Quake Champions is the second shooter this month to promise me a new fling with an old flame. Two weeks ago, Strafe landed in my Steam account like a fresh pile of gibs, promising to take me back to 1996 so we could make sweet death together, the old-fashioned way. This time though, there would be random generation and permadeath involved. Well, everyone's got a kink, I thought.
Sadly, despite making all the right moves, Strafe wasn't up to the job. It started off way too hard, and without wanting to get personal, its weapons were disappointingly limp in the end. There were moments when it felt like things might go somewhere, but I came away unsatisfied.
I was on the verge of crawling back to Titanfall 2, when along came Quake Champions, offering some classic fragging action with a handful of modern twists. And what can I say? The last couple of days I've barely had time to put my socks on. Quake's hairline may be receding, but let me tell you, this silver fox has still got it where it counts.
I confess I was uncertain about showing Quake Champions my hard drive. In my youth I'd committed to a long relationship with Unreal Tournament, and even though that was years ago, this still felt like something of a betrayal. What's more, I wasn't sure about the new style Quake Champions was rocking. Character-specific traits and abilities in a 20-year old FPS that made its name on being pure as Alpine meltwater? It's a bit like seeing your dad wearing baggy jeans and a hoodie at the local skate park. Put your corduroy trousers back on, pops, and stop creeping out the kids.
But then Quake Champions began showing off its moves, and it's like the last 20 years never happened, in all the best ways. Jump into a straightforward deathmatch, and Quake Champions instantly evokes all my fondest memories of classic multiplayer FPS, movement that feels effortlessly slick and atomically precise, geometrically complex maps that embrace the vertical as much as they do the horizontal, and weapons that are both supremely balanced and feel fantastic to fire.
Perhaps none of this should be surprising, Quake Champions after all was initially planned as a facelift for Quake Live, id's free-to-play version of Quake 3. But I think it's important to emphasise that Quake Champions consistently feels excellent to play with. The weapons are beautifully implemented, both in terms of their audio/visual feedback and their effectiveness in different situations. The super-shotgun, for example, has a delightfully muscular kick to it and is absolutely lethal at point-blank range, but its effectiveness rapidly diminishes as the distance to your target increases.
The railgun, meanwhile, deals precisely 80 damage regardless of range, but demands the same precision from its wielder when fired. The rocket launcher is all about prediction and measuring distance, so that you deal maximum damage to your opponent without accidentally blowing yourself up. Even the starting machinegun, while more anaemic than these hefty damage dealers, has a satisfying rattle to it that can prove effective with sustained fire.
But Quake has always felt good beneath the fingers, and that Champions follows in this stead is more of a relief than anything else. More surprising is how well its character-specific mechanics fit into its classic play. Each of the champions on offer is differently weighted in terms of health, armour and speed, and also possesses a unique active and passive ability.
In the context of Quake, this is a big deal, as it means that players are no longer on equal footing with each other. This could easily have gone awry, but in practice it works. My favourite character is Scalebearer, a hulking alien juggernaut with a health-bar as long as the river Nile. His active ability is Bullrush, a powerful forward charge that, when at full tilt, can squash another player flat if you make contact with them. (Incidentally, if you kill two people in a row with Bullrush, you get the brilliantly named "Choo-Choo" award).
Scalebearer sounds unstoppable, but there are plenty of ways to counter this seemingly overpowered ability. Ranger, for example, has access to a short range teleport, enabling him to vanish from Scalebearer's trajectory, and even reappear behind him for a cheeky kill. Nyx has a similar ability called "Ghostwalk", while Slash can leave a spectral trail in her wake that does continual damage if anyone steps into it. Even if your character doesn't have a power that can directly counter Scalebearer, a well-timed shot with the shotgun or railgun will put him down just as effectively.
Just like the weapons themselves, character abilities and attributes are neatly balanced in terms of risk and reward. A character with less armour and a smaller health bar would seem to be at an immediate disadvantage, but these characters tend to be faster and have smaller hitboxes than the beefier champions.
In short, I think the classic Quake arsenal and the more modern character-specific make for a stimulating combination. Beyond this though, everything I've experienced thus far in the beta is perfectly functional, but not spectacular. Quake's champions are great to inhabit, but as characters are unlikely to gain a following in the way the cast of Overwatch or Team Fortress 2 have. Most are balanced awkwardly between aping those aforementioned games and making direct appeals to the dudebro brigade, while a couple are downright infuriating. I only played as Anarki once before allowing myself to never suffer his whiny, inane utterances again.
The three maps shown so far are similarly smart in terms of their construction, but visually they don't liner in the mind for long. A few areas stand out, such as Blood Covenant's grand and gothic hall, and the lichen-covered central chamber of the Ruins of Sarnath, dominated by a giant eyeball chained to its floor. But when it came to voting for maps, I was picking the ones I knew best, rather than which ones I actually enjoyed fighting in.
I'm not sure how long my dalliance with Quake Champions will last. It's been a whirlwind few weeks, and I'm eager to jump into a server with it at the next opportunity, but I don't know if I'm ready to commit just yet. After all, there are a lot of younger, more adventurous multiplayer shooters clamouring for my attention right now. I need to spend more time with it to know if we can go steady, explore its maps and modes more thoroughly, find out if I can live with whatever flaws and foibles it's yet to reveal. One thing is for sure though, Quake has only become more experienced with age, and it knows how to show a guy a good time.