About two years ago Epic and Digital Extremes launched the sequel to one of the most popular shooters at the time. It’s a cruel fate that the Unreal Tournament franchise always seems to come out at the worst possible time for the company. When the first UT was released it had to face heavy competition from the then-popular Quake 3
, when Unreal Tournament 2003
was released it had to combat the unexpected juggernaut that was Battlefield 1942
. This time it launches amidst the wake of Battlefield Vietnam
and Far Cry
, but it appears that the designers have learned from their past mistakes and have created what is arguably the most polished and entertaining shooter of the season.
It’s pretty pointless to go over the same old gameplay modes again, if you want a refresher course just feel free to head over to my old Unreal Tournament 2003 review
to catch up. Instead, let’s choose to focus on the new additions and elements that really make this game a winner. For starters, the designers brought back the vaunted assault mode that made the original UT an amazing time killer. While the addition of Bombing Run was nice for UT2003, it never did quite fill the void that was left by omitting assault. You’ll also have the new modes that were added in by subsequent patches, namely the mutant and invasion modes. Mutant is basically UT’s version of King of the Hill with a slight twist, the person who is the ‘mutant’ is faster and stronger than everyone else on the map so killing them becomes much more of a challenge. Invasion is a sort of co-operative mode where you and the other players team up to fend off an onslaught of bugs and monsters. It’s kind of like UT-meets-Starship Troopers, just not as fun. But let’s be honest here, you’ve heard all of the hype about the new vehicles and I’ll be the first to admit that they don’t disappoint. Although they’re available in some maps in the other modes their key role is to flesh out the all-new Onslaught mode.
In Onslaught the two sides fight for control of power stations that are spread across the maps. After assuming control of these spawn points that team now has the ability to spawn there, barring that they can defend it from the opposing team. If it sounds familiar to you, you’re not alone. It’s basically Epic and Digital Extremes’ take on the highly popular Conquest mode from Battlefield. Except here it actually works much better because the maps are better designed and the gameplay is much quicker. Since UT is a first person engine through and through (meaning it wasn’t built to accommodate player controlled vehicles) I was a bit afraid as to how the game would handle the dynamic between ground troops and vehicles. I’m glad to report that the dynamic is excellent as the vehicle control is reasonably intuitive and they’re not too strong as to completely overpower the ground troops.
There are a number of vehicles available for you control, many of which can accommodate multiple combatants. Most powerful is the massive tank which has a main cannon and a second machine gunner seat. There are a couple of air vehicles available for you to check out. The Raptor flies high above the landscape and allows you to deal death from above while the Manta hovers close to the ground for some up close and personal action. The Manta is particularly entertaining because its speed and agility allows you to mow down hordes of attackers, Grand Theft Auto
style. Some people have made some comparisons between UT2004 and HALO
as a result of the Hellbender, the jeep-like vehicle that was shown throughout the game’s development. That vehicle allows for one driver and two gunner seats, one that fires a rapid fire projectile and another that shoots a laser similar to the shock rifle. Aside from the vehicles there are stationary turrets that are used for defensive purposes.
Obviously the vehicles are much more powerful than your average combatants so Digital Extremes wisely decided to add some powerful weapons to help balance out the combat. There’s a new weapon called the AVRiL which is basically an anti-vehicle rocket launcher. There are also some new spider mines that chase after vehicles that come into their vicinity. These in particular add a new dimension to the gameplay because a smart player can turn even the safest looking area into a hidden minefield. If you’re a purist like me you’ll be glad to know that the original sniper rifle from UT makes its triumphant return. Sure, I dig the flames that came from toasting someone with the lightning gun, but there’s just something undeniably charming about scoring a headshot with the good old fashioned sniper rifle. Some of the weapon models have been changed as well but it’s nothing too significant.
Another new addition is the inclusion of gun racks in the team-based modes. Instead of scouring the landscape for stray weapons you can simply walk up to a gun locker and load up for battle. It hearkens back to the days of Tribes
but some might not be so quick to accept it. What this does is essentially eliminates the hard work that comes from learning the maps and outwitting your opponents. On some maps, especially the ruined city map for assault, the gun locker turns the war zone into an absolute death trap. Your team can walk up to a locker and then load up on rocket launchers. Can you imagine just how difficult it would be to get through a choke point if the opposing 16 players are all toting rocket launchers? There are ways to get around it but I feel that it really damages the balance and skill that the game used to thrive off of. I think that the game needs some sort of internal balance, when everyone's a veritable poker dealer of death you're bound to bust on every hand when he and his friends are packing flak cannons. Thankfully these only exist in the team-based modes (such as Assault and Onslaught); the other modes still require you to scour the landscape in search of more firepower.
