id Software, the company that created the modern template for first-person shooters, has never met a darkened corridor it didn't like. Over time, id's predilection for straining the irises of the gaming world has only grown stronger. With each successive title, the light sources devolved from dim bulbs to flickering fluorescent ceiling tiles to sparking power conduits, culminating in last year's Doom 3, in which the lights were turned off entirely. To compensate, Doom 3 gave players a much-maligned flashlight, which they could use only if they opted to put away their gun (my favorite thing to do in a dark, demon-infested hallway).
The flashlight, now properly mounted on the barrel of your machine gun, is back for Quake 4, the latest edition of id Software's other big-name shooter franchise. The game world it illuminates is so drenched in human offal that I almost felt the need to check the bottoms of my shoes when I stopped playing. To call it a "gory game" would be a gross, and I mean gross, understatement. From the opening cutscene, which features a dead GI floating through space with a hole blown through his eye socket, Quake 4 is simply clogged with gore. Decapitated heads, dismembered torsos and limbs, partial heads attached to partial torsos, and many other nightmarish corruptions of the human form are on display behind almost every door. Blood trails five feet wide mark a path of carnage for players to follow. Indistinct piles of human guts, skulls, and other bones are strewn around like a frat boy's dirty laundry.
The owners and primary inhabitants of this killing ground are the Strogg, a cybernetic alien race that harvests human bodies. "Harvest" might not be exactly the right word, because the Strogg don't want us for food. The Strogg need human bodies for parts to power their civilization, including -- but, horrifyingly, not limited to -- the Strogg themselves. The various parts of this process, which is carried out on a sprawling industrial scale, are on ghoulish display for the player to examine during the brief pauses in weapons fire. Soldiers who died in mid-vivisection are left on abandoned operating tables, faces frozen in open-mouthed death grimaces. Less fortunate are the half-alive people who have been converted into human plumbing accessories, their mouths and limb stumps connected to tubes that carry power and God-knows-what-else through the Strogg infrastructure.
Quake 4's futuristic time setting is not specified, but the booklet accompanying the game explains that the war between the humans and the Strogg has been going on since the mid-21st century. Originally, the Strogg invaded Earth, but now humanity has mounted a counteroffensive on Stroggos, the Strogg homeworld. In Quake 4, we fight the Strogg on Stroggos so that we don't have to fight them here.
Perhaps because they're built from our own bodies, the Strogg are crudely human in appearance; most have two legs, two arms (or weapon-festooned robotic appendages where arms would go), and a head. Depending upon how heavily they've been augmented by machinery, they range from human-sized to 15-foot, metal-plated leviathans. Most of them are wearing masks or helmets of some kind, but unmistakably human-colored flesh peeks out through the gaps in their armor. They are the Borg as imagined by HR Giger. Watching them spasm angrily toward you is to be confronted with a disturbing Jungian mirror. For a moment, anyhow. Then you have to shoot them.
The single player campaign provides players plenty of chances to shoot Strogg, and in the early stages I found it easy to dismiss the hundreds of onrushing Strogg cannon fodder as look-alike, quasi-humanoid monsters that could have escaped from any other shooter. That's why it was a little jarring to be suddenly confronted by a towering metallic hulk fused, centaur-like, to a human head and torso. I'd encountered my first victim of the Strogg's nefarious body-stealing plans. Later, I came upon a soldier being worked over by a Strogg heavy, and after dispatching the Strogg I discovered that the poor guy had been twisted into a pretzel, perhaps for convenient portability to the cyborgification lab.
An extensive supporting cast of AI players supported my infiltration of the Strogg compound. I counted at least 15 different names and faces, each with its own variation on the military grunt persona. Some were fearless macho types, others were gee-whiz innocents. They talked about the war and joked darkly about the dead pool being run within the platoon. They accompanied me on my missions, received new orders, and went their separate ways, then reappeared later in the storyline. Unless, that is, I'd failed to protect them at some earlier point, in which case they were permanently dead for my iteration of the campaign. Many hours and missions later, after I'd made the mistake of letting my lost colleagues fade from memory, I crouched next to a somber officer who recounted the names of the fallen. To my surprise, I actually recalled some of the faces as he said the names. Before my awareness that I was playing a game reasserted itself, I might even have felt something like loss.
For a while, things went so well for my strike force that I wondered whether I should increase the difficulty setting. It seemed our initial assault had caught the Strogg by surprise. We cleared them from room after room, suffering only minor injuries and damage that were easily repaired by the medics and technicians on our team. But when a no-win game scenario resulted in my character being captured by the Strogg, things took a gruesome turn for the worse. I watched, immobilized from the neck down, as I was shackled to a metal gurney and rolled on a conveyor belt through the Strogg medical facility. Before my eyes, and presumably without the benefit of anesthesia, my legs were amputated with a giant, blood-encrusted circular saw. I was fitted with Strogg prostheses all over my body. I was becoming one of them.
Fortunately, or perhaps unfortunately, my colleagues stormed the facility and managed to rescue me before my metamorphosis was complete. I was now a human-Strogg hybrid who looked a little like RoboCop, sans helmet. Thanks to a brain implant, I was now able to decipher the alien glyphs that adorned all the control panels and other equipment in the facility. Most importantly, I was still one of the good guys. My health and speed were enhanced, which turned out to be a blessing, because the mission started going very poorly for my rescuers and the rest of my still-fully-human friends. Over the next few missions, I watched the Strogg abduct them one by one, presumably to meet the fate I'd narrowly escaped. The radio transmissions from my panicked-sounding superiors were ordering a general retreat, and it wasn't long before I was left to fight my Strogg half-cousins by myself.
Not surprisingly, when most of the humans vanished from the game, so did most of the game's humanity. The symphonic swells of the soundtrack tried their utmost to give the proceedings a little more urgency, but the playing experience reverted to the same claustrophobic, mechanical firefight that has been the bread and butter of the genre since the original Doom. Which is not to say that it's lacking fun; I simply expected more. After soloing my way through the Strogg for a while, I had to run through a prolonged obstacle course of smashers, mashers, saw blades, flamethrowers, and conveyor belts that appeared to have been purchased off-lease from the last Ratchet and Clank title.
Quake 4 does provide variations from the gunfight-in-hallway motif. I got to go outside a few times, where I drove a tank, rode on the back of an open-air troop transport, and piloted a small battlemech-like robot across a battlefield. These sequences provided me with some rare opportunities to take in the dramatic vistas of Stroggos, which, to outward appearances, seems to be located somewhere in southeast Utah. They were also the setting for some nostalgic trips down an old gamer's memory lane. Picking off incoming missiles with my tank turret reminded me of playing arcade classics like Subroc-3D and the original Star Wars arcade game. In what I suspect was an homage to Area 51, the troop transport paused several times along its route and required me to rack up kills in a kind of Strogg shooting gallery before we could continue to our destination.
After a lukewarm start, the game grew on me enough that I was eager to see how the single-player campaign would end. That said, after more than 17 hours of play, I've yet to find the one, super-cool hook that made me want to play Quake 4 for its own sake. Aside from the Quake brand, which still commands a huge block of dedicated fans, it's tough for me to quantify why a gamer should buy this title over any other shooter that's hit the market during the past 18 months. This is most obvious when playing in multiplayer mode, a format that does almost nothing to distinguish this game from its predecessor, Quake 3 Arena. Quake 4 is a perfectly serviceable game with a high degree of photorealism, but until the next quantum leaps in both artificial intelligence and interface design, we might have to consider the possibility that the first-person shooter has already scaled its greatest height
11 January 2006