Enemy Territory: Quake Wars Review
Pentium M 2GHz CPU
2GB DDR2 RAM
GeForce 7800GTX Go
GF5700 or ATI 9700
It's been a few years now since Quake 4 was released, and about a year since the decidedly average Battlefield 2142 underwhelmed gamers worldwide. id Software and Splash Damage have teamed up to try and deliver not only an online shooter that out-Battlefields BF2142, but also to add another worthy game in the legendary Quake series. The end result is Enemy Territory: Quake Wars, a mostly-online, team-based shooter that offers some unique gameplay and an interesting style.
The most distinct impression one gets when starting to play Quake Wars is that this is a pretty complex game. Unlike the Battlefield series where both teams are essentially working towards identical goals, here, every map has a different story and each team has their own objectives. One defends while another attacks, so on some maps the Strogg will try and defend their advanced technology or advance to exert control over the humans, while on others the GDF are working to capture that technology and defend their own important locations. You'll go around the world in the game's twelve maps, and with enough of a change when you switch sides, even if you just play every map as both sides once, that's quite a bit of playtime right there.
There's no true single player component to Quake Wars, but you can easily set up a match on any of the maps against the game's fairly capable bots. Unlike in the Battlefield games where the bots were pretty much completely braindead, the AI buddies and opponents here can complete all of the game's goals, set up (or tear down) defenses with a decent amount of strategy and skill, and overall do fairly well. They're a good starting point for new players since you can turn the skill level down to Low to learn each new map as it comes. Sometimes you'll see the poor bots stuck or just repeatedly screwing something up, but it is somewhat rare and it's usually only one of them screwing up at any one time.
So while the bots are pretty functional, you will really only get your money's worth out of this game by taking it online as that's where this game really is intended to be played. The botmatches pit 8 on 8 at maximum, but when you start to play online you'll realize that the 12-on-12 matches are actually pretty different. The game officially supports only 24 players on a server at most, but there are already dozens of servers that can hold 32 players. And if you really want to beef up your botmatches, you can install the game on a second computer and set up a dedicated server to run up to 24 bots at once - without eating your main PC's gaming horsepower with bot AI calculations.
It may seem at first glance that any online game of this scale with a maximum of 24 (or even the unofficial 32) players is a real disappointment. But with the way that Quake Wars' objectives work, it's not nearly as bad as it sounds. Unlike in many of the more open team-based shooters, Quake Wars always has a single goal that both teams are working for or against. This creates a "front line" so that ten players are often fighting at almost all times on a 24-player server, and when things line up correctly, just about everyone on the server is in a huge firefight. This is in stark contrast to the way games like the Battlefield series play, where it pays to split up and capture as many points around the whole map at once. Not true here - the fighting often centralizes on one point, with infantry, ground vehicles, and aircraft all converging and duking it out together.
The guys at Splash Damage knew that all this stuff is great, but they also realized that the unique goals for both sides, added complexity of spawn points that change over a map, the distinct abilities for each class, and the totally different set of vehicles and weapons for the GDF and the Strogg are all going to put off new players who might find themselves overwhelmed. The game does include plenty of quick tips both during the gameplay (conveniently, they're not voiced to you and they only pop up at the very top of the screen) and during the loading screens, and players are actually automatically given smaller objectives to complete that may or may not directly advance their team's progress. For example, an Engineer might be given objectives to repair his buddies' turrets and deployables, while a Soldier might be tasked with blowing open an alternate entry point for the enemy base. Even other players, by requesting various things, can dynamically create missions for their teammates. The mission system only goes so far, though, and doesn't fully teach someone all aspects of Quake Wars and at some point people will just have to keep playing in order to learn the game.
From a graphics and performance perspective, if you can exceed Quake Wars' minimum specs by at least a little bit, you'll be good. The developers have designed the game to always show the whole map at once if you're outdoors, so there is no "fogging" or other obstruction of the whole battlefield. The frame rate is usually pretty stable, and although some curmudgeonly gamers have chosen to take a stand against the game's cap of 30 frames per second (which can be disabled, but it's complicated and winds up bringing up a couple of small technical problems), I find it's just fine for casual playing. Whether the serious clans take to Quake Wars, I don't know, but the guys at Splash Damage - creators of the very clan-friendly shooter Wolfenstein: Enemy Territory - have included plenty of good tournament features here (including a tourney mode that keeps things a little more even by having two rounds on the same map and switching the teams in between the rounds, and whoever finishes the attacking side's goals with the most time left on the clock are the winners).
