Second Opinion: Quake Sucks

This is not a series about games you haven’t heard of.  This is a series about games EVERYONE has heard of.  Games that everyone has an opinion on, regardless of whether they’ve played them or not.  Games whose actual qualities have been buried in a narrative, whether good or bad.  Games that everyone always makes the exact same comments about.  Games that are in desperate need of…a Second Opinion.

Hi, everybody. Doctor I Coleman here, PhD in putting a hose in the mouth of the drowning competition, and…can I even call Second Opinion my show anymore? I’m not even soliciting these guest episodes at this point. The HPP staff just likes the series so much that they all feel like contributing, and no joke, that means a lot to me, guys. I’m really happy to see the response this show has gotten. Special thanks this week, of course, to HeyPoorPlayer contributor Mark Del, who’s been a supporter of the show since day one, and who wrote this week’s episode, which is about the other iD Software first person shooter we have a lot of opinions about: Quake. It’s time to give everyone’s favorite brown castle simulator a Second Opinion.

Let me begin this show with a crucial disclaimer. I am a massive fan of the original Quake. I’ve accumulated hundreds, perhaps thousands, of hours of game time in it, from deathmatching with friends and bots to exploring 3rd-party mods and maps. It’s an important milestone in the history of games, and an essential play for any first-person shooter fan.

But having said that, I know all too well just how flawed it is. Today I’ll tell you all about Quake’s little nags and niggles, and hopefully you too will come to agree that it doesn’t quite deserve all the praise it gets.

First off, the look. If I could describe Quake in one word, it would be: drab. Drab. Drab. Drab. Quake’s universe is composed primarily of muddy browns, washed-out greys, and dark greens. These colors are repeated ad nauseum throughout Quake’s lengthy campaign, giving the entire affair a very monotonous and uninspired feel.

I get what they were going for: a darker, grittier, more realistic tone than what had been seen in shooters up until that point. But frankly, Quake is a downright dull sight to behold. Compare Quake to another shooter released roughly around the same time: Duke Nukem 3D. Yes, Quake and Duke are destined to be compared to one another for the rest of linear time, but it’s not an unreasonable comparison. Duke Nukem 3D may have utilized outdated sprites and a more primitive engine, but Duke’s world was far more interesting and colorful than anything dreamt up by Romero and his team of intrepid cohorts. Duke had lunar bases, strip bars, movie studios, submarines, even restaurants. Quake had dark corridors, dark corridors, and more dark corridors, interspersed with the occasional nugget of truly inspired architecture.

The game seldom tries to emulate a real world location: the closest it ever gets is molding arenas on vaguely castle-like or dungeon-like groups of rooms and hallways. Granted, abstract architecture had been done frequently in prior games, but by the time Quake was out, it was looking far less special and interesting. All too samey, and not at all clever and striking.

Then there’s the enemies. If you want some truly annoying foes in a first-person shooter, Quake has you covered. Shooter veterans will quickly notice that Quake employs a very different balance between monsters and weapons than many other games of its ilk. Weapons are relatively weak, while bad guys are relentless bullet sponges, apart from the first few human-like grunts you encounter in the first levels and which quickly become rare.

Eschewing the larger hordes you’d frequently encounter in its predecessor Doom, Quake often has you battling it out one-on-one against one of its many aggressive adversaries. These guys generally don’t go down easily, and often don’t stop their attack even if they’re taking damage. You’ll know exactly what I mean when you go up against the in-your-face Fiend or the living tank that is the Death Knight. Both can rip you apart in seconds, and both simply don’t know when to quit. The Fiend can be a real cheap death because it often leaps at the player, making explosive weapons ineffective (unless you’re fond of getting killed by your own splash damage). “Why use explosive weapons?”, you’re probably asking. More on that in a moment, but I still need to cover some of the other jerks Quake pits you against.

The worst offender is easily the Ogre, who chainsaws you when you’re up close and lobs grenades when you’re in sight but too far away for a melee attack. Not only are they fairly common, but they’re often placed in high ledges and balconies so they can rain down an oppressive barrage of grenades on players, maximizing their annoyance factor.

Along the way, you’ll encounter Vores, who are grotesque spider-like creatures that fling homing missiles at you. The homing missile mechanic was done excellently in Doom II with the Revenants, whose attacks could be avoided if the player broke their line of sight and moved behind a 90-degree corner. Not so with the Vores; their missiles are far more effective, pursuing the player rapidly even after they’ve swerved at every angle. It’s really irritating when players encounter Vores alongside legions of other enemies, as dodging their projectiles becomes nigh-impossible while trying to avoid oncoming fire from dozens of other sources.

Shamblers are another problem. They’re easily the deadliest non-bosses that you’ll face, yet they’re almost comical-looking with a vaguely Yeti-like design. These bastards zap players with bolts of electricity, mimicking the effect of the player’s own Thunderbolt weapon. Their range is extensive, often targeting players from across a room with perfect accuracy. The attack is lethal, with players often only able to take one or two hits at most. You’d think that such an enemy warrants pulling out the big guns, but nope. In a baffling and counter-intuitive twist, the Shamblers are resistant to grenade and rocket attacks, meaning that players almost always fall into a beginner’s trap of wasting life and ammunition trying to take down these brutes with less-than-effective weapons.

