Crispy Gamer

Quake Life: Deathmatch 2.0

I'm following Morphinator and wastedT as they play a futuristic game of cat-and-mouse in Campgrounds Redux. The score is pretty clear-cut: Morphinator, 12; wastedT, -1. But the gothic caverns are tense. In Quake Live, someone's always being chased.

Quake Life

Quake Live is a free-to-play version of id Software's Quake III Arena that runs in a Web browser. Released at the tail end of the '90s, Q3A was a deathmatch fan's dream. It ditched Quake's labyrinthine single-player experience, focusing instead on its multiplayer deathmatch. There was no plot; there was no key-finding. Competition against others took the place of narrative.

You might call Q3A a "point-and-shoot" FPS -- a streamlining of the concept. By intensifying the few elements left over from Quake (running, jumping, aiming, evading), id emphasized player performance. The resulting game sheared the fat, gave you the speed and agility of an Olympian with cybernetic leg implants, and wished you well.

Quake Live, which just entered open beta, flawlessly reproduces Quake III Arena in a small window that can be blown up to full screen, with nary a wrinkle on its 10-year-old face. Far from the start-stop, piecemeal experience that one still expects from the Web, Q3A demands a seamless, fluid performance. Somehow, Quake Live provides it. The technology under its hood must be terribly muscular.

But on its point-and-click surface, Quake Live is all convenience, detailing the simple steps you can take to frag within minutes. Daily deathmatch becomes a matter of bookmarking Quake Live, signing yourself in, and clicking into a game with a player skill level that suits you. Your user profile on the site becomes your avatar in the game. The three-click process -- login; choose game; play -- is as quick and efficient as sending an email.

Moving cold

As a spectator in the Duel between Morphinator and wastedT, I'm a disembodied eye that can float high above the two adversaries at ease. I've entered the arena at random through the front page, looking for a good fight. I choose to synchronize my sight with theirs.

wastedT doesn't seem at home in the stone-and-metal arena. He's harried, running back and forth collecting ammo and pieces of armor; his eyes dart from door to door, trying to spy Morphinator's imposing frame. Morphinator, on the other hand, is a pro athlete. His body streams through the arena like a barracuda in water, never stopping. He doesn't get caught on any of the arena's hardened corners. To maximize his speed, he's strafe-jumping across the floor, covering several real-world yards with each bound. He fires rockets seemingly at random through passing doorways and portals, as if to lure out his prey or frighten him into submission.

In one encounter, the two circle each other, firing rockets downward at the floor in hopes of injuring their opponent with splash damage from the explosions. (Rocket splash has been reduced from Q3A, making precise aim even more important.) In another, Morphinator gives chase to wastedT, painting him into oblivion with a stream of electricity from his lightning gun. But Morphinator's best weapon, as his HUD shows, is the railgun, which he uses to staple wastedT to the floor repeatedly from across the vast rooms in Campgrounds Redux.

Morphinator's fluid performance reminds me of a musician's. Likewise, Quake Live is an instrument to be mastered.

Quake Life
These are like my real-life muscles.

What sets Quake Live apart from other first-person shooters is contained in the differences between DOOM's BFG-9000 and Quake Live's BFG, the ultimate weapon in both games. The former, a massive, unwieldy cannon, made its name on a flashy gimmick: a single, huge ball of green plasma that took forever to fire but instantly cleared any room of demons. In contrast, the latter -- a sleek, futuristic and alarmingly loud rifle that simply rapid-fires a hailstorm of shuddering green bolts -- is completely useless without skill, if just as impressive. This isn't a game designed for you to walk in and play. Twitch reflexes and good aim are paramount to survival.

Yet becoming a Quake Live contestant is easy, even mundane. Fill out your basic info; then download and install a small PC client (Mac and Linux versions are forthcoming) for your browser. Choose a handle and skin for your profile. Then take a placement test that allows the game to match you with comparably skilled players.

The first part of the test gauges how well you move in the environment. Beginners are able to go in the forward direction. Intermediate players are able to jump onto a platform. Advanced players are able to rocket-jump upwards to scale a high ledge. The best players know how to strafe-jump to artificially boost their speed on the ground before a portal slams shut. On the test chamber walls are diagrams of athletes performing said actions amidst speed lines.

The second part of the test is a 10-minute match against a woman named Crash who teaches beginners the basic ropes of the game -- how to heal and arm yourself with items strewn throughout the map; how to shoot yourself into the air with the game's many launch pads -- before taunting them to try and beat her in deathmatch. After that, the doors to the Quake Live community are opened, and games of Free for All, Capture the Flag, Team Death Match, Duel and Clan Arena (opposing teams whittle each others' numbers down until none remain; repeat) can be played at will.

With Quake Live's placement test, id has retrofitted Q3A with a noob-friendly exterior. Innocuous and polite, the Quake Live site contains the cacophony of Q3A in a form that noobs can swallow. Total novices can stay in beginner-ranked games, safe from deathmatch veterans, like a sandbox where the toy-snatching bullies are kept behind a fence. But beginners can climb that fence by entering a ranked match, improve their standing, and grow in skill.

Open call of Cthulhu

I call up Quake Live on a Firefox tab that neighbors my email, news and Twitter. The day's games appear as thumbnails scrolling down the screen. Unlike on most other sites, actions here speak louder than words (much louder). When I hover over one of the thumbnails, it reveals the minutes and seconds counting down to the game's end, and how its players compare to me in ability. It gives new heft to the phrase "matchmaking site."

