Unreal Tournament 2007 Impressions

Epic has remained quiet about its new first-person shooter, but we make time at this year's Leipzig Games Convention to talk UT2007 with the developer.

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LEIPZIG, Germany--What with all the fuss over Epic's Gears of War, little has been shown of Unreal Tournament 2007 since this year's Electronic Entertainment Expo. In fact, the only news that we've had about the game since May has been disappointing, with the release date pushed back until the first half of 2007. While the demo shown to us at Leipzig wasn't markedly different to what was shown at E3, the German convention did offer a chance to talk to Epic's Jeff Morris. We didn't firm up that elusive release date, but we were able to see the latest build of the game, as well as more of the new vehicles in action. And with the conversation even straying to the PlayStation 3 version, we certainly didn't stop the talkative Morris from spilling as many beans as possible.

While we've previously reported on some of the new machinery in the game, the Leipzig demo gave us a chance to see how the two character races differ from each other in more depth. All the vehicles from UT2004 have been tweaked and upgraded for UT2007, and they now form the basis of the Axon Corporation team. With recognisable military roots and suitably high-tech additions to its arsenal for the modern battlefield, the Axon machines will be familiar to UT veterans. One of the Axon vehicles is an air-combat vessel called the cicada. This craft isn't going to do much damage to other air vehicles, but one of its coolest abilities was inspired by military attack helicopters. The vessel is equipped with a weapon that can home in on any land target and automatically fire rockets at the exact spot targeted. Even if you fire rockets in an opposite direction, they'll spin around in midair to bombard the selected target.

The epitome of Axon design is the leviathan, an enormous five-man war machine that's driven by one combatant with up to four other people manning turrets on the side. Drivers sit inside the hulking shell of the tank and are mostly immune to enemy attacks, and they have access to a basic energy weapon that can be fired on the move. Gunners, who sit on the outside of the tank, are more susceptible to enemy fire. Luckily, the turret features an energy shield that can deflect incoming fire, and each of the turrets fires a different type of energy projectile, so you can adapt to each situation. If the driver can't find anyone to occupy these seats, he can switch the vehicle into deploy mode, which basically turns it into an enormous energy weapon that has unlimited range and can devastate anything in the game. The only problem is that the vehicle has to stop to prepare the weapon, and it must remain stationary while the weapon is being used.

The other team in UT2007 is the Necris race. While it would have been tempting to build exactly the same vehicles for the Necris with only cosmetic changes, Epic has built completely different machines for them to use. The most impressive vehicle at this team's disposal is a three-legged tripod called the dark walker, which moves like the alien creatures from the recent War of the Worlds movie. Sadly, this tank can't pick up human players and toss them around like the aliens from that movie, but it's still a serious killing machine, and its legs let it climb hills quicker than any tank. The dark walker's main weapon is a laser beam, which can fire for short bursts, and the articulation in the walker's legs lets the machine bend down and pop up for surprise attacks on the enemy. The Necris also has a smaller vehicle called the viper, which Epic wanted to design as highly manoeuvrable, like a futuristic version of the F-14 fighter. The cool thing is that if you fly the ship toward an enemy and jump out, you turn it into a flaming projectile weapon that can inflict significantly more damage than the craft's turrets offer. The last Necris ship that we saw was the nemesis, which has snakelike treads that adapt to the terrain as it moves.

With all these new vehicles, Epic had to design maps with enough space for them to be used. However, traversing these maps on foot is a bit of a nightmare, which is why Epic has introduced the hoverboard. Though you won't be able to use a weapon, travelling on a hoverboard is much faster than going it on foot, and you can even hitch a ride from passing vehicles via an energy beam. Apparently, the team was nervous about putting in such a feature, but after trying it out, the hoverboard sat perfectly with the fast-paced style of the game. In fact, the hoverboard was so popular that it was perhaps inevitable that a basic trick system would be added into the mix. While it's nowhere near as complex as SSX 3, pulling tricks adds another level to Unreal Tournament's notorious taunting.

The amount of time between Unreal Tournament 2004 and 2007 has let technology catch up with Epic's dreams for the game's weaponry. Considered to be the main 'character' by the designers, this time around the weapons have a much more tangible quality, while still retaining their outrageous functionality. The weapons are now made up of 40,000 to 50,000 polygons, which is nearly as much as an entire level from the last game. The extravagant design for the new rocket launcher, which can fire up to three rockets simultaneously, has been fleshed out with great animations that make you believe that the weapon could actually exist. The rocket launcher can now also fire three grenades. Unfortunately, we'll have to wait and see what other weapons Epic is including in the game.

UT2007 features more realistic gravity, which in turn should limit some of the more acrobatic movements that could be made by advanced players in the previous game. Epic was concerned that novices didn't know how they were being killed, so they wanted newer players to at least be able to see who's firing at them before they die. Epic is also aware that around 50 percent of Unreal Tournament players never took the game online, and even though broadband adoption has increased dramatically since 2004, the company still wants to cater to the offline market. To that end, the artificial intelligence has been improved to better mimic a human player. Previously, the AI was programmed to deliberately miss shots, but it will now think in a much more advanced manner about hunting you down. Geis joked about a Turing test for the new AI, to see if regular players would be able to tell the difference between real players and the UT2007 AI. Also, offline players will be able to bark orders to their AI-controlled teams if they have a headset, and individual computer-controlled enemies will hold grudges and make taunts after kills.

One-on-one matches also proved to be a very popular mode on UT2004, but because of the problems in setting a game up and waiting for just one other player, it was rarely practical online. The answer has been to adapt the mode for UT2007, giving it the new name of survival. Survival mode will create a lobby for players to drop into, and a winner-stays-on scenario will commence, where new challengers can come in and take on the reigning champion in a one-on-one scenario. Also, the full Unreal Engine 3 toolset will be shipping with the game to let people customise the game and release mods online.

We also asked Geis about the PlayStation 3 version, which is being developed alongside the PC game. The Dell XPS system that was used to demo the Unreal Engine 3-powered game was certainly no slouch, but we can hopefully expect even more graphical effects when UT2007 reaches the PS3. Geis commented on how the two versions differ in control. Controlled with the mouse on the PC, fast movements with sudden stops are possible, but vehicle control on the keyboard isn't all that smooth. On the PS3, the opposite is true--vehicle combat is much more refined with two analog sticks, while the shooting control is not quite as quick or precise as a mouse. He was bullish about the PlayStation 3 game's quality, though, and although we didn't see it on show at Leipzig, he said that played against other PlayStation 3 users, he feels right at home.

While Epic's lack of a definitive answer on a release date for Unreal Tournament 2007 is annoying, the developer is notorious for its stringent quality control. The it's-done-when-it's-done mentality will hopefully maximise the game's chance of success. We just hope that all the new additions will enhance the gaming experience, while still delivering dependable first-person shooter thrills.

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