If you're only a casual observer of online PC gaming, you'd be forgiven for thinking that the Battlefield series is all war fans have to choose from. So big is EA's franchise that every game which attempts something similar is instantly labelled as a copycat. Enemy Territory: Quake Wars is such a game, but comes from Splash Damage, the studio behind the hugely popular (and free) Enemy Territory: Return to Castle Wolfenstein. With a strong pedigree and id Software as a partner, there's every chance that Battlefield will finally have some stiff competition.
Storylines are largely irrelevant when it comes to online shooters, but in Quake Wars the maps you play on are part of an overall story, acting as a prequel to id's Quake II. The game takes place on Earth in the year 2065 and charts the initial invasion of the Strogg. This alien race hasn't landed on Earth to make friends, so Quake Wars pits the Global Defence Force (the humans) against the Strogg in a battle to the death.
Key to the whole experience is the class system. GDF and Strogg each have five character classes, each serving a certain purpose during battle. Taking the GDF as an example, soldiers do the grunt work, but medics provide vital health support, engineers can build vital structures, field ops can call in airstrikes and covert ops can gain useful enemy info. The Strogg classes differ a little in their abilities, but they largely fall under the same categories.
This translates to each member of the team having a job to do. On the "Valley" map the first task as a GDF player is to protect your engineer while he builds a bridge, allowing your MCP vehicle to move on to the second stage of the map. Later on your covert ops guys will need to hack into the Strogg's Strategic Shield Generator and unless soldiers back them up, they've got no chance. The Strogg on the other hand simply have to stop all this from happening, with a timer counting down the seconds to success.
Every map is different, with unique objectives, but a team focus and key objectives are present throughout. If you're reading this thinking that another team-based online shooter is the last thing the industry needs, you might be surprised. Not only is Quake Wars full of fresh ideas, it's also catering for novices. Newcomers can bring up missions that will help the team's cause and you can carry these out without really needing to know how it affects the overall game.
Of course, the more you play, the more you'll learn, but an easy to use interface goes a long way to helping 'noobs' get enjoyment from what could have been an extremely intimidating game. This is carried over to vehicle controls too. Experts can make use of the simulation controls, but if newcomers don't like the idea of crashing to a horrible death moments after taking off in a copter they can opt for basic controls. The difficulty is then removed, but the fun of driving or flying a vehicle is still there.
Weapon choice also helps the game walk the fine line between the hardcore and novice camps. Being somewhat of an online shooter noob, I was able to do a good job with each race's rocket launcher, targeting vehicles while others had the far trickier task of actually aiming - rocket launchers come with a handy lock-on system if you can stay in position for long enough.
All this might sound like a game that's been dumbed down for the common gamer, but that's not the case at all. Splash Damage owner and lead game designer Paul Wedgewood demonstrated this with various trick jumps, and numerous locations on each map have been created for experienced online gamers to make the most out of. The physics system in the game also means that vehicle control can be taken to the extreme, with ground vehicles able to powerslide and flying craft able to perform some aerial acrobatics.
What was clear is that everyone who played had a good time and that was when a group of hardcore FPS players were pitted against a group of 'mainstream' journalists. Despite our frequent defeats, games were always lengthy and it felt like we had a chance. Awards are given after each game and the claims for being newcomer friendly turned out to be spot on. How this will translate to the online arena (rather than a cosy LAN set-up) remains to be seen.
Let's not forget about the impressive visuals on display in Quake Wars. Based on the Doom 3 engine but with substantial changes, including the Megatexture technology that has allowed for such huge maps, it'll certainly be the most impressive looking large-scale shooter available on its release. With transparent transitions from outdoor to indoor environments and a huge variety in the appearance of each map, the game is a joy to look at. Of course, you'll need a beefy PC if you want to run everything at maximum detail.
Splash Damage, id Software and Activision insist that Quake Wars will only be released when it's 100% ready, and this should ensure that the game receives every minute tweak and piece of fine-tuning that's needed. If this is indeed what happens, veteran players and online FPS newcomers can both look forward to a highly entertaining and competitive shooter.