Unreal Tournament 2004
13th Jan 2004 | 14:49
It's been over a decade since the release of id Software's seminal Doom title, and over that time, multiplayer first-person action has pretty much become a sport itself, just like the FIFAs and NBAs of this world. It was surely only a matter of time then until an astute developer would eventually go and do an EA Sports in an attempt to corner the market for virtual reality combat, with a yearly update of the franchise. Step forward Epic.
Its latest Unreal Tournament game follows directly from last year's edition - and by this time next year, UT2005 will surely be beating on our bulkhead. Which leaves you with one key question to answer: if you bought last year's game, a bit like FIFA 2003, then should you buy this? The answer is a very definite and predictable: "Hell, yeah!"
Whereas UT2003 was justified by the obvious graphical and much-needed control improvements over its 1999 predecessor, this year's release adds much more meat to the bones. Mildly enhanced graphics, new player models, a far friendlier user interface and some new weapons are to be expected and are heartily welcomed. However, it's the new team-centred gameplay modes - the return of an old favourite particularly - and the introduction of driveable vehicles that make this such an exciting and important addition to the Unreal lineage.
With Deathmatch increasingly going out of fashion and CTF superseded in turn by the likes of Counter-Strike, Battlefield 1942 and PlanetSide, it was obvious Epic had to do something to bring down the young pretenders to the FPS throne. In little over a year, it's not only managed to provide a distinct and enjoyable alternative, but one that in many ways makes these games look at times amateurish by comparison. In the new Onslaught mode especially, Unreal Tournament offers a means to engage in vehicular combat that, though smallscale in comparison to the likes of even Tribes, certainly doesn't feel as such.
Rather than flag or frags, Onslaught's currency of import is power - or, to be precise, the flow of it across the map. Each side, red or blue, begins with a home base, the centrepiece of which is the electrical power core. Lose the core and you lose the match, simple as that.
To keep each side from rushing into the enemy base to secure a swift victory, each side's power core is shielded. The only way to bring it down is to gain control of a chain of power nodes until you have a link running from your power core to that of your enemy. Of course, the enemy is trying to run a similar link to you too, and with nodes regularly changing hands, life is certainly never dull.
The genius of Onslaught mode, though, lies not in its simplicity, but in the design of the maps. Although in some cases these are vast, they always manage to ensure that you're not left wandering around lost and alone.
Power nodes are never more than a minute's walk away either, and if it's under enemy control, simply destroy it and build your own (just walk on to the pad). However, if it's already under your control and not under attack, you can use it to teleport yourself closer to the action in the blink of an eye. Alternatively, you can climb aboard one of the vehicles that will be lying about and travel to the frontline in comfort and style.
Honk If You Love Jesus
Though there are only six vehicles available to you in Onslaught (plus another three in Assault games), they're all multifunctional, easy to control and most important of all a helluvalotta fun to drive - even if you happen to be on the wrong side of the steering panel.
Ironically, it's the two flimsiest modes of transport which are the most satisfying in Unreal Tournament. First, the Manta, a small hovercraft powered by twin fans which you can use to messy effect to slice up enemy grunts with a timely use of the jump key. It's a tricky skill to master for sure, yet even on the receiving end it's a hilarious way to meet a temporary end as your torso is sucked in and sliced into a fine red mist, leaving legs momentary spurting before crumpling to the ground.
Second, the Scorpion is similarly effective at bringing down infantry with its alt-fire switchblade scythes, which slice enemy troops in two. As satisfying as it is to mow through a squad of troops though, there are few more satisfying moments than avoiding its rapidly approaching blades by running up a nearby hillock and suddenly leaping up as the oversized knives sweep harmlessly under your feet. This is especially true if the hapless driver neglects to sheath his vehicular vanes before ploughing into a lamppost and tearing them from their fragile mounts.
Kiss Of The Spider Mine
To compliment the new mode of play and the various air and land-based vehicles, Epic has wisely seen fit to extend UT's already imposing arsenal. All the weapons from last year's game make a welcome return, as well as the much-loved sniper rifle from the original game (which almost makes the Lightning Gun redundant, but we're not going to complain).
All-new to the UT gun rack is the AVRiL, a slow but deadly homing rocket launcher, along with a laser targeting device able to call in a devastating barrage of Redeemer bombs. There's also a grenade launcher whose magnetic ordinance can be hidden about enemy vehicles and detonated from a distance - good for eliciting a dastardly snigger towards a roomful of LAN-entrenched players.
Most gratifying of all are the Spider mines which, when placed in the path of an enemy will spring into motion and scuttle after them. Further comedy can be obtained with use of the weapon's alt-fire mode, which enables you to shepherd your arachnoid explosives with a laser pointer and chase people to their doom. Optional Benny Hill-style musical accompaniment would be most welcome right here if any mod authors are reading this.
Pass The Assault
Though Onslaught mode is worth the entrance fee alone, it would be remiss (not to mention plain rude) to overlook the return of UT's much missed Assault mode.
Divided into Attackers and Defenders, Assault charges one team with the business of checking their way through a list of objectives, while the defenders try to thwart or at least delay their advance until the timer runs out. When it does, or if the attackers complete their mission, the two sides swap places and the action begins once again.
