Twenty years ago on this very day, a tremor was felt across the FPS genre. June 22nd, 1996 marked the release of iD Software's Quake, their third genre-defining step into the world of first person shooting. It signified a tremendous step forward for the genre, a leap nearly as drastic as that from Wolfenstein 3D to Doom. In every sense of the word, Quake is a revolutionary game.
And it just so happens that on top of everything, Quake is also a complete blast.
Like Doom and Wolfenstein 3D before it, Quake isn't a very story-heavy game. You play as the Ranger, a dimension-hopping soldier with his sights trained on the eldritch god Shub-Niggurath and her many monsters. But as to be expected from iD, the story is an afterthought, nothing more than a flimsy excuse to get the Ranger knee-deep in the dead, blasting away at anything that even thinks of moving.
The gameplay should be instantly familiar to any fans of the original Doom, albiet with some very noteworthy improvements. With the use of 3D models rather than sprites, mouselook became the number one way to play Quake. Still, even with all the mouselook, bunny hopping, and swimming that Quake provides, the basic philosophy of carnage found in iD's other studios is still perfectly intact.
But mechanics aside, what really sets Quake apart from its iD brethren is the darker setting and atmosphere. Gone are the heavy metal hellscapes and action movie absurdity, swept aside for a new Gothic aesthetic. Instead of blasting away zombies or cartoonish imps you'll be dealing with grotesque shambling mounds of flesh and skeletal knights. and the exaggerated bowels of Hell are replaced with much more understated castles and caverns.
The new atmosphere is perhaps best represented in the soundtrack, which trades the midi metal riffs for a more atmospheric approach, not unlike those that would later be heard in Doom 64. The only exception is the main theme, an industrial track composed by none other than Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails fame. While it is a far cry from Doom, it certainly fits the setting better, and my attempt to play it while blasting Doom tracks ended up laughable.
While the visuals may be more subtle, the gameplay is anything but. From the moment Quake starts, you're equipped with a bloody battleaxe and a pump-action shotgun, and it basically only goes up from there. While the weapons are certainly powerful, the aforementioned nightmarish monsters can take much more punishment than the majority of Doom's demonic lineup. On top of taking increased damage, they also have much more sophisticated AI patterns, where even your basic chainsaw-wielding foes can fire off a grenade if you try and get out of their melee range. Thanks to the increased risk, enemies now appear in much smaller groups, making nearly every encounter feel like a climactic showdown.
Of course, one cannot talk about Quake without giving mention to the infamous multiplayer mode that defined a genre—the natural evolution to Doom's simplistic deathmatch. Quake's take on multiplayer was a frantic mess of players scrambling for items, a nonstop dance of bullets and explosions that helped shape FPS multiplayer into what it is today, and later games would help evolve Quake's multiplayer into the finely-tuned gem that is Quake III: Arena.
But despite all the brilliance, Quake has some very notable issues. Like most shooters of the time, the first episode of the game is fantastic, and the rest of the campaign never really meets the high points found in Dimension of the Doomed. Things aren't made any better by the game's two boss battles, both of which are pathetically easy gimmick fights that don't even involve directly taking on your enemies. When faced with a giant lava beast or queen of monsters, you're damn right I want to shoot them instead of solving pathetically easy puzzles and platforming challenges.
But even when Quake is at its lowest, it's impossible to hate. It's a title that takes the core gameplay of Doom and polishes it to a mirror sheen, and adapts it to a new setting and slightly slower pace gracefully. While it may not have achieved the same fame as its older sibling, it's still a joy to step back into the ranger's boots and lay waste to the otherworldly hordes even after all these years.
Happy birthday, Quake.