(Updated 8/10/2023: Updated a few URLs, and some minor grammatical changes.)
When I wrote about the previous Mods and Maps article about Soldier of Fortune, Inc., I honestly wasn’t expecting it to go beyond Quake. When I found it that there were new tie-in levels made for Quake II, it made me replay through Quake II and its expansions, something I hadn’t done in years. I was originally not so hot on it, and I thought maybe a replay would give me a fresh perspective on the game. Sadly, it didn’t.
Quake II is… fine as a game, I guess. A solid shooter with lots of colored lighting, a derivative story, and a killer soundtrack by Sonic Mayhem – with contributions by Bill Brown, Jeremiah Sypult and Rob freakin’ Zombie of all people – that just lacked the sort of bizarre mish-mash that Quake did the year prior that I enjoyed thoroughly. It just felt rather derivative as a game. Considering how id software was in turmoil at the time, I’m not surprised it feels kinda boilerplate, because they knew anything with an id logo on it would sell gangbusters.
While playing those Quake II themed levels for that Soldier of Fortune, Inc article, it dawned on me that despite having written about all kinds of retro FPS stuff for Doom, Quake and Half-Life, I hadn’t written about anything related to Quake II. That changes today, as I look into one of the more deeper cuts of Quake II, released during that wild west period of the early-to-late ‘90s: unofficial expansion packs to games.
Zaero for Quake II is one of the aforementioned unofficial expansion packs. Developed by a group named Team Evolve, this expansion added new levels and weapons to the main Quake II arsenal. But how did this expansion come about? For those who weren’t really around when this was big – and admittedly, I was only tangentially aware of it back then – let’s give a quick refresher course on the shovelware compilation boom.
For a period of time, a fair share of shovelware budget publishers such as Softkey, WizardWorks and others found a new way to make some easy cash: capitalizing on some of the biggest game franchises by releasing compilations of levels for these game, often downloaded off the still fresh-to-the-world internet, for $20-30 a pop. It was interesting to go to a store and find a compilation of new levels for Doom, which was becoming one of the biggest video game cultural touchstones of the 1990s.
Unfortunately this practice raised the ire of some developers, feeling that those publishers were profiting off the backs of independent hobbyists and budding game designers. At one point id Software themselves decided to respond with The Master Levels for Doom II, a small set of levels made by a handful of the notable members of the Doom community, which came with its own compilation of Doom levels compiled from the web called Maximum Doom.
By the time Quake came out, these publishers pivoted from outright taking levels off the web to contracting people to make more original levels as unofficial expansion packs. These would often come with a few levels or in some cases full episodes of content, for the same budget price. I’ve talked about one of these at length before: Aftershock for Quake, which you can read here.
Naturally with Quake II being the Next Big Thing from id software, people capitalized by selling unofficial expansions for that game as well, which competed against both of the official expansions – The Reckoning and Ground Zero, respectively. While none of these were more popular than the official expansions, they did carve a small niche for those who were jonesin’ for more Quake II stuff but didn’t have good enough internet.
Zaero was one of a few unofficial expansions for Quake II, with Juggernaut being the other notable one. I nearly wrote about Juggernaut instead, but the
version I seemed to find online was not the final version of the game. Meanwhile the version I found of Zaero seemed content complete, so I opted to write about that one instead.
(Update: Since I originally wrote this article, friend of the site and loyal Patreon supporter Bobinator made me aware of a proper full version of Juggernaut, of which I’ve since played and wrote about. It’s quite a doozy. Feel free to read that after you’re done with this one.)
Taking place after the events of Quake II, you play a marine codenamed “Zaero-1” as they crash land near a mining facility holding a shield generator. With the rest of your squad wiped out, you must fight your way through the planet Stroggos to shut down the shield generator. Quake II had a fairly boilerplate plot, and this unofficial expansion is no exception.
A lot of Quake II’s design is driven around completing objectives by murdering everything in your path to find keycards, open doors and make progress. Zaero doesn’t change a whole lot in this regard, as each area is a hub where you’re given a primary objective and a secondary objective which you’ll usually finish through normal progression. You’ll pick up the standard id software arsenal of shotguns, chainguns, rocket launchers and weapons like the railgun as you blast and gib every Strogg soldier in your way.
Since this is an expansion, there are new weapons and items exclusive to it. One is a sniper rifle that uses the railgun’s slug ammo that can shoot through certain materials and enemy shields. Another is a powerful “sonic cannon” that uses cells to do mini explosions on enemies, but can blow you up if you charge it up for too long. The game introduced laser tripwire mines like in Duke Nukem 3D or Half-Life, there’s an EMP Nuke that disables energy weapons on enemies, a visor that can let you hack cameras to see what’s ahead of you, and even a deployable energy shield.
I never saw a major need to use any of the new weapons. In a lot of cases, they didn’t seem as effective as the standard arsenal, which is always the unfortunate conundrum with id software games by this point: Quake II‘s core gameplay is honed into a perfect shine, and most additions often ruin the delicate balance put in place. It’s honestly the toughest part of introducing new weapons to a game that already has a solid arsenal like Quake II does. This is a problem not just in Zaero, but also the official expansions as well.
As for enemies, there’s only four new enemies: the alien dog-like hellhound, a handler guard that unleashes said hellhounds on you, and the ridiculously tanky Sentiens, which much like the Tank Commanders in vanilla Quake II require too much ammo to take down and often block critical paths, spamming damaging lasers your way. They’re placed fairly generously around the levels, yet a lot of times I was mostly fighting the standard Quake II enemies more than them.
