Unreal Tournament III
20th Nov 2007 | 15:31
So, normally with this type of review - the type ending in a big score - the criticisms are left to the end. Let's not do that this time - it means finishing on a sour note, and then trying to rope it back with a hasty "But it's awesome!". UT3 is insane, and brilliant, so we're going to get what's wrong with it out of the way early.
Developers Epic chucked out a remarkable stat a while back: more than half of all UT2004 players never played the online shooter online. Not once. And you've got to imagine the minority who did venture out onto the internets also put in some time with the excellent bots. That pretty much settles it - UT is primarily a singleplayer game.
So for the fourth edition, unaccountably named Unreal Tournament 3, Epic have concentrated a lot more on the offline campaign. Here are the two worst things about UT3: the bots and the offline campaign.
You play 'Reaper', a man in a dress with a hilariously crap goatee. You, your sister Jester, your token black sidekick Othello and apparently Catholic sniper Bishop are all that's left of the Ronin, a band of yada yada destroyed by whoever when they inevitably etcetera. It's tragic. The campaign consists entirely of one-off matches comically unrelated to the absurd briefings, and punctuated now and then by cutscenes of you arguing with a man in a beret.
Example: "We've been tipped off to meet an informant who says he has info for us about something called the Strident." Loading complete. "You are on Red! Capture the enemy flag!" Sorry, that's Field Lattice Generator - "FLaG". And you're not trying to hit a score limit, you're "exhausting the enemy respawner". These concepts are explained to you by your sister while she encourages you to rip her limb from limb 20 consecutive times in the tutorial.
If you're familiar with the work of Charles Dickens, of course, this will all be familiar territory. The only saving grace of this agonising gumph is that Othello, the only character acted with any flair, has the sense to mock it mercilessly. "It looks like a flag," he notes. "I'm calling it a flag."
It's tempting to take Othello's irreverence to mean that the whole thing is meant to be tongue-in-cheek, but these preposterous mechanics are closely tied to the plot about the slaughter of your family. I think they're expecting us to somehow take it seriously.
In Deathmatch, though, and to a lesser extent Capture The FLaG, the matches themselves are great. Let's take a whirlwind tour of the changes to the basic combat: Shield Gun gone! The original Impact Hammer is back, and it's superb - smashing someone open with it jars your view and splatters you with thick black blood. The Enforcer still sucks!
But to its eternal credit, if you fire it at point-blank range, you hold it gangster-sideways. The Biorifle is gorgeous and deadly, the Lightning Gun's shot-trace has been merged with the Sniper Rifle, and the Minigun is now absurdly over-powered.
Now brace yourself for this one: the Flak Cannon has been nerfed. A little. It's slower, but still lethal and even more gruesome when fired point-blank. After the initial outrage fades, this actually makes a lot of sense - it was so powerful before that there was rarely any reason to switch away from it.
Here the Rocket Launcher firmly dominates medium range, so you're always flicking between the two when you're fully stocked. Movement is slightly slower, and there's a halt when you land from a jump, so there's less airy-fairy bunny-hopping all round.
But it's still distinctly UT. It's still ultra-fast, ultra-light, ultra-violent. The only weapons that can't kill you in one hit can kill you in one second - apart from the Fisher-Price Enforcer. And for all this, the bots are great. Not quite as convincing as 2004's, nor quite as proficient on Godlike, but great.
I've had more fun playing alone with them than I have with real people in Quake 3. They only start to fall over themselves when it gets more complicated.
UT2004 added Onslaught mode - a vehicle-dominated war that had more in common with Battlefield 1942 than the previous UT. It was genius. UT3 morphs it into Warfare, which is virtually the same but for one addition: the Orb. Each team has an Orb. You carry it on foot to an enemy control point, and it's instantly converted to your team, foregoing the arduous process of uncapturing and recapturing it. It is genius.
