Right now in Indiana, there is a lone youngster practicing his jump shot, hoping to develop the buzzer beating, clutch shooting of Larry Bird. At the same time in Texas, there is another kid repeatedly pitching a ball at a wall all by his or her lonesome, hoping to eventually throw smoking strikeout heat like Nolan Ryan. Then somewhere in Chicago, there's a kid pumping iron, hoping to develop the tough endurance that gave Walter Payton his edge. All across the United States, would-be athletes aspire to emulate their heroes and dream of playing their respective sport (be it basketball, baseball, or football) at some professional level while getting paid big bucks to do so. Only a select few out of those hundreds of thousands will make the final cut onto teams that are considered part of the elite. Teams in leagues like the NBA, MLB, or NFL. Meanwhile, a large majority of the remaining players will become also-rans who, if lucky, can go on to second-rate divisions like the CBA, AAA minors, and arena football. Yet, the overwhelming odds do little to deter those starry eyed hopefuls and this driven, competitive atmosphere can be felt across the country. This culture of making it to the big leagues is what separates these major sports from more recreational activities like hopscotch, handball, and tag. Videogames have also been considered another plain old recreational activity, but with the release of the much anticipated online multiplayer first-person shooter (FPS), Quake III: Arena (Q3A), that perception may finally change. The activity of Deathmatching (dueling to the death in cyberspace), which was popularized by FPS games like Q3A, may finally be considered a legitimate sport; digital or otherwise.
So what is it about Q3A that makes all the difference? It is the presence of the Professional Gamers League (PGL) and their awarding of large sums of cash to winners and the rise of FPS thespian-turned entrepreneur, Dennis "Thresh" Fong, as the man to beat. These two factors have gone a long way towards creating a sports-like competitive atmosphere in the PC gaming world. Q3A completes the circle of competition by offering itself with one major deviation from its predecessor, Quake II. This is that Q3A effectively levels the playing field for all game players and opens the door for anyone to take the crown away from Thresh; even those previously alien to the culture of Deathmatching. In the past, there was no way for anyone to learn how to Deathmatch besides jumping in head-first and being baptized in a hailstorm of machine gun fire and blood spatter. Even actually Deathmatching on the Internet those days required the aid of obscure 3rd party software and a techno-savvy knowledge of things like ping, rates, fps (frames per second), and the TCP/IP networking protocol. These problems led to a level of inaccessibility that deterred many, including myself.
Q3A changes all that by switching focus away from any traditional objective oriented, one-player trek through multiple stages and delivering only arena-style environments designed solely for various types of competitive Deathmatch and Capture-the-Flag (CTF) matches. Learning how to actually Deathmatch is then handled by a one-player mode that is essentially a tutorial that familiarizes would-be players with those intricate arenas and effectively prepares them for the frantic combat of Deathmatching. Though Q3A does little to hold ones hand beyond the basics (advanced techniques like circle strafing, rocket jumping, or the importance of controlling items aren't covered in the least), players are introduced to the Deathmatch experience by progressively facing off against computer controlled opponents affectionately dubbed Bots in place of human competitors. The Bots do have strange AI (artificial intelligence) quirks, making them prone to avoid power-up items at certain locations, while overcrowding others, and they also have difficulty dealing with campers (players who ambush others from key locations). But beyond those quirks, each of the 32 characters do have individual looks and personality tactics. They can also be adjusted to varying degrees of difficulty, making them more than adequate in helping players simulate the actual online experience and knowing what to expect when going up against actual human opponents. Time spent learning a particular stages layout and item locations offline proves to be invaluable for online play later.
