Epic had an already working and very polished build of the sequel to the 1999 runaway-hit shooter Unreal Tournament at the Game Developers Conference 2002 in San Jose. The sequel, entitled Unreal Tournament 2003, is scheduled for release this June. We sat down with Digital Extremes' James Schmalz to discuss the upcoming sequel, its features, and its seemingly strange name.
Schmalz explained that the sequel's name (which was changed from the original, tentative title "Unreal Tournament 2") is intended to sound more like a sports game; after all, hard-core fans of Unreal Tournament practically consider playing the game competitively to be a sport. In addition, the name is intended to reflect Digital Extremes' commitment to continuing to support the game after release. Just as Epic and Digital Extremes released several free map packs and other add-ons after the original Unreal Tournament was released, the companies intend to continuously support UT 2003 with extra maps and other additions that'll help prolong the game's life. Schmalz mentioned that though there are already some 30-odd maps in development for the game's initial release, the developers have already planned several features to improve the game after release, such as prefabs, which are prebuilt 3D objects (like buildings, hallways, and other architecture) that mapmakers easily drop into their own custom maps, and meta-mutators, which is an icon-based system that'll let you quickly and easily tell what sort of mutators--major or minor game modifications--are being used in online games so you can jump into exactly the ones you want.
Even though Unreal Tournament is famous for its excellent online team-based multiplayer play, the sequel will have new features that should help make both single-player and multiplayer games a lot more fun. For instance, where the original game had only four different player models, UT 2003 will have about 50 unique characters with unique 3D models and skins, weapon preferences, and statistics--you'll be able to draft a team of these characters based on your own personal preference. All characters in UT 2003 will have three ability scores--accuracy, tactics, and agility--and over the course of the single-player game, your characters' (and your teammates') ability scores will increase based on their style of play. More-aggressive characters that are always on the offensive may get a higher agility score, while more-defensive characters that spend a good deal of time providing cover fire for teammates may increase their accuracy. In addition, the developers have gone back and examined all other aspects of the original game and made changes and additions based on players' feedback. For instance, Unreal Tournament's relatively unpopular domination mode, in which teams of opposing players were constantly running back and forth over the map to secure control points, has been revamped and renamed. The new mode--double domination mode--has only two control points per map, and you can score simply by capturing a control point and holding it for five seconds, rather than having to constantly run back and forth. In addition, the developers have added a brand-new mode called "bombing run." Bombing run resembles a game of football; players of opposing teams have to pick up and carry a bomb across a field to score points, but to avoid getting shot down by opponents, they can pass the bomb to their teammates. UT 2003 will also feature a modified physics engine that allows for some very realistic death animations, as well as for vehicles. Vehicles won't be critically important to UT 2003's gameplay, but if nothing else, they'll be a good way to get around quickly. And in addition to all that, the developers have modified every single one of Unreal Tournament's weapons--they all still have a primary firing mode and an alternate firing mode, but this time around, according to Schmalz, they reward skilled play rather than lucky kills.
Fortunately for us, we got a chance to sit down and try out the game and its new weapons, physics, and some of its options. The level on display was a small outdoors capture-the-flag map that featured nearly all of the game's weapons. Though several of the weapons from the original game will return in UT 2003, many of them have changed drastically; the once-straight-shooting shock rifle, for instance, now shoots an arcing beam of colored lightning. The powerful flak cannon, which was generally the best all-around weapon in Unreal Tournament at short to mid ranges, has been modified to shoot farther but more slowly in primary firing mode, and the alternate fire is just as devastating as ever but has less range, presumably to help balance out the flak cannon against longer-ranged weapons. UT 2003 also has some all-new weapons, including the link gun, an energy-based weapon that fires glowing blobs of plasma in primary firing mode but actually increases the firepower of a teammate in alternate fire mode. Up to two players can use the link gun's alternate-fire shot to increase the firepower of a third teammate to insanely damaging levels--but those other two players are basically out of the match, since they have to hold still to support their teammate.
All of the new weapons seem to be quite balanced and Unreal Tournament 2003 appears to have a slightly slower pace than the original game, though it still lets you dodge quickly by double-tapping a movement key. This slower pace doesn't make the game less exciting, and it helps make the pacing seem a bit more realistic than the often frantic and floaty feel of the original game. Hard-core fans of the original game will also remember that Unreal Tournament was a bit on the lenient side when it came to aiming and scoring hits on your opponents, but UT 2003 seems to be more precise when it comes to collision detection; though we played only a short sparring match, we didn't make any lucky hits or kills. But every single one of UT 2003's weapons is about as easy to use and figure out as in the original game, so it should be just as easy to get into for novice players as the original game was.
Novice and veteran players alike will appreciate UT 2003's impressive graphics, which are powered by Epic's next-generation Unreal II engine. UT 2003 looks exceptionally good. The level we played was a small, dark, outdoor capture-the-flag map (flanked on either side by opposing bases), and it looked outstanding. Though we were admittedly playing on a high-end computer, we still tore through the different parts of the level at a high, consistent frame rate without the slightest graphical hitch--not even draw-in across the game's outdoor areas, its animated sky, or its rendered grass. UT 2003 also makes exceptionally good use of colored lighting for its weapon effects and has a very interesting (and purposely grainy) zoom-in effect for its sniper rifle weapon.
We walked away from the Unreal Tournament 2003 demo very impressed. If this already solid and very polished build is any indication--and it is, since the game is scheduled for release in a mere three months--UT 2003 will be a great-looking, great-playing shooter with a lot of longevity.