No other PC game has caused as much of a stir in the last few months as Digital Extremes and Epic Games' Unreal Tournament 2003. Rumors of the demo's impending release have been circulating throughout the Internet, and anxious fans of the original fast-paced multiplayer shooter have been eagerly--and sometimes impatiently--awaiting this sequel's arrival. With the release of the Unreal Tournament 2003 hovering just over the horizon, we sat down with lead designers Pancho Eekels from Digital Extremes and Cliff Bleszinski from Epic Games to find out more about this highly anticipated first-person shooter.
GameSpot: Thanks for taking our questions, Pancho. There's a lot of anticipation about the public demo of UT2003. What can we expect to find in the demo?
Pancho Eekels: Well, you can expect tons of goodies. It will most likely have deathmatch, CTF, and bombing run in there, as well as some mutator action. The demo, as it is called nowadays, is more of an Internet test in which Epic Games will test the performance of the game in the real world. After all the feedback that will result from this, either the game will be released or another test will be released. The game needs to perform up to standards, obviously, before it goes out to the masses.
GS: The weapons are quite a bit different in the new Unreal Tournament. What are your favorites?
PE: Well, some are refined versions of weapons found in the original UT, and some of them are completely new. My favorite is and will always be the rocket launcher, but I must say that I'm having lots of fun with the lightning gun lately as well.
GS: Obviously, you can refine the game knowing how people played UT. Are there particular tactics or techniques you wanted to prevent or emphasize?
PE: One of the major things that we wanted to make sure of was the even balancing of the weapons. Of course, this is always a tough road to go down, since many people have many different views on what the game should be and what is expected.
The thing we wanted to avoid as much as possible, without sacrificing the fun factor of it all, was spamming [the abuse of powerful weapons with a high rate of fire]. So, many of the weapons have tweaks in them to minimize this effect as much as possible.
GS: One of the new features is the addition of special moves. How do they, and the adrenaline power-ups they require, affect the gameplay?
PE: Well, they add a bit of variety to the game. Right now, you can execute up to four special moves that impact several of your abilities in a way. People tend to use them during strategic situations to influence their outcome. It also adds to the excitement overall!
GS: Unreal Tournament featured a wide variety of multiplayer modes. What game modes are in the final game?
PE: The game modes that for sure will make it in are deathmatch, team deathmatch, survival, CTF, double domination, and bombing run.
GS: Do you expect the UT modes that aren't coming back, like assault, to be added after the game's release, by Epic or mod makers?
PE: Steve Polge from Epic Games has expressed interest in helping mod makers out there put assault back in if they like. The bots are completely ready to handle this, so it will be a matter of making some assault-style maps and then plugging it all in.
Getting This Show on the Road
GS: Name one thing about Unreal Tournament 2003 you think will really surprise veteran UT players.
PE: The one thing that adds a surprising cool element to the game is the special dodge moves that have been added. That alone adds a whole plethora of situations that were not possible in the original UT.
GS: So what changes when you're working with such high-poly environments? How have you tried to ensure that the game will perform on lower performance PCs? What's the minimum system would you recommend to get the most out of the game?
PE: The main thing that changes is the fact that the whole level becomes "fuller." This means that as a level designer you really need to make sure that you don't clutter the levels with stuff that will impede player movement.
As for performance, at Epic there is a programmer dedicated to making sure this game will run on many different graphics cards. Also, the game is being optimized in an attempt to move the minimum PC requirement bar further down. There are many, many performance and visual quality settings that you can tweak to maximize performance and/or visual quality. To get the most out of the game, with a minimum budget in mind, I would personally get a 1.4Mhz Pentium 4 or Athlon with a Geforce4 Ti 4200 or better. Make sure it says "Ti" and not "MX," as there is a big difference in performance between the two.
GS: Are there some maps that are more hardware-intensive than others?
PE: Yes, some are more intensive than others, but we have tried very hard to make sure that they're all within as reasonable a range as possible in terms of most complex to least complex so that anyone with a computer with enough power to play the game should be able to play all the maps. It would really suck, in my opinion, if you could play one map but not another because of performance differences.