In the original UT, it was the D-Day-inspired Overlord mission that was the pick of the bunch of Assault scenarios. This time, picking a winner is a much tougher call. Objectives are certainly more varied, for as well as simple checkpoints that need to be reached, some maps require you to hold an area for a certain time before further advances can be made. Walls and doors also need breaching, gun emplacements require elimination and in some cases, vehicles need to be driven to safety.
Of the new Assault maps, the one that's received all the attention is the Mothership level, and for good reason. The aim is familiar; human forces must destroy the Skaarj, but in order to defeat the reptilian razor-fingered foe, you must first land in the docking bay, which is shielded and powered by three massive generators. The only way to eliminate these is to climb aboard fighters and dogfight your way through space while Skaarj plasma turrets cut holes across the inky beyond.
Although control of the game's spacebound craft isn't quite as fluid as it was in say Freespace, the use of the common pool FPS key commands ensures control of the spacefighters - as with all the game's vehicles - is easy to master. Homing missiles and instant-hit laser cannons ensure combat is kept simple, yet frenetic and entertaining at all times too. Plus, although space battles are little more than zero-gravity jousts, the change in scenery makes for a welcome diversion from all the land-based action around.
Once the shields are down and the docking bay is duly breached, the action proceeds on foot. And although the endgame is somewhat of a letdown, the preceding action more than makes up for it. It will be interesting to see what the developers of the promising Star Wars Troopers mod can come up with too, as I'm sure player-controlled speederbikes and snowspeeders are now high on the wishlist of new features to be added.
Mode To Joy
In order to allow UT2003 veterans continued Deathmatch enjoyment against 2004 newcomers, little has changed in the way the original gameplay modes play out. (Aside from a graphical makeover for the regular arsenal and a pack of new player models, that is.) The standard issue free-for-all fragmatch returns, along with its team-based variant. As with CTF, Double Domination and Bombing Run, the action remains unchanged.
Capture The Flag stays the same as it's ever been. Grab the enemy's banner and return home before the enemy steals yours. Best played with the InstaGib modifier, the seven new CTF maps vary in size - from an insane single corridor of joust to the vast expanse of an ancient and misty valley dominated by a Chinese temple. The latter is one of the most arresting UT levels we've seen, and one that, were it not for the endless cacophony of conflict, we'd quite like to picnic in someday.
The rest of the variants aren't so arresting. Domination is an infrequently tense game of capture-and-hold and Bombing Run a rather tedious future sports event, where the aim is to shoot a globe into the enemy's hole. Just a handful of new maps for each hint that Epic is content to just keep a low flame burning under them.
Depending on whether you downloaded last year's Epic Bonus Pack, Invasion, Mutant and Last Man Standing will be entirely new or achingly old hat. Either way, none are particularly awe-inspiring. Mutant simply highlights the leader for termination by the rest of the pack, while Last Man Standing is deathmatch but with three lives instead of an infinite supply. Last, Invasion is a co-operative gang-bang against successive waves of AI creatures, which would probably be a lot of fun were it not for a swarm of insects that keep popping up.
Not that the lack of changes to Deathmatch or any of the other standard-issue gameplay modes are in any way disappointing. It's just that after playing Onslaught and Assault, they appear shallow and more than a little old-fashioned. If you want to know how UT2004's Deathmatch mode plays, a review of UT2003 will tell you all you need to know.
Not so much a welcome improvement as a necessary upgrade is the new AI code for the game's bots. Clearly, with the new Onslaught mode there was a need to teach UT's AI-assisted goons how, why and what to do with power nodes, not to mention how best to use each of the game's vehicles.
Considering how well Battlefield 1942's artificial lifeforms fared - which wasn't very well - Epic has done a remarkable job teaching its cast members the whys and wherefores of what is a rather more demanding game in comparison to BF1942's land-grab. As any adrenaline-fuelled player would do, the AI heads straight to the vehicles and handles them all remarkably well. They were even happy to repair damaged equipment.
There were a couple of instances of bots getting confused among a crowd of freshly-spawned recruits, but no more so than any human player would in the same situation. And anyway, a little artificial stupidly lends the bots a human quality that they were in danger of losing had there not been a rethink by Epic.
Whether online or off then, UT2004 is a triumphant success. It's certainly not the glorified expansion pack some - myself included - feared. The return of the old stalwart gameplay modes is welcome, despite the fact they will remain unexplored by most people. What's more, the backward compatibility of the game is a feature that will endure it to many veteran deathmatchers still refusing to jump aboard the teamplay bandwagon.
Save for a non-linear, dynamically-structured single-player campaign with endless replayability, UT2004 offers just about all you could ever want in a first-person shooter - and just a smidge more. Out of all the other vehicular shooters, UT2004 is by far the most visceral and accessible, and is almost always fun.
PlanetSide is certainly more 'epic' and rewarding in the long-term, but its size and scale is tempered by moments of excruciating boredom. Similarly, BF1942 may be a more realistic game and certainly a more varied and tactical one, but it's also marked by ungentlemanly play on public servers. What's more, the bots are poor, and on foot, the game is far from being as enjoyable as it is when mounted in a tank or swooping from the skies.
To return to the FIFA analogy, the difference between UT2003 and 2004 is vast, as if the former was just a kickabout in the park. My only worry is how Epic plan on topping it, because aside from bolting on new weapons, maps and vehicles, there isn't much else to be added apart from say a massively-multiplayer persistent-world mode. We'll see. In the meantime, there's more than enough to enjoy this season before we contemplate the next. Game on.