When Epic unveiled Unreal Tournament several months ago many people wrote it off as a Quake III Arena clone, and Unreal's initially poor netcode and wimpy weapons certainly didn't help either.
But Epic have been quietly working away on the game since then, and the latest build of Unreal Tournament which was being played at the press party organised by PC Gaming World magazine at The Playing Fields this weekend was labelled as a "Release Candidate". The game is finally nearing completion, and best of all Epic seem to have learnt from their mistake with Unreal and should be releasing a full demo of Unreal Tournament within two weeks.
So, is it just a poor man's Quake, or does Unreal Tournament stand on its own two feet? Skin Deep
First impressions are definitely good. The game has a slick windows-style interface that puts games like Starsiege Tribes and Q3Test to shame, with all the options within easy reach. And although the in-game browser isn't likely to replace GameSpy or PingTool for the hardcore gamers, it gets the job done very competently.
Once you've got yourself set up it's time to enter a game. Even at a relatively low resolution of 800x600 the graphics were very sharp and the eye candy is gorgeous, just as you'd expect from the Unreal engine.
In fact Unreal Tournament looks just as good as Quake III Arena, maybe even better. The weapons effects, for example, are absolutely gorgeous, but somehow manage to avoid getting in the way like some of the Quake III Arena effects do.
But then you don't need me to tell you that Unreal has good graphics. What really matters (and what was missing in the original Unreal) is gameplay. "Woah"
And Unreal Tournament has gameplay by the bucket load. Deathmatch is fast and furious, and Epic have managed to make all of the weapons (even the infamous BioRifle) feel chunkier. The sound effects have been beefed up, and the models are much better as well. When you fire one of these guns you can almost feel it.
And unlike Q3Test's models, they actually look like weapons! The skins are beautifully detailed, and many of the weapons have digital readouts on them, allowing you to see at a glance how much ammunition you have left in them without having to look down to the HUD, just like the pulse rifles in Aliens.
The levels look beautiful, of course, but most of them are also very clean with excellent flow. And there are some great theme levels, like DM_Morpheus (named after the character from The Matrix) which sees you jumping between the roofs of three giant skyscrapers in low gravity.
DM_Morpheus is fast paced at the best of times, but playing it with the "insta-gib" option enabled makes it absolutely frantic. Now you all carry an electrified plasma gun that can kill anybody with a single hit, and all the health and weapons have been removed from the level - similar to the Quake II "Rail Arena" mod.
The sight of a dozen players bouncing around between rooftops firing plasma bolts at each other in mid-air is incredible, and the frags rack up at a ridiculous rate. Rampage!
Players are rewarded with a series of messages as their frag count rises. "Double kill" for two quick kills in succession, "Killing Spree" when you get a few frags in a row without dying, and then a "Rampage" for when you just can't be beat.
You'll also get a message if you kill a player who is on a rampage or spree. And when you're playing a tournament game you get messages telling you how much time is left as you get towards the end of the match.
Surprisingly it doesn't get in the way of the killing, instead the messages help pump you up and spur you on towards ever greater feats of bloodshed. Which is nice. "Guns, lots of guns"
One of Unreal's biggest failings was its weapons, which were imaginative and pretty, but lacked punch. You certainly can't accuse Unreal Tournament's weapons of being underendowed. They feel solid, have deafening bass-ridden sound effects, and cause the kind of damage you'd expect them to.
A more conventional rocket launcher replaces Unreal's EightBall, but you can still rack up several projectiles and fire them all together as grenades, which can give anyone chasing you a real headache.
The Enforcer pistol is your basic weapon, but if you pick up a second one you can use them akimbo, John Woo style. There's a minigun, which has beautiful muzzle flash effects, and rips through flesh like a hot lead knife through butter. The Lone Gunman
Best of the bunch though is the sniper rifle, which is probably the greatest weapon ever to grace a first person shooter. Hold down the secondary fire button and your view will zoom in - the longer you hold it, the more powerful the zoom, up to a maximum zoom factor of 8.3.
Up close it's not tremendously useful, but in the more open maps the zoom facility is awesome, allowing you to pick off targets from miles away.
The gun feels great, looks beautiful, and sounds intimidating. And there's nothing more satisfying than seeing your target's head disintegrate into a spray of red stuff as the magic words "Head Shot!" appear on the screen. Teaming Up
But although deathmatch is enjoyable in Unreal Tournament, it's the team play options that really shine, and offer much more than Quake III Arena is likely to.
Unreal Tournament's CTF mode is perfect, and the maps are far more inventive than in most other games. One of my personal favourites is a huge open level floating in space, where each team is based in a tower at opposite ends of the map, linked by rock causeways. With the awesome sniper rifle it's possible for snipers on the tops of the towers to pick each other off from across the entire length of the map.
Myself, Epic's GreenMarine, and Tom from the Playing Fields spent an entire game picking each other off from opposite ends of the map, racking up some impressive "rampages" along the way as other players strayed into our sights like lambs to the slaughter. This is truly the weapon of kings.