GS: What parts of the game have seen the most work since E3? Have there been any particular challenges in finishing the game?
PE: The single-player game and the server browser back and front end have received a lot of attention, as well as the overall menus. It's pretty much hard work in all areas.
GS: All right Pancho, thanks. So Cliff, let's get one right out of the way: When do you expect to release the public demo of the game?
Cliff Bleszinski: If I gave you an estimate, it would probably be wrong. It seems like, in this business, the better you are at making games, the worse you tend to be at predicting when they'll be done. I'd wager that the demo, and the game, will be in your hands while it's still toasty outside.
GS: We understand that Epic is playing a big role in finishing Unreal Tournament 2003. From the beginning of the project, what sort of role has Epic had in guiding the project?
CB: We've been working with Digital Extremes for a very long time--ever since the inception of the Unreal franchise. Our relationship is really quite unique when compared with any other in the industry. From the beginning, Digital Extremes has had the creative freedom to make UT2003 into a killer game. And because of our history together, it has been a really productive, interactive process between the two studios.
GS: Why did Epic decide to get more involved in development of UT2003?
CB: When you get to the end (or near the end) of a project, there's a lot of tweaking, bug fixing, and last-minute adjusting that goes on that's difficult to do when the people working on the project are 2,000 miles apart, so it was taking a little longer than expected. And just around the corner is the Xbox Live launch, and we definitely want to be there with Unreal Championship. Too much to do, too little time. So we collectively had to make some tough decisions.
With very little left to do on UT2003, it made sense for Epic to wrap up the game so that Digital Extremes could focus on Unreal Championship to get it done for the launch of Xbox Live. Digital Extremes is still in fact helping out a bit on UT2003, but in general, we're filling in the nooks and crannies and getting this baby out the door.
Soon, Very Soon
GS: Will all of Epic be focusing on Unreal Tournament 2003? How will this affect other Epic projects, like Unreal Warfare?
CB: Every single person at Epic Games is going 110 percent on Unreal Tournament 2003.
GS: We know the Unreal engine is constantly evolving, but have there been any features added or tweaks made to the engine code that were specific to Unreal Tournament 2003 but may carry over to other Unreal-powered games?
CB: Every engine improvement that has been implemented for UT2003 will be made available to our licensees. How could we improve the engine for the main release of the technology and not make it available to our licensees?
GS: We've seen the high-poly environments and characters the new Unreal engine is capable of. What are some of the more subtle visual effects that have been added into the game more recently?
CB: Render-to-texture is in and working well. In [the map] Curse 3, there is a large mystical portal above the shock rifle in the sky, and if you gaze into, it you can see real-time images of the rest of the level. Shoot the portal and it will warble, [just like the movie] Stargate. Very cool stuff.
There has been more integration [of the Karma physics engine] in the levels recently. Shoot a light and it will swing realistically, and the light will move properly beneath it. In one map, the Slaughterhouse, meat cleavers are hanging on the wall--shoot them and they'll swing and clank together realistically.
GS: Does the fancy new graphics engine make designing the game different from your experience with Unreal Tournament?
CB: Using a system of modular architecture really requires a different mode of thinking. Designers are no longer responsible for every single triangle in their level, rather, they're responsible for assembling the components that have been prebuilt by an artist. We're eager to see what the level design community is going to do with the static meshes that Digital Extremes and Epic have built! Expect to see the return of "CliffyB's 0wnage Web site," where I promote the coolest user-created levels.
GS: Around E3, it was revealed that UT2003 will not have the highly detailed vehicles seen at GDC in March, though Unreal Championship will. Was there a particular reason for this?
CB: Turns out that UT2003 will ship with a working vehicle. But it is primarily there for mod-makers to play with and for future use--it isn't planned to factor into any of the UT2003 gameplay right out of the box.
GS: Name one thing about UT2003 that you think will really surprise veteran UT players.
CB: The concept of dodging and moving through the map in a fantastical manner has only been expanded. You can dodge and leap out of it, double jump, dodge off walls, and so on. The UT franchise has always been about the fantastic, so expect to move in ways you've never moved before!
GS: We can't wait. Thanks for your time, gentlemen.