All of the UT2003 modes and maps are at your disposal on top of the new UT2004 content. This was especially smart on the part of the designers because it saves the modding community the trouble of having to port the maps over for use in UT2004. It’s also smart for the consumer because they’re getting a whole boatload of maps underneath the new additions that come with this incremental installment. My largest problem with UT2003 was that the maps lacked balance. There were far too many choke points and an experienced player with a rocket launcher could take control of the map. Now the maps have far more balance, and although the choke points still exist they’re large enough to be called combat zones. Yes there are designed kill zones but they’re more like large openings that lead to bottlenecks instead of tightly confined hallways with no cover or obstacles. I still feel that double domination has some problems with it; mainly that it’s far too simple to steal points out from under the opposition. Perhaps that’s the reason why I haven’t seen it being played on too many of the servers that are currently operating.
Epic has done some amazing things with its online stability and the trend carries over to UT2004. Though there were a few minor packets of lag here and there I’d have to report that my online experience was pleasant and smooth. The majority of the servers online ping back under 300mls to me and anything in the 100-200 generally offers me a lag-free experience, which is more than I can say for that “other” online game that just came out.
When playing online isn’t an option you have a pretty barebones single-player mode to cut your teeth on. It’s a little more fleshed out than last year’s game but it’s still pretty bland and won’t really eat up too much of your time. You can always jump into the instant battle mode which lets you set up the match parameters against a bunch of bots. I prefer to engage in this mode as it helps me get a feel for the maps while slaughtering my opponents. Like before, these bots are highly intelligent and will do combat without your provocation. Hell, they’ll even follow the orders that you give via the in-game command interface.
UT2003 was a gorgeous game when it came out a few years ago and the engine still holds up after all of this time. It’s not the most amazing looking game anymore but the engine still manages to impress and dazzle me with its impressive versatility and amazing ability to push the technological barrier. The Unreal line of games has always been on the forefront of technology so it’s not surprisingly that the game still looks excellent. You’ll still get that nicely shaded water, the excellent lighting effects and of course the highly entertaining rag doll physics. All of the models are still beefy and the vehicles look surprisingly good in the mix of things. As before, the environment looks impressive and the foliage still manages to look spectacular. Probably the only thing I could have asked for was for the designers to include some of the Havok physics, but the action moves so fast that I probably wouldn’t notice them anyway. When paired up with the week’s other major release, Battlefield Vietnam, this game just simply blows it out of the water.
Since the game can now accommodate up to 32 players (although I’m not quite sure if subsequent patches added this feature in UT2003) you really get the feeling that you’re in a war zone. On the assault maps the game just sounds like an all-out war with gunfire and explosions rocking you from every single direction. Like last year’s game the packaging still says that it has Dolby Digital support but I still can’t figure out how to access it. All of the effects still sound crisp and the squishy sound that signals your demise is still as clear as ever. If you’re not happy with the announcer you can change it to your liking. You can even revert back to the old UT announcer or go for the always popular “sexy” announcer. As a nice touch you can play your own MP3s and music files when you’re schooling your enemies. There’s nothing quite like dominating your buddies to the tune of Ride of the Valkyries.
One of the largest complaints that Digital Extremes faced with the release of UT2003 resided in the game’s performance. First person shooters are at the forefront of technology so they generally require the best technology in order to operate properly. It wasn’t their fault though; it’s just that the nature of the industry put the required hardware out of the reach of most gamers. Nowadays the game is much more accessible to gamers because the hardware has increased significantly. Since UT2004 runs off of much of the same technology even those who upgraded marginally will able to enjoy smooth and stable frame rates. In my experiences UT2004 actually runs faster than UT2003 on a machine with the same exact specs so you probably won’t have too many problems getting this baby to run on your system. If you’re lucky you picked up the limited edition DVD version of the game, otherwise you’re stuck with the behemoth six disc set that totals about five gigs of HD space.
Three big shooters were released in the month of March and while the decision might be hard for some, let me break it down for you in a way that’s easy to understand. If you want an excellent single-player experience pick up Ubisoft’s Far Cry
, if you want a bug-riddled and unplayable experience then pick up EA’s Battlefield Vietnam
and if you’re looking for the
best online shooter don’t hesitate to pick up Epic’s magnum opus. I wouldn’t hesitate to say that it’s the best pure online FPS ever made.