Quake Life
"My darling! Come hither."

The straightforwardness of finding a game, however, belies the chaos of actually playing. Upon entering an arena, the site's urbane trappings are quickly drowned out by the constant hail of gunfire, grunts and shrieks of pain, and the gravel-voiced announcer (who booms heartwarming things like "QUAD DAMAGE" and "YOU HAVE TAKEN THE LEAD"). Despite Quake Live's slick exterior, the transition from Web site to deathmatch arena might be jarring for some new players.

Those looking to cultivate their abilities can learn from players like Morphinator. Know the environments like a second language. Don't bother conserving ammo; keep an itchy trigger finger. And don't stop moving. After a while, the lightning pace of the game becomes normal, and sublime moments are able to stand out. In my first Quake Live deathmatch, I'm being pummeled mercilessly from front, back and all around. I feel rusty and out-of-shape from my Q3A days in college. Then someone says something, a player named Int3ger: "hahahaha." It's a blip of life that makes me immensely glad to be back. Int3ger is the first player that I kill, with a rocket to the knee.

Quake Life
"WAIT! Don't leave me!"

In a later game, I do better. I dodge a rocket at close range and dice an opponent with the spinning razor blade on my gauntlet, causing the game to announce: "HUMILIATION." The person ranking at the bottom of the player list, who's been getting fragged over and over by everyone (including myself), says, incongruously, "I love you guys." I have no way of knowing, but I believe he's sincere.

The violent face-offs that erupt when players find each other in a Quake Live arena aren't just a virtual flight of fancy. They have a visceral, gut-clenching quality about them, even though the game's gib-free (read: PG-13). At their best, they remind me of the sweaty fights in the movie "Hard Times," where a shirtless Charles Bronson and assorted macho men in 1930s Louisiana grapple and pummel each other with their bare fists. But unlike those painful, protracted meatfests, each scuffle in Quake Live is over in a handful of seconds.

By changing the interface rather than the game, id's goal might be to transform the hardcore shooter into a more everyday shooter, one that might sneak its way into your online life amidst messaging and friending. The site's design has hard-edged curves colored in mottled silver and burnt red, a chic distillation of the Quake series' trademark rusty industrial metal and blood and lava pools. It's also strikingly reminiscent of ESPN's Web site. Leaderboards rank players by number of wins, frags, games played, time played, efficiency, accuracy and medals earned. You can build a friend list here, too, but you can be sure your relationships will be a little more hard-won than usual.


wastedT gets an unexpected kill on Morphinator. When it happens, I'm looking through Morphinator's eyes. The sudden halt in movement is slightly upsetting, more reason to keep alive. Morphinator's gun disappears and he drops dead in his tracks. The coursing world around him pauses for a breath.

"let me play," pleads Glocked -- another invisible spectator. Unlike Quake Live's other game modes, in Duel, only two players can face off at a time until a victor is crowned.

Morphinator writes "D:" to express his surprise or dismay. Then he picks himself back up and proceeds to lay waste to wastedT again. The final score is 21 to 1. "gg," say both contestants (for "good game"). wantedT, who might be disappointed or envious of his Duel-mate's skill -- ":(" -- is answered with either a good-natured or an arrogant ":D" from Morphinator.

John Romero's original vision of Quake, according to an interview in the DOOM II strategy guide, was much more concerned with constructing an immersive reality.

You should be walking around in Quake just in awe ... There will be bugs and birds flying around. ? As soon as you look at that cave, something is going to happen. You'll hear some kind of low, evil kind of sound ? In the games you've played before, you're still kind of distanced from the death. You're pointing the shotgun at something, you're pulling the trigger, and it shoots and the thing is dead. ? You move the mouse and press the button, and it's as easy as that. In Quake, you'll really have to kill things. You won't just press the trigger and hit it, you'll have to really beat the living shit out of the thing until it's dead. So you'll have this huge hammer and you'll pound it into blood paste on the floor, and you're going to have to take awhile, too. You're going to have to work on it. You won't just have this arrow point-and-click kind of thing.

This is an oppressive, photorealistic world like that of Far Cry 2, and it's the diametric opposite of Quake Live's flashy, abstract arenas. Yet Quake Live is more of an ordeal than Far Cry 2, and also more real. Killing here is meaningful. It's because human players do make you work for your successes. And the game's emotional restraint opens that experience to interpretation.

At one point during deathmatch, I tire of the speed metal in the background. I decide to turn down the volume of the game's music and put on my own, like I used to in Q3A: an ambient record by Global Communication called "76:14." The record's sweeping, cosmic sounds add a rose-colored tint to my experiences. True to form, Quake Live mixes with them effortlessly. The crackle of the lightning gun weaves in and out of space-age blips and bloops. Rockets seem to lurch past my head in slow motion as their sonic booms get set off amidst graceful cinematic arpeggios. In the arena The Longest Yard -- a series of platforms and launch pads hovering in a black void -- deathmatch becomes a surreal, "2001"-esque ballet. As one player and I circle strafe, pelting each other with gallons of plasma fire, the music leads me to imagine that this is our way of reaching out and finding out what we have in common.

As a technical product, Quake Live is already a seamless experience. But for those open to its very particular brand of action, Quake Live also resonates with meaning -- not because it pretends to offer much, but because it's a polished screen onto which anyone can project their own.