In 1999, the Unreal Tournament series broke out onto the first-person shooter landscape and earned a huge following right out of the gate. The game's combination of vicious, lightning-fast gameplay, colorful, great-looking graphics, surprisingly excellent artificial intelligence, and outstanding multiplayer play made it a smash hit. Some years later, Epic returned with Unreal Tournament 2003, which was powered by all-new technology and noticeably different gameplay--something not all fans appreciated. However, Epic returned the following year with Unreal Tournament 2004, which improved everything on all fronts and added drivable vehicles in the new onslaught game mode, and it ended up being a fantastic game that still enjoys a sizable fan following from a very active community. And all the while, Epic has been making a name for itself with unprecedented support for its fan community, calling out the best fan-made content using Unreal technology in its annual Make Something Unreal contest, which awards prizes to the best fan-made maps and modifications.
So what's next?
How about an all-new game powered by the next generation of Epic's powerful Unreal engine, known as Unreal Engine 3? This time around, the game will be powered by the very same graphically impressive technology we've seen bits and pieces of at this year's and last year's Game Developers Conference in March. The engine will have support for advanced special effects, including high dynamic range lighting and bump offset mapping--which is an advanced form of lighting that can make a completely flat surface appear to have protruding features, like a brick wall built from jagged, uneven stones--and an all-new physics engine powered by Ageia's Novodex technology. "We've never been able to do an avalanche in-game before," says Epic president Mike Capps, referring to both the simulated mountain avalanche in this year's GDC demo and to the sorts of effects you'll see in the game.
Capps explains that beyond the graphics, UT 2007 will also feature improved gameplay, based on feedback from the fans and from Epic's own goals. According to Capps, the studio is "trying to make sure that UT 2007 is a mix of UT 2004 and [the original Unreal Tournament from 1999]," while maintaining the series' focus on multiplayer competition. "We want to own the deathmatch space." Competitive play is a key element in the series' success, so Epic definitely plans to keep head-to-head competition around in the form of deathmatch, team deathmatch, and one-on-one duels, as well as capture the flag. But what about the other modes? "Domination is currently not on the table," was Capps' answer. We'll probably have to bid domination (or "double domination" as it was more recently known) a fond farewell, since it was apparently the least popular multiplayer mode by far. Capps explains that the decision to remove this mode wasn't easy, but the team felt that it had fundamental issues. Since it focused on capturing two control points at opposite ends of a level, players often found themselves losing points while they went after one control point, only to find out that on the other side of the level, they had lost the other control point--something that was more or less completely out of their control.
And what about the popular assault mode, which presents team-based, goal-oriented gameplay, and onslaught mode, which is vehicle-based gameplay centered around capturing a network of control points? Onslaught is currently planned to make its triumphant return as it was in UT 2004, but the two modes will also be the proud parents of an all-new gameplay type: conquest. "Assault is the kind of thing we want to be bringing into conquest...a mix of [Unreal 2's] XMP, assault, and onslaught." Capps describes conquest as a much more evolved version of onslaught with the kind of directed gameplay and the exciting and varied environments you'd expect from assault, which has featured skyscrapers, moving trains, medieval castles, and many other environments.
Where onslaught focused on capturing control points to link up a network into an enemy base, conquest will instead focus on controlling actual territory, which will yield tyridium resources (the same crystalline energy source featured in Unreal Championship 2) when captured. The idea behind conquest is to create huge, expansive levels that take advantage of the engine's new content-streaming technology and use onslaught-style instant transport to jump to hot spots on the map where the action is. Epic apparently feels that one of the greatest strengths of onslaught was the way it could accommodate large groups of players in vehicles but also drive them to congregate around specific areas with the control point system, rather than have them wandering around the map aimlessly.
While the overall format of the mode--whether it will be a persistent-world sort of game similar to Sony Online Entertainment's PlanetSide or more of a pick-up-and-play game like onslaught--has not yet been revealed, it should continue to support the variety of gameplay styles that Epic felt onslaught did. That is, like with onslaught, you should be able to approach the game as a team player looking to help your buddies capture a win, by providing covering fire, going after key targets, and generally not goofing off, but you should also be able to focus more on the deathmatch aspects of the mode, using weapons and vehicles to blast enemy players as a base defender. If anything, Epic wants to make conquest a mode that will appeal to a wide variety of players, from hardcore team-shooter fans to deathmatch specialists to everyone in between.
Flak Cannons for Everyone
Epic is already testing prototypes for the game, and apparently one aspect of the game that's receiving heavy scrutiny at the studio's Raleigh, North Carolina, headquarters is its weapon loadout. The final weapon selection is still being tweaked and tuned, so there are very few final details to report. We're told that there aren't any plans to add in any close-range melee beyond a default melee weapon for game balance reasons (that is, we're not looking at any Halo-style pistol-whipping or Unreal Championship-style melee). But join us in a few weeks for a report on the weapons that will be shown at E3, including three Unreal Tournament classics: the combination-firing shock rifle, the rocket launcher, and the flak cannon.
