When we arrived in Raleigh, North Carolina, to check out UT 2007, the Epic Games team was out celebrating the release of Unreal Championship 2 on Xbox. UC 2 is the seventh game in the Unreal canon, not counting add-ons and special editions, and there was an air of satisfaction and some relief that it was finally out the door. "We finished this son of a bitch," bawled one ponytailed developer, raising a bottle in shaky salute.
"They're all sons of bitches by the time you've done with them," explained Mark Rein, Epic's preposterously enthusiastic vice-president and chief evangelist.
To host the festivities, Epic had booked out a modish local bar and filled the place with ponytails, designer sandals and goatee beards - gang colours of the games developer. Two huge 10ft-tall screens projected the new game from the far corner of the bar, casting a bluish glow across the revelling crowd.
The team was clearly in high spirits; but you got the feeling it's not just because they'd shipped a game, nor indeed the ill-advised slugs of Jagermeister sunk earlier in the night. Beyond all this, there was simply a pervading sense of excitement - perhaps tinged with disbelief - at their incredible good fortune.
MY EVIL PLAN WORKED!
You see, Epic Games is taking over the world. From being just one player in the engine licensing business a couple of years ago, Unreal Engine 3 all of a sudden appears to stand uncontested as the clear choice for next-gen games development. Doom 3 and Source have made few inroads, LithTech has all but vanished and the only other real contender, RenderWare, has fallen into the jealous hands of EA.
Like few other developers, Epic has the luxury of making games under its own terms and with almost no external pressures - unless you count a legion of baying, diehard fans. The next project for the veteran outfit is a new Unreal Tournament. It's the first PC game to harness the dazzling power of the third Unreal Engine, and if it's in any way reflective of the company's fortunes right now, we're going to have to pinch ourselves to believe it's real.
A combination of sore heads and jetlag means a late start the next day. "That's pretty much a typical Monday night for us," laughs Steve Polge, lead designer and lead programmer on UT2007.
We sit in the boardroom of the Epic offices, in a typical American office-block in a leafy Raleigh suburb.
"The game's still pretty early. We've only been working on it full-time for three months. We figure it'll be out some time in 2006, so at the moment we're calling it UT2007, but that could change. We might not do numbers."
"Our first aim was to get all the UT2004 stuff up and running in Unreal Engine 3, which we've pretty much done," continues Morris. "Right now, we've got Deathmatch, Team Deathmatch, CTF, Onslaught and Survival, which is sort of a 1-on-1 Deathmatch. It's pretty amazing that we've got every game type from UT2004 running in such a short time."
Polge boots up the projector and brings up the new 'Malcolm' character model seen on these pages. We've seen it before, but the effect is still stunning. "We're already starting to have some beautiful assets come online. It's starting to come together and show what the game's going to look like."
You can see for yourself what that means. We could quote poly counts and tech specs all day, but the simple fact is it looks amazing. In two years time such mind-boggling imagery may well be the norm, but right now every UE3 game we see - Gears Of War, UT2007 - we get a nosebleed just thinking about what's to come. Like Morris says, right now no-one else can come close. As for gameplay of course, this is UT, and it seems Epic very much wants to continue where it left off.