Video games in the 1990s looked very different depending on where you were coming from. If you were firmly embedded in the console side of things, they were bright and crisp, often populated with memorable, colorful characters that fit the 16-bit palette of the first half the decade so well. On the PC side of things, strategy fans saw the RTS genre lean often toward science fiction and live action, while point-and-click adventures were getting more and more animated. Over in shooterland, though, things were dark and gritty. Well, dark and muddy. Shooters were, for a time, heavy metal album cover art come to life, and were twitch games in the extreme. Then things got all complicated and realistic and, you know, Modern.

Lately, though, there’s been a spate of shooters seeking to reclaim the 1990s, each in their own way. Wolfenstein: The New Order was a progenitor in 2014, making us take a story about a guy named BJ Blaskowicz very, very seriously. 2016’s Doom took the frenetic pace of old-school shooters and updated the whole thing with modern gameplay and a self-aware style. And now the third pillar from id Software’s pantheon of shooters is close on the horizon: Quake Champions. We dug into it for a few hours over the last couple weekends to see how it’s coming along.

Before I dive in, I should tell you something. I’m really bad at multiplayer shooters. I died a lot while playing Quake Champions, and I didn’t kill very much. As much as things have changed from Quake 2 almost 20 years ago, that’s one thing that hasn’t. I’m still absolutely terrible. I still found some fun in there, however.

A certain sense of of style

What really sets Quake Champions apart for me is the strict adherence to the art direction of the old games. This intergalactic, cybernetic hellfuture where everything is abandoned, except for all the people shooting each other in it. This comes through in both the character designs and the levels themselves.

One character, Visor, is named that because of the brightly-colored metal visor that has merged with his face. He, along with Slash, Snorlag, and Anarki, are characters returning from Quake III: Arena. Characters like Nyx, Scalebearer, and Galena move a bit further from the Hellpunk look of those characters and go with something a bit more medieval. In this weird mash-up, the looks all work together because they’re equally grim and goofy despite their disparate origins.

The stages themselves, meanwhile, are these monolithic places filled with statues of forgotten gods carved into the stone and winding corridors spinning circles around them. One of the stages in the beta even has a giant, chained-up eyeball at the base of a a huge structure, and the eyeball just twitches around the whole time. It’s exactly the kind of gruesome we loved about these games. Despite the visual update the game has received, I feel like this is the clearest marker of just what it is we’re getting into with this game.

Buy, Rent, Sell

Where Quake: Champions moves into the modern era is the meta-game. We’ll talk about the shooting in a bit, but first I want to talk about what surrounds that. The stuff between matches. This is the most modern part of the game. Quake Champions is going to be a free-to-play game and comes with all the trappings of something like that. If you should happen to want to buy it right out, you can do that, and you’ll get all the game’s champions right out of the box rather than buying them piecemeal.

Even if you do buy it, though, look forward to many of those familiar free-to-play elements. There are three different types of loot boxes, different currencies for renting champions and buying loot boxes, buying cosmetics, and buying champions. With the cosmetic currency, you can buy not only a small collection of outfits and outfit components for each character, but also a huge list of shaders to customize the color palette of your character’s outfit. While the currency for renting champions and buying loot boxes comes pretty quickly, the currency that lets you buy cosmetics is as slow-coming as you’d expect, just as it is in games like Overwatch.

One cool way Quake Champions lets you make it your game is that you can sell back cosmetics for characters you’re never going to use. If you think Scalebearer looks silly, and you get one of his outfit items in a lootbox, you can sell it back for some shards that you can then put toward another character. You won’t be stuck with 25 of McCree’s unlockables even though he’s the most disappointing character in the history of games. I’m not mad, why would you say that?

What Quake Champions is isn’t a complete single-player experience like Doom, nor a retail multiplayer shooter with full access to its character roster like Overwatch. It’s a free-to-play game through and through, and that comes in through the UI at every turn. It’s not a good thing or a bad thing by default – that’s going to be up to your preferences. The balance in the beta didn’t seem offensive, but that could be tweaked at launch, so if you’re planning to buy the game, keep an eye on how that progresses.

Hi-Octane Crazy Shooting

With the free-to-play model driving the game, then, the game has to be fun to play, moment to moment. It has to perform well.

On my rig, which sports an Intel Core i5-4590S CPU, 16GB RAM, and a GTX 1080 graphics card, the game performed like a dream. It seems like it should perform well on lesser systems, too. I didn’t experience any bugs or latency while I was playing. Whether the latter will hold up once the servers are live upon release remains to be seen, but this is a good sign none the less.

When it comes to actually aiming and shooting, this is where veteran Quake players will know they’re playing Quake. From moment one, players are bunny-hopping all over the arena. You’re dying and respawning constantly. Different sorts of ammunition are whizzing past your head constantly.

As I explored each of the maps, I found myself becoming familiar with them piece by piece. I was finding new routes and remembering weapon locations. Depending where I spawned, I knew where to go to pick up a rocket launcher and armor. The weapons themselves are so brightly colored that they almost look like Nerf hardware, though that impression quickly changes the moment you make contact with someone and they splatter. The different weapons are satisfying and, for the most part, feel like skill weapons. I did find the lightning gun to be the most common cause of my own death, though, so I’m hoping they tweak that a bit. This is a game of skill. A steady hand will win the day as long as you have an eye on your surroundings. I have an unsteady hand and often get tunnel vision when I play multiplayer shooters – hence my earlier statement.

In addition to the different weapons, each of the Champions has their own power. This is one difference from previous Quake games, and another nod to modern shooters. Instead of picking just “Quakeguy” – though that is who you start with if you play the free-to-play version – these characters have unique looks, personalities, and powers. I only got to try a few out while I played, and I wouldn’t say I mastered any of them. But they each have the possibility of being powerful in their own right. The starting character, the Ranger, has the ability to throw out a floating orb and teleport to it. If you teleport on another player, you kill them. Back in the day, we called that a telefrag. These powers will likely see some balancing before the game releases, but they seemed fun, and I’m looking forward to seeing players using them in high-level competition.

All of this points to Quake Champions being a fun game. It still has to build a community, but the makings of a strong game are there right now, and I can’t wait to see where it goes.

Look for the second part of this series soon, where I’ll look at the upcoming shooters Strafe and Dusk for a different take on 90s shooters in the modern era.