A sequel – whether it’s a movie, book or game – has two duties. On the one hand, it has to be faithful to the original; to have something of the old feel, a few old characters, and a few common threads to pull the two stories together. But at the same time, it has to take the series somewhere new – pull the characters and their story into new territories and new situations; embrace new ideas and bigger themes. The thing about iD and Raven’s Quake 4 is that it absolutely aces the first part. It couldn’t be any more like Quake II if it had been designed by the exact same people immediately afterwards. But then it goes and fumbles the second part. If Quake 4 didn’t look so damn cutting-edge, we’d have to label it a retro game and be done with it.
This is Quake II – a gung-ho science fiction war movie of a game – taken to the max. It follows on almost directly where iD’s classic left off, features a very similar weapon set and enemies that are clearly from the same gene pool, and has action modelled very clearly on the Quake II model. It’s really, really intense stuff, with enemies coming from all sides and even bursting through the scenery to get at you, and if it lets up for a few minutes here and there, it’s only to give you enough time for the next big shock. Raven has had the sense to steal some new elements from the likes of Halo and Call of Duty, but Quake 4 has neither the emergent, open gameplay of the former or the tough, squad-based dynamic of the latter. For large chunks of the game you could simply be playing Quake II remixed with the Doom 3 engine.
In many respects, this is the game’s biggest selling point. Let’s make no bones about it, this engine produces the most stunning indoor environments and lighting effects around, and lends itself to the most detailed horrific and macabre creatures you could hope for. The Strogg were always a deeply unpleasant bunch, and they’ve only become more so with their new makeover: all the torn flesh, grotesque techno implanting and ghastly rending and tearing implements looks even less wholesome this time around. Admittedly, their taste in interior design has not improved much (brown industrial is still THE look on Planet Strogg) but when the level designers really put their imaginations to work there’s some beautiful alien weirdness on display here. You might have seen the central elements – the fans, the glowing tubes, the weird machinery – in Doom 3, but it doesn’t mean they don’t look fabulous here.