Why First Look?
Quake 3 Arena might already be on shelves in the USA, but here in the UK we have to wait for another two weeks. And unfortunately, Activision UK don't have any review copies of the game yet...
Why not? Well, their story is that id Software aren't allowing anybody to review anything other than final boxed copies of the game. Which is laudable - our own review policy is only to review games based on final code.
The problem is that Activision UK don't seem to be able to get hold of any boxed copies from the USA, and apparently they aren't even allowed to give out copies of the gold master disk for review, despite the fact that (by definition) a copy of the master disk is identical to what you will find inside your own boxed copy of the game.
Luckily, although Activision UK can't give us one, they do have copies of the master disk, and yesterday they held a hands-on session with the final version of Quake 3 at London's top computer games bar, The Playing Fields.
So, after eight hours of non-stop fragging, both in single player mode and over a LAN against other human players, we have written this "first look" review to give you our initial impressions.
Unfortunately we are unable to say how the game plays over the net, because we weren't able to connect to any servers outside of the venue. We also can't tell you what the real world performance of the game is, because The Playing Fields is kitted out with Athlons. As you can imagine, with that much grunt behind it the game ran smoothly even in high detail mode!
But we can tell you everything else about the game, and when we finally get hold of boxed copies in just over a week we will follow up with a full review.
In the meantime, enjoy our first look!
A Real Character
As with the recently released Unreal Tournament, Quake 3 Arena abandons the traditional "find key, open door" gameplay of previous first person shooters. Instead you play against AI bots through a sequence of twenty five multiplayer arenas, arranged into seven "tiers".
Each of the first six tiers features four levels, and has its own cast of bot characters to fight against. These range from (more or less) human characters such as the cigar-smoking Sarge and the hover-skating Slash, to bizarre creations like an eyeball-with-legs called Orbb, and the robotic Tank Junior, a relative of the Tank from Quake 2.
Once you have won on every level in a tier you move on to the next tier, and are rewarded with a short cinematic showing you the new characters you will be fighting against. This eventually leads you to a final showdown against "Xaero" on the seventh tier's sole map.
In all there are 32 characters in Quake 3, and they all look great. The models are detailed, the skins are incredible, and although the animations on a few of them (especially Tank Jr) are a little suspect, generally they are top quality.
The only problem is that they vary wildly in shape and size, meaning that some characters are easier to hit than others. Orbb, for example, is particularly short, meaning there is physically less of him to shoot at than, say, Tank Jr.
Some of the models have other problems as well - Slash does the splits when she jumps, which not only makes it much harder to hit her, but is also rather distracting...
Although this isn't going to be a huge problem for general play, when it comes to professional gaming I think competitions are going to have to limit all the players to using certain sanctioned models...
Which is a shame, because the wide range of characters on offer is one of the game's big selling points.
Life Is Like A Box Of Chocolates
Unfortunately the characters also have a much bigger problem .. their AI.
There are five skill levels to choose from, ranging from "I Can Win" to "Nightmare". On the lowest skill setting the bots don't even fire back most of the time, making it almost impossible for even the most inexperienced player to lose against them.
Even the second skill setting was a push-over, partly because every time a bot killed anyone they stopped to insult them. This soon got annoying, and not just because the taunts are absolutely terrible .. I think they are meant to be funny, but I could be wrong.
Bots would literally stop in the middle of a fight, the "talk" icon would appear above their head, and they would then pause for four or five seconds to chat! Needless to say, this makes them rather easy to kill. I've even seen bots pick up the quad and then stop and talk instead of using the powerup to rack up a few quick kills. Incredible!
The third skill setting was fairly challenging for me, but I still managed to beat it on most maps without too much difficulty. Given that I'm not a very good player, that is rather worrying...
The biggest problem with the AI is that it is very predictable. The bots seem to follow the same routes all the time, and have one track minds.
For example, on Q3Tourney1 (as seen in the Q3Test public beta / tech demo) the bot constantly goes for the lightning gun. At first this tactic succeeded, because I kept getting killed by it. But as soon as I worked out what it was doing, I just camped the lightning gun.
There is plenty of health and armour nearby, so I just sat there and waited... Every time it respawned, the bot would run straight for the lightning gun, usually armed only with a machinegun. Needless to say, I cut it down easily. Two minutes and ten frags later I had won the map, without being killed once.
And despite pre-game hype that the bots all have their own individual character, I honestly didn't see any evidence of this. They all just ran, fired, and then died. Easily. In fact, the only obvious difference between the characters is in the taunts they use, all of which are equally bad anyway.
id Software have never had much of a reputation for AI, and despite flying "Mr Elusive" all the way from Holland to help them with Quake 3 Arena's bots, this game really isn't going to do anything to change that.
Of course, most of you are no doubt more interested in the game's multiplayer side than the single player experience.
The good news is that Quake 3 deathmatch is fun, although hardly original. The weapons are all recycled from previous id games, but as previous id games have always offered the best multiplayer in the world that isn't necessarily a bad thing!
Some of the weapons lack feel, and (in my opinion at least) the models that represent them in the game are a little too stylised, making them look more like abstract sculptures than real guns.
