terms of replay value Quake 3 doesn't go the distance.
And on a less significant note Quake 3's in-built game browser doesn't really work properly and often will refuse connections. GameSpy Arcade is your best bet when looking for games on the internet. It's sad when GameSpy is the lesser of two evils.
The Bottom Line
I could roast Quake 3 all day long for being unoriginal, derivative, etc and to be honest there's fairness in those criticisms. But in the end, you've got to review the game on its own terms. Quake 3 was made so new players could jump right in. It was made so long-time Quake fans wouldn't be too unfamiliar. It was made for people with short attention spans. Maybe it's a repugnant design philosophy but complaining about Quake 3 because it's retarded is like complaining about ice cream because it melts. With Quake 3 you've got an arcade game in a 3D-accelerated engine, and we've all got to accept that and move on.
For what it's worth, you'll have trouble finding a higher-quality multiplayer FPS anywhere. In movie jargon, Quake 3 "works".