When you think of id Software, a few names come to mind — Wolfenstein, Doom, and Quake chief among them. However, when you think of Quake specifically, you’re probably not thinking of the original. Instead, you’re probably thinking of Quake II or Quake III: Arena, both of which released to much larger fanfare and moved away from the original’s premise and setting.
Despite effectively jumpstarting first-person online multiplayer and introducing both machinima and modding to thousands of gamers, the first Quake is (at best) seen as a stepping stone to greater things rather than being a noteworthy title on its own. It was vastly ahead of its time when it released in 1996, but has since become quite antiquated — strangely even moreso than its predecessor, Doom. As further evidence of being left behind, the upcoming reboot Quake: Champions is closer to Quake III than the original, abandoning singleplayer for the second time in the series.
However, is this historical and creative cold shoulder warranted? Has the first Quake aged so poorly that id Software needed to distance itself so much from it? And if so, can a modern shooter fan find something to love in its low-poly dungeons of rocket-jumping space marines?
With an old laptop in hand, I dared to find out, and you know what? I have absolutely no idea why Quake isn’t considered the hallmark of id Software’s library.
In Quake you are a Ranger — basically an elite space marine. After traveling through a portal to fight an unknown enemy, you find yourself the lone survivor of the offensive. Your mission is to hunt down a Cthulu-esque monster known as Shub-Niggurath; the literal mother of all monsters.
The writing is not impressive, but it does show that the developers realized some narrative was needed. You get a brief paragraph outlining progress at the end of each episode, tying together the various levels into a story of dark magic and rocket launchers. It works, but it’s not really what you’re here for.
In terms of game design, it must be noted that Quake went through some serious shifts (some good, some not) during a phase of development hell, and this becomes readily apparent in a number of ways.
Quake was originally melee focused, with your hand axe once working like Thor’s hammer Mjolnir. As a result, every enemy has a melee attack to go along with a ranged attack, and all enemies resemble monsters from Dungeons & Dragons. You also spend half your time running around medieval fortresses instead of sci-fi military bases, and the two bosses are demons, rather than cyborgs. However, id Software eventually fell back on what it knew best and turned Quake into a shooter, which is why there are also a variety of space marines running around in certain levels.
Another major hitch in the road to release was a tighter limit to how many enemies could be rendered on screen. Unlike Doom and Wolfenstein, Quake was id Software’s first truly three-dimensional game, and at the time, it pushed PC hardware as hard as it could go to accomplish this. The result was that Quake usually sticks to between three to five enemies at any given point, whereas Doom had dozens of demons coming at once. To compensate for this smaller number, instead of simply dodging their attacks and circle-strafing around them, Quake‘s combat pushes you to understand each enemy type and use the proper weapon in response. The ‘issue’ of fewer enemies was actually a blessing in disguise.
In this setting, combat is no longer a simple matter of accuracy and damage output, but a question of what gun will serve you best against each opponent. Marines go down easily with the shotgun, but the sword-wielding, magic-casting knights are better dealt with using the nailgun. The more esoteric enemies push you to even more unconventional strategies, such as using a grenade launcher to trickshot around corners to keep yourself from being shocked by lightning or chased by homing missiles.
This shift in more nuanced design leads to gameplay that’s slower than other id Software titles but requires greater strategy and player investment. You can’t just randomly mow down enemies and run through levels with reckless abandon. You have to think about what you’re doing and plan accordingly. However, you’re also constantly moving — the game demands it, since enemies can do damage at range and up close. It strongly resembles horror titles like Resident Evil 4 and Dead Space, while still retaining faster FPS pacing. It’s an insane balancing act, yet Quake pulls it off effortlessly for the majority of its run time.
Every level is a new journey, isolated in its design yet loosely connected to your quest to frag every monstrosity with a rocket to the face. Sometimes it almost feels like a traditional id Software shooter. Other times it’s a more elaborate labyrinth of light puzzle solving and survival horror-esque combat. It’s a specific sort of crazy that just clicks and you’re nodding your head to the beat of your military grunt blasting his way through hordes of enemies.
That is, until the game’s final episode.
The first three sections of Quake are all masterfully done. New enemies and concepts are doled out at just the right moment, keeping things fresh and teaching you everything you need to know to get through each level. Each is a great standalone experience, with some spectacular setpieces ranging from a low-gravity refinery shootout to a handful of rooms sending you round and round through portals and trapdoors. Then the fourth episode brings everything to a grinding halt.
At this point, the levels start to run too long, often fifteen minutes or more – this is sometimes more than twice the length of previous levels. Puzzles are suddenly more esoteric and require blind leaps in logic. Platforming sequences go from brief challenges to being required setpieces with irritatingly specific paths to success. Enemy combinations become less distinctive, with the final level being a few long twisting halls with the same mini-boss enemies cut and pasted over and over again.
The final boss isn’t even a standard boss fight or environmental puzzle – after finally coming face to face with Shub-Niggurath, you’re supposed to wait for a specific moment and then jump into a teleporter. That kills her, apparently? No hints are given that this will be the case, none of the items you’ve collected before help in any way, and it all just comes to a jarring halt that regretfully appears to be the result of Quake‘s development woes. There were expansion packs released later on by other developers of varying degrees of quality, but it ends on an unfortunate note for something that is otherwise an absolute blast to play.
So, the question remains, does Quake hold up?
For me, in 2016, it does. It has its problems, but as someone who never played Quake before, I’m immensely impressed with what id Software crafted. It’s rough, chaotic, and at times completely at odds with itself, yet it turns that around and makes it work to its benefit. You have to think about positioning, what enemies you’re fighting and how close they are to you, the ammo count, how close are you to the exit – yet it all comes together and makes up the very core of quality combat found in so many shooters and survival games since. It may have come about thanks to development issues and deadlines, but this more thoughtful approach to combat over the previous spray-and-pray antics is what puts Quake at the head of id’s early work.
What’s most amazing is how you’ll see so many elements from dozens of games that you didn’t even realize were inspired by Quake, and that’s part of what made it so exciting to play — it’s forward thinking yet retro, a work of genius and a total mess. But overall? It’s an unappreciated classic more people should play, and one whose influence is still felt today.