It undermines the slog of trying to turn the tide of an Onslaught game, and adds all the fragility and volatility of Capture The Flag - moments when you nail an enemy Orb-carrier this close to your crucial control point. Even more brilliant, the enemy Orb lingers on the ground for a while in this scenario, haunting you with the possibility that another enemy might rush in and take it that last metre. The final masterful touch to this mechanic: you can throw yourself on the Orb, sacrificing your life to destroy it. That word again: genius.
If only the bots understood it. They were never strategic masters at Onslaught in UT2004, but they were passable. Here they have a shakier grasp of those basics, and almost no understanding of what to do with the Orb. Time and time again they cart it off to some irrelevant, unlinked control point in Uzbekistan while you die holding off overwhelming forces at the important one, or watch with idle curiosity as an enemy bot waltzes into your most critical point and captures it without hindrance.
The thing is, Epic, we don't even need good AI. We're pretty good at this ourselves. If the bots just left the Orb alone, we'd be happy to perform all the heroics. But they always snatch it, sometimes even spawn-camping it to prevent you from getting it first, and then squander the most important piece of the strategic game. There's no way to command them to drop it or give it to you or not take it in the first place - I checked with Epic, and they said "No, but good idea." You think?
It's not a huge problem in custom matches against the AI - what UT calls Instant Action mode. But in the Campaign, when you're always outnumbered, your few allies are exasperatingly incapable of doing anything right. Modesty circuits disengaged: I'm good at UT. Not pro-level or anything, but I can reliably beat Masterful bots, which ranks me somewhere near 'Godlike' in the UT lexicon.
But I'll be damned if I can win some of the Warfare battles in UT3's main campaign on Normal difficulty. In fact, they actually get easier if you dial the difficulty up. Hard bots are still terrible with the Orb, but at least they're better at shooting the enemy carrier.
So if the new mode is great but the bots are idiots, multiplayer should be awesome, right? Right. You thought I was setting you up for a "Wrong!" there, didn't you? It's brilliant. Dramatic, dynamic, ridiculous, brutal and tense. But before we get into that, I should abide by my stupid bad-news-first rule and tell you about the server browser.
For God's sake, Epic, sign up with Games For Windows Live or, better yet, Steam. This cobbled-together GameSpy abomination is simply pathetic.
There's no way to just browse through all UT3 servers, which for a server browser is a pretty staggering oversight. You have to first commit to one game mode from a dropdown list, and then you're permitted to see only the servers running that. And as in Battlefield, completely unresponsive servers show as having a '0' ping rather than a high figure, meaning they rank as the fastest when in fact they're the slowest.
Mind you, perhaps we should consider ourselves lucky to be privy to such dark secrets as our own ping in the first place, because in-game, the scoreboard shows no such thing. In fact, there's a bizarre trend towards hiding information you have a basic gamer's right to know: outside of regular Deathmatch, there aren't even any death reports in UT3. That means you never find out how you died in Warfare or CTF.
When a dozen different things can kill you instantaneously, it'd be mighty nice to at least be told the instrument of your destruction. When did that become a luxury? While games like Call of Duty and Team Fortress 2 are showing what a fantastic improvement it is to be shown precisely why you died, it's bizarre that UT won't even tell you how.
I'm ranting pretty hard about this because I'm amazed that such accomplished developers could make such schoolboy errors, but it's worth bearing in mind that much of it may be fixed. Death messages in particular must be controlled by an ini file setting somewhere, and there's a good chance they'll patch in the ability to see your own ping.
With a command to tell bots to drop the Orb, or defend a specific node in Warfare mode, you can add a whole 1% onto the score you're going to find at the end of this review. It doesn't sound like much, but you'll see - it's a particularly big 1%.
So we've eaten our greens, let's get to dessert: the good stuff. The good stuff is extraordinary. You've seen the Necris Dark Walker, right? It's like a Strider, only a bit more War of the Worlds, and it walks like a squid learning to tap-dance.