While the final status of all weapons isn't confirmed (Epic is still going over the list of weapons that may or may not make the cut), Capps said in no uncertain terms, "We can't ship the game without a flak cannon." The bright-yellow, insanely powerful short-range cannon/flak grenade launcher is pretty much an Unreal Tournament classic at this point and will definitely be making the cut, untouched (Xbox fans will recall that this was the only weapon that remained as it was in Unreal Championship 2 as well--largely because of how emblematic of the Unreal series the weapon has become). Otherwise, Epic is "trying to find a good balance between the deadliness of [the original Unreal Tournament's weapons] and UT 2004." And what about mutators, the optional gameplay tweaks that have let UT players play games in low gravity or with big heads? Whether all the same mutators from the previous games will make the cut in 2007 remains to be seen, but Capps confides, "We can't ship without instagib"--a mode that's so popular it was even included in the melee-heavy Unreal Championship 2.
When we asked about the plan for vehicles in UT 2007, the answer we got was, "more, bigger, more." Yes, if all you want is a re-creation of ONS-Torlan, the now-famous multiplayer level featured in the UT 2004 demo, with that same environment and with those same vehicles, you'll be able to make that happen in UT 2007 using the game's modification tools, which we'll touch on later. But while UT 2004 featured vehicles created by the militaristic Axon Research Corporation (which largely ended up resembling futuristic Earth vehicles, such as tanks and buggies, as well as a few sci-vehicles like the manta hovercraft), the new game will feature an all-new line of vehicles from the Necris race--the pale-faced humanoid warriors who have been a part of the UT series since 1999. Details on this new line of vehicles remain under wraps, but the Necris will certainly have much more "outlandish" vehicles that look and handle very differently from those in 2004--and you'll be able to choose to play games using only Necris vehicles (or only Axon vehicles from 2004, or team games pitting one set of vehicles against the other).
The new game will also push even harder on one of the series' strongest, but perhaps not quite as famous, traits--the artificial intelligence used for its "bot characters" in the single-player game. Epic's Steven Polge, who was the AI programmer for the original Unreal Tournament, is the lead designer on UT 2007, and he and the development team are putting more emphasis on voice chat--both how characters react to commands and also what sort of on-the-fly chatter bots will use. Currently, the team hopes to make UT 2007's bots just as chatty as they were before but with more context--for instance, they may call out to you that they've sighted two enemies coming up over the next hill (rather than giving out a more-generic warning that some enemies have been sighted somewhere). The new game will also continue to support the less-well-known voice commands that were featured in UT 2004--if you have a headset, you'll still be able to give vocal commands to your teammates to converge on key points or give you backup.
The game's single-player mode is currently planned to have a similar structure to UT 2004's--a single-player tournament ladder through multiple play modes where different computer-controlled characters challenge you for rankings. Epic acknowledges that multiplayer play is the core of Unreal Tournament, but apparently a great many UT players surveyed stated that they generally played the game offline--this is due in no small part to the excellent computer AI, which has always followed orders well, acted on objectives, and put up a surprisingly good fight (without always resorting to unfair superhuman tactics). The single-player game will even advance the story and timelines of the Unreal universe beyond what was seen in the previous PC and Xbox games; you can expect to see reappearances from key characters like the Earth soldiers-turned-gladiators Malcom, Brock, and Lauren, for instance, now older and wiser.
When asked about Epic's plans to expand outreach to the fan community (beyond the studio's already unprecedented support), Capps replied emphatically, "Yes, we really, really want that." Though nothing has been officially announced, Epic apparently has no plans of letting up on its community support, including its Make Something Unreal contest. Epic is also apparently looking to create built-in functionality for things like clan Web pages, matchmaking, and player stats all in-game (but it plans to run master servers for online play just like it has been all along, rather than rely on third-party applications). Epic aims to "at least have the functionality of Xbox Live," a service that has long offered features such as real-time voice-over-Internet and friends lists and is one that the developer is no stranger to. Epic is even investigating ways to help call out the best fan-created content, possibly as an in-game browser that can automatically queue up downloads (so that even casual fans can find the 10 best maps and mods quickly and easily). Regardless, the plan back at the home office is to keep "giving away lots of cool free stuff" in the form of extra content after launch and possibly to revisit the game at a later time with a special-edition packed with all the postrelease content. Any way you slice it, Unreal Tournament 2007 will have a whole lot to offer: all-new gameplay on a massive scale, an entirely new line of vehicles, expanded community support, and graphics and physics that are truly a generation ahead. Stay tuned to GameSpot for more updates on the game leading up to its release next year.