All of which feeds into what has basically made UT3 fun for me: the Warfare game mode. It's a sort of territory-based game where nodes have to be captured to take over a grid across the map. It's a kind of refinement of the Onslaught mode that we saw previously. The refinements are that there are secondary nodes which can be captured to produce useful vehicles - often of the awesome Necris variety - and an energy orb which can be carried across the map and used to capture nodes instantly. I suspect this mode will be too obscure and complex to really take off online, but that doesn't dislodge the fact that I spent much of this afternoon failing to write this review and playing Warfare alternately on a laggy American server or against a dozen bots. I really like it.
One of UT3's weird foibles is that all this stuff, old and new, is tied into a single-player campaign in which a story of sorts wriggles and blasts. Events are awkwardly wrapped around the deathmatch, warfare and CTF arenas, as if they were each military actions, rather than sports competitions. The characters in this tale of intergalactic revenge and mercenary alien-bashing explain away that they're playing tournament arena games with an occasionally verbal wink. The "Field Lattice Generator" that must be destroyed is the flag of capture the flag and as the characters observe "it looks like a flag... it's a flag." Yet the fiction persists. It's quite odd. A few people have expressed disbelief that UT3's single-player would be anything other than macho nonsense, and it largely is, but I think there's a sense of humour about it too. Deep down they know that placing the world of respawning and power-ups inside a classical science fiction story is, well, absurd.
The opening level sees you duelling with your sister. That means your character gets to see what his sister's guts look like. Ten times. There's something wrong with that.
I know people will say I should talk more about this, but I really don't think there's much to talk about. There's a bunch of cinematics that are very pretty, but totally inconsequential, and there's sort of a story wobbling its way between them. But it's really just the multiplayer stuff strung together, should you want to play it like that. Single-player conclusion: stark raving, but the bots can play CTF pretty good. Not only that but the co-op campaign isn't a bad idea for just a couple of people to play through, perhaps on a home network when the internet is out of reach. It's very silly, and horribly engrossing once you get into the guttural croak of things.
Lets move go back to where we started: the problem with the 'simplify' part of Epic's overall intentions for sequel is that Unreal Tournament is inexorably tied into the ongoing complexities of the Unreal engine. The fact is that UT3 is so ludicrously pretty that it's often hard to see what's going on - you're simply overwhelmed by bump-mapped crenelations, glittering stone textures and warping particle effects. They've worked hard to highlight things of consequence, but at close range indoors it's chaotic in the extreme.
Of course it's stupidly pretty too, and on a high end machine you'll find yourself stopping to examine architecture, staring off into the tendrilous distance, or muttering over decals like some kind of absent-minded tourist. The performance is fairly well scaled too, so that sorting things out to work smoothly in a lesser machine isn't too much of a challenge. Nevertheless it does feel less solid across a range of machines than UT2004. I'm not quite sure why this is, but you sort of felt as UT2004 would work okay no matter the condition of your machine. You could always scale things back. With UT3 I'm more worried about the age of my graphics card and the temporal spacetime dilation of my RAM, or something like that.
This is all hung up with something that gamers don't like to think about: the existence of Unreal Tournament III as a showcase for the Unreal engine as a commercial tool. It's less of an issue in this case, since we've already seen a bunch of games using the most recent tech, including Bioshock and Gears Of War, but there's still something of a feeling that this is like a giant, throbbing techno-brochure for demonstrating what can be done with the Unreal engine. The game comes with the editing suite and will immediately give rise to an astonishment of player-made arenas, and they're going to struggle to be as outlandish as the maps delivered by Epic themselves. These boys are just showing off.
All of which analysis leaves us at kind of a critical impasse. The problems with Unreal Tournament seem like the 'problems' with a competently constructed bridge or skyscraper. You can say "well, it doesn't do X or Y, and it's not presented like This or That", but it was engineered for a very specific purpose. In this case it's to be the next arena-based shooter. As the multiplayer FPS genre spreads incrementally outwards from its deathmatch origins so UT3 has fewer and fewer competitors in this niche. You might say that Quake Wars has taken away UT's assault-mode thrills (scrapped during development), but UT3 didn't bother to contest it, and you won't miss it. Despite the family resemblance between these kinds of games it's actually pretty tricky to compare UT3 to its peers. We end up talking about how they "feel" and whether we're comfortable with a spawn timer, or whether we want a class-based system in our game. I'm learning to loathe notion of 'innovation' when it comes to this kind of game development, and in this case UT3 isn't really innovative, but it is playful, really playful. It's packed with big, mad ideas, without ever breaking the game in its over-excitement. They'd added things, without really changing things. It's not really been simplified, but nor has it been made too complicated.
Having played the demo I was all ready to brand UT3's mighty flank with a hissing 7 out of 10, but it's better than that. At the most insane moments of vehicular evisceration I was ready to plump for a nine. I can't honestly see anyone really caring about the eccentric single-player stuff, or the overly busy environments: if you've an ounce of competitive deathmatching in you it's difficult not to click into the zone and start pumping out flak and rockets. Drop into servers, start killing people, it's so natural to habitual gamers these days that it's hard to quantify how familiar and welcome these experiences are. With the sheer range of death-mongering that UT3 provides, it's hard not to get into the spirit of things. So yeah, Unreal Tournament pretty much remains The Daddy: consistent, meaty, and just weird enough to survive.
"KILLING SPREE!" That's the stuff.