Version tested: PC
It's a good week for those who enjoy taking care of Alien Scum. Unless you've been living under an especially soundproof rock, you can't fail to have noticed that the Master Chief has returned to Earth this week to splatter some Covenant types all over the ruins of East Africa - but it's not just Xbox 360 owners who will be finishing the fight this weekend.
There's alien killin' to be done on the PC as well, it seems - with another venerable franchise, Quake, bringing the fight back to Earth for a teamplay-focused rumble between the human forces and everyone's favourite biomechanical horrors, the Strogg.
We shouldn't really imply that there's much correlation between Enemy Territory: Quake Wars and Halo 3, though. In fact, if anything, this pair ably demonstrates just how un-alike two FPS games that are essentially about space marines fighting space aliens can be - and yes, we're saying that without a hint of sarcasm. Honest guv.
For the Makron!
Enemy Territory: Quake Wars is English developer Splash Damage's follow-up to the popular Enemy Territory freeware title, which was based on another id Software game, Return to Castle Wolfenstein. Around four years in the making, this second instalment in the Enemy Territory series has transposed the action to the science fiction universe of Quake II and Quake 4 - and somewhere along the way, seems to have swapped some DNA with Digital Illusions' celebrated Battlefield series.
In fact, it would be fair to say that ET:QW has far more in common with Battlefield's wide open spaces and vehicular focus than it does with Quake's tight corridors and twitchy firefights. Anyone who has played the Wolfenstein version of the game will know that teamwork and mission objectives are the order of the day here, not frags - but Quake Wars takes that ethos a step further.
Each of the game's 12 levels - which are spread across four distinct "Campaigns", each ostensibly highlighting a major battle in the Strogg invasion of Earth - has one defending team and one attacking team. The plot explanations regarding what you're defending and attacking are almost meaningless; once the timer counts down, all you know is that you have to blow something up, hack something or capture something, or prevent the enemy team from doing one of the above.
The game progresses according to a lengthy timer; most servers seem to set this at around 20 minutes, although we're writing this on the evening of launch so it's likely that settings will be played with in the coming days. Within that timescale, the attacking team has to achieve a number of objectives - for example, knocking down a barricade so you can bring your mobile command centre through, escorting said command centre to a deployment point, taking out a nearby shield generator, stealing a key object and then making it back to an evacuation point with said object.
The objectives flow in a logical progression from one to the next, and the attacking team can only win by completing the full sequence. On many maps, this actually means that the game gets harder as you near the end; with only one final objective to go, vital seconds are ticking away, and the full enemy squad is defending just one room or one entrance. More than once we've seen an attacking squad make it all the way to the last objective, only to be held there in a bloody stalemate for ten minutes - although that's nothing a bit more coordinated team-work couldn't solve.
Unlike similar games like Team Fortress, though, Quake Wars doesn't allow for an ebb and flow across the battlefield. Certain things - remote points where your reinforcements spawn, say, or various turrets and defensive buildings - can of course be destroyed or recaptured by the enemy, but the major level objectives are one-way only. Once the defending squad is down to its last objective, there's no way to push the attacking squad back or retake the initiative; painted into a corner, it's time to defend or die.
To spice things up, the game also offers a host of smaller "missions", which you can cycle through by pressing M on the keyboard. Some of these are dynamic - such as keeping track of which vehicles and emplacements are damaged, and allowing engineers to select their repair as a mission. Others are static, such as capturing helpful spawn points that aren't included in the main set of objectives. Your present objective is always listed in the top-left corner - although we were a bit miffed that selecting a mission doesn't give you a nice obvious waypoint marker to guide you there.
Actually, that's a bit of a problem with the game as a whole; it's got a learning curve reminiscent of the Matterhorn, with only the faintest nod given to the idea of comprehensive in-game information. Information on your map and HUD is densely packed, but only makes sense once you actually know the layout of the level. You'll spend a lot of time wandering around in your first few days playing the game, which a decent and clear objective marking system could have avoided.
The game's determination to cast you as a clueless newbie for your first few matches continues in the equipment load-out. As you select each weapon and tool from your arsenal, you get a brief description in a window at the top of the screen; helpful as this is, it'll still be a long time before you instinctively know which of the bewildering items you need in each given situation. This is especially notable on the Strogg side; the humans, at least, get sensible weapons like shotguns and sniper rifles. The Strogg equivalent items will take quite a bit of experimentation to get your head around.
Once you've stopped wandering around the maps like a tourist looking for a cashpoint in the West End, and have worked out which way around each of the guns goes, Quake Wars seriously starts to come into its own.