The other issue that Q3A addresses is the former technological hurdle of requiring 3rd party software to Deathmatch over the Internet. No longer is any extraneous software required as Q3A is ready to play and online games can be setup right out of the box; assuming one already has capable hardware and a decent Internet connection. The process of entering an online match is well streamlined as the game itself will automatically scan servers over the Internet and inform players of games in progress that players can join and what kind of performance (measured in ping rates) they can expect from that selection. While Q3A will sort the available games according to various specifications and can track favorite server locations, there is one annoying part of the whole process. After exiting an online match, the computer will not keep a list of recently listed servers in memory and instead automatically refreshes the entire list of available games over again, which can be a lengthy wait since it is essentially peering through hundreds of active servers. Despite this minor annoyance, Q3A is still a far cry from the days of old and a remarkable stride overall in terms of easing accessibility for online games of this sort.
Accessibility wasn't the only thing improved, because the graphics in Q3A have taken another generation-sized leap forward from previous efforts. Under the renowned, yet surprisingly humble, programming skills of John Carmack, the 3D game engines used in the Quake series have always been revered and reused by other time-constrained developers in the industry. Q3A is no different and is another shining example of Carmack's fine work. Much hoopla has already been made around its features such as subtle architectural curves, rich 32-bit colors, detailed textures, and complex character skins that run under an incredibly optimized engine. Thankfully, the gritty, hellish, and blood-filled art direction only further enhances the solid technological foundation that Q3A is built on. Satanic iconography has long been a staple since id's ancestral classic, Doom, and Q3A follows in its oft-disturbing, yet undeniably well-crafted tradition. The audio in Q3A is enhanced by Aureal's A3D sound standard, but for those without the hardware, the positional sound effects on a typical two-speaker setup will prove rather effective and an integral aspect of the gameplay when anticipating opponent location. The background music never extends beyond ambient types of beats, but its not really a concern because those really serious about competing in Deathmatches will mute the soundtrack altogether in order to more clearly track opposing foes via audio cues.
As for the gameplay of Q3A, many critics have already lobbied complaints about how little the game has changed and how little new it offers when compared to previous efforts. While the CTF variation now comes prepackaged without the need of a mod (modification) and offers a nice diversion, the motto of Q3A is still "Frag (kill) everything that isn't you." The focus of the game still lays firmly on Deathmatches, to which victory is achieved by accumulating the most frags. It's the same frantic, adrenaline pumping, and notoriously unforgiving style of FPS action from the two previous Quake games. The action still often reaches chaotic levels when the amounts of competitors exceed double digits and only the gameplay elements have been more finely tuned and tweaked to make sure everything was as balanced as the developers felt possible. Nothing new appears in the arsenal of weapons and items either. The choice of armaments consists of more or less a specific selection of weapons from previous games. Another long-standing issue with games like Q3A, is how the overall performance is still seriously dependent on the quality of Internet connection that one has. Its more than obvious that those with broadband T1 connections (mostly in offices) and incredibly low ping rates always seem to best those with 56K modems (mostly home users), who often suffer from debilitating connection lags, which result in unfavorable handicaps in the form of choppy animation and play. So while Deathmatching, with all its rules and intricacies, is now openly accessible to anyone willing to play Q3A, unfairness, due to technological superiority, has yet to be addressed in any meaningful way.
Yet, to complain about Deathmatching lacking any real innovation is like saying the rules of baseball need to be drastically altered in order for it to seem fresher. Like baseball or any other sport with a long-standing tradition, Deathmatching is, for better or worse, fine for what it is. The developers at id Software know that Q3A only needs to be refined in order to improve and balance out the competition as Instant Reply did for Football or the 24 second clock for basketball. The developers are confident that the real innovation won't come from their efforts, but rather from the new generation of players, who will push the game to the next level the way athletes like Michael Jordan, Mark McGuire, and Jerry Rice have for their respective sports. Is Dennis "Thresh" Fong the first of many game player-turned-athletes to push the limits of Deathmatch to the level of competition that befits a professional sport? Will the new generation of competitors be inspired by the likes of Thresh and start training on their own with Q3A the way kids aspire to the prowess of Larry Bird, Nolan Ryan, and Walter Payton? With Q3A, id has certainly opened the floodgates to these possibilities and perhaps Deathmatching may indeed be considered a true sport one-day. If that day does come, Ill be more than happy to join the ranks of competitors.