Back in 2005, crowds cheered wildly at QuakeCon in response to id Software's unveiling of the fourth installment in the Quake franchise, a series that arguably helped birth the modern 3-D first-person shooter. The mixed reception of Doom 3 the previous year had left fans in a bit of a sulk, and they were eager for something to take their minds off the failings of the attempted reboot. Now, with the unfortunate benefit of hindsight, it's accurate to say their hopes were misplaced. Quake 4 might've impressed on release, but time has been less than kind to this unfortunate corridor-shooter.
Now, to be fair, Quake 4 was not the sole product of id Software, who enlisted the aid of Raven Software to help in production. That said, the game still bears the marks of the studio's ill-fated efforts to take its biggest money-makers in a 'more realistic direction', to quote Kevin Cloud in his appearance on the documentary 'Doom Resurrected' by Noclip. While the developers are to be applauded for trying to step outside the box, the failure of Doom 3 should've served as a clear sign to the team that trying to capitalize on the Quake brand in a way that failed to properly honor the series' roots was a bad, bad idea. But I digress; Quake 4 is available on Steam for 14.99, though you can generally grab it for much less during QuakeCon season when the annual sale is on. Take my recommendation and wait. That way you're more likely to get your money's worth.
id Software has never been strong in the story department. John Carmack, one of the studio's founders, is known for saying 'Story in a game is like a story in a porn movie. It's expected to be there, but it's not that important.'. Obviously, he's not entirely correct, or the Mass Effect trilogy wouldn't have become one of the most popular sagas of all time, but he's not entirely wrong either. The 2016 reboot of DOOM had very little plot, yet it was delivered in a tongue-in-cheek, slightly humorous and campy manner that made it fun and a decent garnish that sufficiently added to the stellar gameplay while never eclipsing it. And that's OK! Some games aren't about the story.
Unfortunately, while Quake 4's story has about the same level of complexity as most of id's other titles, it doesn't have good gameplay to fall back on, and it isn't very well-executed or presented to boot. The plot hearkens back to the franchise's second game, which pitted the player against the Strogg, a cybernetic alien species which has invaded Earth in a plot to harvest humanity for the creation of an organic power source known as 'stroyent'. in Quake 2, the player finishes the game having not only taken down the defenses of the Strogg homeworld, opening it to a counter-attack, but also having killed their leader, the Makron. Quake 4 picks up immediately afterwards, with human warships warping in to deliver some righteous ass-kicking to the evil half-machine aliens.
You play as Matthew Kane, certified badass of the Space Marine Corps, who in the best tradition of id's protagonist never speaks, and has the emotional range of a block of wood. Granted, people get attached to Gordon Freeman of Half-Life fame and he's virtually the same, but he has the bonus of being an everyman character which makes him much more relatable. Kane is a cookie-cutter individual with little to no history and no purpose except to shoot things until they die. Again, this wouldn't be a bad thing, were it not obvious that Id was obviously trying its hand at a more cinematic Quake, without grasping the lessons of similar games like Half-Life.
The writing is also pretty poor, at least in regards to what the developers were hoping to achieve. The first twenty seconds made references to Starship Troopers, Babylon 5 and The Outer Limits. Granted, not everyone's going to pick up on that, but it only accentuated the cliches for me, which continued to roll in non-stop for the remainder of the game. I also got the feeling that there were things that had been cut for time or the sake of pacing which shouldn't have been. For example, in the opening cutscene, Kane's dropship is shot down, crashing on the surface of Stroggos where he drifts in and out of consciousness while people fight on around him. I expected this to be followed by a sequence where you get trapped behind enemy lines and need to fight your way through. Instead, you simply wake up next to your squadmates, who send you on your merry way. Said squadmates are also about as interchangeable and dull as your guns, which I'll get to in a bit.
My biggest gripe with the story is the execution of the big plot twist that comes about halfway through. It wasn't much of a surprise to be fair, given it was advertised as a selling point during the game's marketing stage, but it was full of potential nonetheless. During a mission, Kane is captured by the Strogg and taken to one of their medical facilities, where the full scale of the alien menace is laid out as he is 'recruited' for lack of a better word, awakening on a conveyor belt transporting captured humans through a sickening assembly line that transforms them into cyborg soldiers like the ones you've been fighting the entire time.
The whole thing is chock-full of body-horror, made all the worse (or better, depending on your views) by being forced to watch everything you go through happen to the guy in front of you first. It's a shocking, grisly turn of events, and at the end, I found myself wondering if this meant I might have to fight my fellow marines now too. Of course, I should've known better than to expect such literary creativity. In another cliched turn of events, Kane's control implant never gets activated, a rescue party arriving in the nick of time.
Now, this is the part I hate more than anything because from here, it all just becomes so blase and boring. You fight your way out of the Strogg medical facility and return to your ship. The doctors give you a quick examination, with zero ethical dilemmas about taking you apart from being raised, followed by a jaunt to the briefing room like nothing's wrong. The other people on the ship barely seem to notice your repulsive transformation, espousing one-line reactions before going about their duties. It's so frustrating, not because id isn't good at writing, but because they tried so hard to be different and failed so monumentally. This from a guy who actually sort of enjoyed Doom 3's plot, which I've often heard scathing remarks about. Perhaps things might've been better if this wasn't one of their staple series they were trying to experiment with. As DOOM proved last year, and Dead Space before that, once you create a franchise with a set tone and style, people don't react well to change.
