Despite appearances - specifically the vehicles, the character classes, and the open maps - this is not an attempt to make a sci-fi version of Battlefield. Nor is it, despite the name, much to do with the deathmatch tradition of Quake. It's therefore perfectly possible that fans of either of those series will be disappointed. This is, first and foremost, an Enemy Territory game.
What this means is that ETQW is a class-based first-person shooter with asymmetric, objective-based maps, quasi-realistic weapons, lashings of Quake-derived horrors, and a daunting deathmatch pace. It is a sequel not to Quake, but to Return to Castle Wolfenstein, and the free Enemy Territory expansion that Splash Damage created for it.
Most crucially, however, Enemy Territory: Quake Wars is simply brimming with possibilities. Every class has multiple weapons at their disposal from the get-go, and the vehicles, static weapons and turrets just add to the overall elaborate network of tactical variation within the game's maps, which are as detailed and expansive as they are visually impressive.
Add to this all the various vehicles and weapon load out options, and you have a game that demonstrates far more diversity of martial options than anything besides the most open-ended shooters. And it's infantry-focused too - the problems of over-used air-power are not for ETQW. You'll find yourself tackling vehicles and turrets with rocket launchers, getting down and dirty at close range with grenades and assault rifles, and finding mad uses for explosives, shields and flyer drones. It's a game that provokes invention, suicidal heroics, and momentary genius. All this, however, takes place within the (beautiful) context of ETQW's objective-based maps.
The game is set during the Strogg invasion of Earth, making its fiction a kind of prequel to the events of Quake II. The game takes place across 12 maps, which are in turn subdivided into four campaigns across the Earth: Africa, North America, Northern Europe, and the Pacific. The highly individual maps are an impressive achievement on their own, and there's no single theme or look that ties any two together.
Each has a number of objectives that the different sides must either attack or defend, depending on whether they are Strogg or GDF. Some maps are tailored purely for Strogg defense, others for GDF. These scenarios are so detailed and specific that we believe this would be the first multiplayer shooter ever on which we could deliver spoilers based on the story alone. But we won't. Suffice it to say, the maps contain all kinds of assault missions, object-movement ops, and demolition objectives, and occasionally a genuine revelation.
The three-map campaigns are essential to understanding how ETQW works because characters and stats are persistent across the three maps. As in Enemy Territory you'll take on any one of five classes, and you can swap between them at any point in a game. However, if you stick with a certain class, and with a certain weapon configuration, you begin to unlock improved abilities. If, for example, you stick with the rocket-launcher variant of the soldier class, and get plenty of hits with that setup, then by the end of the first map you'll have a faster lock and reload time, making your performance better for the second map. By the third map you might have improved with a secondary weapon or class too. Once the campaign is over these stats are reset and the playing field leveled. ETQW's unlocks are available for a short time only.
All this combines to create an experience unlike anything else. The series of objectives and the way that players spawn in "waves" makes it a little reminiscent of Enemy Territory, but in other respects it's in quite a different category from its peers. This can only be a good thing.
If there are some criticisms, they're based around how you might perceive some of the mechanical systems of the game. How you feel about these things will come down to the nuances of taste and personal experience, but we think some people will be put off by them. One of these issues is the amount of time you spend dead. Because of the spawn-wave system you'll be waiting for anywhere between two and 25 seconds to be respawned. For such a fast-paced game that seems a long time to be spent lying prone on the battlefield. Death is routine too, especially as the game has a potent mix of automatic and precision weaponry - you're worrying about snipers and close-quarters spammers at the same time, which can feel like a nightmare when things really start to kick off.
The other problem, which isn't one that can be addressed in any way, is how you feel about asymmetric combat as a whole. Because one side is always defending a series of objectives they are, in some sense, only staving off the inevitable. They are, by default, fighting a retreat. In a game where the objectives are symmetrical there's always the chance you can come back from the bad position to win the game, capping the flags, holding the objectives for those vital seconds, and so on. In ETQW the best defenders can hope for is to hold on until the counter runs out. Something about that doesn't sit quite right with us.
Ultimately these points do little to detract from the overall achievement of ETQW. It's a game with relentless pace, but where flanking, careful sniping, and support actions are all a part of a successful cooperative experience. Accomplishing objectives is how you get XP for the campaign unlocks, and it's all skewed towards teamwork. Even selfish play should end up rewarding the team as a whole. In years to come all multiplayer games will want to do this.
And so, as the remaining word count for this review spools down to nothing, we realize there's much more to say about ETQW and we'll probably touch on that in the coming months. Hell, we haven't even got space left to talk about the persistent stat systems or even the astounding bot AI. Instead we're going to have to recommend that you go and discover them in person. Enemy Territory Quake Wars is worth seeing for yourself.
May 27, 2008