Friday, March 20, 2009

QuakeLive Lizardbrain

Two enter, one will leave. Oh Quake Live, Rob may have mixed feelings about you, but I don’t.  And I know you’re just a browser-based version of a decade-old PC classic, but I’m just getting to know you for the first time.

My previous experiences with Quake are extremely limited.  I remember MTV’s “True Life: I’m a Gamer,” on which Fatal1ty won a preposterous amount of money besting some other pale-faced gladiator in virtual combat.  In middle school, while I was busy figuring out which Presidents of the USA CD gave me the best monster in Monster Rancher, my friend dabbled in Quake games, relishing the ability to swap in a music CD during gameplay.  In fact, the only time I’d ever actually played Quake was on a demo rig in my local Comp USA.  Needless to say, the bots kicked my ass.

You may be wondering, then, why I care about Quake Live, which is basically just a Quake fanboy’s Dell-funded wet dream.

Because it appeals to my baser instincts.  My gaming lizard brain, as it were.  Strip away my high-culture facade genuine interest in seeing games grow as an art form, and I’m not much better than some of the tweens mouthing off to you on Xbox Live (but with less swearing and face-humping). 

I enjoy competition.  Even if I don’t win.  The opportunity to face off with other players (albeit anonymously) has always drawn me to online multiplayer.  Tribes, Starcraft, Halo 2…the list goes on.  Obviously, the promise of competition drew me to Quake Live.

In good competition, stories bubble up from the ether, coaxed into existence by a confluence of perspiration,adrenaline, and perhaps Mountain Dew.  Rivals pop up on the battlefield.  Maybe it’s luck, or maybe there’s an algorithm behind this, but I find myself regularly circling the same opponents, even in a larger contest.  After the first few frags, we clash like seasoned veterans, old friends, who’ve learned each other’s tricks and attempt to exploit them in the twenty seconds before one of us takes a rocket to the face.

Team play can be just as satisfying.  Voice chat does not seem to be running yet, or I’ve simply not encountered anyone using it.  This radio silence – combined with frantic gameplay that prohibits wasteful message-typing – creates a strange bond.  You can see your teammates’ avatars.  You can run behind them down a cramped hallway.  But you have no time to establish a connection.  No time to send messages about strategy or bond over Dancing with the Stars.  But this doesn’t matter.  Language won’t raise your frag count. 

There are reasons beside a lack of meaningful communication that make Quake Live no cerebral affair.  Controls fall squarely into the “twitchy” category.  Gunfights are not settled by conventional accuracy, but by a seemingly superhuman ability to jump, bob, and weave like a maniac while maintaining a steady stream of fire on your opponent.

Contrast this knowingly manic gameplay with my other multiplayer love: StarcraftStarcraft’s propensity for strategy and planning hides its reliance on speed-clicking and forms of micromanagement only professional players can fathom.  Quake Live harbors no such illusions of strategy.  It’s all about speed.  All about firepower.  Darwin, you would have loved this.

And man, there are statistics.  I love stats.  I don’t even really care about leaderboards because, as Rob said, “everyone is always better than you.”  I don’t know I’d say “everyone,” but there’s certainly always someone better than you playing.  If there you disagree, it’s time to go outside.  But as I said, the leaderboards don’t matter to me.  I just like that after matches there’s a chronicle of my virtual self.  A digital version of the childhood dream of having a baseball card.  Does anyone else care that 6% of all my shots come from the Lightning Gun?  Or that I finished third out of eleven on some match in Demon Keep?  No.  I’m not even sure I do.  But there are kilobytes on a hard drive somewhere devoted to this, and that’s good enough for me.

Plus, there are plenty of simple joys.  The thrill of narrowly escaping death as you pick up a fallen enemy’s BFG and gun down any remaining threats.  The impossible feat of popping someone with a railgun while they soar through the air off a grav lift – it’s like the Clay Mode of Duck Hunt with the added knowledge that the pigeons are controlled by other people.  Or the final two minutes of a close round of Team Deathmatch, where every mistake means failure and every frag victory.  It’s all appealing, and none of it terribly complicated.

Sure, this sounds like a love letter to multiplayer shooters the world over, but Quake Live does have a specific mojo working.  There are no distractions (save the fairly innocuous Dell ads).  Quake Live does not dabble in classes or microtranscations.  It’s just straight-up gaming competition.  Boot up your browser, grab the plug-in, and start fragging.  No, seriously, stop reading and do it.