Let's skim over the fact that 'Necris' is the worst name for a faction since the Decepticons, and that 'Nanoblack' is the worst name for an evil technology since the All-Spark - the guys do at least know how to bolt tentacles onto things. Here are three interesting facts about the Dark Walker: 1) it's ridiculously overpowered, 2) it's every bit as awesome as it looks, and 3) it's the worst Necris vehicle.
The best is the Scavenger, which has nothing to do with scavenging. It's a sphere with three thin tentacles, and it scampers along at ground level rather than standing upright on them. It's horrific enough just watching it move, but it can also send out a hovering attack drone to zap you, or tuck its legs into its chassis and roll around like a boulder.
Controlling that mode is like playing Marble Madness on UT3's maps, swerving up hills to pick up momentum to squish more people.
The other best is the Viper, a large, sleek hoverbike that fires a torrent of bouncing energy shuriken. It's a grisly thrill to swing its heavy yet frictionless form sideways into a trio of enemies for a triple vehicular manslaughter multikill, and it's one of the few things fast enough to reliably avoid the gaze of a Dark Walker's killer laser-eyes.
But the Viper's ultimate trick, in both senses of the word, only occurs when it jumps. Its fins tilt backwards, and for the briefest moment an urgent beep indicates that the self-destruct function is primed.
Hit the right mouse button, with your bike pointed at something important, and you eject powerfully into the air while your ride-turned-missile smashes into its target. Aiming that payload at the torso of a mighty Dark Walker and blowing it in twain is pure glory.
The final best - apart from the Nightshade - is the Fury. It's a flying metal octopus with four synchronised death-beams, with the unusual drawback of strictly limited range. It's the shotgun of flying vehicles, and a lurching boost ability makes it perfect for risky ground-strafes.
It also makes it the perfect flag-carrier, but that part will take a bit of explaining.
As you'll know if you've played the demo, UT now has Vehicle CTF. You're capturing the flag, with vehicles. Except that you can't capture the flag with vehicles, because you're not allowed get in one while you're carrying it.
It's an understandable limitation - UT vehicles are spectacularly fast, and the Manta in particular would be almost impossible to stop before it got into your base and out again. But you can carry the flag on your hoverboard, which is the other half of UT3's vehicular genius.
The hoverboard is integral to both Warfare and Vehicle CTF, since you always have it with you. If you take a single shot while you're surfing, you're floored and usually dead before you pick yourself up. But it's fast, it's cool and it can latch onto other vehicles with a grappling hook.
That technique seems like a novelty at first - hooking yourself onto a Hellbender doesn't give you much of a speed boost. But latching onto a Scorpion jeep just before it turbos, or a Viper while it leaps over small buildings, or a Scavenger as it tumbles downhill: that's a hell of a thing.
Which brings us back to the Fury. The hoverboard can also grapple onto flying vehicles, and since it can carry the flag or the Orb, that's a killer tactic. It's also a ridiculous amount of fun: you're surfing, 300 feet up, dangling from a metal octopus, holding the most important thing in the game. You are incredible.
This is UT3's contribution to the formula: spectacle, drama, mad heroics. Hurling yourself on the enemy Orb like it's a live grenade, dodging bullets on the hoverboard as you escape with the flag, bailing from an explosive bike aimed at the enemy's star player, and yeah, hanging from a flying metal octopus. That's why it's essential, even in spite of the AI shortcomings.
Although the art style is closer to Gears of War's grittiness than the usual UT gaudiness, UT3 feels like UT. Almost defiantly so. Its critics say it feels floaty? Well, now it's got hoverboards. Too many different things going on at once? Now they're doubled. The vehicles are even crazier.
You play CTF and Onslaught at the same time. There are deployables, time fields, sandstorms, giant tentacles from space, core floods, pressure plates, gravity warps and supertanks. No-one can promise that if you liked UT, you'll love this. But man, if you didn't like UT? This will make you sick.