Version tested: Xbox 360
Previously on Unreal Tournament 3... "This feels like the PS3's new online FPS benchmark," said Tom. On PC it "pretty much remains The Daddy", according to Jim. So what of its belated transition to Xbox 360, a console that already offers plenty of choice for first-person shooter fans?
On the upside, Epic has rewarded 360 owners for waiting an extra seven months with five exclusive maps, split-screen play, a few new playable characters and some evident performance improvements. But it's not all high-fives and bear hugs. Unlike in the PS3 version, there's no keyboard, mouse or user mod support. Annoying, yes, but Epic had no choice about removing these features - it's all down to Microsoft's strict policies. Take it up with them.
Elsewhere, it's business as usual in the ultra-violent world of Unreal Tournament - at least when it comes to gameplay and style. As Jim noted back in November this game isn't synonymous with innovation, but is renowned for getting the feel absolutely spot-on. Following the 2003 and 2004 PC updates, and the development of three console editions, Epic has ended up with a game that sits just as comfortably on consoles as on its native PC platform. Despite not offering users the keyboard-and-mouse option offered to PS3 owners, Epic has conjured a control system which feels every bit as responsive and fast-paced as it needs to be for furious twitch-based gameplay.
Based around three distinct modes (Deathmatch, Capture the Flag and Warfare), and supplemented by a few variations (Team Deathmatch, Vehicle Capture the Flag and Duel), it doesn't need to play the numbers game in terms of features and modes - the core gameplay is more than adequate. Unreal Tournament has always excelled at offering a breakneck pace, good variety of weapons, cutting edge visuals and a satisfying level of violence.
UT3 is a game you'll slip into without too much introductory fluff. Of particular significance is the excellent new Warfare mode, as well as Vehicle CTF. Developers often try to come up with various tug o' war-style modes, but Warfare is easily one of the most cleverly designed. The multi-layered premise of capturing and controlling various 'nodes' dotted around a map seems straightforward enough, but in practice involves layer upon layer of strategy and subtlety. One minute you'll be heading happily to your opponent's central orb and pummeling its exposed core, the next reeling as your captured nodes are lost in a matter of moments.
The tenuous balance of the whole thing makes it a desperately tense, nervy affair, and the addition of various War of the Worlds-inspired vehicles adds a real fun factor. Likewise, Vehicle CTF transforms the old favourite - opening out the maps and generating a myriad of gameplay tactics in the process. Equipping players with Hover Boards in both modes overcomes the problem of being stuck roaming round large maps on-foot. Yes, it might look a bit strange, but it works.
One thing we perhaps haven't given Epic enough credit for in previous Unreal Tournament III reviews is the effort invested in the single-player component. As much as fans of online FPS action might dismiss the various botmatches, I feel compelled to stick up for this part of the package. For starters, in a nod to Gears of War, Epic has gone to great lengths to craft a characteristically bombastic five-act storyline. It comes complete with a branching mission structure and seemingly dozens of lavish CG cut-scenes, which go to often self-mocking lengths to justify why you're capturing flags or destroying nodes.
Again. The cod-seriousness of it all carried me all the way to the end, though the art direction is so close to Gears of War it's absurd. You too will believe that one man (who bears an uncanny resemblance to Marcus Fenix) and his steroid-pumped friends are saving the universe by gibbing all-comers. It's better than the old ladder match system of old, but does rather render the whole 'Tournament' element of the game's name redundant.
During the mission-selection process, it's not adequately explained there are consequences involved in plotting your path through the game. It seems like you're just being offered a choice of one of two missions as you go along, but in fact this semi-non-linear approach grants players a degree of freedom.
Aside from the completely linear first two 'acts', the missions available to you often have a significant impact on the type of task and location you'll face next, and sometimes even the conditions of those missions. Admittedly, the net result of this branching structure doesn't add up to a lot: the fact that you might face a different scenario or slightly less stringent conditions in a subsequent mission because of a choice you unwittingly made isn't that important. Such choice does, at least in theory, give the game a degree of replayability, but it comes at the price of the almost unbearable repetition of having to plough the same three gameplay styles and familiar maps multiple times. There's certainly no real incentive to do so apart from being able to unlock a few character skins for online use.
That said, I'm still sticking up for the offline botmatches. The simple fact is they're almost as enjoyable as the real thing, simulating that tense ebb and flow of multiplayer battle in a way few games have managed to date (and lag-free, remember). At the very least, Epic should be given enormous credit for crafting AI opponents challenging and unpredictable enough to warrant serious gameplay time. Not only are they perfectly capable of kicking anyone's arse (on insane level, anyway), the presence of four skill levels ought to make as accessible or as brutal as you want it to be. The added bonus of the quality and variety of the numerous maps in the game ensures that whichever way you play it, online or off, with a friend or with bots, you'll have a blast.
Better still, if you want to access all of this content in a more freeform fashion, the Instant Action option shouldn't be overlooked either. It's split into six modes and you can plump for any of the 16 Deathmatch/Team Deathmatch/Duel maps, eight CTF maps, eight Vehicle CTF maps and 23 Warfare maps. With no fewer than eight AI skill levels, two-player split screen play, and options to tweak other key options (including various 'mutators', which tweak gameplay conditions), the permutations available are absolutely immense without being overwhelming.
Almost two years on from Gears of War, it's no surprise to see how well the 360 handles Unreal Tournament III. So capable is Unreal Engine 3 at this stage, the console copes admirably even when chaos is absolutely raging on all sides - at least on the majority of occasions. There are a few slowdown hiccups on now and then, and is some very minor screen-tearing during cut-scenes. But there's absolutely no texture pop-in to speak of, and a wonderful array of lavishly detailed environments to explore unfettered - something the PS3 struggled with even when you installed the game to the hard disk.
Our real-world online tests with the boxed version of the game brought up precious few incidences of lag, with only one co-op session on the campaign mode throwing up any glitches. As usual the game conforms to all the typical Xbox Live implementation, and getting up and running was simple. 16 players are supported via System Link or Xbox Live on the various competitive modes (apart from Duel, of course, which is a one-on-one Deathmatch variant), while co-op campaign play supports up to four players. The latter mode offers an excellent way to plough through the Campaign mode, especially if you can round up a bunch of similarly skilled mates to fight alongside you.
Most of you will have long since decided whether to bother with Unreal Tournament III - not least thanks to Tom and Jim's original PS3 and PC reviews last year. But eight months is a long time to wait for an FPS conversion, especially on a machine as overwhelmed by competing titles as the 360, so you might need convincing. Isn't it just ageing ideas in fancy new threads?
Probably, but so what? As good as Enemy Territory: Quake Wars, Frontlines: Fuel of War and Team Fortress 2 are, Unreal Tournament III is the most intense and ridiculous of the bunch. What it lacks in terms of bold innovation, it more than makes up for in terms of raw playability and refined execution, and Epic has come up trumps with a fine conversion.
8 / 10