Granted, if anyone could've gotten away with it, Quake could have, given until Quake 4, none of the games had anything to do with one another from a storytelling standpoint. Still, they were shooters, based on blazing-fast action and shooting many bullets, and they were famous for it, to the point of earning spots in the all-time videogame hall of fame. In a way, the real issue might not have been the series identity now that I think about it, but the studio identity. It just goes to show when you're good at something, people tend to have very narrow expectations and react poorly when they're challenged.
Of course, at its core, the real issue is the gameplay. Quake 4 does do some things right, with multiplayer hearkening back to the good old days of Quake III: Arena, where you ran, you shot, you died, then repeated. No loadouts, no perks, just pure and simple shooting. Unfortunately, there is reloading this time though, which feels somehow alien in a game trying to be as fast-paced as Quake 4. Again, it's part of the studio identity. Until Doom 3 and Quake 4, the only reloading any id game ever featured was shoving fresh shells into your double-barreled shottie. Doom 3 got away with it by focusing on a slower pacing, given it was a horror game. Quake 4 doesn't have that excuse to lean on, and it gnaws at the experience like Nidhogg on the roots of Yggdrasil, disrupting the very roots of the experience.
That said, the shooting is much more satisfying than Doom 3's. It's not perfect mind you, but at least they get the shotgun right. Even now, years later, watching a Strogg marine cartwheel into the wall after swallowing some buckshot remains a very satisfying experience. Gibbing enemies (making them explode into meaty chunks) doesn't quite have the same 'oomph' unfortunately, but I'm willing to put that down to engine limitations. Of course, while the guns are cool, they don't really get a chance to stand out from one another, all of them eventually feeling like shiny death-hoses that you point at foes till they stop moving. The Nailgun and the Hyperblaster are probably the best examples of this, with both firing non-hitscan, high-damage projectiles that feel as though they're almost identical in function…almost.
The extremely cramped level design makes most of the heavy stuff feel pointless, much like it did in Doom 3, and I found myself never once compelled to use the game's BFG (it's called the 'Dark Matter Gun', but anyone familiar with id knows it's a rose by any other name), save at the end, where it pretty much trivialized the final boss. This is actually a problem that's persisted through many of id's works. where the player finds themselves in possession of a super-weapon, yet almost never feels compelled to use it, because the need is simply never there. They solved this magnificently with 2016's iteration of DOOM, and it's just a shame they didn't think of it sooner for Quake 4.
Another thing I'd like to complain about, which I also feel was solved in DOOM, is the false sense of progression. Throughout the game, you'll run into techs who upgrade your various boomsticks in ways that range from useless, such as making your Hyperblaster shots bounce around (nope, never really saw the point of that) to awesome, like giving your Nailgun a scope mode where it fires seeking bullets. The unfortunate truth of this system is that it either feels lazy, like 'Why didn't it just do this from the start?', or pointless. There's no effort involved, no searching for secrets in the level's nooks and crannies. You don't feel like you've earned anything, and while it makes the guns stand out from one another a bit more, it's not by much.
Sound & Design
The sounds of Quake 4 are far from impressive. A lot of the ambiance and noises are obviously recycled from Doom 3, which I don't totally hold against the developers, but a lot of other stuff sounds like it was taken directly from the public domain. I have to struggle not to criticize every little thing, given that this is now a very, very old game from a very different time, but it's just too easy. There are nice flashy set pieces that fall short of compensating for the annoyingly familiar corridors you continually waltz through, while the excessive use of darkness makes the overall atmosphere feel like it's borrowing too heavily from Doom 3 (though you do get a gun-mounted flashlight this time…but only on your Machinegun. So close, id, so close.). It does lend itself to an oppressive, industrial atmosphere, amplified by the Strogg habit of grafting human body parts into machinery like the cover of a Front Line Assembly album, but it's not hugely scary, not after the first time. Sometimes it's like id intended to make Quake 4 into Doom 3's faster-paced, action-packed brother, but got the execution wrong, with an excess of monster-closets.
The A.I. is also pretty boring too, though again, I feel tempted to put this down to engine limitations. Enemies take cover and tend to gang up, but that's as complex as they get. Maybe I've just been spoiled by F.E.A.R., which came out around almost the same time. Regardless, with all the ammo you inevitably get weighed down by, the whole thing becomes a bit of a chore. It's no wonder that id had to sell out to Bethesda Softworks in the end. I've also noticed the game suffers some nasty visual and audio bugs on newer machines running Windows 10. There's nothing I can really say about that, given that Windows 10 is unkind to a lot of older games, and the bugs only show up when I played on my new machine, but still, it's a sign that the inevitable wall of incompatibility is rolling towards Quake 4.
Overall, replaying this game years later with a more critical and experienced eye has been…enlightening. I used to think Quake 4 was a lot of fun, but in retrospect, the thing I enjoyed most was the art style, since I'm into cybernetics and weird stuff like that. It was creative and my experience limited, so naturally I thought good things about it. It's only now, with my critic's eye, that I see what turned so many people off to it. If you're a completionist, an avid retro-gaming fan, or just looking for a quick and easy way to relieve stress, go for it. If you're seeking something a bit more meaty though, I suggest looking elsewhere. This is one alien invasion story that's outlived its welcome.
|+ Interesting art style.||– Getting old, showing wear.|
|+ Decent bargain shooter.||– Ham-fisted execution of various design points.|
|– Very, very linear.|
|– Boring skeleton of a plot.|