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.