'Quake Champions' Inhabits a Happy Place Between 'Overwatch' and Classic Shooters

'Quake Champions' Inhabits a Happy Place Between 'Overwatch' and Classic Shooters

It takes roughly 30 seconds to determine that 'Quake Champions' is indeed a 'Quake' game Bethesda

Still in beta, Id's competitive shooter does right by its DNA while acknowledging the new world order of FPS

Still in beta, Id's competitive shooter does right by its DNA while acknowledging the new world order of FPS

It takes roughly 30 seconds to determine that Quake Champions is a Quake game. I'm caught in a small, metallic room with another player, and we're both armed to the teeth with unreasonable rocket launchers, firing at each other's feet. It's me that dies. Moments later, I'm blasting up a jump-pad after grabbing a holographic quad-damage power-up, and I unload a point-blank shotgun blast that immediately disintegrates the opponent that obliterated me just seconds ago. A distant android announcer informs me that I've earned "REVENGE," but just before my feet touch the ground, I'm dead again. Yup, definitely Quake.

Champions was formally unveiled at Quakecon last year. It's built around a "freemium" monetization model; its cast of characters – each equipped with special powers – is very much aware of the post-Overwatch "hero shooter" paradigm; and white, Diablo-style damage numbers spark from the heads of enemies in your crosshairs. It'll feel familiar to anyone who's spent time with Overwatch, or Paladins, or Rainbow Six: Siege, but it's jarring nonetheless to see these features come home to roost on one of gaming's oldest and most stodgiest franchises. But this past weekend's closed beta play session did much to assuage my misgivings. Quake Champions is built on a happy marriage between 1998 and 2017 – a belief that rocket jumps and loot boxes can coexist.

 "We felt that capturing the spirit of a classic game was the most important. Our first milestone was to make it feel like a Quake game,'" says Tim Willits, creative director at Id Software. "Our hardcore Quake fans were freaking out, and that's why we were like 'Okay, let's get this in front of people as fast as we possibly can.' Our goal and our challenge is to get people to play it as quickly as possible, because playing it is believing it."

Originally, Champions was conceived as an add-on to the still-great, still-active Quake Live – the browser-based incarnation of Quake III: Arena. "I actually personally registered QuakeChampions.com myself in 2013," says Willits. "We prototyped the Champions concept in Quake Live." He credits the inspiration to break ground on a new product to the 2016 revival of Doom that was being worked on across the hall. It was proof that an old PC franchise that had been supplanted both stylistically and mechanically could still be relevant without abandoning its core principles.

"The success of Doom made Quake Champions way easier. … it validated our strategy for Champions, it showed that if you put the right ingredients in the mixing bowl, you're gonna make some great cookies, and then from there, you can build something on top of that," continues Willits.

Like Overwatch, the build loadouts in Quake Champions are packed in characters who have a specific look, hitbox, health-pool, and keystroke-enabled ability. But unlike Overwatch, those quirks are a lot more flexible. There is no restriction on weapon pickups or battlefield power-ups, and the abilities feel more like self-targeted boosts to your own personal kill potential. The Kool Aid-haired Nyx can "Ghostwalk," allowing her to move invisibly and invincibly for a short period of time. The reptilian Sorlag gets a bigger jump and an acidic area-of-effect attack, and Ranger – the starting character for every fresh account – can teleport to the location of a chucked grenade. These are the weapons of those who want to exceed in free-for-all deathmatches and one-on-one duels – to use an Overwatch analogy, imagine a match full of Genjis and Pharahs battling it out for supremacy. It's clear that Id intends to use the "hero shooter" taste to enhance the the inherent Quake-ness of the gameplay, not turn it into something else.

I had access to the beta for four days. The modes available were Deathmatch, Team Deathmatch, and Duel – which should be familiar to any early esports fans who remember Johnathan "Fatal1ty" Wendel's ultra-twitchy one-vs-one knife-fights. The pureness of the experience is crucial, and there are plenty of people who are stoked simply about the prospect of a new high-res, Id-developed arena shooter. But there were moments where I questioned the necessity of the Champions part of Quake Champions. Overwatch thrills with its synergies – the combination "wombo combos," the unspoken collaboration between teammates, the iron-wrought roles of each member of a six-player squad. Quake isn't that. Quake has never been that. So the introduction of say, a crowd-controlling support specialist like Ana or an inconvenience-machine like Mei would be contradictory to Champions' ideals. I did miss that specificity. The abilities in Quake Champions are all fun and tactile, but right now, it's difficult to see how they'd conjoin into a thoughtful team composition.

But Willits believes that's mostly a symptom of the current moment in the game's lifespan. It's difficult to bet on a lot of strategy in the first month of a closed beta test, especially in the free-for-all crucible of Team Deathmatch. Eventually, the dust will settle, and a metagame will emerge, complete with tier-lists and counter-picks.

"A lot of those features are still coming on, especially our Sacrifice game-mode, which is very objective-based, where you and your champion can very much help your team," he says. "It's kinda like eight-year-olds playing soccer. Once you see the nuances of the skill-based players, you see some pretty cool stuff. When you watch the best players in the world play the game, it's amazing."

Willits wants Quake Champions to be an esport. "We're gonna have a bigger competition at Quakecon. We're just timing our announcements, but I can definitely say it's really important to us," he says. On a historical level, it'd be great to see the franchise climb back to its rightful throne at the head of competitive FPS. But regardless of what happens in the future, Quake Champions will always be Quake. And Quake is good.