In 1998, mod team Akimbo Team Productions released Action Quake 2, a Quake II multiplayer mod created in their spare time. The landscape of first-person shooters has changed vastly since then, but one group of dedicated fans have never moved on.
Seventeen years later, the game's Finnish community are still dedicated to the lightning-paced, bullet-showering, Hong Kong movie-style spectacle. I spoke to some of the most dedicated players about why they still play, meet and reminisce regularly about a game where you're as likely to perish courtesy of an airborne throwing dagger as you are to be tossed from a rooftop, plunging three stories to your doom.
AQ2 was purposefully tongue-in-cheek and overblown in its design and its leanings towards teamwork, which was unusual at the time, saw a community blossom almost overnight. The mod enjoyed pockets of booming popularity in North and South America until the mid-2000s, and a distinguished scene in Sweden. In 2015 however, all that remains of these groups is broken URLs and forgotten, skeuomorphic web pages. Worldwide, it’s done - with the exception of Finland, that is.
“I’ve been playing since 1999,” Mika Mustakari tells me. “Too long, according to my parents. It was sold by our local games magazine as ‘the best action movie without the cost of a movie ticket’, if I remember rightly.”
In Finland, the AQ2 community still thrives, albeit somewhat diminished in comparison to its formative years. This is remarkable considering that, besides its inclusion in the Quake II Netpack Extremities - an add-on that gathered Quake II custom mods - Action Quake 2 didn't receive official support. It was brought on by its dedicated community developers who implemented new modes and fixes for a number of years post-release, tinkering with the features that worked well, and developing those that didn’t.
After a few email exchanges with Annti King, a 15-year Action Quake 2 veteran, I’m introduced to some of the old guard still flying the Finnish flag on the sacred digital soils of AQ2’s well-trodden battlegrounds. Accompanying King and the aforementioned Mustakari in this figurative sit down is Jon Forsman, who has been playing since 1999, and Jean Preisfreund, who’s been there since day one in 1998.
In the early days, two main sites championed Action Quake 2 fandom either side of the Atlantic: Finland’s AQ2Suomi (suomi meaning "Finland" in Finnish) founded by user Hebereque; and America’s AQ2World, founded by user Darksaint. Only the former has remained live since - its US counterpart having been eventually shut down in 2009, been relaunched in 2012 and, at the time of writing, appearing to have closed again.
By the mid-2000s, AQ2 had reached peak following, whereby Finland alone boasted around 100 active clans, each comprised of anything between five and 20 players. In 2004, the inaugural Official Finnish Championship saw scores of teams compete in offline bouts, before packing the forums and IRCs thereafter to discuss wins, losses, tactics and strategies.
‘Apprime’ were announced overall winners in the competition’s debut year. Born from the hype and excitement of that win were a new clan, Shadow Crusaders - a team who’d eventually record a staggering 63-game unbeaten run. These guys discuss the accolade with me as if it were legend. In many respects it is. These were the glory days.
“It was really amazing to be at the centre of the Action Quake 2 community back then,” says King. “At my peak I was putting in about 40 hours per week. To some folk who play MMORPGs this might not seem like a lot, but it was most, if not all, of my spare time. It was like a job. Being part of different clans was so exciting and in the moments where we defeated more established teams I’d get butterflies in my stomach. I still do now, thinking back.”
“Yeah, no other game has come close to it in terms of delivering the full package,” says Preisfreund. “For me, its best feature is its unique gameplay. That sounds a bit cliched, but in Action Quake 2 there’s enough realism not to ruin things but to keep it interesting, mixed with really good fun. Some aspects that make it work so well are still missing from today’s first-person shooter games - such as bleeding damage and leg damage that causes you to limp unless you heal.”
“Absolutely this!” adds Forsman enthusiastically. “When I first started playing it felt like there were endless options to move around the map - something so rare in those days. The localised damage, the fact that you could render an opponent motionless with a single leg shot, was and is one of the best features in any online videogame to this day.”