In the final episode, players encounter obnoxious blue bouncing blobs who are extremely deadly, unfair, and immensely unpleasant to fight. They were added to the game at the last moment, and it shows. They totally throw off the balance of the levels and weren’t really designed with the current arsenal in mind.

And while we’re on the subject of enemies, the truth is that none of Quake’s dramatis personae are as memorable as their Doom brethren. Perhaps iD software were burnt out from developing Doom, perhaps they were under time and money constraints, perhaps it was the limit of the engine and the amount of polygons it could render, but let’s face it: everybody remembers the Cyberdemon, but nobody really cares about Chthon or Shub-Niggurath.

Earlier on, I mentioned how the weapons were weak. Not only is this true, but they’re rather unbalanced and unsatisfactory to use. Remember how great the super shotgun was in Doom II? Remember how it was pretty useful far into the campaign against all but the toughest of enemies? Remember the pleasant clickity-clack of reloading it, and how forceful and impactful it felt? Well, forget all about that in Quake. Quake’s double-barrel shotgun is pitiful to say the least, with a hollow sound effect and barely any animation. Most of all, it’s simply not very useful, as many of the enemies simply require too many blasts from it for it to remain practical. The funny thing is, the single-player campaign has ammo for it in abundance, forcing you to constantly fall back on it. To have so much ammo for a weak gun while the other weapons chew up ammo so fast is a baffling design choice. When you’re not reliant on shotgun shells, you’ll find a surprising amount of rockets and grenades, which sounds generous but is mainly impractical for Quake’s tight corridors and “in your face” enemies. And remember the backpack from Doom, that allowed you to double your maximum ammo count? That’s gone in Quake. Players just have to make do with really low ammo capacity and be content with the fact that the best guns will run out after two or three encounters with the tougher foes.

Many of the other weapons are as equally uninspired and mediocre to use as the double barrel shotgun. Almost half the player’s arsenal are merely upgrades: the double barrel shotgun is a more deadly version of the shotgun, the super nailgun is just a more wasteful version of the nailgun, and the rocket launcher is the same as the grenade launcher, except it shoots in a straight line. The nailgun is perhaps the most useful weapon in the game, which is unfortunate considering that ammo for it is relatively rare. It’s a similar scenario for the Thunderbolt, which is the most interesting weapon of the bunch. In both respects, neither are as useful or as interesting as many other weapons from other games, such as the BFG from Doom, the Shrinker in Duke Nukem 3D, or the Needler from the later Halo games (which we may cover in a future Second Opinion, stay tuned!).

Quake is often touted for its strong multiplayer aspect. It’s true: deathmatching in Quake was a right bit of a lark, but it’s still full of unrefined ideas and woeful imbalance.

Anybody who has played Quake with friends (and foes) will know how dreadfully powerful the rocket launcher is, essentially turning each and every deathmatch session into a scramble for the weapon. Getting the rocket launcher pretty much means you can dominate the game, making the divide between newcomers and experienced players extremely wide and off-putting. As for the arenas themselves, many lack proper flow, being littered with dead-ends and difficult-to-traverse features and layouts. It seems they were more interested in testing out the capabilities of their new engine rather than actually making levels that were interesting and fun to play. Much like the single-player campaign, the handful of deathmatch maps consist chiefly of drab, uninspired corridors, and are a far cry from the crazy arenas from its contemporaries like Duke Nukem 3D and the later, much more interesting maps to be found in the Unreal series.

I’m old enough to have played Duke Nukem 3D and Quake when they both came out, and Quake was the one that failed to impress me then. Over time I grew to appreciate it and the horror theme iD software was going for, but it was and is essentially a Doom clone that stuck with the then-standard formula with only incremental improvements. Compared to Doom, it feels like a tech demo for more elaborate 3D level designs and tougher enemies, rather than inspired first-person shooter design. If Quake were released today, many would dismiss it as a bland and lackluster FPS that would be consigned to bargain bins and Steam bundle sales.

Its most redeeming factor is the awesome, dark ambient soundtrack done by none other than Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails, but even that is excluded from most modern digital releases. Ironically, the best way to enjoy Quake these days is to check out the rather impressive library of mods and expansions, many of which improved the formula, tweaked the gameplay, and added mechanics and elements that frankly should have been there in the first place.

The game certainly has its legion of fans, and the presence of modding communities such as Quaddicted are a testament to its enduring popularity, with new maps and mods being made more than 20 years after its initial release. Despite all this criticism, I do recommend every gamer, young and old, tries out Quake. If only the demo version, at least.  It’s based on pretty archaic technology, so expect to invoke some technical know-how in order to get it running on modern computers and operating systems, unless you grab one of the inferior console versions. But heed my warning: play it for its historical value, not because you’ll find it to be a truly great experience.

I. Coleman
I Coleman believes that videogames are the most important, most fascinating, and most potentially world-changing entertainment medium today. When not saying dorky, embarrassing crap like that, I is a game designer, science fiction author, and former reviews editor for the now-defunct with years of experience writing for and about games.

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