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Quake II (PlayStation) artwork

Quake II (PlayStation) review

"I would like to be able to say that the game I consider to be the greatest across the board technical achievement for the Playstation is actually an original title for the console. I can't, because it is Quake II, a port of id Software's PC-originated first-person shooter (FPS). "

I would like to be able to say that the game I consider to be the greatest across the board technical achievement for the Playstation is actually an original title for the console. I can't, because it is Quake II, a port of id Software's PC-originated first-person shooter (FPS).

It was once thought that it would be impossible to port even the first Quake game to Sony's console, and nobody did. Hammerhead Software went on to make a mockery of such concerns by porting the far more sophisticated sequel. Quake II on the Playstation isn't just frightening because the game experience is frightening. It's frightening because when you play it, you can barely believe the console is delivering something this demanding and polished, beyond anything the Playstation was really meant to be able to achieve, with very few concessions. The gameplay and framerate remain silky no matter how many individual bits of slain Strogg are bouncing across the battlefield, or how many clouds of particle-style blood are evaporating before your eyes.

It is the achievement itself in the first place, and in the second, the ease and sociability of being able to have a multiplayer Quake II deathmatch in your loungeroom, which should make this version desirable to gamers who might otherwise question its purpose. 'Why would I play a port that took two years to reach an ageing console when I've probably played its PC heart out already?'

When it's this excellent, why not?

'Lone space commando kills his way through Strogg HQ to kill the Strogg leader' is a narrative that won't win any literary prizes, but it's a plot fleshed out here with enough texture to add purpose and tension to every level. You've always got a goal in mind which is half a step of imagination beyond 'kill everything that moves', whether it's destroying a reactor core, deactivating security or 'Finding The Commander's Head'.

If anything defines Quake II's bad guys, it is their collective scariness. The Strogg are cyborgs, part mutant flesh and part grimy industrial chic. They lope about in distinctly grisly ways, emit screams and mutilated threats - 'NOWYOUDIE!' - and produce various other terrifying audio cues alerting you to their presence. They pose very specific threats in combination with the level design and weapon physics. Even the most basic guards will try to pop parting shots into you from their post-mortem spasms, which is a health and strategy issue that you need to remain vigilant about for the length of the game. The gaucheness of the sprinting Berserkers, for instance, who can't shoot but seek to hammer and stab you into the next world, can be a joke across an open space. But if you jump into some claustrophobic chamber and one leaps out beside you, it's an entirely different matter, as well as a heart attack moment.

Assaults involving grenades and rockets can prove disastrous (or spectacularly effective) in corner-filled mazes, while the dreaded Railgun is fantastic for sniping across an expanse. Quake II always knows what kind of enemy will cause the worst problems for you in any particular geographical situation and exploits its bestiary well, thus keeping you thinking and sweating for the game's duration. It also arms the enemies with the same weapons you will be using yourself, and they tend to get each new weapon ahead of you, a scheme which maintains a steady difficulty curve. While I love punching holes in people with the Railgun, having one pointed and fired at me in turn by the rapacious Gladiators is just not cricket. Even through the frustration of the weapon's ability to end one's game in a second, I am dazzled by its aesthetics. I love the way you hear the pulse the Railgun emits a good half second after you've seen the corkscrew of light that followed the depleted uranium slug that took your head off. It's one of the most beauteous weapon dynamics in all of FPSerdom.

The Strogg homeworld makes for an environment which is a lot less Quake I medieval-cathedral gothic (no bounding knight enemies here) and a lot more 'future space torture' gothic. This is atmosphere as story. Captured marines groan and stumble about in the half-light of torture chambers, begging you to kill them as they're dissected by lasers, and glass viewports sprayed with gore and blood are a common sight. There's a lot of brimstone, slime and moody lens flare lighting. It's a deeply oppressive game, the atmosphere bedded in Sonic Mayhem's raucous hardcore soundtrack. This soundtrack is made up of selections from the original Quake II soundtrack and from the PC version's mission packs. The new emphasis on particular tracks from the latter, especially 'Pressure Point', proves to be vital in terms of giving this port a memorable musical identity.

