Unreal had a (well deserved) reputation for poor multiplayer, thanks to hideously broken network code and under powered weapons. So it came as something of a surprise when Epic revealed they were working on a multiplayer-focused follow-up to the game...
Breaking from the traditional "find red key, use red key to open red door, repeat" formula of most first person shooters, Unreal Tournament instead puts you up against a series of AI bots, which are designed to mimic real human players.
And they do it pretty well. In fact, at a (somewhat premature) launch party back in September, UT's bots passed the Turing Test by fooling me into thinking they were real players for almost half an hour!
Epic have done a great job of making the bots behave like humans, and in almost every situation they work perfectly. You can even give your AI team mates basic orders in team games using a straightforward drag and click interface.
There are a few problems though, the most obvious being the AI's inability to deal with windows. Stand a bot at a window and it will keep shooting, even when the target on the ground below gets so close that the bot ends up shooting at the wall underneath the window trying to hit it.
Otherwise they make convincing opponents though. Their aim isn't inhumanly good (unless you set their skill to "inhuman" of course), and they don't have eyes in the backs of their heads.
And because there are eight skill levels to choose from, ranging from "novice" to "godlike", they should provide a reasonable challenge to anybody from Joe Newbie to Thresh.
Spice Of Life
The real genius of Unreal Tournament though is the range of gameplay options on offer. Deathmatch, Capture The Flag, Domination, and Assault modes are all built-in.
Deathmatch is very fast paced, and most of the two dozen maps on offer are excellent. There are a few novelty maps though, and some of these just don't work.
One is set on board a galleon, and although it looks great you really don't have time to stop and admire the scenery. What you do have time to notice though is the fact that it is poorly interconnected and badly cluttered... Nice idea, but it just doesn't work for deathmatch.
Some of the novelty maps are rather good though. DM_Morpheus is inspired by the "Woah" scene from The Matrix, and sees players leaping between the roofs of skyscrapers. Surprisingly it works, and is one of the most enjoyable maps in the game.
CTF should also be familiar to any first person shooter fan, a basic teamplay option in which you attempt to capture a flag from the other team and then bring it back to your own base.
UT CTF is probably the best I've ever played, with fast-paced gameplay and some truly excellent maps. The real gem is "Facing Worlds", featuring a pair of giant towers facing each other across a narrow strip of land suspended in space. This map is sniper heaven, with the tops of the two towers providing a vantage point from which you can see most of the map.
Domination is similar to the "Capture And Hold" mode in Starsiege Tribes. The idea is to control certain locations scattered around the map. The longer your team controls one, the more points you score.
The last game type is Assault, in which one team defends a location while the other tries to break in and carry out a series of objectives. This often involves pressing buttons and blowing stuff up, but there is enough variety to keep things interesting.
What really makes Assault mode shine though are the maps. One relives the D-Day Normandy landings, with one team starting in a landing vessel and the other team trying to stop them from storming the beaches and destroying a massive cannon in the cliff face behind.
Other maps involve breaking into a frigate, escaping from a castle, destroying an underwater laboratory, and taking control of a high speed train. All are excellently designed, and great fun to play .. against bots. Unfortunately over the internet it is a whole different story.
The problem is that many of us have already found ways to complete most of the maps within a minute! Essentially this turns the game into a mad dash, with the best players on the attacking team charging headlong through the level trying to reach their objectives, while the defenders desperately try to stop any of them from breaking through.
All it takes is one or two good players on the attacking team and the defenders are likely to lose, and lose fast. Well balanced games are very enjoyable, but as soon as one team gains any sort of advantage it soon turns into a farce.
If you like "speed running" then Assault mode will probably suit you, and there is something strangely enjoyable in dashing through the level faster than anybody else has done before. But it is likely to wear thin fast...
Which is a shame, because at first this seemed to be the best of the games on offer in Unreal Tournament.
