There's a war on. A fistful of beleaguered Global Defence Force infantry are huddling behind a crippled Mobile Command Post they need to deploy further down the road. The engineer they desperately need to get it moving again has taken a long distance railgun round to the chest and is lying incapacitated in the open a dozen yards away. The medic can't run out to help him because the radar his allies had flown in tells him a Strogg Constructor saw fit to call in an anti-personnel turret from orbit and deploy it just up ahead. Its eight automated plasma cannons would turn him into a smear before he'd got his defibrillators charged up.
But all is not lost. A covert ops troop has just made his way to the bodies of the Strogg assault group that got wiped out by some artillery fire. He's stolen a uniform and is currently making his way towards the turret with the intention of disabling it with an EMP grenade. Overhead a Strogg Hornet attack craft has spotted him, but the Ananasi copter it's duelling with isn't letting up. The Hornet pilot breathes a sigh of relief as the covert ops steps on a mine at the last second. Then he gasps air in again as he sees a GDF Titan tank crest a hill and rumble down towards the fray, flanked by fresh soldiers on a pair of Husky quad bikes.
For a game which maxes out at 16 players per team Quake Wars produces an unreal quantity of carnage. The havoc is relentless, it's cinematic, and it's largely due to two things.
One, the focused front. Despite having big maps (which, thanks to Quake Wars' megatexture technology, run exceedingly smoothly) any fighting that's going on is almost always happening in the same area. This is because maps consist of strings of objectives that have to be taken one at a time. For example, Refinery, the new map we played set in North Africa started, with the GDF escorting an MCP through a suburb, then them hacking a shield generator in a city centre and finally advancing into an oil refinery to blow up some Strogg machines. Over the twenty minutes the match lasted we'd ended up in every corner of the map but we were never, ever alone. Even the optional sub-objectives like capturing a forward spawn point or hastily assembling a bridge were always just on the outskirts of the current flashpoint - there was always a chance for someone on the other team to spot what you were doing.
So you've got up to 32 vicious, angry players funnelled into one area. Making carnage from there is easy - you just give each and every one of them the firepower to topple a Third World dictator. Take the Strogg Oppressor class. As well as possessing a rapid-fire Lacerator rifle and a pistol, he packs grenades that create force fields, grenades that call in a huge, we mean huge laser from orbit and shrap grenades. He can also summon an anti-infantry Rail Howitzer, a Plasma Mortar or the mighty Strategic Strike Gun from orbit, and once these have touched down they can be fired at targets miles away. And of course he has the option of commandeering any of a half dozen Strogg vehicles, like the Icarus jetpack or Hog buggy that comes complete with an energy 'ram' on the front that activates when it speeds up that lets it turn tanks into roadkill.
Let's have another example. The GDF Covert Ops troop packs a sniper rifle (or a scoped assault rifle if you'd prefer, you brute you), smoke grenades and EMP grenades that knock out any Strogg deployable or vehicle for 30 seconds. If 30 seconds isn't long enough then you've got the option of getting up close and hacking. Covert Ops can also have a radar airlifted in that'll show up nearby Strogg on everyone's minimap and give Engineer-created turrets a helping hand. Best of all is the 3rd Eye Camera, a surveillance device that can be planted on anything and detonated with impressive force. Sneak into the Strogg base, put it on your vehicle of choice then wait for an eager and freshly respawned Strogg to get into the driver seat and put his life in your hands.
All this is to say nothing of the mass of upgrades your class gets throughout a three-map campaign, from flak jackets for the soldiers to a launchable repair arm for the Strogg Constructor that lets you fix things from a distance. Just make sure your hovering, disembodied arm doesn't get shot out of the sky.
Even vehicles are being done with more colour and depth than we've ever seen. As well as being destructible both cosmetically (losing wing mirrors, aerials and so on) and seriously (wheels or hover pads getting shot out) players have a greater degree of control. The default control scheme is the same across all vehicles and has digital stabilisation, which is there to prevent wannabe hotshots from leaping into aircraft, immediately crashing them, then mumbling something about them being for boners and never trying one again.
However, advanced control schemes are available for anyone who wants to push their game. These schemes are nowhere near as intuitive but feature everything you'll need to pull off cooler trick jumps, handbrake turns, donuts and the like. We're struggling to think of ways it could all be useful in a combat situation but then that's what obsessive clans are for.
All this chaos coming from a handful of players just feels a little more satisfying than it would with a server of 32 or 64. As well as just having more power at your personal fingertips it feels less cold. There's more room for rivalries and bonding and more chance to be the hero. It works.
But what's really interesting is that Quake Wars has been designed to work well when you can't even fill the server. Splash Damage was born out of online games that drew the attention of the hardcore, which means training constantly, which means it's tedious to always have to get together a big team. Thanks to the focused front you can play Quake Wars 3 on 3; it's just a little slower, a little more tactical, and a lot more personal. We spent all day playing this game and can tell you without a shadow of a doubt that it's great, and it's finished, and all they're doing now is spit-polishing. If you still haven't settled on any games to be excited about this summer then you should know this is a very safe bet.
Enemy Territory: Quake Wars is due for release "when it's done" (retailers suggest 25th May, but no concrete date has been announced yet) on PC via Activision. PS3 and Xbox 360 versions are scheduled to follow later this year.