The first-person shooter, a long-time staple of the PC gaming diet, has come quite a way since its humble roots in the sort-of-3D stylings of the revolutionary Wolfenstein 3D. Never mind such frivolities as the move to real 3D or the discovery of the possibilities represented by allowing the player to jump; the real evolution has been the addition of ever new and interesting ways to kill your friends. Yes, indeed, we have come a long way from games where your only option was to unload rockets into people's faces until their sprite corpses were festering mounds of broken flesh on the pixellated floor, as the imagination of developers has given us ever new and interesting ways to slice 'em, dice 'em, smash 'em and bash 'em.
The Art of Killing
Epic Games has always been quietly innovative in the realms of inhumane killing and indiscriminate slaughter. While never quite delivering anything as fundamentally groundbreaking as Doom's chainsaw, the company is to be lauded for such additions to the genre as the pressure chamber in Unreal Tournament, which caused your hapless trapped opponents to swell to hideously deformed sizes before exploding messily, the map which featured a pair of vertically stacked teleporters which you could fall through ad infinitum (or until you reached enough velocity to splatter yourself messily over the next object you encountered) and, of course, the magnificent "Headshot!" sound effect that rewarded you aurally for smashing your opponents' heads like over-ripe melons.
Without wishing to restart the discussion on videogame violence, the fact of the matter is that those Epic boys are pretty sick puppies - but we can appreciate that, being of the unhealthy canine variety ourselves. Perhaps their most controversial move, however, has nothing to do with blood, guts, gore or explosions - but rather, rests in their decision to issue an annual update to a first-person shooter title. Unreal Tournament 2004, released a scant year after its predecessor, has been the subject of much consternation in fanboy circles, as the myriad acolytes of death and destruction swarmed to the web forums to express their concern at an FPS game going the way of FIFA, Madden or any of the other hundred thousand odd annually updated sports titles in EA's goodie cupboard. (By "express their concern", of course, we mean "post probably rude but certainly meaningless tripe in a combination of capital letters and incomprehensible symbols which may or may not have been formed by a hapless puppy having an epileptic fit on a broken keyboard", but regardless!)
Unreal Torn apart
At first glance, in fact, UT2004 seems to fulfil many of our worst fears from when it was originally announced - the game is very clearly an evolution of UT2003 rather than a revolution, and the features it shares in common with UT2003 are sufficient to make it clear that to some extent at least, this is a new version of the same game, rather than being a new game in its own right. The graphics engine seems at first glance largely unchanged from the previous game, while many of the weapon and player models and even maps will also be familiar from last year's game. In fact, although the menus reveal a large number of new levels and game modes, there's a definite feeling at first that this game is more of an extended bonus pack for UT2003 than a full product in its own right.
However, it would be unwise to dismiss UT2004 simply on that basis, because a closer examination of the game reveals that there's a lot more to it than a simple mission pack. In fact, the sheer amount of new content in the game is massively impressive (and easily justifies the six-CD install, although most players will sensibly opt for the DVD version). As well as providing a host of new maps and gameplay features to standard modes such as Deathmatch, Capture the Flag, Double Domination and Bombing Run, the game also re-introduces the Assault game mode from the original UT with a selection of excellently designed maps, and a superb new mode called Onslaught, which features huge outdoor maps and a selection of vehicles.
The standard game modes all play excellently with the slightly tweaked weapons and physics of the game, and the whole affair has been balanced superbly - not least, we suspect, because Epic has had a year of watching people play UT2003 to use in figuring out what works and what doesn't in the game. Deathmatch play (or direct combat in any of the game modes) is fast, furious and fun, and there's no single weapon which could be considered the be all and end all of the game, with the special single-shot "superweapons" such as the massively powerful Redeemer rocket and the target painter (different versions of which call down a shot from an Ion Cannon or an airstrike) being useful for tactical purposes rather than to compensate for a lack of twitch skills.