After you've survived more than twenty levels of increasingly rigorous treatment, there is a highly worthy final boss. You can be stealthily drilling holes in the Strogg's head honcho, Makron, for up to five minutes, maintaining the kind of mistake-free concentration that verges on pain, and then have all your progress ended in a second because the man gets off one slug from the BFG, that green plasma ball vaporising thing which also turns corners. This is undoubtedly savage, but while some of the boss fights in past id games have been just too ridiculous, I feel that the overall balance of this one has been well judged, making for a rewarding conclusion.

Fidelity Studies

Following is an assessment of the most apparent changes between Playstation Quake II and the PC original:

- Playstation loading times

Between sections of levels, the game pauses briefly to load up more level and cue the next piece of music. Short tunnels are used to cover the action. This only bothered me at those points where I was dying a lot and thus reloading a lot. This is not a particularly significant or unpleasant element.

- You can no longer save the game at any time you like

Here you can only save between levels and sections. Some of these stretches can be pretty hefty. The tension/frustration balance errs on the side of toughness, making this a very challenging game even on medium difficulty. You don't have a lot of initial hope in a situation such as jumping down a pit into a room you've never seen before which turns out to be filled with parasite hounds and zombie Strogg women with rocket launchers strapped to their shoulders. With the few seconds intelligence gained prior to your death here, you're faced with having to re-run the long gauntlet up to this room and then survive the room itself. It's daunting to say the least. Sometimes this kind of thing will make you scream. The pay-off is that when you do pull it off, you feel fantastic.

- Level alterations

A few levels from the PC have been removed in full from the Playstation single player game. Otherwise, there is some minor rearrangement at points to cater for the Playstation's memory restrictions. The deathmatch maps here are brand new.

- The controls are necessarily different

I love strafing with the shoulder buttons in any console FPS, but aiming up and down, when it's called for, is usually the sore point. Quake II offers the other pair of shoulder buttons or the analogue pads for vertical aiming purposes. The Playstation Mouse is also supported if you want to adopt a more PC-like setup.

- The graphics aren't as good as on the PC

They look fantastic, and better than those of 95% of the Playstation's catalogue, so who cares?

- New bad guy

The spider cyborg with twin rail guns is unique to the Playstation.

- Split screen deathmatch

You may not be able to fight with thirty-two other people across a network, but you can organise in mere moments to be blowing up a friend via the convenience of a split screen deathmatch for two, and up to four-way is supported with a quad-screen split and a multitap. So what this version of Quake II adds to an already superb game is the room-sharing multiplayer sociability that consoles have always excelled at. Once again I stress that the programming is so tight that the experience maintains all the speed and grace of the solo game.

Many say that this is the best multiplayer FPS for the Playstation, the console's answer to something like Goldeneye. At the risk of sounding casual about such lofty claims, it probably is, though I find that in the long run the experience of multiplayer deathmatch in FPSes has always been a strangely static one. Chasing after friends or strangers and negotiating all the unpredictability and wiliness that even the best computer AI cannot match is of course galvanising, but assuming a certain level of technical competence (or excellence like we have here) in the game being played, it is always the same kind of galvanising. Deathmatch can turn FPSes into weirdly similar experiences.

This is why I always look back to the single player experience of a FPS for the game's real imaginative life and for its aftertaste, because those are the things I remember. The sights, sounds, weapons, design, overall atmosphere and the nature and scariness of the bad guys. Quake II excels in all of these areas, and its single-player game is very well-crafted in spite of what a bunch of jaded deathmatchers will tell you. This Playstation port in particular is such a triumph of programming and a fearsome demonstration of what the console could be driven to do and almost certainly wasn't asked to do often enough that I think that anyone interested in FPSes and who admires their Playstation should experience it. It is an exceptional game, an exceptional port of a game and one of the highest achievements for the Playstation.

bloomer's avatar
Community review by bloomer (March 08, 2004)

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