When Unreal burst onto the FPS scene back in 1996 its graphics, effects, and game play were hailed as a revolutionary jump in the genre. A single-player First Person Shooter (FPS) title; some went so far as to refer to it as a tech demo for the engine’s amazing capabilities. Two years later, with the multiplayer revolution in full swing, Epic Games raised the bar once more with Unreal Tournament, a game created almost exclusively for online play. Gone was the deep single player experience, replaced with precision player control and a wealth of powerful yet balanced weapons. The game also added new game play modes to the venerable Deathmatch and Capture the Flag with Domination (a take-and-hold game) and Assault (a game of completing objectives against the enemy).
Jump to 2003, as Epic releases Unreal Tournament 2003. With its crosshairs still firmly fixed on the multiplayer market, Epic expanded its already stellar game. With amazing graphics and even better control, in addition to realistic rag doll physics for even more gruesome and life-like death sequences and expanded game play types (specifically the Bombing Run mode), UT2K3 marked the first year of Epic’s new approach to the franchise, namely that UT games would be more true to the sports model, and would have yearly releases with new play types and richer, tastier graphics that would always take full advantage of the very latest in PC technology.
As I pondered writing this review of the 2004 installment of this incredible series, I thought I’d actually write two reviews, one for those people that have played UT2K3, and one for those that have not.
For those of you reading that have played UT2K3 and liked it, all I can say is this:
Get this game immediately. Run, do not walk, to your local game store and buy a copy. No, really, I mean it. The addition of the new Onslaught game play mode (described in greater depth below) is worth the price of admission all on its own. Turn off the monitor, back away from the PC and get going, I say. I expect to see you fragging away online by this evening.
Oh, you’re still here? Well then, I guess you want to know more, or you’ve not already played UT2K3. Excellent. Let’s press on.
Upon launching the game, you will be given the opportunity to create a profile. UT2K4 does have a single player game that lets you compete in a ladder-type game that emulates a season in the future’s most popular blood sport. Your first matches will be against fairly weak AI-controlled opponents (or ?bots) in standard Deathmatch. Be the first to reach the target number of frags (kills) to win the match.
As you advance, Team Deathmatch opens up, which is the same game, just with teams of 2 or more players against other teams. Building your stable of futuristic gladiators is a rewarding experience, and getting to know the quirks of your various team-mates will help you in later play. After Team DM you will be able to play the classic (and addictive) Capture the Flag mode, which tasks you to infiltrate the enemy team’s base, steal their flag and carry it back to your base for a score, all the while defending your own flag against similar capture. Other game modes include Bombing Run (a sort of hybrid of Football and Deathmatch), Double Domination (where teams take and hold positions for points) and the return of Assault (missing in UT2K3), with a slew of cool new missions (ones that will have you flying a space fighter, driving a tank, manning fixed gunnery cannons? it’s just amazing)! But, the crown jewel, folks, is the totally new Onslaught mode.
How to describe Onslaught? Well, the goal is to get to your opponent’s base and destroy their power generator. At your disposal are tanks, hover craft, flying craft, jeeps with scything anti-personal blades and even, if the map is large enough, a huge multi-weapon mobile platform o’ death called the Leviathan. Sounds easy right?
Not so fast, Sparky. You see, your opponent has all these vehicles as well – and fixed laser turrets on their base walls that can and will shred these vehicles in short order. Oh, and the generator has an impenetrable force field protecting it. So how do you destroy it?
Simple? go out and build Power Nodes at strategic places across the map. Build enough in a circuit leading to the enemy base and the shield will drop, allowing you to (hopefully) drive a tank inside and waste it. But be careful: you still have to defend the control points you have so laboriously taken in the first place.
Sound chaotic? It is. Oh, how chaotic?but so much fun! With several players on a map and with the vehicles in action Domination; matches become a bloody game of tug-o-war, with Power Nodes falling and being recaptured, Tanks exploding into fireballs, Flyers strafing enemy positions, ground craft ramming hapless foot sloggers (or being blown to smithereens by cool-headed players with heavy weapons). It’s hands-down the coolest addition to UT2K4’s already rock-solid offering.