Developing a dedicated interest around a niche mod such as Action Quake 2 served to galvanise the community’s sense of togetherness. Had AQ2 been exposed to a much larger audience, it might have weakened the strong bonds they share today.
AQ2Suomi.com itself, King reckons, is what’s kept the Action Quake 2 community afloat in Finland for so long - even if most conversation nowadays takes place via the IRCs on QuakeNet. Compared to other European setups, the website made it far easier to communicate with others, to share maps, to share thoughts, to form ties and to meet friends.
As undeniably trite as this sounds, community seems to be as big a part of the movement as the game itself. King tells of how in 2002, one exceptionally active and well-liked community developer fell on harder times and was forced out of the game after his laptop died. Unbeknownst to him, a private “charity” chat thread, as King calls it, was established whereby each willing participant chipped in €5 towards getting him back into action. “Someone offered a second hand CPU,” says King. “About a month later his new computer arrived and he posted photos and gave his eternal gratitude.”
Nowadays, two Finnish public servers run at full 12-person capacity every day which, although a far cry from the numbers clocked some ten-odd years ago, is still impressive for a game almost old enough to drink. When US site AQ2World relaunched in 2012, it organised a worldwide tournament - the Reunion Cup - which welcomed 18 clans with matches of 4 vs 4. It marked the last significant attempt to kickstart wider interest in Action Quake 2, but Mustakari hopes a similar event will come along again in the not so distant future.
In the meantime, these veterans still manage to squeeze in around seven hours of play each week when life’s not getting in the way, and strive to meet up at least a few evenings a week to chat, play the odd game or two, or place bets on the latest esports game of interest.
Today, there’s around 50 dedicated players who play most weeks, says King. There’s about the same on top of that again who are less frequent, who stop by "perhaps once every few months". And there’s about 300 recognisable names that might pop in once a year or thereabouts. Some of the guys are life-long friends and although spread out across the country, they endeavour to catch up in real life whenever possible. King tells me that he ditched his co-workers on a recent overnight cross-country business trip to catch up with some old clan buddies.
"I never thought that a single game could have such a big impact on my life," says Preisfreund. "It really warms my heart to have met so many awesome guys I call friends today. Without the game, this never would’ve happened."
"Yeah, Action Quake 2 has been a life changer for me as well," adds Forsman. "I consider it a privilege to have played in a clan with people that I’m able to go visit at any time. I’m treated like a normal, real life friend, even though I haven’t met them more than once or twice. I don’t think there will ever be a game that will ever come close to how awesome this is, period."
"I grew up with Action Quake 2," says King. "I’ve met a bunch of lifetime friends who I’ve spent literally thousands of hours with, hours of my life, playing the game with. It was huge part of my youth, and still is. To be honest, I probably wouldn’t be playing PC games at all anymore, if it weren’t for these guys. For me, it’s as much about the social aspects of playing as it is about the games."
Which is likely why the spiritual successors, games like Double Action Boogaloo and The Specialists, have failed to capture the attention of the AQ2 loyal. It’s probably why most of them only dabble in other multiplayer shooters, and why even when they do it’s almost exclusively with each other. For these people, Action Quake 2 is a hobby that transcends videogames. For these people, the concept of Action Quake 2 and all that entails is a hobby in and of itself.
"I think Action Quake had a lot of features that made it appealing to its players," says Minh 'Gooseman' Le when I ask about the mod. Le contributed weapon models to Action Quake 2 after its initial release, before departing the community to create his own well-known mod: Counter-Strike. "It had a very distinct niche - it targeted the people who were into Hong Kong-style, over-the-top type movies," says Le. "That niche was fairly strong back then. I’m not too surprised that people still play it but I’d be surprised if there is younger people playing, because expectations have changed."
Le’s right, expectations have changed. Games have changed. Yet if you manage to beat the queues and join one of Finland’s Action Quake 2 public servers today, you’ll be met with the same pre-battle announcement that’s pre-empted each and every single campaign for the last 17 years.