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Shack Chat: Quake Champions and Updating a Classic

Quake Champions has been in closed beta for a little over a month. Shacknews CEO and editorial director Asif Khan and I have been rocket-jumping and rail-gunning these past few weeks, and are finally allowed to share our impressions of id Software's arena shooter. Opening with our gut reactions, we discuss a bevy of topics including the game's free-to-play model, lingering balance issues among some of the champion characters, and what id Software could do to appeal to new players.

David Craddock: All right, Asif. We've been playing the Quake Champions closed beta for... just over a month, I believe? I thought we could share our impressions so far with the Shacknews Chatty and the Internet at large. Asif, you're probably the biggest Quake fan out of us. Going into Champions, what were your expectations?

Asif Khan: I was lucky enough to see Quake Champions at QuakeCon last year. So I had seen the game played five-on-five with professional Quake players.

David: Wow, that's a stellar introduction. You really get a sense of how Quake should be played when the pros take up their mice and keyboards. The one thing I noticed right away, going hands-on, was how well the old shoes still fit, so to speak. Quake Champions feels like Quake. It's fast, responsive, and slick.

Asif: It doesn't depart from makes the series so great, which is very important. But back to your question, I was just hoping the game wouldn't suck. My expectations were extremely low. The addition of Champions with powers scared me at first. I didn't want them to reskin Overwatch. I just wanted more Quake. The first video we saw at E3 raised some concerns. There was no rocket jump in the footage. It seemed like they may be going in a new direction.

Thankfully the stuff that came out of QuakeCon to the public and then behind closed doors assuaged many of my fears. The most important things I expected from the game were the trademark speed and balanced weapons that the franchise is known for.

David: I went in with low expectations as well. All I wanted was Quake, which is how I went into Doom last year when I reviewed it: just give me Doom with a fresh coat of paint. I got more than I bargained for, in a good way. I wanted the same from Quake Champions and was interested to see what new systems and frills id would add.

I'm impressed so far. It's like I bought a new pair of shoes based on a brand I'd worn years ago. They fit well, and they look pretty. Quake Champions' graphics are very impressive—no surprise coming from id—and the game still moves like lightning on ice. Because of that, I'd say my gut reaction was, "Cool, this is what I wanted." Did you feel the same way?

Asif: At first, no. The Beta roll out was super clunky. The first week, I played maybe two matches. The queues were huge, and the time between matches was absurdly long. But when I got into the game, it started to feel great. A few weeks into the Beta, it really clicked for me. I found a few Champions that I liked to play as and my muscle memory from the 1990s started to kick in.

I also was blown away by the level design. Ruins of Sarnath (the eyeball level) is absolutely delightful and highlights exactly what I loved about the original Quake series. While the matchmaking still takes a lot of time and the Bethesda Launcher itself is really frustrating, the game is fun and that is what is most important to me.

David: I would like to add at this juncture that the absolute last thing I needed in my life was another game launcher.

Asif: Yeah. I understand why; I was talking to someone about in app purchases. If they went with Steam, they would have to pay a fraction of all of those sales to Valve. But boy is it frustrating

David: That makes sense. It's the same reason companies like Amazon removed IAP from Apple products.

Asif: And there is no excuse for how poorly the Bethesda Launcher behaves.

David: I was glad to see that id's level design hadn't lost steps since Quake 3 and Quake Live. One thing I love about Quake arenas is that there aren't really any safe areas. There are multiple paths in and out of rooms, which facilitates the series' never-stop-moving credo. Every map I played in Champions stayed true to that design.

Asif: Yeah, you are always being flanked.

David: Let's talk about the champions and their powers. I was surprised to find that they didn't sway matches heavily in favor of one player or another. There's some balancing that needs to be done, but I never felt like I absolutely had to play one particular character or I was doomed (heh) to lose. What do you think of the abilities and stats—such as differing movement speeds and max health—for the champions?

Asif: I was pleased that the game didn't feel drastically different. The powers feel like just another weapon almost. I like the variable cool downs and that you can speed up your recovery with pickups. It supports that tradition of players knowing where everything is—from armor, to the quad, to the rocket launcher and rail gun.

