"Quake Wars sets out to provide a totally different experience, and does so very well - with a set of well-designed, expansive levels and great vehicles being the stand-out factors." That's what some handsome fool wrote about Enemy Territory: Quake Wars on PC back in September. We liked most of it, but the combat lacked the punchiness we'd hoped for in a Quake game, and we weren't fond of the steep climb up the learning curve.
The mathematically-minded among you will note that this was almost six months ago - time enough for Nerve and Activision Underground, developing the Xbox 360 and PS3 versions of the game respectively, to weave a little magic over the console versions. The timescale alone raises hopes that this won't just be a straight port with strapped-on joypad controls, so we're certainly watching closely as Nerve designer Greg Stone walks and talks us through the Xbox 360 version - under the watchful eye of id Software's business development guy Steve Nix.
The earth moves
What's immediately apparent is that although the heart of the game - its maps, weapons, classes and vehicles - remains intact, the console version is indeed different. "We made a decent amount of changes," Stone tells us. "Mostly just little tweaks, but a lot of tweaks, actually. They were fairly minor, but they added up." Nerve, a long-time id Software collaborator who worked with British studio Splash Damage on several of the maps for Quake Wars, was a natural choice for the 360 version, and seems to have been given an open hand in how it approached the changes needed in the transition.
Enemy Territory: Quake Wars, for those too lazy to go back and read the original review, is a multiplayer, team-oriented, objective-based first person shooter. The two sides (humans with fairly conventional modern-day weapons, and biomechanical alien Strogg with more sci-fi weaponry) must either complete a set of objectives, or prevent their completion, depending on their role on the specific map. Along the way, they have five character classes to choose from apiece, each time they respawn, and can also use both aerial and ground-based vehicles and deploy items like turrets to assist in the battle.
None of those things have changed in the console versions, which support a healthy 16 players online - with surprisingly intelligent AI bots filling up any gaps on either team. You can also play offline. There's no single-player mode, as such, but you can run through the game's various three-map campaigns with 15 bots, which at least gives you something to do when your friends list is mysteriously devoid of life.
So what has changed? The user interface has had a complete overhaul, partially in order to facilitate the change from mouse input to joypad input, but also to streamline the whole process of choosing classes, weapons and so on. The HUD, too, has had a rethink - it's far less complex than the PC version's display. "We really wanted to boil it down to the essentials, to communicate the most information while using the least amount of screen," explains Stone. Less obvious, but much more important, are the subtler tweaks. For instance, when you walk up to an objective you no longer have to flick through your inventory (you cycle through tools with the left bumper, and weapons with the right bumper) to find the right item to activate that objective. Instead you just hold down the X button, and a dial fills up until the objective is complete. After all, if you've chosen the right class to finish the objective, why should you have to mess around finding the right tool?
On that topic, choosing the right class is also less hassle, as you're always aware of which class is required to complete your team's next objective thanks to big green ticks and red crosses, and your map shows objectives marked with icons representing the class required for them. You can also see how many players on your team are already playing as that class, which should prevent the entire squad deploying as engineers to reconstruct a single emplacement.
Smoothing the hill
Showing you exactly what classes can do things, taking out the need to shuffle through a toolbox to achieve anything, and making your team's progress and upcoming objectives clear at all times basically makes the game vastly more player-friendly than its original PC incarnation. The addition of a simple training mission, in which you're tutored through the basics of playing Enemy Territory-style games, is the icing on the cake. Curiously, though, it will only be in the 360 version, having been developed by Nerve exclusively for that version. No equivalent mission will make it into Underground's PS3 port - although aside from that, and an odd quirk where the 360 version allows in-mission saves in single-player, but the PS3 version doesn't, the two platform versions should be functionally identical.
In terms of how they stack up against the PC version, the game certainly looks good - not up to the standard of recent online hit Call of Duty 4, admittedly, but Quake Wars provides enormous, rolling landscapes, tons of vehicles and huge deployable turrets by way of compensation, which seems more than fair. "Both the Xbox and the PS3 look better than the PC game on the recommended spec system," explains id's Steve Nix. "So you always know you're going to have a really high level of visual fidelity when you play on consoles." Admittedly, the game will still look better on a high-end PC ("there's no console out there that's as powerful as a God machine right now, with a Quad-Core and a GeForce 8800 - it's very hard for any console to compete with that," says Nix), but few gamers are going to have any major problem with the graphics in Quake Wars' console version.
Speaking of Call of Duty 4, one interesting aspect of Quake Wars is that like COD4, it boasts a levelling-up mechanism. In Quake Wars, you level up your abilities in each class as you play; this has been simplified in the console versions to remove weapon and vehicle levelling, and you now just get those abilities automatically as you level up your classes. However, the proficiencies you gain from these levels - like more ammo or health, or faster regeneration of class-specific items - don't last forever. Instead, they reset every time you start a new campaign, and as campaigns are only three matches long, that means you'll never keep your competitive advantage for longer than three battles. "We didn't want players to advance, then for new players to come online and get beaten up by all these experienced players with better abilities," says Nix. "Every time you turn the console on, it's a level playing field."
Not that there won't be plenty for the OCD-sufferers out there to concern themselves with. As well as tracking the standard suite of persistent statistics on Xbox Live, both the 360 and PS3 versions of the game will have 56 rankings for players to advance through - and an incredibly elaborate and detailed set of statistics, tracking almost a thousand variables, will be accessible at the game's website.
This could well be something rare - a console port we like better than the PC original. As well as being a near-perfect conversion in graphics, AI and feature-set terms, the tweaks introduced for console players look like they're actually going to improve the underlying game. Look forward to waging war on the Strogg (or on the pitiful human wretches) in the coming months.