Version tested: Xbox 360
Quake III Arena, from which this Xbox Live Arcade port is derived, popularised many of the conventions and much of the terminology of the contemporary first-person shooter: everything from brown corridors to the term 'deathmatch'. And yet, sitting down with id Software's shooter concentrate 11 years after its debut, it's curious just how different a multiplayer experience it offers to its descendants.
That's partly thanks to its sheer speed. Quake Arena Arcade is all about split-second prediction-making. In Black Ops, rounding a corner into the arms of a foe is a game of who can squeeze the trigger first. But here, thanks to the speed at which players move, anticipation is more important than fight-or-flight reaction: firing a rocket ten metres to the left of an opponent who is travelling at breakneck speed in the hope that it will hit the target mid-sprint.
If Modern Warfare and Battlefield are about making opportunities and then taking shots, Quake Arena Arcade is about the science of expectation. It's a machine gun volley of estimation challenges, designed to test your foresight. Here, accuracy is only the second most important skill after twitch prophecy, and as a result, the game offers thrills of a different character to the modern FPS.
The purity of Quake Arena is reflected in its minimalist environments, the designers limiting decorative flourish to steel-riveted door frames and skirting boards imprinted with skulls. There are no props to distract or bespoke animations to interrupt, just a red-cloud sky over a suburb of hell.
These are bare-bones levels designed to churn players around in cyclical fashion, washing machine barrels filled with blood and BFGs. Their geography is drawn in until they are as tight as they can be without becoming cramped.
A mainstay of the professional multiplayer scene, Quake III Arena launched the careers of many of the e-sports thoroughbreds, from Jonathan 'Fatal1ty' Wendel to John 'Zero4' Hill. Again, it's the speed and anticipation the game requires that make it the perfect school for competitive play. Quake Arena Arcade could be seen as a training camp for the blockbuster FPS: spend two days within its confines and you'll emerge a better player, with honed skills that are transferable to other games.
At least, it would be a perfect training camp if anyone were actually playing the game. With leaderboard numbers measured in the low thousands, assembling a full room of 16 players requires not only patience but a sizeable dose of luck. Perhaps it's the dated visuals or the overpopulated genre. Either way, it seems few FPS players are returning to their genre's home for Christmas this year, and the game's community is lacking.
That's a shame, because community is one of the essential ingredients of the Quake Arena experience. While the original PC game did away with the Lovecraftian single-player story of id's first Quake, this XBLA port introduces a fairly sorry campaign for the solitary player. Designed as a series of deathmatch encounters with the various 'personalities' of the Quake world, it's dry and often tiresome.
Quake Arena is at its best in a level stuffed with 16 players, not skulking in the shadows for a one-on-one face-off. So the decision to include so many two-player matches was a poor one, and in the more sizeable levels, inching your way to the requisite 10 kills can be tortuous, even if you are given an hour – yes, an hour – to do so. A score attack layer is added to the single-player campaign, offering points multipliers not only for the number of kills but the manner in which they were achieved, while multiplayer matches are divided into plain and ranked varieties.
One area in which Quake Arena Arcade cannot compete with its forebear is servicing the modding community. A great deal of Quake III Arena's ongoing appeal lay in the work of the amateur modders who twisted the game's aesthetic and appeal through their skins and designs. This XBLA release can hardly do the same – a Forge-style map creator is probably to much to hope for in a download game – so the developer seeks to provide value by way of 33 classic maps and a further 12 Xbox 360-exclusive ones.
Despite the number of maps on offer, 1200 Microsoft Points (£10.20 / €14.40) is too high a price for what has become, sadly, a niche title. With the ad-supported Quake Live freely available for people to play in their browsers (and, crucially for many, with mouse control), Quake Arena Arcade needed to bring some hefty extras to the table to justify its price tag. In reality, there are few tangible benefits aside from a weak campaign and Xbox Live's strong online infrastructure.
The code firing the game is nippy and impressive, with very little lag when you do finally manage to get a 16-player game up and running. But without the support of the community, Quake Arena Arcade is destined to be demoted from a vibrant competitive playpen to something of a museum piece.
These brown corridors, devoid of the kinetic excitement of sprinting avatars, bouncing grenades and shotgun shells, offer little more than an ugly, outdated ghost town. The truth is far more interesting and relevant than that, but unless more people are willing to get involved, those newcomers who do teleport into id's classic will wonder what all the fuss was about.
7 / 10