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Quake II Remastered review: Black sheep shorn

Quake 2 has been the black sheep of the franchise practically since its release in 1997. The original Quake strayed far from the initial design set by id co-founder John Romero and shipped as an assortment of Lovecraftian-themed maps and military installations. Many fans loved the ambience of its single-player campaign and were disappointed, confused, or both when the sequel bore no resemblance to the original, the same jolt many fans of the original Zelda felt the first time they played Zelda II.

That incongruence was born out of frustration: id Software intended to create a new IP, but every combination of words they chose were trademarked. In the end, the developers threw up their hands and slapped “Quake II” on the box. Those who accepted Quake II for what it was, however, found themselves immersed in a cohesive world where every enemy, power-up, and map were parts of a whole.

Players are finally coming around on Quake II, and Nightdive Studios deserves much of the credit. The developers remastered Quake to fantastic results in 2021, and the studio did Quake II justice with this year’s remaster.

Quake II’s world is cohesive, and so is Nightdive’s excellent remaster. It collects the base game, both expansion packs, a new expansion campaign, and the Nintendo 64 version of Quake II, which, unlike PS1’s port, featured a brand-new campaign set in the same universe. Nightdive also made dozens of quality-of-life improvements and subtle design changes. In 1997, the Strogg of planet Stroggos exhibited standout AI for the time by crouching occasionally to avoid your attacks. Nightdive went in and expanded their AI to make them a greater threat; enemies can crouch, strafe, dodge to either side, and leap at you to close distances. Even with these tweaks, each battle is still weighted in your favor. This is a power fantasy, and Nightdive understands that.

One reason Nightdive has gained a reputation as the foremost studio for FPS remasters (and perhaps remakes, with this year’s brilliant reimagining of Looking Glass Studios’ System Shock from ’94) is their ability to improve games without breaking what made them immersive in their day. Quake II for Nintendo 64 is the best example of this. The original cartridge showed off lighting, for instance, made possible by the N64 hardware. That lighting is retained in Nightdive’s package, preserving one element that made the 64-bit version so beloved.

Call of the Machine, the new campaign designed by MachineGames—which also developed new content from Nightdive’s Quake remaster—provides a unique take on Quake II’s formula. The original game couldn’t bombard you with hordes of enemies because the processors and 3D accelerator cards of the time could only crunch so many polygons. Today’s hardware has no such limitations, and Call of the Machine celebrates that by throwing packs of Strogg at you across 28 brand-new levels. It’s a different type of challenge, and that’s exciting: You can play Quake II, its expansions, and the N64 versions the way they were meant to be played, and then fire up Call of the Machine to get a different take on the game’s enemies, weapons, and environments.

If Quake II has any drawback, it’s that the original campaign overstays its welcome by an hour or two. It was made in an era when games were expected to ship with 15- to 20-hour campaigns, and as much as I enjoyed revisiting Stroggos, the gameplay loop grew stale by the time I was a few maps out from finishing the campaign. With that said, I was as impressed by the composition of the campaign in 2023 as I was in 1997. Before Unreal and Half-Life stole its thunder, Quake II was one of the first, if not the first FPS to connect levels seamlessly. Traversing its levels made you feel like you were exploring a world, not moving from one discrete video game map to another.

Nightdive’s Quake II remaster is one of the best values in a year overflowing with fantastic games. It appeals to veterans who played the original, and all the customization bells and whistles make it welcoming to players who want to experience it for the first time.

This review was written based on digital downloads purchased by the reviewer.

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