The biggest problem this expansion has is that it adds all these sort of elements like the visor and the IRED tripwires that really don’t fit with how Quake II’s gameplay works. Quake II, much like other id software games, has a very adrenaline-fueled action feel to them, they’re not conducive to things like visors and tripwires, are more of a tactical shooter thing. I can’t tell if Team Evolve were trying some new things out or didn’t quite get how Quake II works, but a lot of the new stuff seems superfluous. For the record, the official expansion Ground Zero was guilty of doing this a bunch as well, with having enemy turrets and weapons that were meant to play the game more slowly, which doesn’t work for a game like Quake II.
As for the levels, they’re alright. I only got lost a few times, but it was a mostly linear experience. Quake II tried to experiment with having hub levels that you constantly went back and forth to, which while not unique to shooters, was slightly different than the formulaic level-to-level progression id games had at this point. With the exception of a late game mission, Zaero sticks to mostly being that same level-to-level progression, with occasional backtracking and keycard hunting, which is prevalent in the last few levels before the final boss.
I will say that it’s pretty dirty that something as critical and important as the grenade launcher was locked away in a secret. My first time playing through this was on “Hard+” – called “Nightmare” in the Yamagi Quake II source port – and since I didn’t find the aforementioned secret, I was forced to lob the grenades, which have a longer wind-up time and shorter throw distance than the grenade launcher, which made fighting enemies an absolute pain, especially when going up against Sentiens.
Realizing I didn’t learn from my past mistakes of playing games on the hardest skill level, I restarted the game by bumping it down to Medium difficulty, and finding how to unlock the grenade launcher secret. Suddenly, the game got fun again, where I was murdering Strogg with impunity. The only major hurdle I had at that point was fighting off the game’s bosses.
One of the more ridiculous design decisions was during the final boss. For some dumb reason, they strip you of all your weapons, forcing you with whatever weapons you can find in the tiny arena the boss is in, where they have powerful weapons and the same EMP bomb that can make most of your weapons useless for a time. Whoever decided this needed to be slapped, as it meant there’s no reason to go hunt down some of the secrets. Indeed, a few levels before the final boss, the BFG10K was hidden in a secret, which felt pointless to find.
Eventually Zaero-1 destroys the final boss, the shield generator’s destroyed, and your squad comes in to save your butt. The end, roll credits. Maybe hop in and play the deathmatch levels if you wanted to, I guess. That was always the difficulty with expansion packs: It adds new content, but I can’t imagine someone wanting to play the expansion pack levels when there’s likely a larger community playing the base game. I think it’s the same reason I was never down on DLC map packs in modern games. Well, besides the high price tags, that is.
Team Evolve only made two credited games according to Mobygames: this Quake II expansion, and an unofficial expansion to the 1998 Battlezone game. Most of the people who worked on this stuck around in the games biz for a few years, with a few notable people eventually working at Infinity Ward and Treyarch on the Call of Duty games, and one of the artists for Zaero being one Dhabih Eng, who eventually joined Valve a year after this mod’s release and is still with the company to this day.
To me, this is what I love about writing these games, seeing people who would later go on to work on some of the biggest game franchises in history, were back then a bunch of amateur designers making levels for one of the biggest shooters of the year. It’s pretty neat, honestly, and happens a lot more often than you think.
Zaero was released primarily as a physical product, but there was a demo at the (now-defunct) website. The Internet Archive has a mirror of the site that you can check out if you love 1990s-era web design like I do. If you want to play it these days, there’s always the piracy route. An intrepid archivist posted Zaero on moddb.com, which you can grab here. The expansion is practically abandonware these days, and with both the developer and publisher being mostly defunct, there’s no shame in pirating it. Hell, it’s what I did for this article.
As an unofficial expansion, Zaero for Quake II is just More Quake II. Wanted more levels to fight in? Weapons to grab? Enemies to gib? This expansion has you covered. It didn’t set the world on fire, and it became this mostly-forgotten relic of a period of gaming that was slowly dying by the time this came out. I didn’t hate my time playing this, but it certainly was a mostly forgettable experience to me. It’s worth poking around for a few hours if Quake II’s gameplay style fits your fancy, but it’s not some hidden gem.
To bring it back to Quake II for a moment: Earlier this year I had read David Kushner’s Masters of Doom, which documents the history of id Software from its founding to the early 2000s, and seeing what was happening around the time of Quake II’s development really hammered home how John Carmack and John Romero were an amazing game development duo. They were like a singer-songwriter duo that split: While they could certainly function and make stuff creatively on their own, they worked better as a pair. The games the two Johns lead solo — Quake II and Daikatana — are the result of what happens when the two split. It’s a shame really, I wonder if they could rekindle that magic nowadays or if it’s never gonna happen. Maybe it’s for the best, really.
Quake II truly was the start of a new era of id software, where it became the House of Carmack for a while, being more about the tech than the gameplay. The company struggled to find an identity as a result, at some points getting dangerously near being behind the curve with stuff like Rage, even with its cool reloading mechanics. (I wrote about that back in 2016, you can check that out here.) Carmack leaving in 2013 left id software in a dangerous position upon his departure, wondering if the studio could ever recover. Thankfully they did, with the wonderful 2016 Doom reboot and its solid sequel Doom Eternal. id Software is doing alright, even without the founders there.
With Quake getting a remaster by Nightdive earlier this year, I wonder if a Quake II remaster is on the horizon for next year, since that game will be celebrating its 25th anniversary in 2022. Or maybe they’ll just port Quake II RTX to console instead, just so people can gawk at the shiny textures that ruin the game’s art design. Who knows?
…dang, now I wanna know how Zaero for Quake II would look on Quake II RTX. Probably about as bad as vanilla Quake II, but I bet it’s still amusing.
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