While many new first-person shooters seem to be gravitating toward complex team-based games, Unreal Tournament 2003 distinguished itself last year with fantastic deathmatch and equally good-looking graphics. Epic Games is now putting the finishing touches on the massive number of additions the developer plans to add to the game in its next product. Appropriately titled Unreal Tournament 2004, the new game features all of the original game's content and has just about an entire new game's worth of additions. We recently got to spend several hours playing the game on a LAN at a press event, where Epic's Cliff Bleszinski walked us through the two new game modes: the onslaught mode and the assault mode (a popular mode from the original Unreal Tournament). From our initial experience, it seems safe to say that Unreal Tournament 2004 will provide immense value for fans of deathmatch-style multiplayer.
The returning gameplay modes in Unreal Tournament 2004, such as deathmatch and capture the flag, remain pretty much unchanged from the previous game. The developer has made a few minor additions, such as the dual assault rifles and redone weapon models, which we've covered previously, as well as the return of the Unreal Tournament sniper rifle. Though the sniper rifle continues to have a high rate of fire and very little kickback, just like in Unreal Tournament, in the new game, firing it kicks up a small cloud of dust that not only obscures your vision, but also reveals your position to other players. The new game will add 24 new character models as well, including new skaarj alien models. Finally, the new game will feature plenty of new maps, more than the 2003 edition shipped with. We played through a few deathmatch and CTF maps, and in terms of design, they featured settings like subterranean caverns and a mountainous area with Japanese-style buildings nearby. The previous game's maps had varied themes, designs, and visual presentations, and it looks like the maps in Unreal Tournament 2004 will follow suit.
The first new game type, assault, will be familiar to fans of the original Unreal Tournament. It was omitted from the 2003 edition due to time constraints, but thankfully assault will triumphantly return to Unreal Tournament 2004 with six new maps. Assault gives you a situational map with a number of specific objectives; one team will attempt to complete these objectives while the other tries to thwart them. We played the AS-Convoy map that takes place on a series of trains speeding across the desert; Bleszinski explained that this map was the spiritual successor to the popular High Speed map in the original Unreal Tournament. In some assault maps, you'll be required to hold a certain position by standing on a control point (and surviving) for several seconds.
In AS-Convoy, as attackers, we had to make our way up one train, hold a control point to extend a bridge to a second train, breach that train's cargo hold, and eventually steal a set of crucial missiles. All the while, the defending team was manning minigun turrets and taking potshots with sniper rifles. Unreal Tournament 2004 will include different kinds of turrets--minigun turrets, laser turrets, and an extremely powerful version of the ion-painter cannon. Though turrets are stationary, you can zoom in on your target with the secondary fire button (mapped to the right mouse button by default), and, like with the new game's vehicles, you can also take a first-person view by pressing the first-person button (mapped to F4 by default). Minigun turrets seem extremely powerful and damaging but don't provide much cover--we were easily able to ferret out turret campers with a well-placed sniper rifle shot or a barrage of rockets. Assault levels will also feature a weapon rack at various points on the map that you can simply run past to get equipped with several different weapons at once.
We then played a few sessions of AS-Mothership, a map that took place in and around a gigantic skaarj mothership. The map itself starts the attackers out in space vehicles (small fighter ships) that are tasked with disabling shield generators so that they can eventually dock within the space station, go in on foot and disable security systems (including an optional objective to knock out the ship's gravity generators, which turns the level into a low-grav map), and eventually destroy the ship's core. The defenders in this map were able to man turrets on the outside of the ship to shoot down incoming fighters, and they could also run to the hangar and pilot their own fighters outside the ship to engage in dogfights. The assault maps we played provided quite a different experience from standard deathmatch and will likely appeal to players who enjoy working toward specific objectives in games like Counter-Strike and Battlefield 1942 without having to deal with punishing realism or difficult flight controls.
As good as assault seems to be, the new onslaught mode may just be the real star of Unreal Tournament 2004. It combines features from Unreal Tournament 2003, Halo, and Battlefield 1942 along with some new ideas, and the result is a large-scale multiplayer game that seems pretty enjoyable so far. Each team in onslaught has a base that contains a crucial power core--your object is to destroy the opposing team's core in order to win, though as we've described previously, you can't damage your enemy's main core unless you control enough power nodes on the map to establish a direct link. This mechanic gives onslaught matches a frantic back-and-forth quality that has you scrambling to claim and defend power nodes around the map as you push on toward the opposition's fortress. According to Bleszinski, the mode is intended to let players play on huge maps but also to focus the action on a few fronts, since at any given time, there will often be only a single control point or two that's actively being contested.
Onslaught maps are huge, but, thankfully, we were able to use the new game's vehicles to get around them. The Humvee-style truck with two mounted gun emplacements seems like decent-enough transportation, but the most intriguing feature of this vehicle is its shock-rifle combo shot--it fires bursts of plasma that, if hit with a subsequent shot, will detonate all previous shots from that weapon in a chain reaction. The Humvee is complemented by a smaller, faster one-man ATV with a mounted grenade launcher. We were also able to try the small one-man hovercraft with a laser cannon and some slippery handling that lets it glide over hills--though you can also make the vehicle jump upward and pull down toward the ground with the crouch key (and you can actually flatten enemies this way, which causes the announcer to shout, "Roadkill!" or "Vehicular manslaughter!"). We rounded out our experience with Unreal Tournament 2004's vehicles in the one-man tank, which is a slow-moving vehicle that fires rockets, and the raptor, which is a high-flying air vehicle that handles a bit like a helicopter and fires both lasers and guided missiles.
These vehicles proved essential for both moving around quickly and assaulting enemy fortifications, but fortunately, they didn't seem all-powerful, since they're vulnerable to regular fire as well as to the AVRiL (antivehicle rocket launcher), a massive weapon that locks onto enemy vehicles with its secondary firing mode, then fires homing rockets with its primary firing mode. On foot, we were able to make use of some of onslaught's other new weapons, such as the spider mine launcher, which launches spiderlike mines that automatically perk up and run after nearby enemies. You can also guide them directly to enemies by using the gun's secondary firing mode, a laser pointer. We were also able to use the sticky grenade launcher, which fires grenades in an arc--the grenades will make a slight beeping noise if they connect squarely with an enemy or an enemy vehicle, and then they'll detonate shortly thereafter. As Bleszinski explained, one of the most common uses for this weapon that has emerged from internal testing is to cover your own vehicle with sticky grenades, then go driving or flying headlong into your enemies and bail out at the last second--the vehicle collision often sets off the grenades with a huge explosion. The various vehicles, weapons, and maps in onslaught are still being tweaked and balanced, but from what we've seen, it's shaping up to be a very satisfying experience, and fans of team-based multiplayer will likely find it intriguing.
Unreal Tournament 2004 is shipping with enough new content to qualify it as a whole new game, but, thankfully, Epic will include the entire contents of Unreal Tournament 2003 along with it and will keep all file formats the same so that hobbyists and mod-makers can continue work uninterrupted, using the same file formats. The new game will even support software rendering for players who own laptop computers with high-speed CPUs and a good amount of RAM but no 3D card. Interestingly, the game will even support real-time voice chat in the form of online voice-over-IP so that you can talk (and talk trash) with other players, and also issue recognizable commands to computer-controlled bots. The game is on schedule for a holiday release this year. For now, you can watch our updated video interviews with Epic Games' Jay Wilbur and Cliff Bleszinski.