Back in 1999 id Software intended "Quake III : Arena" to be the definitive deathmatch first person shooter, and although the game largely succeeded at what it set out to do, many gamers were looking for something a little more than straightforward toe-to-toe fragging. Enter "Quake III : Team Arena", an extravagant new add-on pack from id which is designed to do for teamplay what Quake III did for deathmatch, while giving the game a much needed overhaul.
The Good, The Bad And The Ugly
The first improvement you will spot on loading the game is the new interface, replacing the traditionally primitive id menus of yore with a new all-singing all-dancing video-laden system for the 21st century. It takes a few seconds to load up, but it certainly looks a whole lot prettier than the old menus and makes the game that bit easier to use. There is also a new in-game drop-down menu system which allows you to change many settings and give orders to other players without needing to memorise a lengthy list of undocumented console commands. Even the drab old heads-up display has been drastically redesigned. Which is nice.
Not so welcome are the new player models - "Janet" and "James" - which are every bit as exciting as their names imply. Each comes with a selection of interchangeable heads and different team skins for each of the five "clans" in the game, but as almost every server in the world is using the default settings you will only ever see a handful of the possible combinations. The other two (rather more interesting) new models, Fritzkrieg and Pi, are only available in one-on-one matches, which is a wasted opportunity. All of the models are also accompanied by new vocal taunts, which are even less amusing than the already pretty dire ones included in the original game, and sound like they were recorded by the staff and their friends after a few beers.
The real meat is in the four new gameplay modes, which can all be played on any of the sixteen teamplay maps included in the pack. As well as your basic Capture The Flag there is a "One Flag CTF" mode which involves capturing a lone flag from the center of the map and carrying it to the enemy base to score.
A variation on this is "Harvester" mode, which is strangely reminiscent of the "Headhunter" mod. Whenever a player is killed an appropriately coloured translucent skull pops up at the goal area in the middle of the map. If you run over an enemy skull you pick it up, while any friendly skulls you touch will instantly disappear, making controlling this area vital. Once you have one or more skulls in tow you simply carry them to the goal point in the enemy base to capture. Small games are essentially futile, but with enough players this can be quite fun.
Finally there is "Overload", in which you must blow up an obelisk located in the enemy base to score. This is harder than it sounds, as the obelisk can take a ridiculous amount of damage and gradually regenerates health. Again, small games are really a waste of time as both teams simply stand in their opponent's base seeing who can blow up the obelisk fastest, but with enough players it is the most interesting mode on offer.
All of the modes support a range of four runes, but these tend to unbalance the game. The Doubler rune doubles the amount of damage you cause, meaning that a single glancing rocket blow is enough to kill most people. At the other extreme Guard regenerates your health, making you almost impossible for a lone player to kill. Ammo Regen does exactly what it says on the tin, while Scout makes you run and fire incredibly fast but prevents you from using armour. Needless to say, if you don't manage to grab one of your team's supply of runes when you spawn you will find yourself struggling to survive in an increasingly violent world.
Something Old, Something New, And Something Red And Blue
Accompanying these new modes are a selection of new items, weapons and maps. The chaingun from Doom and Quake II makes a return, ripping through flesh up close but chewing up ammo rapidly and making little impact at long range. The nailgun is also back, but in the form of a rehashed shotgun rather than the rapid firing weapon from Quake. Finally there is the nasty proximity mine launcher, which allows you to leave mines splattered all over your base, ready to detonate as soon as an enemy strays nearby. Highly annoying, although they do at least blow themselves up after a while to prevent a player with an ammo regen rune from smothering the entire map in the damn things.
On the power-up side there is a new "invulnerability" item, which freezes you to the spot when activated but surrounds you with an impenetrable barrier, essentially turning you into a human turret for a short time. Also included is the kamikaze, which creates a massive spectacular explosion when used, blowing you up but taking anybody else in the neighbourhood with you. Often you will see people run into the enemy base and detonate it, killing all of the defenders instantly. Obviously rather irritating if you are on the receiving end of one, but strangely satisfying to use.
The maps themselves are a mixed bunch, and four of the sixteen teamplay maps on offer are simply revamped versions of the old Q3CTF maps, with new items added along with extra bounce pads and tunnels to accommodate more players. There is even a remixed teamplay version of the horrible Q3Tourney6. At the other end of the scale are three vast outdoors maps using id's new terrain technology to great effect, almost getting into "Tribes" territory. Even the eight brand new indoors maps are large and labyrinthine compared to the old ones, and id are obviously trying to support larger games.
Is There Anybody Out There?
And this is the game's biggest problem at the moment. The sad truth is that a week after its European release and a month after its American debut nobody is playing Team Arena online. Even on a fairly good day you will find around 500 players scattered across 150 servers, and when you look closely you will discover that many of these players are actually bots left by the server ops to pad out the numbers when there aren't enough humans around.
Only a handful of servers have more than half a dozen players on them at any one time, and the new maps are so huge that you can easily go for an entire minute without even seeing a member of the enemy team. Then when you do find one the chances are that one of you will be dead within a matter of seconds. Needless to say this isn't much fun, and the fact that most of the gameplay modes completely break down when there are less than three players on each team just makes things even worse. The sheer scale of the maps also means that the system requirements have shot up. I used to get a steady 60 frames per second in even the wildest Quake 3 deathmatch, but with the same settings my frame rate languishes at around 20fps on some of the new Team Arena maps, even when they are virtually empty.
Although bots are included, and the AI has supposedly been given an overhaul to improve team work, a quick session with some bots on the "hurt me plenty" difficulty level proved disappointing. In a ten minute game I only died once, and that was due to an unfortunate accident involving a rocket launcher and a brick wall. In that time I captured the flag five times, and never once did I see any of my opponents even trying to chase me and recover their flag. Meanwhile your team mates completely ignore orders (whinging that "I want to attack" all the time and leaving the flag undefended) and are totally uncoordinated (running into the enemy base one after the other when trying to recover the flag, and getting gunned down en masse in the process). Bot play is no substitute for the real thing, and even the unremarkable championship mode included in Quake III has been stripped out for Team Arena - you simply pick any map and mode, load it with bots and hit the big red button. Deeply uninspiring.
Team Arena is something of a mixed bag. The graphics are great but come at a high cost, the new weapons and items are amusing but encourage random kills, and the maps are stunning but far too big for the number of people playing the game at the moment. As the single player mode is such a dead loss it's hard to recommend Team Arena until more people are playing it online, which is something of a Catch 22 situation.
Things are particularly bad for Europeans, as the most heavily populated servers are all based in the USA, leaving us stuck in nearly empty servers or facing higher trans-Atlantic pings. Team Arena certainly has potential and it can be a lot of fun at times, but right now it's just not worth the rather excessive £20 asking price.