Last year in Connected Home, I waxed enthusiastic about id Software's DOOM 3 for the PC, a first person shooter that took one of the company's classic horror action titles and updated with state of the art graphics and sound. DOOM 3 wasn't perfect--its multiplayer version was a molasses-slow step back from previous id titles, and many complained about the dark and dreary environments that were provided for the single player versions. But it was certainly a technological achievement, especially the Xbox version (see my review), which packed as much action from the PC title as possible onto a single disk. My only question about DOOM 3 was whether a future game title would take that technology and wrap a better game around it.

Quake 4, developed by long-time id partner Raven, is that game. Visually similar to DOOM 3, Quake 4 even features a somewhat similar single player experience, which takes place on a far-off planet infested with aliens at war with the human race. Let's take a look.

Single player experience

Thematically, Quake 4's single player mode is a direct sequel to id's Quake 2 (which is included on a bonus disk, see below) and continues a plotline where earth is pitted against the alien Strogg. Graphically, Quake 4 strongly resembles DOOM 3, but often features much brighter colors and more outdoor environments. And while you play a similar space marine character, in Quake 4 you're usually doing so with other computer-controlled teammates, which reduces the isolation one felt in DOOM 3 (but is arguably less effective, since computer controlled players are often heavily scripted and perform better against the enemy than they should).

Mid-way through the Quake 4 single player experience, your character is captured by the Strogg and mutated into a biomechanical Strogg killing machine. However, you are rescued and returned to duty in the human armed forces. From that point on, your available armaments and capabilities change a bit, but less so than I would have liked or expected. For example, your maximum health rises from 100 to 125, and you can now access the plentiful Strogg health machines located around the game.

There are also chances to man various vehicles and large mounted guns throughout the game. All of these additions break up the traditional first person experience you've come to expect, enhancing game play. As with DOOM 3, many aliens interact with the environment in fun and scary ways, but when they do so they often permanently alter the game level. I especially enjoyed one sequence where an alien clawed at me through some pipes and then created a huge hole through which you and others could later travel. In DOOM 3, this scripted event would have only included the scary part where a hand shot through the pipes.

The weapon selection, in both single- and multiplayer versions, is straight out of the DOOM/Quake handbook, and as you might expect from a Quake title, the rocket launcher has been somewhat scaled down in order to better balance the weapon selection in multiplayer mode. Everyone's favorite Quake weapon, the rail gun, is back and better than ever. In later parts of the single player experience, you'll even receive weapons upgrades that, again, take game play to a new level.

Pleasantly, the Quake 4 single player experience on Xbox 360 is identical to that on the PC. The levels are all the same, and the graphics are top-notch. After too many hours to count on both Call of Duty 2 and Quake 4, I'm coming around to using video game controllers for first person shooters. Previously, I felt that the mouse and keyboard combination on a PC game better results, because it is easier to precisely aim shots. This is still true, but the Xbox 360 controllers are fantastic, and like anything else, it gets easier the more you do it.

The Xbox 360 version of Quake 4 includes a second disk with bonus content. This content includes the full version of Quake 2, which has been lovingly ported to the Xbox 360 in all its bizarre 3D-ness, several Quake 4 movies, including a nice Making Of Quake 4 featurette, and a concept art gallery. Jetting through Quake 2 again provides a healthy dose of nostalgia. In contrast to Quake 4, the single player experience is great, while the multiplayer version is quite lacking, due to its slow physics model. But for fans of first person shooters generally, and id Software titles specifically, disk 2 is a nice thank you from id.

Multiplayer madness

Surprisingly, Quake 4 multiplayer is hugely successful, offering a lush, fast-moving experience that is much closer to the Quake III Arena (and the underrated Quake III Team Arena mission pack from the PC) than to Quake 2 or DOOM 3. Indeed, where multiplayer was DOOM 3's biggest weakness, this feature is magically turned into Quake 4's biggest success. How they accomplished this, given the overhead of the DOOM 3 engine, is a mystery. But Quake 4 multiplayer is every bit as good as that of Quake 3 Arena, and that's quite an accomplishment, given that game's timeless popularity in the online world. Evidence of Quake III Arena influences abound, from the style of the available power-ups to inclusion of two familiar outer space maps that will have Quake III Arena fans cheering with delight.

The Xbox 360 multiplayer experience lets you switch between Xbox Live and system link, as you'd expect. I wasn't able to test the system link option, but Xbox Live includes a number of variants. You can jump into a Quick Match, in which the system automatically finds other players of your skill level, based on your ranking, or you can perform a player match, where you can invite a contact from your Friends list to join in.

You can also choose a custom match, where you select the game type (Deathmatch, Team Deathmatch, Capture the Flag, Arena CTF, or Tourney), game length (a Quickie with a 10 minute time limit and 5 frag limit, Average, and Endurance) and match type (Ranked or Player). Optionally, you can perform a private match, in which you get to configure the play mode, map cycle, maximum number of players, and other options.

Conclusions

Visually, Quake 4 one of the sweetest-looking game titles I've ever seen, and it's a wonderful show-off title for Microsoft's latest gaming rig. While the title as a whole isn't as successful as Call of Duty 2, Quake 4 for Xbox 360 does nicely highlight how its suddenly possible to create games for a console that are the equal to those on a high-end gaming PC. While the single player version is unlikely to draw me back as did PC games such as Half-Life 2, Far Cry, and DOOM 3, I'll be playing the multiplayer version of Quake 4 for some time to come, on both the PC and Xbox 360. Highly recommended.