Sunday, December 18, 2022

Retro Review: Quake II RTX [2019]

Note: Quake II was originally released in 1997. The base game was given a facelift by Lightspeed Studios working with Nvidia in 2019 to showcase the value of Nvidia's RTX ray-tracing technology. The latter version is reviewed here.

I honestly didn't ever expect to install Quake II again. It was, superior to Quake in technology as well as setting, fun in its day but is considerably aged looking by now. Yes it's obviously been modded by fans to run in HD with updated textures etc, but id Software have not remastered it as they did with the original. They may not need to now however; After a proof of concept from Christoph Schied and the team at the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology, who added ray tracing to the game, Nvidia got behind a new modification that would serve to transform one of gaming's greatest tech-demos of the 1990's into one for the 2020's. I installed it earlier in the year just to test a new RTX GPU and was well impressed by the enhancements it brought to the game. This coupled with the fact that it is also 25 years old this year prompted me to take Quake II for an anniversary spin before the year was out.

What Nvidia RTX does is it enables real-time ray tracing. This used to be limited to CGI in visual effects for movies or photorealistic renderings for example, while games traditionally had to rely on direct lighting or precaluclated rays. RTX is able to instead, generate interactivity in images that react to lighting, shadows and reflections in real time. Now the GPU processing power required for this is expensive and reflected in the price of the current generation of GPUs but even then the effect is so demanding that it often can't be enabled together with Ultra-high quality graphics on modern games and still maintain a satisfactory frame-rate. Quake II however, is very far from modern and is a perfect showcase for the true power of the technology and what it means for gaming in general.

While playing Quake II RTX, despite the levels and some upscaled but dated textures and ancient modelling for enemies and pickups, I did often forget I was looking at a 25 year old game. The lighting and reflection effects were astounding. Your character is reflected as you look at reflective surfaces like computer screens or glass, overhead lighting and effects are reflected in all liquid and there was one sequence in total darkness that created a strobe light effect so realistic that I'm glad I don't have epilepsy. This all looked impressive on an SDR 4K monitor when I sampled it earlier but was even more amazing in HDR during my full play-through.

Quake II was an important step in the history of the FPS. It was one of the first examples of coloured lighting, a revolutionary feature for the time. Additionally the engine was written in such a way that it could be easily modified and marketed to others and it certainly was used for this purpose. Quake II powered classics such as SiN and Soldier of Fortune. Valve even used the Quake II engine to power the first version of Half-Life and although the final GoldSrc engine is more akin to the original Quake engine, GoldSrc still contained some Quake II code. It's fair to say that after John Romero left and beginning with Quake II, id software began producing games that were less about the story and gameplay and more about "tech-demos" showcasing the power of each iteration of their new engines preventing any of their games from reaching the hype Doom and Quake had in the mid 1990's until DOOM in 2016.

Quake II ditched the strange nailgun shooting Lovecraftian horror setting of the original and adopted something they were much more familiar with, shooting abominations with energy and explosive weapons as a Space Marine! Your enemy now was The Strogg, an alien race of cyborg-ish monstrosities that were invading earth, but your mission as a 1990's FPS game hero before AI coded team mates were a thing, is to attack their home world and kill their leader. As one would expect from a glorified tech demo, it was pretty short on narrative but that may be also be one of id's charms.

My initial time with Quake II RTX was brief so it was a thrill now to explore beyond the confines of the free version. The game is expansive was was the norm at the time and as I was more concerned with the visual aspect rather than playing the game I had godmode on half the time during some of the sequences that due to 25 years of advancements in level design and AI, are now too dumb to try to beat normally. It still took over 6 hours to navigate from start to finish and I would estimate a lot longer if going through carefully. In fact I recall one St. Partick's weekend in 1999 I played through the game in about 8 hours in co-op with my friend the late James Dutton. I think he'd approve of the enhancements made to the game today.

Final Verdict: The aged visuals, somewhat confusing level design by modern standards and the lack of compelling narrative even by FPS terms is not enough to play Quake II again. It's just not good enough or worth your time unless you need a hit of nostalgia. Quake II RTX however is certainly somthing that you should investigate if you have the hardware for it. It transforms the game and shugarcoats the aged visuals with some of the tastiest sugar you've ever had. Actually, it can't be sugar, it's cocaine... it's cocaine not sugar. But you must see for yourself.

Case 1: 1.4 hours playtime @ 3840 x 2160 (4K) / 60Hz with max settings and RTX ON. Avg FPS 35,  No HDR
Case 2: 6.1 hours playtime @ 3440x1440 UW / 175Hz with max settings and RTX ON.  Avg FPS 95, HDR settings implimented in game.  
Both cases through Steam using a Nvidia 3070Ti on Windows 11.

Bugs: Pressing F12 for a screenshot crashes the game. Rebinding F12 to another key and using that to screenshot also crashes the game. Not a bug but as Quake II used a CD as it's music soundtrack there is no music in the game. This was easily solved by using .ogg files of the music tracks from the original CD and placing them in a music folder in the game directory.

Quake II RTX is free to download from Steam or GOG and try out on your RTX ray tracing enabled system (it also apparently works with AMD RX series) but only has a few early levels. If you have the full version of the game (again on Steam or GOG) you get the benefit of being able to play through the entire game in the RTX implementation. Quake II is available from both Steam or GOG for €4.99. The Steam Quake II copy to unlock the full version of Quake II RTX for this review was purchased for €1.64 in July 2019.

Quake Series:

Quake [1996]
- Quake Mission Pack No. 1: Scourge of Armagon [1997]
- Quake Mission Pack No. 2: Dissolution of Eternity [1997]
Quake II [1997]
- Quake II Mission Pack: The Reckoning [1998]
- Quake II Mission Pack: Ground Zero [1998]
Quake III Arena [1999]
- Quake III: Team Arena [2000]
Quake 4 [2005]
- Enemy Territory: Quake Wars [2007]
- Quake Live [2010]
- Quake: Dimension of the Past [2016]
Quake Champions [2017]
- Quake II RTX [2019]
- Quake: Dimension of the Machine [2021]


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