Strange that ‘sandbox game’ has become a specific genre label over the last decade or so. Odd, too--and in no small way ironic--that the notion of freeform, emergent gameplay has become locked down to a specific style of game. Because in real gameplay terms, brilliant video game sandboxes have been around for decades.
There’s the opened-ended, organic combat of Street Fighter II (whose players invented the very concept of combos by exploiting an accidental loophole). There’s the way that the secret-packed environs of a 2D Mario or Sonic game can be refocused and completely reinterpreted through refined player skill. There are the improvisational fire fights of a Half-Life or Halo. Sandbox gaming is everywhere. And in terms of the multiplayer FPS, there is no greater example than Quake III Arena.
Simple to initially grasp and comprising a robust and varied weapon set of clear power and purpose, Quake’s thoroughly comprehendible basics underpin unfathomably nuanced physics just ripe for bending and exploiting for one’s own showboating ends.
To an individual player it’s an experience that grows and expands over years of play, revealing progressive secrets of its arcane acrobatic combat that it was only ever hiding in plain sight. With that nature applied to an entire online community over the long-term, you have a living game capable of evolving and changing into a whole new beast without ever needing DLC map-packs or game mode updates. But before we get onto all that high-fallutin’ stuff, let’s take a moment to focus on the absolute basics of why Quake III is brilliant.
Simply, there just isn’t a more exhilarating multiplayer shooter out there. In terms of sheer adrenaline units delivered per minute, Q3A is the FPS equivalent of white water rafting away from hungry alligators with electrodes wired up to one’s genitalia. It’s a fast, relentlessly intense maelstrom of warm, pastel-shaded neon and dirty, dark red viscera. It’s a game whose multiple second-by-second demands are as perpetual as the incoming gunfire. Most multiplayer shooters follow a gameplay loop of skirmish/regroup/reposition/recon/skirmish. Quake III skips the three Rs in favour of an education in never-ending battle.
Whether you’re running along the ground, sailing through the sky, or dashing up a wall using your own downward gunfire to tenuously defy gravity, the only times you’ll be more than a couple of seconds away from your next gunfight are a) when you’re already in one, and b) when you’re dead.
And what gunfights they are. Few games have the balls to demand as much thought from a player while also requiring such dexterity and speed of response. Few will throw so many options into the fray, and then deliver a serious pounding in exchange for choosing the wrong one or failing to execute the right one properly. But then again, few games will reward you so richly when things go right.