Unreal Tournament 3 Multiplayer Hands-On - The New Multiplayer Modes, the Hoverboard, and More

We went to Epic to get some serious hands-on time with the PC and PS3 versions of this gorgeous multiplayer action game.

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The year 2007 is a huge one for shooters, featuring big-name games like Halo 3, Crysis, Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare, and Half-Life 2: The Orange Box. However, one shooter that's been flying under the radar a bit is Unreal Tournament 3, the latest edition in Epic's multiplayer combat franchise. That's partly because Epic has been relatively mum about the game, working quietly in its North Carolina offices over the past year. Imagine a game that's even more graphically advanced than Gears of War, but with a much larger scale, allowing up to 32 players to battle it out together on the PC. Thankfully, we got our first serious hands-on with the game recently at Epic, and this gave us a chance to check out various multiplayer modes and explore what's new, improved, and cool about the latest Unreal Tournament.

Unreal Tournament 3 represents a departure of sorts from its predecessors. While the early UTs were billed as sort of the blood sport of the future, Unreal Tournament 3 will usher in a single-player campaign about an intergalactic war and featuring characters that look like they were from the casting call for Gears of War, another Epic game. But while Gears of War is a very tactical game about using cover, Unreal Tournament 3, just like its predecessors, is about lightning-fast run-and-gun gameplay where you'll do a lot of killing and dying, but you're always able to respawn within seconds to continue the fight.

Unreal Tournament 3 will introduce a single-player story while ratcheting up the multiplayer action.
Unreal Tournament 3 will introduce a single-player story while ratcheting up the multiplayer action.

Though Unreal Tournament 3 will have a single-player story, the game is still built around the idea of intense multiplayer battles, either against computer-controlled bots or other players online. (While the PC supports up to 32 players, the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 versions will support up to 16.) There will be a number of modes in the game, ranging from simple deathmatch to team-based games such as capture the flag, vehicle capture the flag, and warfare. Deathmatch is pretty self-explanatory--it's every player for him or herself in the race to rack up kills--so we'll dive into CTF, VCTF, and warfare. Capture the flag is a familiar mode in most games. Each team has a flag that it has to defend while at the same time trying to capture the opposing team's flag. Unreal Tournament's twist on this is to toss in the translocator, a device that lets you teleport over short distances, which makes it possible to dash into a heavily defended room, grab the flag, and then disappear in the blink of an eye. While the translocator isn't a new development in Unreal Tournament 3, it still plays a huge role.

Unreal Tournament 3's multiplayer really starts to differentiate itself when you get to vehicle capture the flag, which is just what it sounds like. VCTF is capture the flag on larger maps that support a wide array of vehicles, and that allows for a much more epic struggle. There are some caveats regarding VCTF that are particularly helpful. For instance, if you grab the flag you can't get in and drive or ride in a vehicle. Instead, you've got to carry it on foot or use the hoverboard, the new piece of equipment in Unreal Tournament 3. The hoverboard replaces the translocator in VCTF and warfare games and it is basically a hovering skateboard. The idea behind the hoverboard is to get you back into the action quickly, because there's nothing worse than finding yourself on foot in the wrong corner of the map, away from all the action. In UT 2004, that meant hoofing it for a minute or two, but in Unreal Tournament 3 you can hop on the board and zip around in style.

You die fast in this game. Thankfully, you respawn just as quickly.
You die fast in this game. Thankfully, you respawn just as quickly.

The hoverboard is a welcome addition to Unreal Tournament. However, it is easy to get carried away with it, and you have to consider two key things. First, while racing around on the hoverboard you cannot use your weapons. Second, if you're hit by even the slightest weapons fire you'll be knocked off of the board, which is pretty much a death sentence because it takes several seconds to get off the ground, leaving plenty of time for your attacker to finish you off. Using the board is very much a risk/reward proposition, but there are some additional benefits to riding it. For instance, you can "grapple" onto passing vehicles, letting them tow you around the map at higher speeds. Thus, while a flag carrier can't ride in a vehicle, he could jump on his board, grapple a teammate's ride, and zip back to safety. This even works for flying vehicles, and there are maps in the game that are designed so that it's faster for the flag carrier if he can be airlifted across a divide.

We experienced VCTF on a map called Suspense, which is set in and around a high-tech suspension bridge. The goal is for each team to capture the opposing team's flag three times in order to win, but doing so can be awfully difficult. The primary approach to either side's base is the bridge itself, which is a fairly open and narrow kill zone where your vehicles and infantry can get chewed up quickly. It's possible for infantry to run or hoverboard up the cables to reach the upper support structure of the bridge, where sniper weapons and amped-damage power-ups await. Yet perhaps the most potent weapon up there is the Longbow AVRIL, an antivehicle rocket launcher that can lock onto and track vehicles. The high perch makes it easy to knock out tanks below on the bridge, as well as various air units that are flying about. The only limitation is that the AVRIL comes with a small amount of ammunition, and there's no way to replenish your supply of rockets.