Quake has always been about mastering levels. I definitely feel like certain Champions work better on certain levels and you have to be mindful of the opposing teams' champions. I definitely fell in love with Scalebearer and Galena the more I played. I think the beauty of the game is that there is not one right player. It is about finding which champion fits your play style. I am a run and gun kinda guy, so Scalebearer with his 150 health and special bull rush attack speaks to me. Galena is quick and her special is pretty awesome, with the ability to heal yourself and teammates while leaving a booby trap for the opposing players.

I agree that there is some balancing that needs to be done, and they actually have already been doing that. Luckily Tim Willits let me know that this would be a prolonged beta, so they have time to get it right.

David: Yeah, as soon as I started playing I immediately slipped into my old routine of scouring maps to learn the layout during the pre-match warmup. That way as soon as the match started I knew exactly what to go for and how to get there. That process of falling into familiar routines was satisfying as a Quake player, but it brings us to what I perceive to be Champions' biggest issue. The problem with Quake Live, now over seven years old, is that only the most hardcore Quake players still play. Given that Champions feels slanted toward Quake fans like us, who have been rocket jumping since 1996, do you think it will be too difficult for new players to latch on to?

Asif: I think there is a serious risk that new players will be put off by the learning curve. It doesn't help that most of the Quake community is merciless when it comes to gibbing noobs. Where I do think it will win over people, is that the game is a pure FPS. When you win or lose, you know your kill death ratio. The stat-keeping in Quake allows players to weigh their performance against themselves. So I may stink, but I can see my progress. Getting better/improving your play is what most great video games are about, so I don't think it is that unique in that sense.

What is different about this community is that there are players who have been playing some incarnation of Quake since 1996, with little to no breaks. It is going to be very difficult for id to balance doing fan service to their diehards while creating an environment for inexperienced players to excel. I think they need to look at the Rocket League style of matchmaking for some guidance; having ranked and unranked modes could help

David For me, the rocket launcher and rain gun remain old standbys, but I had just as much success with the super shotgun and lightning gun. Those four weapons were my most trusted sidearms back in the Q3A days, and they're still effective now. I do think the machine gun and nail gun feel less effective than the others, though.

Asif: I saw quite a few people complain that the rocket launcher feels weak. I tend to agree. Two dead-on hits with a rocket does not guarantee you a kill in Quake Champions. I was never really a fan of the nail gun, and the machine gun is really just a placeholder until you can find a better gun. I love the super shotgun. It is really satisfying when you are in close combat.

I think one very important thing to mention about weapons in this game is the addition of the right click to zoom function. That really changes the feel of the game.

David: I agree. Quake's never had secondary modes of fire, but the zoom function being available on any weapon is arguably more effective because every gun can use it.

Asif: Yeah, at first I was grumbling about it, but my kills jumped by a factor of 2 once I got the hang of zooming. I ended up changing my mouse sensitivity to be even higher because the zoom function really does slow things down a bit when aiming.

Another thing I think we should mention is the color coding of the weapons.

David: Yes! I love that. I made sure to mention that in one of the guides I wrote.

Asif: It definitely seems like something to help newbies. After a few games, you start to know which color weapon you want to find. Even if you don't know what a rail gun is, that green gun is pretty dope!

David: One of the big talking points among the Quake Champions community is the free-to-play model. For those who don't know, you earn in-game currency called Favor that you can use to rent champions for 24 hours and buy loot packs. To permanently own Champions, you have to spend real money on Platinum. I felt like Ranger—the default champion—was balanced just right. I could probably enjoy Quake Champions if he were my only permanent character, and get by renting other characters since Favor isn't too difficult to earn.

What do you think of the F2P trappings so far? I don't think we've been able to buy Platinum in the beta, but did you feel like you needed to?

Asif: I don't think the F2P model will hurt them at all. If anything, it will get more people in the door. Ranger is okay, and you can earn quite a bit of favor if you do your daily objectives. Like I said before, who you pick as your champion really should reflect your play style. Ranger's special doesn't do it for me. I always forget where I am going to teleport to.

I am a bit concerned that the rental period for a Champion is only 24 hours. Maybe they could offer a week long rental for more favor? I didn't feel like I needed to buy currency in the game, but once I settle in on a few champions that I like to play as, I will probably buy them. Ultimately, I plan on buying the game, so I am not going to have to worry about it.

