Not that I’m saying Quake is not suitable for 21st century play – quite the opposite. It’s just that enormous and beautiful mod campaign Arcane Dimensions applies some of the design values we are accustomed to from later, flashier games to the ancient Quake structure. From flow to geometry to sheer size, it’s taking Quake to places id possibly could not have imagined when they first made it, and wrestling the engine into brand new shapes without actually losing its essential Quakeiness.
Because that’s the thing: playing Arcane Dimensions makes Quake once again feel like it felt when I first played it.
By which I mean, my teenage eyes saw scale, adrenaline and grandeur where now there is relative smallness, slowness and limited architecture. Quake still holds up well, but the technical restrictions of the time are apparent. Arcane Dimensions’ key move is to raise the ceilings of what’s possible with Carmack’s ancient wizardry. Literally as well as figuratively. Cop a load of this:
AD isn’t just visually raising the roof. Each of its interlinked maps features layers upon layers, efficiency of vertical as well as horizontal space. It reminds me of esteemed Half-Life 2 mod Minerva in that regard – ducking the limits of the engine by maximising the use of space.
Where Quake’s original medieval-themed maps were more like slices of castles, one part of Arcane Dimensions is set within a towering, multi-tier cathedral section that feels like a complete place.
You go back and forth across it, up and down and over and under and around, new pathways and shortcuts opening up as you do: a map to last an hour or more. And ‘more’ is most likely, given that AD is completely unafraid to give you a hard time.
High-end enemies, some of them brand new and impressively non-intrusive, pop up and spawn in all over the place, often in large numbers and rarely at times or in ways you will entirely expect. Backtracking, of which there is some, is not characterised by a dry retread across familiar terrain, but by ambushes and collapsing floors and surprise underwater sections. This is important, however: Arcane Dimensions is not casually fucking around with what makes Quake Quake. Its clear and pure intention is to be maxi-Quake, Quake writ larger and more fearsome.
It also understands the strange beauty that Quake has come to possess in its old age. In its middle years, to my eyes at least it seemed like a casualty of early 3D, brown and boxy and everything that games were racing to leave behind.
Now that we have no shortage of glossy and colourful, near-photoreal games, I can see it for what it is. Quake is defined not by its compromises but by stylised, even artful, oddness. High resolutions and widescreen mean a once-muted song now chimes clearly: this is a true Other Place, not an ancient, muddy relic.
Arcane Dimensions understands that the harsh angles and eerie echoes create a sense of place, so it pushes them further still. This is a game of architecture as well as action – melding believable structures with abstract shapes and layouts. Earthly and alien all at once, but never a random jumble.
That tall, spiralling cathedral (for instance – there are several other, similarly large but very different sections, which you can visit in an order of your choosing) has geometry Quake itself never could have done, but it is amplifying rather than replacing. The atmospheric sounds, creakings and clankings and moanings, build upon the haunted menace of Quake, without going all the way to horror movie excess.
Arcane Dimensions doesn’t feel like ‘Quake mod’ probably makes it sound. It looks and plays like the work of someone intimately familiar with the workings of Quake, what makes it tick from a design perspective rather than a bestiary and aesthetic one.
It doesn’t ever spam, its layouts are not mazes of madness or cruel death-arenas. It is a thoughtful, enlarged take on Quake with a clear idea of how people play shooters now: the flow they expect, the speed they can move and shoot at, their comfort with heights and jumps, their expectation of scripts and tricks in enemy behaviour, and of course their desire for beauty. This is smart, subtle expansion upon what makes Quake Quake, and a pursuit of moodiness and dramatic prettiness in the process.
If I had a complaint, it would be that there’s a slight over-reliance on locked-door gating, as Arcane Dimensions tries to shuttle the play back and forth across its dramatic worlds by opening and unlocking new areas within older ones, and this can create some frustration – trying door after door to find the way onwards.
Fortunately it never devolves into complete confusion about where to go, as by and large stumbling upwards or elsewhere will incite some new skirmish and sometimes a button or key that unlocks an elsewhere; it’s just that it handicaps the sensation of freedom of movement that the mod otherwise works hard for.