The whole game also has a very arcadey feel to it, which may or may not appeal to you. Powerups and ammunition boxes are bold, basic, and brightly coloured. It makes them easy to identify and locate, but they do look a little out of place in the (still) mostly grey and brown world of Quake.
The actual gameplay is fast paced and frantic, with big explosions, overpowering eye candy, and juicy gibs and blood splatters when you kill another player. The game manages to please the eye without distracting it from the action too much.
The basic weapon which all players start with is a machinegun, which is surprisingly powerful. The weapons in a level respawn very quickly after other players have picked them up as well, meaning that you always have access to a devestating arsenal.
Highlights include the rocket launcher, with its visually impressive smoke trails and explosions, the powerful plasma gun, and of course the railgun, which is just as satisfying a sniper weapon as it was in Quake II.
The whole thing adds up to a violent and frenzied run and gun experience with little or no need for thought or strategy. This may come as a disappointment to some players, but after a few hours to adjust it can be great fun.
Sonic 3 Arena
The arcade influences are clearest in the sixth and seventh tiers of the game though, and sadly this is where it all starts to break down...
The last five levels are essentially Sonic The Hedgehog with gibs. There are bottomless pits, jump pads, moving platforms, teleporters, speed ramps, and metal walkways hanging in nothingness.
If this is anything to go by, expect id's next game to be a 3D version of their classic Commander Keen platform games. Come to think of it, that would be quite fun actually. Mmmm... Anyway, where was I?
Oh yes... I hated these levels with a vengeance. Even playing over a LAN most of the players were ending up with negative frags from falling into space or being knocked off a platform by another player. And the bots don't seem to know what to make of them either, spending a lot of their time jumping into the abyss.
It didn't help that some of the jump pads and ramps weren't set up very well, meaning that you took damage whenever you used them, regardless of whether you landed on target or not.
The best description I can give you of the worst of these levels is that playing it was like being inside a giant pinball machine. You have little control over where you are going, being constantly knocked from one angled jump pad to another across the level, and getting an occasionally rest on a precarious platform before leaping off again.
Of course, some people seem to enjoy this kind of map. If you're one of them, then disregard what I just said and add a point to the game's final rating. But personally I found them annoying, not to mention very poorly designed.
The rest of the map design is good, with a few rare moments of pure genius. More than once I was killed while staring at some incredible piece of architecture, and the game is certainly not lacking in curved surfaces and eye candy.
Some of the map design is rather uninspired though, and only a handful of the maps stood out as potential classics to me. The flow of several of the maps wasn't particularly good, and some areas were just too barren and featureless, a shame given the potential of the graphics engine that powers the game.
Sadly Q3CTF also falls into this category - there are only four maps, none of them particularly good at first sight, and the gameplay wasn't even in the same league as Unreal Tournament's relatively advanced teamplay options.
Even the team skins are rushed, looking like somebody just sloshed a big bucket of brightly coloured paint over the poor unsuspecting character. Disappointing and unimaginative...
Quake 3 Arena is very much a pure deathmatch game, with CTF tacked on as an afterthought. We are going to have to wait for third party add-ons to bring extra features and teamplay options to the game.
Luckily it shouldn't be much of a wait though, as id's games have always attracted hordes of "amateur" game designers. I confidently predict that by Easter the Quake 3 community will have produced Rocket Arena 3, a Team Fortress clone, and a CTF mod with a grappling hook and some better maps, not to mention a whole flood of new deathmatch maps and player models.
Mark my words. Mark my words!
I'm also looking forward to the first Quake 3 Arena patch...
For a start, mousewheel support in the game seems to be broken at the moment, which is annoying as many of us use the mousewheel to switch between weapons.
It doesn't help that Quake 3's automatic weapon switching is hideously broken as well, switching weapons every time you pick a gun up, whether it is a BFG or a shotgun. This makes it totally useless in practice. Eventually I gave up and switched if off again, using the keyboard to switch weapons.
There were also noticeable pauses in the game, even in single player mode! I'm not sure what was causing them - I doubt it was the computers we were playing on, because they were about as good as money can buy.
It wasn't when the action heated up either, they just seemed to happen entirely at random, locking up the entire game for a second or two for no obvious good reason. Strange...
Quake 3 Arena is unfortunate in a way, because it came out just a few weeks after Unreal Tournament.
I've tried to avoid comparing the two games, because they really are very different despite their obvious similarities. But the fact remains that Unreal Tournament has overshadowed Quake 3, with more maps, more teamplay options, better bots, a better interface, and a cheaper price tag.
Quake 3 Arena is deathmatch perfected, the best bits of id's previous games condensed into a single product using arguably the best graphics engine known to man.
The problem is that the resulting game is a little .. sterile. It feels like a greatest hits album - all your old favourites digitally remastered, with a couple of new tracks tacked on the end for the faithful.
So if you're looking for fast paced QuakeWorld-style deathmatch, the chances are you want Quake 3 Arena. In fact, if you're an American you've probably already bought it, so why the hell are you reading this review?!?
But if you're looking for something more in-depth, I recommend you wait a few months before buying the game. By then the gaming community will have added better teamplay options and more imaginative weapons, and id will have patched the game to fix its bugs.
But for now I have to rate the game "as it is", not "as it might be", so...
Download The Demo
Try before you buy! Download the Quake 3 Arena demo (49 Mb) now!