Raqib [Huq, fellow Shacknews editor] brought up a point hone we were playing the game last weekend that the nice part of League of Legends is that when you grind to unlock a character, you keep them forever. That sense of achievement is lost in the current framework of Quake Champions. It would be cool if they offered a free way to unlock a Champion. Perhaps with a bunch of Favor? Like 100,000 or something, and you permanently get them. But if the game is free to play, they have to pay for servers somehow.

David: I do that Quake Champions needs some sort of permanency outside of Platinum currency. Any decisions in that area will need to be finalized soon, I'd think. The closed beta marches on this weekend. Where does the game need to go from here to get it locked down for release this summer?

Asif: Performance. It needs to run better. Load times are pretty insane just to start the game. Then once you are in, the amount of time it takes to find a match needs to improve. But these are hopefully things they are working on, and I have seen improvement each week of the beta. The launcher also could use some work.

I think the champions could use some more balancing as well. Scalebearer is almost too slow. The dinosaur, his name is escaping me, seems a bit overpowered. They nerfed Slash in a recent update, but maybe too much, because I didn't enjoy my time playing as her as much as a lot of other players.

Oh—The voice over is awful, almost across the board. The announcer sounds like Satan talking into an iPhone while on the crapper. Anarki's quips drew frequent groans from me. There are several other voices that could be improved, but holy hell, the announcer is bad.

David: Yes, they're pretty much all terrible. I forgot to check the options to see if I could disable most or all voices. I don't think the game will suffer for the bad VO, or options to disable it. There's no narrative going on. I don't need to know what Slash is saying every time I snipe someone out of the air. With that said, I still hear the VO, and it's still awful.

Asif: That is a problem, because Quake has had solid VO before. I also think they need unranked modes. How are we supposed to host Shack battles? It would also address the problem with being inviting to new players: pros would be in the ranked games while noobs like Raqib can try to get good in unranked. They also need to implement features for eSports casters, like a way to spectate.

There is the one thing that bothers me with a lot of the impressions we are seeing of this game. They're colleagues of ours in the games media who are quick to say that this game is no better than Quake Live. This game hasn't shipped yet. Instead of just saying you would rather play Quake Live, I think providing constructive criticism and ideas to improve the game would be a better use of our time. The whole point of this beta is to give us the Quake we want and that the community deserves. I think Quake Champions can turn out to be absolutely great  if id listens to their players. Only time will tell but I think it is very premature to declare it DOA.

David: I don't think Quake Champions is DOA. Far from it. That said, it would be disingenuous to ignore the elephant in the room. People are bound to compare Overwatch and Quake Champions by virtue of the fact that both games offer hero-type characters with different abilities. Quake is free to play, which gives it a leg up. But the other difference maker is that Overwatch is very accessible. That's a Blizzard trademark: their games appeal to casual audiences first, and each game's inner core is made up of systems and hooks that give hardcore players reasons to stick with it.

Can Quake Champions find an audience other than Quake fans who have been along for the ride since the '90s? As much as I'm enjoy it, Quake Champions feels like more Quake. I don't think that's a bad thing. It's what I want, it's what you want. But from the moment I got into a match, I felt like I knew who this game was for, and very little about it feels welcoming to the uninitiated.

David: Exactly. I like that id is aiming for, in essence, players like us. But for this game to have legs, they're going to have to take steps to make it appealing to players who were still in diapers when Quake was the juggernaut of the FPS genre.

Asif: I am not sure if they can find that audience. I think if they are hoping to be Overwatch, they might as well cancel the game. It is going to be a smaller collective of FPS purists. Now the question really becomes, can Quake Champions appeal to the COD players of the world? Or the Halo fans? There are a lot of shooters out there, not just Overwatch, and you really have to make people feel like you offer a materially better multiplayer experience to justify moving away from their go to FPS.

David: I think you hit the nail on the head earlier. id should consider rolling out an unranked mode and stronger matchmaking. A new player stepping into a match with an old pro will get squashed and could very well get discouraged and never play again.

Asif: I think being free to play will help get new people in the door, but having them stay is going to require more than we have seen so far.

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