Vehicular Manslaughter

The next VCTF map that we played showed off some of the environmental elements in Unreal Tournament 3. Sandstorm is so named because there's a blinding sandstorm that kicks up randomly throughout the battle, reducing visibility to almost zero. This can be a boon if you've got the enemy flag and are racing to safety, but it can be disastrous if the sandstorm hits at the wrong moment. Sandstorm is also notable because it's a great showcase for all the Necris vehicles in the game. The Necris is the new faction in Unreal Tournament 3, and its vehicles could be described as a blend of the machines from The Matrix movies with the Martians from War of the Worlds. Sandstorm is shaped like a horseshoe, so to get from one base to the other you can go the long way via land, or you can use air vehicles and grapples to ferry troops over the much shorter divide.

The Unreal Engine looks better than ever.
The Unreal Engine looks better than ever.

The most "epic" multiplayer mode in Unreal Tournament 3 has to be the new warfare mode, which is an evolution of the onslaught mode that appeared in UT 2004. Onslaught was about capturing a network of nodes; doing so made the enemy power core vulnerable to attack. Warfare improves on onslaught in a number of ways, from the addition of the hoverboard, which makes the huge maps a lot easier to navigate, to the introduction of other elements, such as off-node control points that you can capture in order to give your team an advantage. For instance, one node might give your team access to air vehicles that it otherwise would not have. Yet perhaps the biggest new feature in warfare is the introduction of the orb, a special sphere that can break the stalemates that often occurred in onslaught.

Each team in warfare gets its own orb, and no, you can't capture the other team's orb and use it for yourself. The orb is critical, though, because if you carry it and touch a vulnerable enemy node you'll instantly capture and fortify it, a process that previously took several players a couple of frantic minutes to do. Even better, in order for the enemy to take that node back they must first destroy the orb and then destroy the fortifications around the node. This makes it possible for one team to quickly seize nodes; imagine if one part of the team were busy taking a node the conventional way. As soon as it fell, another part of the team could instantly convert the next node, potentially opening the enemy base up for a quick raid. On the other hand, if your base is under attack, your orb can be used to instantly capture and fortify the adjacent node in order to protect your base. If you kill an orb carrier it'll reset in about 12 seconds, forcing the other team to have to pick it up again at its spawn point. Of course, having their orb laying next to one of your nodes isn't a good thing, since an enemy could rush in, pick it up, and touch the node. So you can sacrifice yourself to detonate the orb prematurely, which causes it to reset.

Epic says it won't include a warfare map in the demo because there's no single warfare map in the game that captures the variety of this mode. Some maps are symmetrical in that the geography for both teams is essentially identical, while others are asymmetrical. The perfect example of this is the Islander level, which is set up so that one team has all the vehicles, while the other team occupies the high ground and has defensive turrets and barricades to prevent the attacking team from steamrolling them. The easiest way for the attackers to destroy the barricades and clear the way for their vehicles is to seize a shaped-charge explosive that's located in the middle of the map and use it on a barricade.

Unreal Tournament 3 looks incredible thanks to the latest version of the Unreal Engine, the same one that powers Gears of War and many other games. However, the version found in Unreal Tournament 3 is more evolved than the one used for Gears of War, which makes sense since it has had a year more of development. As with prior games in the series, Epic will ship Unreal Tournament 3 with the latest version of the Unreal editor, which will let players and community members make their own unique mods or levels for the game. These user creations can be played on both the PC and the PlayStation 3. For the latter, user-made content can be made on a PC and transferred to a PS3 using a memory stick. In terms of consoles, the game will be PS3-exclusive at first, though an Xbox 360 version has been announced. (User-created content presents clashes with the closed nature of the Xbox 360; Epic says that it's talking to Microsoft about the situation.)

The PC version will come first, followed by the PS3 game. Xbox 360 owners will have to wait a while, though.
The PC version will come first, followed by the PS3 game. Xbox 360 owners will have to wait a while, though.

Epic is keeping the system requirements for the PC version very modest, though if you want the game to look its utter best you'll probably want a relatively powerful system. One a low-end machine the graphics look comparable to the last Unreal Tournament, but on a high-end machine all of the impressive gloss just pops out at you. We also got a chance to check out the PS3 version, and it looks just as good as on a high-end PC. Performance was smooth in the instant-action match that we played, and the controls mapped solidly to the Sixaxis.

When Epic announced it was changing the name of the game from Unreal Tournament 2007 to Unreal Tournament 3, it said the reason was that because it felt the game represented the "next generation" of Unreal Tournament. The gameplay has certainly evolved and the engine is just beautiful to look at, and we're excited at the possibilities here. Unreal Tournament has always been a great multiplayer game, but the idea that players will soon be able to make and share custom content for a console opens up a new avenue for gaming, and it could help breathe life into the modmaking scene. The PC game will ship this November, and Epic is working to get the PlayStation 3 game done as quickly as possible, but the release window for that hasn't been announced yet. Finally, the Xbox 360 game will come at a much later date.

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