It's almost here. First-person shooter fans everywhere are probably counting the hours until Unreal Tournament 2004 arrives in stores next week. Epic Games' wildly over-the-top multiplayer action game promises gorgeous graphics, fast-paced gameplay, insanely powerful weapons, the return of the long-awaited assault mode, and the new vehicle-based onslaught mode. (The latter two were featured in the official demo.) At last we got the chance to try out the final game, and here's what you can expect.
Everything about Unreal Tournament 2004 seems huge. There are more than 100 levels in the game, and approximately 40 are brand-new. The rest are remakes of classic maps or are levels imported from Unreal Tournament 2003. There's so much content that the game comes on six CDs. The game is also available as a DVD that packs the game onto one disc, which makes for a much more streamlined installation process. In any case, the game takes up a whopping 5.2GB of space on your hard drive, and that's not taking into account any additional content you may install in the future.
The game itself looks phenomenal, even more so than the demo, thanks to its all-new high-resolution textures (which were not available in the demo). At the highest detail settings, characters and vehicles look much more vibrant than they did in the demo, and just about everything else looks better as well. There's a huge variety of environments in the game, including outer space, a desert, the Arctic, and indoor areas, all of which look great--especially with all graphical settings turned to their highest levels.
We played a bit of the single-player campaign mode, which resembles the "sporting season" format of the previous game, as well as some of the new onslaught, assault, and invasion maps. Judging by its popularity in the demo, it looks like onslaught mode may end up being the most popular mode online. In onslaught, your team must capture and control a series of nodes. However, the highlight of onslaught is its player-controlled vehicles, which can be driven and flown like those found in Halo and Battlefield 1942. The other onslaught maps appear to be just as large and well designed as ONS-Torlan, which is the level that was included in the demo.
Assault is the other new mode, and we played around with the mothership level, where the attackers start off actually dogfighting in space. If you're on offense, you have to shoot down the defenders and then battle your way on to a space station. Once on the station, you switch to the traditional first-person shooter mode where you'll have to battle the defenders on foot to achieve your objective.
The bots in Unreal Tournament 2004 exhibit some surprisingly good tactics. They're aggressive and know how to work as a team. On one onslaught map, we watched them decimate the defenders methodically. They're also quite good at using vehicles. Bots that jump into the raptor vehicles perform high-altitude strafing runs so that they'll be safe from most weapons, save for the powerful AVRiL rocket launcher. You can actually look up to the sky to see multiple smoke trails that reach up as guided rockets try to bring the raptors down.
The final game has some glorious explosion and other special effects. Vehicles and turrets don't just blow up, they get blown to bits of shrapnel that rain down afterward. The scorpion buggy flies into the air and bursts into flames when it goes up. One map possesses a gigantic defensive turret that shoots out an energy charge that explodes into a huge crackling sphere of purplish electricity that resembles the original ion-painter weapon--but with a much bigger and more spectacular explosion. The good news is that not only does the game look great, but it seems to produce smooth frame rates at the standard resolution of 1024x768 on a high-end machine with a 3GHz processor and a Radeon 9800 Pro graphics card with all the detail settings maxed out--and with antialiasing and anisotropic filtering turned on.
Of course, your mileage will vary depending on your video card and CPU, but you can compensate for an older machine by lowering the resolution and the detail quality. After the video card and CPU, memory becomes the biggest bottleneck. Simply put: The more memory you have, the better. One of our test systems has the above-mentioned CPU and graphics card but only 512MB of system RAM. With the highest-resolution textures enabled, loading times for certain levels seemed almost ridiculously long--like upwards of 20-to-30 seconds per level--though some, such as the space-based assault map, took over a minute to load. Even then, you can still expect slight pauses because the game loads even more content into memory. It certainly looks like Unreal fans who have 1GB of RAM will be much better off when playing with all the settings turned up.
After the relatively disappointing Unreal Tournament 2003, it certainly looks like Epic Games is back on track with Unreal Tournament 2004. You won't have to wait much longer for it either. Be sure to check back for our review of the game next week.