Annual updates to videogames tend to be greeted with a fairly generous dose of cynicism from more hardcore gamers. At best, many would argue, they are simply feature creep updates, which would be better addressed by mission packs. At worst, they are nothing short of shameless cash-ins. There's no breed of gamer more hardcore (in a soi disant fashion if nothing else) than PC first-person shooter fans, either. Ask most of them their opinion of EA Sports' regular-as-clockwork release schedule and you're unlikely to hear very many positive words.
It's brave, then, of developer and franchise-owner Epic to move to what effectively seems to be the start of an annual update model for its Unreal Tournament series of games - a series which can claim no small measure of popularity among hardcore online FPS gamers, even if it can't quite match up to the gigantic player numbers of the ubiquitous Counter-Strike. This is the last genre where you'd expect to see year numbers tagged onto the end of game names - but sure enough, here comes Unreal Tournament 2004, hot on the heels of Unreal Tournament 2003.
Despite the company's best efforts, with screenshots of all manner of brand new game features appearing over the past few months, the muttering was always there on internet forums and in IRC chats between gamers - UT2004 was going to be a cash-in, an attempt to sell a mission pack as a full priced game, the last gasp of the Unreal Tournament franchise. It's no doubt with this at least partially in mind that Epic chose to release a very comprehensive demo of the game last week - but never mind the full game, is the demo worth over 200MB of your precious bandwidth?
Demonstration of Intent
First impressions of the demo, which includes maps for all the major game types (including old favourites such as CTF and Deathmatch alongside the Assault and Bombing Run game types introduced in previous UT titles, and a brand new type, Onslaught) as well as an online server browser and bots, tended to suggest that not a lot had changed, and reinforced the idea that UT2004 may be little more than an overpriced mission pack. The graphics are not noticeably better than last year's UT2003, and the weapons are almost exactly the same, while to a large degree even the artificial intelligence of your computer-controlled opponents seems the same.
That's not to say that there aren't improvements noticeable from the outset. The level design on all of these demo maps is superb, for example, with the CTF map in particular being extremely grand in scale and very reminiscent of the Mines of Moria from the Lord of the Rings, with huge pillars leading off into the blackness above your head and crumbling bridges hung over a pit of darkness. The graphics engine has also been tarted up, but in an interesting way; while the visual enhancements to the game are minimal, the performance of the engine seems to have been improved greatly, and it actually runs better on our test system than UT2003 did - an unusual and extremely welcome step from a PC first-person shooter title.
Other small improvements also make the game experience into a more enjoyable one from the outset, such as the inclusion of a function in the CTF mode which allows you to press a button which immediately shows you the fastest route to your own or your enemy's base - no more being lost in midfield not knowing which way to run, even on maps you don't know well. Small, intelligent changes like these, combined with the faster graphics and new maps, are certainly welcome, but indeed, this is mission pack and patch territory - not worth the price of entry of a full game, surely?
Prepare for the Onslaught
It was just as we were beginning to sense that perhaps UT2004 might be the disappointment which it had been set up to be that it occurred to us to try out the new game mode, Onslaught - and here we suddenly discovered what Epic has spent the past year slaving over, and why, all things being equal, UT2004 is going to be worth parting with your hard-earned cash for. While updates to all of the traditional game modes (including the welcome return of the Assault game mode, now far more balanced and interesting than in the original UT) are incremental, Onslaught is a completely new direction for the game, and has the potential to be massive online.
For a start, this game mode takes place on large outdoor maps, more reminiscent of Tribes or Battlefield 1942 than of anything we've previously seen in Unreal Tournament; and as is required for maps of this scale, the play area is littered with vehicles of different types - ranging here from speedy little jeeps and three-person Humvee type vehicles to hovercraft, light aircraft and even tanks. A lot of the inspiration here comes from Halo, and although none of the vehicles have quite got the feel of the Warthog down (mostly because they opt for a more rigid control system that gives larger turning circles, and because unlike the Warthog these vehicles can sustain damage), they're all excellent fun in their own right - and Epic has some tricks up its sleeve regarding what you can do with them.
The basis of the Onslaught game mode is that you must capture and hold a series of control points on the map, with each point being a node in a series of "power lines" sketched across the play area which links back to the Red and Blue bases at each end. Once you have drawn a complete line from your base to the enemy base, you can assault the generator at their base in order to win the map - but if a link in your chain is destroyed by the enemy, their generator becomes shielded again. To make matters more balanced, links in the chain which are not connected to empty or enemy nodes are considered locked and safe, so you don't have to stretch your forces out over a whole long supply line and protect every link at the same time.
It's a simple enough mechanic (and will seem familiar to anyone who has played PlanetSide, by all accounts) but one that makes for some nail biting back and forth struggles whenever two teams who are even remotely evenly matched meet up. Nodes sport vehicle and weapon respawn points, and some even have stationary turrets - but with UT2004's fast moving vehicles and players, relying on the prowess of your armour or base defences is a loser's game, and the game certainly doesn't sacrifice any of the speed or skill you'd expect from a fast-paced FPS title in the name of a more tactical take on the genre's rules.
The vehicles contribute much to the mayhem, and each one has been very intelligently balanced, with weapons that are dangerous to both infantry and other vehicles. The jeep and hovercraft have both been granted close-up "melee" style weapons that make them hugely dangerous to infantry (in the case of the jeep, a pair of scythes that sprout from the sides of the vehicle and slice infantry in half as you tear past, leading to "Headshot!" style cries of "Road Rage!" and "Hit and Run!" from the game) and weaker weapons for combating other vehicles; other vehicles such as the tank and the light aircraft are much more useful for anti-vehicle activities than for anti-infantry work.
The weapon balance for infantry hasn't been forgotten, however, and treats such as a homing missile that tracks enemy armour (although only as long as you continue watching it, leaving you vulnerable to attack) have been added to the mix in order to make things seem more fair to those left running around on foot. Old reliables such as the sniper rifle (Lightning Gun), Flak Cannon and Shock Rifle, as well as the superb new mine layer (which drops spider-like mines that chase their targets all over the ground) also ensure that the game doesn't become a pure vehicle-fest, despite the fun of using the various armour types.
Now more than ever before
Combined with the adjustments to the existing game types, and the fact that the game will run well even on machines well behind the cutting edge, the superb Onslaught game type makes Unreal Tournament 2004 very interesting indeed - and propels it well up towards the top of our most wanted lists. It's certainly worth spending the time required to download the demo - but we expect that many people will criticise the game for lifting so much wholesale from UT2003.
The fact of the matter is that this is what UT2003 should probably have been - and indeed, the game is expected to feature all of the maps and content from UT2003 when it ships in mid-March. You'll be hard pressed to find the UT2003 maps in amongst all the new content, though - the game is set to ship on six CDs (or a special two-DVD edition for those of us living in the 21st century) and will feature over 100 maps. Our only concern is that the team may have sacrificed quality for quantity in this department - although if the superb maps in the demo are anything to judge by, this is simply not the case.
Does this point the way for annual updates of FPS franchises? Well, maybe. Are we worried? On the strength of what we've seen so far of UT2004, frankly, we're not worried in the slightest. I was somewhat disappointed by last year's UT update, I have to admit - but UT2004 is beyond a doubt one of the most promising PC games of the year, and if the team can maintain the standards of quality seen in the demo across the full game - particularly in terms of maps for the Onslaught mode - then it may have a serious contender for the multiplayer crown on its hands.
Unreal Tournament 2004 (PC) is due out in the UK on March 19th by current estimates. You can download a demo of the game here.