Then there's Domination mode, in which you score points for capturing key points in the maps, a little like the Capture And Hold mode in Starsiege Tribes. Although we didn't play any of this on Sunday, I've seen it running before and it looks promising. Fragging Private Ryan
Last, and definitely not least, is Assault mode, which features more Team Fortress style goals, but easily manages to out-do TFC.
One of the best maps is the Normandy inspired coastal defences map, where one team has to fight their way out of a landing craft while the other team tries to pin them down on the beach. Having fought them on the beaches, you'll then have to fight them in the tunnels, and eventually a good assault team can push you all the way back to your base which is their final goal.
The sheer carnage as the attackers desperately try to overrun your positions is impressive, and the game play is very intense. But although the map is completely asymmetrical it manages to be almost perfectly balanced, with neither team appearing to have any major advantage. Tournament
To demonstrate the game, some of the UK's top players took part in a true Unreal Tournament, fighting for a miniature replica of the big trophy in the adverts.
After two rounds of frantic free for all matches, the thirty contestants were reduced to just two finalists - Amok and Hakeem, both looking on great form.
The final took place in a cylindrical map, with a lift in the center of a tall circular room full of ramps and walkways. The weapon of choice seemed to be the pulse gun, which acts like a plasma gun in primary fire mode and a lightning gun (without the suction) in secondary fire mode. Both players scored an early frag with the gun.
Hakeem soon managed to control the weapon, locking out Amok to pull out an impressive 6 - 1 lead in the opening minutes. This was followed by a tense stand off as Hakeem skulked around the corridors surrounding the central arena. "Don't hide, Hakeem", Amok called out, and seconds later he nailed him with the flak cannon. Finale
Amok then grabbed the rocket launcher, and racked up three more kills in quick succession, bringing the score to 6-5. Hakeem was obviously in love with his pulse gun though, as he soon pulled back three more kills with it before Amok lured him out and put him down with the flak cannon again.
But Hakeem already had the upper hand, and raised his lead to 15-7 before Amok could claw back another frag. Finally switching weapons, Hakeem scored his 16th kill of the match with the flak cannon.
With just two minutes to go Hakeem led 18 frags to 9, and he was on another plasma rampage... He just kept hosing down Amok with the green shaft of the pulse gun's secondary firing mode. In the dying moments of the game Amok managed to score two quick rocket kills, but the final score was 21-11 to Hakeem. Spoils Of War
Apart from Hakeem's occasional games of hide and seek, the game had been fast paced, with both players hunting each other down mercilessly and the action being quick and bloody when it happened.'
The pulse gun seemed to dominate the tight arena map, although Amok made good use of the flak cannon and rocket launcher as Hakeem monopolised the pulse gun. An impressive display all round...
At the end of the day though it was Hakeem who received the Unreal Tournament trophy from Epic's Mark Rein, and walked away as Europe's first Unreal Tournament champion.BotMatch
Despite their supposed policies of only reviewing final code, several magazines have already published "reviews" of Unreal Tournament, but the game is only just nearing completion now. There are still a few bugs to iron out, and we even found a few new ones during the party.
The bots have also improved greatly since the versions that most of the magazines have reviewed. I actually spent almost a quarter of an hour playing against a bunch of bots without realising it until one of the programmers pointed it out to me. You can't give a bot much higher praise than that!
The only real give-away is that they talk too much, and tend to use the same half dozen taunts over and over again. But apart from that they make convincing opponents, and can be used to fill out empty servers on the internet as well as for playing against offline. Finishing Touches
There are also a few more features that have made it into the final version. Unreal Tournament now features decals, like Half-Life, so you will see blood splattering on walls and weapons will have bullet holes and scorch marks when they hit a surface.
S3TC support has already been announced, and there will be a whole extra set of textures specially for people with graphics cards that support texture compression. But Epic also have DXTC support working now, which means that cards like the GeForce 256 will support the compressed textures as well as S3's Savage cards.
There's also an impressive little doohickey that allows server ops to control their dedicated Unreal Tournament server from any web browser, adjusting the rules, kicking players, accessing the console and changing the map without having to touch the server. Conclusion
If Unreal Tournament plays as well over the internet as it does over a LAN it has real promise as an online multiplayer game, and the wide range of team play games especially should give id something to worry about.
With Team Fortress and Tribes II both still several months away at least, it could well be Unreal Tournament that dominates the clan scene early next year. Something that nobody would have predicted a year ago.
As a single player game, botmatch has proven itself. Unreal Tournament's bots are almost as good as the real thing, and for those of us in Europe who have to pay by the minute to access the net at 56kbps, it offers a great alternative to mortaging your soul to pay your phone bill.
Unreal Tournament looks like being a strong contender in the real battle royale this year, as it goes head to head with Quake III Arena. Quake III Arena has the curves and the name recognition, but Unreal Tournament has possibly the greatest weapon of all time, imaginative level design, and fun team play options.
Let the battle begin!
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