Hands-on: Quake Champions could be the old-school shooter the FPS genre needs

The modern multiplayer shooter scene is dominated by class- and hero-based team games, such as Overwatch, and tactical military simulations, like Battlefield and CS:GO. Outside these categories you'll find games like Titanfall and H1Z1 which are pushing the boundaries of competitive multiplayer in interesting ways, exploring new styles of gameplay and player abilities.

But hop in your FPS time machine and go back a decade or two, and things were very different. The competitive FPS landscape of those days was largely dominated by QuakeUnreal, and games like Quake and Unreal. These were games that focused on interesting arenas, a wide variety of brutal weapons, and, above all else, speed. Early Quake and Unreal titles still feel fast in a way many modern games don't, and require rapid reflexes, constant attention, and mastery of a diverse suite of weapons rather than character classes or individual abilities. 

My biggest takeaway from my hands-on time with Quake Champions was how much it felt like those great old shooters, and how much I had missed that style of gameplay. A lot of the early trailers for Quake aren't really capturing the speed of it, since that probably doesn't make for great promotional video footage, so let me reassure you: the game is fast, straight-forward, and aggressive. The graphics are modern, but the appeal is very simple, and your instincts from classic shooters will immediately come flooding back. 

Run, shoot, kill, rocketjump, repeat

My time with Quake Champions at PAX East took the form of a 5 vs. 5 team deathmatch on the newly revealed Blood Covenant map. I played as Sorlag, a lizardman champion with an acidic spit special ability. Every champion in the game has one such special ability, which include powers such as shield barriers or invisibility. The abilities are on a rather lengthy cooldown you can reduce by picking up hourglass items on the map. Sorlag's ability provides straightforward damage in an area in front of you, so he's a good choice for beginners. 

There may not be any FPS game I've played more in my life than Unreal Tournament 2004, and boy oh boy does Quake Champions feel a lot like that game, in the best possible way. The two biggest areas of comparison are in the arsenal of weapons, including familiar favorites like the rocket launcher and lightning gun, and the sheer speed of the experience. Everyone in Quake Champions is running at full speed all the time, and they're all moving faster than characters in most modern FPS games. It's an exhilarating combat experience that requires twitch reflexes and a sharp aiming eye. 

Though characters each have different abilities, it's really your weapon of choice that defines you more than your special power, and that's part of what makes the game feel so instantly familiar to fans of classic arena shooters. The shotgun works the way you expect a shotgun to work, and if you want to pair that gun with your special ability in an intelligent way you'll have an advantage, but this isn't Overwatch. There aren't multiple abilities with separate cooldowns to manage, each character only has one. Teamwork is much more about ganging up and outnumbering your opponents than it is picking complimentary abilities or characters. 

In the Team Deathmatch game that I played the map led to a number of interesting combat situations, with fights breaking out around the best weapon and armor pickups, as well as a quad-damage boost that appeared regularly, along with the announcer alerting everyone to its presence. If you were killed while holding the quad-damage you'd drop the power-up for someone else to pick up, which led naturally to teams clustering around the boost and fighting over it. 

The Blood Covenant map consists of a number of atrium areas, often with staircases or jump-pads connecting their higher and lower paths. Occasional long sightlines are possible, allowing players to make use of the lightning or rail guns, or you can stick to the tight hallways below and excel with close-range weapons. There's even a blood pool that can provide some health regeneration. 

The game looks fantastic, which is even more impressive given how fast everything is. Matches are a wild mixture of multicolored explosions and blood, and it can be hard to take the time to appreciate the visual details on the map, but as you can see in the video above there's some wonderful stuff going on. The game is running on a combination of the id Tech engine and the lesser-known Saber 3D engine, and the results combine blistering speed with sharp visuals. It will be interesting to see what sort of FPS rates people are able to get on their home PCs with this title, since that's something that's critical in a game as fast as Quake Champions.

The free-to-play question

It's just recently been revealed that Quake Champions will be a free-to-play title, but the studio's approach to this kind of monetization is interesting, and should cause free-to-play haters to at least pause for a moment before grabbing their pitchforks. As creative director Tim Willits told Polygon, the free-to-play part of things will only apply to the various champions in the game, rather than any other aspects.

For free players will get unlimited access to the Ranger champion. Playing the game will earn players "favor," an in-game currency, which can be used to unlock other champions for limited (and as yet unspecified) time periods. There's no exchange of real money for "renting" champions, and favor can also be used to access special "rune challenges," as well as to unlock skins. This all has the stated goal of breaking up the grind from which arena shooters can suffer. 

But if you aren't interested in any of these free-to-play shenanigans, you'll have the option of  purchasing the Champion Pack, which will give you unlimited access to all of the game's champions, permanently. There will be no distinction between free-to-play and pay-to-play players in terms of maps, tournaments, or anything else in the game. 

We don't have final pricing information for that pack yet, but the fact that option is on the table at all renders a lot of free-to-play criticism moot right out of the gate. Quake Champions will be a game you can play for free as much as you like, and if you like it enough you can just "buy" the whole thing permanently to unlock all the characters. That's a fairer deal than most free-to-play titles offer. 

I'm great at Quake Champions, and why that matters

I scored the most kills out of the ten people in our demo session, and our team sailed to an easy victory. I don't say that entirely to brag (though that's certainly part of it) but I think it's important to note because I don't always do that well at convention demos. I'm better than average, with most games, but not usually the best.

But I'm willing to bet that I had played more of this particular type of game than anyone else in that demo, thanks to the countless hours I spent glued to Unreal Tournament 2004 in my college years. And that game taught me everything I needed to know to feel at home in Quake Champions. 

If you're interested in giving the game a try for yourself, Quake Champions will enter a closed beta soon. Sign-ups are now live.