As we suspected from the demo that was released some weeks ago, however, it's Onslaught that is the sparkling jewel in UT2004's crown. Although we've spent time on each of the game modes and found none of them wanting (although the Assault game mode is still one which sounds a lot better in theory than it plays in practice), it's Onslaught which has been pulled up every time we've fancied a nice relaxing bit of casual slaughter. The game is simple in theory - each map has a red and a blue base, and a selection of nodes on the map are linked to the bases by a web of connections. You can claim nodes for your team if they're linked back to your base (or "power core") by a direct line of allied nodes, and you can only attack enemy nodes which are linked to one of your own nodes. The objective is to build a line of allied nodes right to your enemy's base, and destroy their power core. It's a bit like Blockbusters with guns.
To help you in this task, the game gives you a large number of weapons (there are weapon racks at each base and node which give you a load-out of weapons and ammo when you run across them, while superweapons and other special weapons and ammo are scattered elsewhere on the map) and - here's the real clincher - vehicles. You can drive a selection of jeeps, hovercraft, tanks and even light planes around the map, some of which can have multiple players on board manning different weapons, and all of which have great physics and handling - with a few surprises thrown in as well, such as the twin infantry-slicing scythes which sprout from the side of the nippy mini-jeep when you hit the secondary fire button, or the rumbling shout of "Vehicular Manslaughter!" when you mow down enemy troops.
There's absolutely no doubt that Epic was hugely influenced by Halo in the creation of this part of the game, but that's no bad thing in itself. The basic vehicle classes are effectively the same as Halo's, with a number of key additions, but a 16-player game of Onslaught is a nail-biting and incredibly tactical experience that Halo's multiplayer can rarely match. Rather than crying "rip-off", then, we found ourselves glad that Bungie's achievements had driven Epic to create something that's so much fun - and another lesson learned from the Xbox has obviously also had an effect on the game, as it features well-implemented built-in voice communications, which make arranging team tactics or just shouting insults in all of the game modes much more natural.
If you don't feel that your skills are quite up to the online challenge, however, there's always the option of playing offline, and UT2004 offers a far more competent offline play experience than you might expect from a game which has been designed with multiplayer so firmly in mind. As in previous UT titles, the single-player game allows you to recruit a team of bots and work your way up through the ranks of the Unreal Tournament competition, but an extra level of complexity is added by the need to keep an eye on your cash reserves, because bots need to be paid for their services, and sometimes even need to be healed if they're permanently injured in battle. As well as earning cash for winning matches, you can also take part in challenge games where you bet on yourself to win, or can challenge other teams to matches in order to try and win their best players for your squad. The whole thing is made more interesting by the fact that the bots in the game are absolutely superb - intelligent, tactically minded and quite realistic in their behaviour (despite, or perhaps because of, the occasional moment of outright stupidity), which makes the whole thing far more challenging and kept us interested in the single-player game even when the lure of multiplayer was calling to us.
Having considered the evidence, we found our opinion of UT2004's place alongside UT2003 somewhat revised. Rather than being a bonus pack for its predecessor, UT2004 has easily enough content to be considered a great game in its own right, but as a bonus you get all of the maps and so on from UT2003 in the box as well. Obviously realising that not everyone will see it that way, however, Atari has thrown a voucher for Ł7.50 into the box which you can redeem by sending back your UT2003 play disc to the company - making the upgrade to the new version significantly cheaper.
Epic has created the mother of all first-person shooters with this game - over a hundred maps, a selection of diverse and extremely well balanced game modes, built in voice communications, intelligent bots, a great offline play mode, good network code, a superb server browser and a solid graphics engine. Onslaught alone is worth the price of entry, but the game as a whole is a stunning package, and if proof were required, then the many, many hours we've clocked up at the game over the past couple of weeks should serve as proof enough. Best of all, continued support for the game with new content and patches is almost guaranteed given Epic's track record - and there are promises of goodies to come such as CTF maps with the vehicles enabled which sound absolutely great. Any fan of fast online FPS action needs a copy of this game installed, because this is the benchmark for twitch FPS games from now on out, without a shadow of a doubt.