In August 2023, id Software’s 1997 first-person shooter Quake II was updated to a new, enhanced version. This was no surprise - it had been rumoured for some time, and seemed inevitable after the 2021 reissue of the original Quake. What few were prepared for is how brilliantly the job was done.
Multiple studios lavished care and attention onto Quake II. They made a laundry list of improvements to graphics, sound, AI, and pathfinding. They added in both of the original expansion packs, and a new PC port of the Nintendo 64 version of the game. Finally, just like Quake, the sequel received a huge and superbly made new expansion developed by MachineGames.
Suddenly, Quake II is in the limelight again. For many years, the game was eclipsed almost totally by its own predecessor and by other ‘90s shooters. During this period, strange notions gained traction. One was that Quake II was somehow a failure on its original release - which could hardly be further from the truth.
The wonderful enhanced version of Quake II does change the way the game looks and plays. First and foremost, though, it demonstrates again how brilliant id Software’s work was to begin with. Today, it should be clearer than ever that Quake II represents the pinnacle of the golden era of shooters, the heady days of the 1990s. Here we explore three aspects in which it was extraordinary back in the day, and is better still in 2023.
The intense humming of evil; or, settings and level design
Quake was a grab-bag of disconnected themes: an awkward mix of far-future tech, grimy medievalism, and the Cthulhu Mythos. For its sequel in name only, id Software took a very different approach. Quake II has a strongly coherent setting and aesthetic, anchored to the company’s first real attempt at a story.
Future Earth has been devastated in an invasion by the Strogg, a race of militaristic cyborgs. Having blunted the assault, humanity mounts a counter-strike at the enemy homeworld of Stroggos. Every part of Quake II and its expansions is set on and around this over-exploited waste of a planet. It makes sense in a way that Quake’s scattershot settings did not. Stroggos is a mess of industrial and military facilities, linked by a clever hub system that recalls that of Hexen but is far more navigable.
The Strogg are presented as a totalitarian regime, driven by conquest and with their own fascist iconography. Their society is utterly corrupt, and the player becomes its undoing, striking at every weakness. In this way, Quake II anticipates the glut of World War II shooters that would follow. Factory, comms facility, echoing cave, space bound freighter, bunker-palace - the settings are more varied than Quake II ever got credit for.
In level design, id Software struck a crucial sweet spot between the loose abstraction of earlier games like Doom and the fussy, mimetic realism of today’s military shooters. Arguably, this was less a design choice, and more a reflection of what id Tech 2 was suited for. Happily, the best of today’s retro shooters now follow a similar path to Quake II; their level designs are cohesive, but still imaginative.
Are friends electric; or, dynamic enemies
All too often, the enemies in ‘90s shooters are uninteresting. However imaginative their visual design, they tend to be limited to a short list of rote behaviours - they walk or fly, get shot, and die. It was only in 1998, with Half-Life and its smarter marines, that FPS foes began to possess an illusion of intelligence. The standard of enemy AI in Quake II was not revolutionary, but the Strogg are a surprisingly interesting set of opponents.
The enemy cyborgs have a larger range of behaviours than was normal in 1997. For example, some enemies attempt to dodge particular types of projectile. This not only looks great, but also encourages the player to make a more thoughtful use of their full arsenal. Other enemies can play dead, or might let off final shots as they bleed out. These uncommon actions help keep players alert, in a way that the demons of Doom or Quake never did.
The remaster fixes and re-implements some AI behaviours that were cut during the original development of Quake II. Enemies will now often drop down from upper levels, in a convincing simulation of an intelligent ambush. Certain Strogg will fire explosives at the player’s last known position, which makes popping out from cover a more dangerous prospect than before. The game’s careful approach to its enemies also extends to the visuals - Strogg often pick up visible wounds, demonstrating their weakened state.
The sound of metal; or, music and audio
The soundtrack to Quake II is surely one of the very best in any ‘90s shooter. In stark contrast to the dark ambience of the original Quake, the follow-up has a pulse-pounding heavy metal approach. Generally credited only to Sonic Mayhem - the nom de guerre of German musician Sascha Dikiciyan - the soundtrack was also worked on by composers Bill Brown and Jer Sypult. While the relentless “Quad Machine” is the best-known piece, all of the music is perfectly suited to the game’s one-man army ethos.
The game’s sound design is equally worthy of praise. The sound effects of Quake II are a crucial part of its atmosphere. They have a real gameplay purpose, too - so distinct and recognisable that they always help guide the player’s next move. Hearing the unique metallic clank of a Strogg grenade bouncing, or an iron maiden reloading their rocket launcher, means it’s time to make a move.
The way that Quake II handles sound was also revamped in the remaster. The game now supports a much larger number of voices, and its handling of different materials is greatly improved, which gives different types of spaces their own distinct sound.
On release in 1997, Quake II was arguably the best shooter money could buy, and its generally rapturous reviews reflected this. Its reign was brief, however. Quake II was essentially the traditional, conventional FPS made to a fantastic standard. However, it was released just on the cusp of seismic change in the genre. Within the following 11 months, first Unreal and then Half-Life were released.
In their own ways, these games each eclipsed id Software’s work and pointed the way to the future of the genre. Unreal had a groundbreaking 3D engine, even more impressive than id Software’s accomplishments at the time - 25 years later, its derivatives are a more dominant development platform than ever. Half-Life used comparatively basic technology licensed from id Software, but made great strides in its narrative and gameplay aspects.
The shifts were not limited to single-player games. For a time, Quake II was a dominant force on the multiplayer scene, but this too would change rapidly. This was spearheaded partly by id Software themselves. In 1999, their multiplayer-centric Quake III: Arena faced off against Unreal Tournament in a much-publicised struggle for online shooter supremacy. The reality was that both were incredible, albeit in different ways - and both made the online mode of Quake II seem basic by comparison.
The rapid changes to the shooter scene caused Quake II to be somewhat left behind. Even mappers and modders flocked largely to Doom II and Quake, which keeps the communities for those games thriving today. What the remaster does is show Quake II in the best light possible, allowing its many fantastic qualities to shine again just as they did in its glory days. Hopefully, this newfound attention will secure the legacy of Quake II, as perhaps the zenith of the traditional ‘90s FPS.
I write about classic science fiction and occasionally fantasy; I sometimes make maps for Doom II; and I'm a contributor to the videogames site Entertainium, where I regularly review new games.