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The highlight of Quake 2's remaster is an intense new campaign from the Wolfenstein devs

Intense gibbage for both veterans and newcomers (and it's on Game Pass)

While Starfield is the big sci-fi shooter on Game Pass right now, folks fancying shootier shooting should see another FPS owned by Bethesda: Quake 2. Id Software's 1997 shooter was fancied up with a remaster released as a free update in August, complete with all the old stuff and one notable new addition. MachineGames, the studio behind the modern Wolfenstein games, have created a whole new story campaign for the remaster. I've really enjoyed playing it. It's the old Quake 2 you know and have complicated feelings about, filtered through modern design sensibilities. I think both veterans and newcomers could enjoy blasting these biomechanical alien horrors.

Bethesda launched the remaster update on August 10th. The re-release comes in collaboration with frequent remasterers Nightdive Studios, who have rebuilt Quake 2 inside their own engine, Kex. Along with the original campaign, it includes both official expansions and the N64 version of Quake 2 (which was a whole different game). The soundtrack's presence is very welcome after years absent from downloadable releases (because the game looked to play it off the game CD). It packs historical doodads like concept art and playable demos from trade shows, too. And while I have little interest in remasters, especially when a game is still perfectly playable today thanks to the work of fans, this is a pretty solid one.

The updated weapon and character models are great. They're not incongrous billion-polygon affairs which render each individual pore, nor gross noisy 'HD texture packs' which don't know the difference between technical specs and aesthetics, nor smeary horrorshows. They simply bump Quake 2's polycounts and texture sizes forward a few years of technical advancements—maybe from 1997 standards to 1999 or 2000—to add a little fidelity and smooth sharp edges (literally, though sometimes over-zealously). This and some of the new lighting tricks make Quake 2 look like how I remember Quake 2, which is what I want from a remaster. And while level textures are untouched, I'd rather that than half-arsed.

The original enemy and weapon models in a Quake 2 remaster comparison screenshot.
The new enemy and weapon models in a Quake 2 remaster comparison screenshot.
Old enemy and weapon models on the left, new on the right | Image credit: Rock Paper Shotgun/Bethesda Softworks

I did disable some of the other new visual effects, mind. The bloom and fog and such simply don't look like Quake 2 to me, though I must say their end result was still more pleasant than Nvidia's hideous raytraced Quake 2. The new hit markers popping up around your crosshair look cheap and out-of-place too. I also turned off texture texture filtering because it's not true to my own experiences of playing Quake 2 turned way down on a creaking PC with a Cyrix P166+ processor and a whopping 16 megabytes of RAM.

Quake 2's remaster feels right-ish to my fingers, I think. The original game has oodles of physics quirks you can exploit for fast movement, huge jumps, and death-defying stunts, which became defining elements of its identity in multiplayer and mods. Strafe-jumping, ramp-jumping, and crate-jumping tricks feel like how I remember, though I can't tell whether ladder-jumping is broken or if my old hands have simply forgotten the movements and timings that were once as unconscious as breathing.

And if you don't want any of this remastering gubbins, the original versions still come with the game on Steam and GOG. Not on Game Pass, mind.

While the remastering is solid, even as an ancient Quake 2 player I wouldn't have touched it without Call Of The Machine, the new story campaign by MachineGames. They previousy made new campaigns for the remaster of the original Quake, which our Liam informs me are good and I should play. After this, I definitely will.

Strogg-fragging violence in a Quake 2 remaster screenshot.
Image credit: Rock Paper Shotgun/Bethesda Softworks

Call Of The Machine offers six small chapters you can play in any order, followed by a dramatic closer. Each drops different marines from orbit to fight through Quake 2-y places (industrial facilities, sewers, industrial sewers, city sewers etc) to gather data discs. CotM feels quite out of place alongside the old campaigns and especially the N64 game—and it should. This is a campaign built for people playing Quake 2 in 2023.

While Doom has aged into a classic, Quake 2 just feels old. You can see Id Software feeling out some of the space of what FPSes would become, but the game arrived very much in an awkward transitionary period. It wild to think that Half-Life lanched only 11 months later. So here's Call Of The Machine, using the building blocks of Quake 2 to create a different experience. It reflects that many people now will have already played a whole lot of Quake 2, and that the whole landscape of first-person shooters has changed. To me, it feels inspired by the Doom "slaughter maps" made by grizzled players who crave ultra-ultraviolence and maybe the "boomer shooters" (still a horrible name) which zhuzh up 90s aesthetics with a speed and quantity of murder rarely seen in the original games.

Strogg-fragging violence in a Quake 2 remaster screenshot.
Lovely skybox there | Image credit: Rock Paper Shotgun/Bethesda Softworks

Call Of The Machine throws enemies at you in far greater numbers than Quake 2, and late-game monsters appear often. Hordes are often more diverse too, mixing in many enemy types (including from both expansions) to create fights which require careful prioritisation (and encouraging infighting) while dodging all sorts of lasers, bullets, hooks, and tongues. It also has more miniboss and boss battles, which remain, y'know, okay I guess.

Violence is made even livelier by enemy AI tweaks (affecting the whole game, not just the new campaign). They are more likely to use moves like ducking your shots, and some outright have new moves. The hammer-handed Berserker, for example, can aggressively close distance with a jump attack landing in a shoving shockwave. I appreciate some of the balance tweaks and touches too. Glad for faster weapon switching in this intense campaign, but gutted by the railgun nerf.

Call Of The Machine levels are fun themepark rides, more guided than Quake 2 and enjoying giving glimpses of where you'll be in 10 minutes. Puzzles are more complicated, or at least more involved. Scripted sequences are certainly fancier, with my favourite being sitting atop a giant laser drill as it gibs gobs of grunts. And many of the larger combat arenas are clearly built with the expectation that veterans will want to trickjump around at ludicrous speeds.

As a returning Quake 2 veteran, I'm delighted by a campaign which knows I've seen and done it all before. No need for gradual escalation and revelation of enemies and weapons, no time learning the fundamentals, no wind-up to acclimatise to aiming with the mouse (fun fact for young people: in the early days of 3D shooters, it was common to play by keyboard alone), just hand me a railgun and send me out to burst baddies at 70mph. One foot in the past, one in the present. I feel that could make it fun for newcomers raised on modern shooters too, and I'd be very curious to hear what they make of it. Quake 2 is on Game Pass so if that's you, please do tell me. Antiquated yet interesting?

Strogg-fragging violence in a Quake 2 remaster screenshot.
Spoiler alert etc | Image credit: Rock Paper Shotgun/Bethesda Softworks

One interesting plot decision is knitting together the worlds of Quake II and the original Quake (spoiler: turns out, the Strogg are guided by Shamblers under Shub-Niggurath, and you descend into a temple to mash a couple of the fuzzy lads). I don't think its necessary to build a coherent lore for the series and I do think it's a little silly. Still, this is fun enough for a bonus campaign and MachineGames do execute it well with neat reveals, escalation, and callbacks (spoiler: for example, one brief boss battle is basically Quake's shareware boss). It's only a story, mind. You don't have to believe it if you don't want to. Or you can imagine it's a fan story like, say, that Half-Life mod where Gordon Freeman turns out to have actually been an undercover SAS officer named Roland Blackheart. It's all made-up anyway.

I hadn't expected to play Quake 2 ever again. Certainly not singleplayer Quake 2. I'm glad that Call Of The Machine invited me back one more time to hang out with some of my favourite guns and physics exploits so we could collapse familiar ugly faces with a new intensity of ultraviolence. Goodbye, terrible meatmetalmonsters.

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