The vehicles in the game - both terrestrial and aerial - are great fun, ranging from conventional tanks and choppers to more outlandish types like the Strogg's slow but devastating bipedal Cyclops. As in Battlefield, we expect that aerial combat experts will emerge quickly; there's a steep learning curve to controlling the choppers, but taking out ground targets with them is both a great tactic, and a deeply satisfying experience.
Indeed, vehicular fun is such a large part of the game that the more basic combat plays second fiddle, to some degree. There are five classes in the game - soldier, medic, engineer, covert ops and field ops. Several objectives require one specific class to complete them; the soldier, for example, is needed to take on "Destroy" objectives, while the covert ops class is the only one which can hack computer systems.
Each of the classes, of course, can fight; the specialised combat roles here being the soldier, which has the widest range of available weaponry, and the covert ops guy, who is the only class which can carry a sniper rifle. The medic can, of course, heal, and can also raise dead comrades; the engineer and field ops classes, meanwhile, build defensive and offensive turrets respectively, with the engineer repairing machinery while the field ops class goes out to "paint" targets for his artillery pieces.
The actual process of fighting, however, feels a little weak at times - perhaps because of unrealistic expectations on our part. We were anticipating a more Quake-like experience, but Enemy Territory instead delivers an attempt at a realistic battlefield. Weapons are wildly inaccurate when you're moving around, and players are remarkably squishy - none of the long, drawn-out rocket duels of Quake here, instead a rattle of machine gun fire is enough to see off any foe, assuming you can hit them.
This isn't a bad system by any means, and if anything it emphasises the focus on tactics and strategy rather than individual skill. However, it's not really Quake, which rankled with us in the first few hours of play - although we confess that we rapidly came around to the idea that Quake Wars was offering more than enough shiny new toys to justify the loss of rocket jumping.
Indeed, shiny is a word which we'd happily use for Quake Wars - because aside from our lingering concern over the game's general unfriendliness for new players, we are very impressed by the sheer amount of polish Splash Damage have lavished on the title. Evidence of serious thought abounds in the game mechanics; the drops of reinforcements every 25 seconds, for example, give combat a "wave" nature, allowing defenders to catch their breath momentarily before the next batch of attackers arrives, which is a lovely system.
A similarly fantastic piece of design is the placement system for turrets and other deployables, which puts you into a zoomed-out third-person mode and allows you to place and rotate the item using controls that will be familiar to anyone who has played Command and Conquer. It's a textbook example of a good design idea from one genre crossing over into another, and is probably a large part of the reason why we like playing the engineer so much.
Despite the obvious thought and loving care which has gone into certain parts of the game, there are other aspects which raise question marks in our minds. The balance between the Strogg and human forces, for one thing, seems to be just about perfect technically - but perhaps not in terms of enjoyment. Much as we like playing as biomechanical horrors and harvesting human flesh (and believe us, we really do), the Strogg weapons feel somewhat toy-like and underpowered compared to their human equivalents - not to mention hard to get used to, thanks to nonsensical names and shapes that don't suggest function.
The covert ops class, too, strikes us as something which may be perfectly well balanced, but only at the expense of being much fun. Sniping is a satisfying experience, as you'd expect in a game with such huge maps and enormous draw distance. However, the much-vaunted infiltration capabilities of the class are somewhat crippled; the game goes out of its way to let your enemies know the second you use your disguise ability, and will drop the disguise at the slightest provocation (and the most awkward moments). We can see how the game would be unbalanced if disguises were more powerful. We can also see how playing covert ops would be much more fun. It's a tough trade-off.
Of course, for many people, the decision to buy or not to buy will be made by one simple factor - Enemy Territory: Quake Wars is an online game, pure and simple. Its offline mode consists entirely of playing against bots in matches of up to 8v8 (16v16 matches are supported online), which is a great way to learn the ropes before taking part in competition with real humans but not exactly a compelling single-player experience.
Similarly, the game offers a degree of persistence, with players earning experience in matches that they play and levelling up through the military ranks, as well as picking up various medals for achievements. This persistent approach is a nice idea, and for some gamers will be a key selling point, as achieving the higher ranks in the game will earn genuine bragging rights. If you're not an online gamer, though, they're probably meaningless to you.
So, single-player fans need not apply - but for online players, Enemy Territory: Quake Wars is a title which stacks up surprisingly well with Valve's Team Fortress 2. It can't quite match the polish, presentation and beautifully conceived design of Valve's latest, but 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. It's turning out to be a great month for online FPS gamers; and Enemy Territory is definitely another fight worth finishing.
8 / 10