Until today, very little was known about the first major expansion pack for Unreal Tournament 3. So put on your tinted infogoggles, or prepare to be lightly fact-dazzled. It's free. It's a 800MB-1GB download. It's due for a simultaneous release on 5th March, for PS3 and PC. The PS3 version will introduce the split-screen action that literally dozens of Xbox 360 owners enjoyed, and a new mod-browser for PS3 will pipe-feed users with a convenient barrage of Epic-approved tweaks and mods that have been a fundamental part of the game's history for nearly twenty years.
Previously, PS3 owners had to fanny about with Flash drives; now it's all installed directly to HD, after which the new content - whether it's maps, gametypes, characters or mutators - will appear in the relevant menu.
There are 16 new maps in the Titan Pack, including the five that were included with the 360 version. If you didn't download the free bonus pack, the three maps in that will be automatically included, too. There are two completely new gametypes, two new characters, deployables, vehicles, and absolutely no new single-player content.
As Mark Rein jokes, Star Wars may have a man dedicated to keeping everything canon, but the UT lore bible was written on the back of a napkin, somewhere. So when the news of two new characters comes to light, no one really cares. Whatever Cliffy says about his new confidence to do love stories, it'll be a strange day that UT3 gets its first romance.
The lack of an Xbox 360 version isn't a reaction to the poor sales on the platform, says Epic director, Steve Polge. It's partly because "a lot of the content is already on the 360 - 5 of the 16 maps, Achievements, and the split-screen," he says, but he continues with what feel like a more convincing reason. "And we couldn't do the mod browser, there's no structure for that on the 360. And the pack is larger than Microsoft's patch limit."
A short explore with the PS3's mod-browser, and three downloads later, I'm snowboarding with Master Chief. Master Chief with Cloud Strife's Buster Sword strapped to his back. The fact that the Snowreal mod isn't the most intuitive or fun game in the world doesn't stop me feeling like the Archangel of Awesome has just sat on my face and let rip. The Chief might not be available on release on the console - the PS3 can't quite give the double-bird to copyright issues as confidently as the PC - but the ease and speed is impressive.
Let's get back into what's definitely there. The most interesting additions are the new gametypes. If you were hoping for the re-introduction of the old classics - say, Domination or Bombing Run - Polge's open advice is to use the fan-built mods. "Those things have been really well-served by the community," he explains. "We didn't feel the need to go there. We really wanted to give something completely new."
So, the new gametypes are just that. First up, Greed. It's a simple idea; shoot someone, they drop a skull. You can pick it up, and deliver it to the enemy base. But if someone shoots you, you drop the skulls you're carrying, and the one that was recently an important part of your body. Every death adds a new skull to the playfield, and eventually there'll be someone carrying dozens of skulls, and looking like a very urgent target for his opponents.
Greed reflects your dilemma - the more skulls you have, the more glorious your run to the base will be. And the less likely it is that an organised opposing team will let you get anywhere near their end of the map. It's a dilemma that has no teeth in Epic's playtest room, which is full of people like myself, who just want to shoot each other and make gurgling sounds. With skilled players, it'll add a good twist to the capture mechanic.
Especially when one of your team accumulates enough kills to morph into the Titan.
The Titan is 15 feet tall, with a powerful rocket launcher and a ground-pound melee attack that instantly kills any nearby opponents, and damages anyone further away. Fill the gauge again, and you get a 30-second boost into the 30ft-tall Behemoth - an absurd monster, built out of improbability and death.
Titans don't make sense in all modes. Deathmatch and Betrayal would be unplayably imbalanced if one player just stood there, ground pounding. They only work when they're part of a team, where their weaknesses force them into a support role. Titans can't carry skulls, flags or orbs, so they're well suited to escorts or bodyguards - or generating a huge amount of skulls in those Greed matches.
The Titan feels overpowered, so I ask Polge about the balancing issues in creating a super-monster like the Titan. "At first, it does seem a little overpowered, because people don't know how to fight a Titan. But once you develop tactics against them, you realise they're still powerful, but it's not hopeless." Both sides can spawn Titans, so it might come down to a rocket match between the big guys. Just remember that when you kill a Titan, he explodes is a fairly nuclear fashion. Run away.
Then, it's time for lunch - and in a thrilling moment, Cliffy B walks past us, and into the lift, proclaiming that he's off to work on something that "won't be public for two years". I think about calling him a prick-tease, but decide that'd be too much like flirting. So I run around in tiny circles instead, with my fingers pressed to my cheeks.
The other new game type is Betrayal. In this mode - played only with Instagib rifles - you're randomly dropped into a group of three. Every kill you make adds a point to your personal score (more, if the person is beating you), and a single point to your group's pot. When that pot's tempting enough, you can alt-fire on a team member (who glow conspicuously blue) to betray them, and claim the pot. This will make you a teamless rogue member for 30 seconds, during which time your former team-mate will get a heavy bonus for killing you back. The back and forth - especially on the claustrophobic and wintry map, Koos Barge - resembles the cut-scene after level two of Pac-Man. A little. Perhaps not enough to warrant saying it.
Again, though: tactics were out of the window for the eight journalists in the Epic offices. Betrayals were made to claim an empty pot, with betrayal seeming fun enough to commit without cause or benefit. But a number of design decisions made the possibilities clear: the hunger for payback is strong when someone pips you to betrayal. And the decision to give the betrayal gun a different colour is a rudimentary stroke of genius. Normal shots are red beams, so if a blue beam sizzles over your shoulder, all loyalties should be considered dead. It takes a lot of discipline and misplaced trust to let that pot get to ten.
Other new features include turrets - the Stinger Turret is a new base-defence turret, and the Eradicator is a twist on the fixed artillery of the Hellfire. More interesting is the X-Ray Field - a crackling black and white area-of-effect deployable. If you enter it, you'll appear to everyone as a skeleton, which lets them know you're dramatically more prone to damage. Dropped in a choke point, they can make an ambush much more effective. The Slow Field deployable gets an upgrade too, with a power-up version of the bullet-time device that follows you around for a while.
We get to play every map, and although a single play on each isn't enough to get a comprehensive feel, here are some highlights:
The Morbid CTF map - a tiny map restricted to rocket launchers, with doors that can only be opened by a Titan standing nearby. When one character morphed again, into the Behemoth, taking up about 5 per cent of the overall volume of the map, it just became a comical farce. Polge admits that it's a novelty map, and it might not bear much repetition, but using the Titan to get through doors is something that could be taken up in other maps.
The least obvious tweaks have been to the game's AI - with enemies now more willing to make use of the self-destruct capabilities of some vehicles, and generally improved to deal with the tactics they've seen people use. Ours were mainly real people though, so it's difficult to comment on that from direct experience.
The Titan Pack is more than substantial. It's a generous package for both PC and PS3, that instantly makes the original game more desirable. Moreover, in terms of bringing mods to the masses, it's a gigantic leap forwards for the Sony machine. Compared to PC modding, what you lose in freedom, choice and anarchic democracy, you recoup with quality control and simplicity. And you can still reach around their new front-end, unclasp the bra, and install whatever (non-blacklisted) mods you like with that good old-fashioned Flash drive.
With the Make Something Unreal modding competition just reaching the end of its second phase, it's a big package that's only going to get bigger. And for a price-tag of diddly quid and squat cents, any attempt to calculate value for money will cause your calculator to fly out of the window.
The Unreal Tournament 3 Titan Pack is due out on 5th March for PS3 and PC. It's free!