The Quake III final at last year’s was insane. The tournament finalists were two of the best Quake players in the world, Shane 'Rapha' Hendrixson and Sergey 'evil' Orekhov, and they fought for over an hour, including one round that stretched into a ninth overtime. The drama was so intense that I was exhausted by the end. Not only was it one of the best QuakeCon finales in years, but the competitors showed that Quake continues to be one of the finest multiplayer games ever made, even all these years later.
That's the older brother that has to live up to—arguably the purest multiplayer FPS ever made. It's a continuation of the free-to-play ideas in Quake Live, and it's borrowing some of the character-specific formula made popular by Team Fortress 2 and Overwatch. At its bones, though, Champions still has to be Quake.
After a bunch of time in last weekend’s closed beta test, I’m pretty confident that Champions stays true to Quake’s roots. Everything feels familiar, from the bunny-hopping to the rocket-jumps, but the champion characters and their special powers add enough of a twist to change the game without making it unrecognizable. Its post-launch success hinges on giving players full control over servers, player-made levels, and mods. Unfortunately, Champions won’t launch with mods or level-making tools, and id has been cagey about confirming them at all.
Shaking it up
I loved every second, but watching Rapha and Evil duel in Quake '99 last year was a little like watching the world's most exhilarating match of Pong. As you’d expect, Quake Champions is the best that Quake has ever looked, and it's exciting to see familiar weapons and map styles reborn in 2017. Champions sizzles with color, from lightning gun particle effects down to boiling green acid. When I put a rocket in someone's face they burst like a peach smacking the pavement. Glorious.
The champions contribute some personality and variety to a game that's previously been entirely about skill and performance. Vanilla avatars in previous Quake games tended to feature shades of brown on a field of gray, but the shiny robots and sci-fi/grunge style distinguishes the champions from the world around them.
There were nine characters available during the beta weekends (more are yet to be announced), and they do have noticeably different stats. Speed and health points are the easiest differences to spot, but I'm sure there are other differences running under the hood. Despite this, my K:D ratio was similar across several different champions. The difference was most noticeable while playing Scalebearer, the heavily armored juggernaut. Scalebearer spawns with almost twice the health of Anarki, the transhumanist hoverboard rider—but Anarki is also around twice as fast. After playing Anarki, Scalebearer felt like he was moving in slow motion, and extra health points don’t make that much difference when someone’s shooting rockets at you. Those two are the outliers—for the most part, the champions have similar base stats, with one carrying a little armor here and another running a little faster there.
The characters also have distinct personalities, which is a welcome change for the Quake universe. The Ranger in particular is in a foul mood, making self-aware comments that he's trapped in a living nightmare, dying in excruciating ways only to wake up and do it again.
Every 30 seconds or so, each character can also trigger a special ability that ties into their personality in some way. The sniper, Visor, can see enemies through walls; the lizard soldier Sorlag can spray acid as an area-denial attack. My early favorite is Galena, an "unholy paladin" who drops totems to heal herself or teammates.
Despite this controversial addition of abilities to Quake, playing Champions like it's Overwatch is a fast way to end up dead. Whether you're a ghost-woman who walks through walls or an armored mining robot with an electric shield, Champions is still a game about bunny-hopping around to get the good weapons and armor spawns before your enemies can get there first. Every player spawns with a relatively weak gun and minimal armor, and I think that helps (Quake-itude?) of the game. The special powers are just extra flavoring. Killing an enemy by throwing an orb to teleport inside their body is sweet as hell when it happens, but nine times out of ten it's easier to shoot the guy.
Paying full price gets you access to all of the characters, but we don't know what that price will be yet. Players who don't pay anything can play as Ranger and spend cash to purchase other champions one at a time, as wanted. Playing matches and completing challenges like "Hit three enemies with a rocket in mid-air" or "Get 5 kill-assists in one game" earns in-game currency that can be used to rent a new champion. I thought the in-game rewards were pretty generous: After only a few games I earned enough to rent a character for 24 hours.
If reward rates stay the same, players could rent characters regularly without having to buy them. Renters won't get to upgrade any of the cosmetic armors and other decoration that comes with owning a character, but it is a good way to try before you buy. Between champions not being too different from each other and this rental system, id seems to have sidestepped any pay-to-win ugliness, and that's worth celebrating.
While it seems to me like Champions will give new players a shot at a smoother, prettier Quake, it's less clear how Champions will capture the higher tiers of competitive FPS players through esports and in-game competitive features. Bethesda has some of this stuff a little, but the beta didn't reveal much in the way of spectator tools, server configuring, clan creation, and so on.
But Quake's legacy is one of organic growth and experimentation, and that comes from giving players control. Modding is elemental to the series—Quake shaped modding as we know it all the way back in 1996. Some of Quake's most enduring and popular modes, like Instagib or Rockets Only, came from community experimentation instead of id. Some of its greatest levels were also built as mods and perfected in private servers. In that context, it's surprising that Champions won't launch with those options.
"While we understand that modding has been an important part of the Quake franchise, it is not something we will be supporting at the initial launch," a game representative told us via email. "Quake Champions will be a Live Service game, and we are dedicated to adding features and content long after the launch. At some point in the future we will investigate adding modding to Quake Champions, but we do not have a timeline for that at this time."
Overall, it’s clear that id’s goal for Quake Champions was to keep as much of the Quake 'feeling' intact while giving the series a facelift with new graphics and characters for people to get invested in. When Quake Champions was first announced last summer, barely a month after Overwatch released, I worried that id was chasing Blizzard's bandwagon. I'm happy to be wrong. In your hands, Quake Champions is very much the same old Quake. I'll feel better if id lets us put those hands under the hood, though.