"Um," I bark across my tiny flat. "You might want to turn away for this bit." Instead, my girlfriend comes over with a fascinated expression on her face. It's the only defining bit of Quake IV, where Corporal Kane is 'stroggified', unnecessarily bloodily and nastily, from a first-person viewpoint.
His legs are lopped off by a circular saw, a spike is punched through his chest and head, and rivets are shot into every part of him. She hates horror, but there's something so unreal about the once-hyped process of turning him into a cyborg that it might as well be a ghost-train to her. Her judgement on it is terse: "silly."
I have to be very careful writing about id's games, as co-founder John Romero hunted me down last time I wrote about Doom and skewered me with some insightful analysis as to how bad my research was. So I'm going to be very respectful when I say that Quake IV is second to only Doom 3 in the id crappiness scale. The PC game may have been an average shooter, but the Xbox 360 version ran and looked like a fun-runner on his second cardiac event of the marathon.
Of course, Quake IV wasn't developed by Romero or even id, being shunted off to Raven Software, developer of Soldier of Fortune, Wolfenstein and Singularity. The plot follows that of Quake II, with human forces invading a planet of cyborgs called the Strogg. The Strogg are altogether nasty chaps, destroying the environment, pumping crap into the air and killing/assimilating all the wildlife. Um... yeah. I'm not sure this was meant to be parody.
You take the part of Corporal Matthew Kane of the Marines' Rhino Squad, who's part of the assault on the Strogg homeworld (spoilers follow). He gets shot down (the only role of dropships and helicopters in modern games), fights his way back to headquarters (a big space-battleship that was impressive in 2005 and is comically prehistoric now), almost destroys the enemy base, gets captured and turned into a cyborg, is rescued, kills a cyborg friend, and then destroys the Strogg leader and central intelligence (literally a giant brain). He does this with an impressive arsenal of noisy, ugly weapons, which slowly get upgraded as you explore the world.
That's about all I can say that's positive about the combat. Changing weapons on the D-pad is hugely frustrating because of a slight lag in selecting. Meanwhile, the enemies are barely intelligent, occasionally jumping sideways into your gunfire. Despite this, there's a certain crude satisfaction from the combat, perhaps because it's just so predictable and familiar: wiggle the left stick to dodge the gladiator's railgun, then shoot his feet to avoid his shield. Rinse and repeat.
There are also a few linear vehicle sections, but it's all familiar stuff made without inspiration or love, which can only be described as boring: no fun characters, no wit, no challenge, and no expectation of anything better. It does become much more enjoyable on harder difficulties, merely because resource-management of health packs and ammo suddenly becomes a concern, but the miserly checkpointing can prove immensely frustrating.
Quake IV got about as much love from Activision as an ugly, unfriendly dog. It, amazingly, has never received a patch (even in last year's re-release, as far as I can tell), so today's framerate problems and long load times are the same as yesteryear's. The multiplayer faced similar problems, its glitchy shooting coming a distant second to later XBLA release Quake Arena Arcade.
Comparing Quake IV to modern Xbox 360 games makes you appreciate why so many developers chose to use Unreal Engine instead of idTech. The game is slow-running, ugly and clunky, and seems to have killed off the Quake franchise. At the end of the game, Corporal Kane gets a message sending him off on a new mission - but it looks like he had to settle for a quiet retirement instead.