Action games, particularly first person shooters, get a bad rap. Along with sports games they comprise a full half of the Dudebro Gamer’s library. The gradual degradation of both the Halo and Call of Duty franchises in their forced annual releases stands in stark contrast to the Dudebro’s continued adulation of whatever the newest version of the FPS is. And while some FPS games of late have bucked this trend, it has done a lot over the past 10 years to earn its tattered reputation.
But it wasn’t always this way. The original Call of Duty and its compatriot Medal of Honor: Allied Assault were held in high regard. Half Life is probably the second most influential shooter ever made, sitting cosily behind Doom. But before Half Life we had Quake.
And Quake is a masterpiece.
I don’t tend towards being particularly positive in these articles. It's easier, and usually more productive, to criticise where a game has failed. But I feel the need to sing Quake’s praises precisely because its artistry isn’t obvious. There is an elegance and mechanical sophistication on display here that defied my expectations for a game that was released in 1996. And while Quake’s legacy has been well recognised in some ways, for its modding scene and multiplayer, the sheer quality of its fundamental gameplay has been forgotten.
Let's start with an example, a microcosm of the Quake experience: The Grenade launcher.
The grenade launcher does explosive area of effect damage. You can do damage to multiple enemies at once, but you’re also in danger the closer you are to the explosion.
It shoots in an arc, not a straight line. The longer the distance you need to shoot, or the higher the elevation, the more you need to adjust your aim. It's not as simple as point and clicking
It has two ‘modes’ - explode on impact with an enemy, or blows up after coming to a stop a few seconds later. A missed shot means you need to track a live explosive projectile on the ground. This also means that shots can be bounced off walls and more rarely even the ceiling.
Because it's not a hitscan weapon, the grenade has a travel time. This means you need to account for enemies movement and track where they will be in a few seconds rather than where they are now.
So what are the implications from all this?
Positioning is king when using the grenade launcher. You can’t easily snipe with it because of the arc and travel time of the grenades, but get too close and you’ll be taking heaps of damage from the AOE explosion. It's all about finding the sweet spot.
Most remarkably, that sweet spot is a constantly moving target. Not only are you controlling your positioning relative to you and your enemies, the perfect position changes in between you shooting the grenade and it actually hitting an enemy. This is something I didn’t even realise until I thought about it, but there’s a small window between launching the grenade and it hitting to move backwards slightly to a more safe area. This gives you even more control over the explosive feedback of the grenades.
And this is just one weapon.
You’re constantly being thrown into situations where you have to juggle multiple different enemy types in different configurations. Some are melee based, and will charge and leap at you. Every single enemy in the game except one has a variation on a non hitscan attack. Grenades will be raining down on you from different elevations, as you sidestep zombies throwing their own body parts on you and try desperately to avoid a homing purple orb of death. You have to prioritise enemy targets, move accurately to dodge enemies and their projectiles and not get trapped in a corner.
Oh, and you also have to be managing your ammo, armour and health while taking risks based off of how much you have left. You need to balance what weapon is best in a given spot versus what you actually have excess ammo for. You need to be constantly keeping an eye out for ambushes and be ready to go from free wandering to combat status in less than a second as enemies pop up from behind walls. You need to be dodging nail traps and keeping an eye out for secrets all the while, navigating the many twists and turns of the castles without missing a beat.
It's an intensely cerebral experience. And it's one that stands in stark contrast to many of the single player mainstream shooters of today, most notably Call of Duty. Gameplay boils down to a point and click adventure story, as the game displays pretty setpiece after setpiece for your adoring eyes. And while there can be great challenge in accurately clicking on enemies heads, it doesn’t light up the synapses on my brain like Quake did.
Luckily, in recent years we’ve started to see an opening of the market to the Thinking Person’s Shooter. The 2016 reboot of Doom, which while I would argue is nowhere near as tight an experience as the classics, was definitely on the right track. And the existence of DUSK proves that you can be inspired by the classics, learn the right lessons and make something even better than what came before (Go buy DUSK now, its great).
Quake, and other games of its ilk, are not just simple action games. The pace of gameplay requires your attention and reflexes, yes, but you need something to inform which way you spin and where you move. It requires you to internalise the complex decision making until its instinct, but it takes many years of killing the demons and monsters of various video game netherworlds to properly learn those skills. Quake isn’t the hardest shooter ever made, not by a long shot, but it does demand mastery of its mechanics if you want to make good progress on higher difficulties.
Quake isn’t a System Shock or a Deus Ex. It's not even a Rainbow 6 or an ARMA. But Quake is a Thinking Person’s Shooter, and I defy anyone who claims otherwise.