Variations On A Theme
Of course, four basic gameplay modes and fifty maps isn't where Unreal Tournament stops.
The game has a whole set of "mutators" which can be applied in almost any combination to any of the main gameplay modes. There is a rocket arena mutator, which lets all the players duel it out with rocket launchers. There is a low gravity option, which makes life rather interesting.
The instagib mutator arms everybody with enhanced shock rifles that will reduce anything they hit to a steaming pile of meaty bits. Which is nice...
There's even a rather bizarre mutator which makes you gain or lose weight depending on how many kills you have. The more times you get killed, the more like Kate Moss your character looks. The more times you kill your enemies, the more you look like Santa Claus after a few too many mincepies. Strange, but true.
The best part though is that players will be able to modify Unreal Tournament themselves, creating their own mutators, maps, or even whole new gameplay styles. The first user-made mutators have already started to appear, and more add-ons are likely to follow.
Unreal Tournament isn't just designed for hardcore gamers though, it is also aimed at players who haven't sampled the delights of deathmatch before.
For newcomers to the whole first person shooter genre, there are tutorial maps for each game type to introduce you to basic concepts like strafing, picking up items, capturing flags, and aiming and firing your weapons using a mouse.
The interface is easy to use, and puts most other games to shame. It looks and feels like Windows, and a series of drop down menus and resizable panes makes it easy to set up and control the game. Which makes a nice change from the endless undocumented command line options and console settings which most previous first person shooters have suffered from...
And even if you don't want to take the plunge into online gaming, the bots provide a great offline single player experience. They are also there to practice against, meaning that even the most inexperienced player can pick up the basics of the game before they venture into a real game.
Even for battle hardened veterans, playing through the single player campaign is highly recommended. If nothing else it gives you a chance to learn the levels, something which is particularly important for the Assault and CTF modes.
This is all well and good, but the important question is .. does it work? After all, Unreal was notorious for poor netplay, weird weapons, and slow frame rates.
Well, I have good news for you...
The game is perfectly playable in Direct3D mode at 800x600, even on my lowly Riva-TNT powered 300Mhz Pentium II. And it looks beautiful - the graphics are crisp and colourful, the models are good, the textures and skins are mostly excellent, and the weapon effects are damned impressive.
The weapons themselves are chunky and powerful, and as each has two firing modes you get twice the fun. The goo gun (sorry, BioRifle) is still hardly a weapon of choice, but everything else is top notch.
The flak cannon doubles as both a shotgun and a shrapnel grenade launcher, and works admirably in both capacities. The Redeemer is a rare but impressive beast that fires a miniature nuclear missile which you can remote control in the alt-fire mode!
And the sniper rifle, with its awesome zoom capability, is truly the King Of Guns. Nothing can match the satisfaction of pulling off a clean head shot on a moving target half way across the level.
The multiplayer code is silky smooth over a LAN or fast digital connection, and works well even on a 56k modem. I found it playable (in the loosest sense of the word) even with pings in the 300-400 range, and although any comparison is rather arbritary, the internet play seemed to be at least on a par with Quake II.
In fact, apart from a few washed-out textures, the only real problem I have had with Unreal Tournament is that sometimes it crashes when I quit the game, forcing a reboot.
Given that I've only actually quit half a dozen times since installing the game, that isn't a great problem though! If I didn't have to write this damn review I'd still be playing it now...
Unreal Tournament puts Epic right back at the top of the first person shooter pile.
Both single player and multiplayer are excellent, as are the majority of the maps. The graphics are a match for anything else on the market, and the game doesn't need a supercomputer to run it.
And with so many maps, modes and mutators on offer, you really are spoilt for choice. It's a shame that Assault mode doesn't usually work very well online, but otherwise the game does exactly what it says on the box.
If you've read this far there must be something wrong with you... Go buy the damn game already!
What? You're still here? Ok, feast your eyes on these...
Download The Demo
Try before you buy! Download the Unreal Tournament demo (54Mb) now!