This new game mode does take some getting used to, however. Those players that cut their teeth on games like the original UT (like me) and who are more at home in twisting corridors and platform-like vertical spaces will need to get used to Onslaught’s open-air map design. Vehicles just wouldn’t work indoors, so Onslaught maps, by and large, take place in large, outdoor areas. If you’re used to doing sweep-and-clears with the Flak Cannon or Rocket Launcher, relying on their deadly splash damage; then you’re going to get schooled – again and again. Luckily, the game is such a treat for the eyes and the ears, and the vehicles are so bloody fun to drive (pilot?) that you’ll be having too much fun to notice as you die for the umpteen-thousandth time.
UT2K4’s weapons balance, always a hallmark of the series, remains excellent. Favorites such as the Flak Cannon, Assault Cannon and the ever-popular Rocket Launcher return, complete with dual firing modes (primary and secondary). The new Link Gun can be used either as a weapon (burning your enemies to death with arcs of green lightning) or as a device to boost a team-mates damage output when trained on a friendly player, a team-oriented function that I’ve not seen before. Sweet team goodness! Campers will be happy to learn that the Sniper Rifle returns to UT2K4, as does the Lightning Gun. The AVRIL Guided Missile is great against heavy objects like, say tanks. You’ll never be bored again! And, if all else fails, don’t be afraid to call down the
Wrath of God in the form of the new and improved Target Painter, which calls in your very own air strike! Use in Onslaught games against the enemy power core is guaranteed to bring a smile to even the most jaded FPS player.
Game Play: 9 Hands-down the most fun $50 can buy. Controls are laser-precise and tight as can be. Bot AI is frighteningly good without resorting to a never-miss level of cheesiness – these PC-controlled boys and girls (and robots and aliens) will own you on the hardest difficulty setting through good tactics and weapons use. Maps are well designed with great room and corridor flow in a variety of compelling settings. Great to see that Epic Games hasn’t lost their touch!
Graphics: 9 Expect fluid frame rates on even a mid-range machine, and on a high-end box the game is nothing short of mesmerizing. UT2K3 looked great, but UT2K4 looks even better, with the particle effects, textures and awesome level design that we’ve all come to expect from the Unreal franchise. This engine will be powering some of the best FPS games for the next 5 years? I have no doubt.
Audio: 9 Explosions, weapons and vehicle effects are incredible, from the deep bass rumble of your Leviathan’s treads to the deadly whine of the speedy hovercraft. Enemy and team-mate voices are believable and not at all annoying, something other FPS games cannot boast. Voice Chat is built into the app, meaning that if you have a headset mic you can actually TALK TO YOUR TEAMMATES in-game without needing a separate app like TeamSpeak. Finally! You can even download a speech-to-text module from Microsoft that will let you issue voice commands to your ?bot team-mates. Uber-cool.
Value: 10. I Wish I could give this an 11, actually (Despite much begging, we are still declining 11 scores, even for Zelda title – ed.). Anyone that’s played the previous Unreal titles knows that this game has a rabid fan following, and some of them are incredible map and Modification (MOD) designers in their own rights. The best thing about UT2K4 is that the second you start to get bored with it, you can go online and download any one of thousands of user-made maps, weapons conversions, tweaks, you name it, all that add in totally free new content: some of which is at least as good as, if not better than the stuff that ships in the box. It’s games like this that make me feel sorry for our brothers and sisters that can’t (or won’t) move from platform gaming to the PC.
Curve: 8. While UT2K4 does mark the current high-water mark in FPS shooters with its innovative game play modes, and the addition of Onslaught really does seal the deal for me, there’s not a huge amount here that’s revolutionary? it’s just a really solid FPS game, well executed. All game companies should take a page from Epic and support their Development and Mapping tools as well as they do.
See you on the servers!