When everything's working together and players are doing well, you'll find a sweet symphony of explosions and death that's fun even if you're dying a lot. While both sides each have analogous classes (Soldier, Medic, Engineer, Field Ops, and Covert Ops on the GDF side versus Aggressor, Technician, Constructor, Oppressor, and Infiltrator, respectively, on the Strogg), they each have unique gadgets that behave at least somewhat differently. Sure, both the Field Ops and Oppressor have similar deployables, like Artillery Interceptors, mortars, airstrikes, and a huge blast from a massive warhead, but their use is subtly different. The Covert Ops can both disguise themselves as an enemy and snipe, but their weapons work very uniquely and their added gadgets do fairly different things.
Every online gamer has experienced a terrible session where their teammates seem like idiots and the opposition, full of more skilled players, often has one or two more in number as well. The same thing happens in Quake Wars, which I can't blame the developers for, but many of the the unique things built into the game cause even larger imbalances to happen (and they occur more often). The first issue is that the maps have at least a small advantage built in for one the sides (usually the advantage is for the Strogg, it seems), and if you are stuck on the team with the disadvantage you'll need to work harder to get ahead. Second, though, is that there's an online stat tracking system that bestows no real gameplay advantage for those who play a lot, but still make it to the top of the list by playing a lot and stacking the teams rather than some kind of average of how well they do in each match. This leads to some players trying to manufacture advantages in order to jack up their "Total XP Earned" on the stats site, which is the primary measure of how "good" a player is (which is ridiculous because it almost becomes a function of time spent in-game, which is not a good way to rank players). And finally, since this game depends so much on teamwork, you'll find that even a good player trying to do team-oriented stuff will fail utterly if the other people on his side aren't working with him. This makes some matches really dismal if you happen to get stuck on the losing side, much more so than in other team-based games. I really hope that Splash Damage can see this and work on solutions that don't compromise the fun that can be had when the teams are balanced.
The developers have tried to counteract some of this by allowing a player to initiate a vote to rebalance teams either randomly or based on XP gained, but the winning side always seems to uniformly vote no (wonder why) and the losing side is often full of new players who don't even understand why they'd want to vote. I'm really hoping this effect goes away quickly as people get a little more in tune with how this game works. At the very least, the XP you gain by completing objectives doesn't give you anything that you get to keep, so the playing field is even in that respect. Sure, you can unlock some impressive additional weapons and abilities, but when you switch servers you'll have to earn them again (which, for an experienced player, doesn't take long at all).
While Quake Wars has a friends list that allows you to easily jump into a game with a buddy, there's no guarantee you'll be on the same team as him once you're on the server. This becomes more and more difficult to do as more players are trying to get together to play, and quickly you will find that it's easier to all play on the same team by jumping either onto an unranked server without auto-team balancing (not an option for stats-obsessive players who love to see their numbers go up) or onto an empty ranked server and keep trying to switch as more players jump on - which could take you a while.
Teamplay is crucial in this game, but the built-in voice macro system is not good enough alone to make it happen usually. Sure, you can quickly tap a couple keys to request a medic or alert people to incoming threats, but those same canned phrases and trash talk sound clips can really get on your nerves after a while. The game shipped without true voice chat, but the developers have since pledged to add voice chat in the next major patch so I can't really complain too much here.
So it comes down to whether the casual and semi-hardcore gamers are actually going to want to play Enemy Territory: Quake Wars over the many online titles that are coming out this holiday season. It definitely offers unique gameplay and with great netcode and solid small-arms and vehicle combat (including a satisfactory "feel" of player movement, weapon fire and hit feedback, something I always felt Battlefield lacked), and while many games this year will supply more impressive graphics, Quake Wars' solid frame rate and smooth play make for an excellent online experience - that is, if you and your buddies can get in together and find an even match.
Great team-based action
Unique objectives keep things fresh
Overall good team and map balance
Steep learning curve
Imbalanced teams quickly ruin the fun
No voice chat yet, but it's coming soon