They call it the sophomore jinx: A rookie pitcher has a stunning debut season in the major leagues, only to be sent back to triple-A ball the next year. A band puts out a phenomenal first album, but there's only one good song at best on the follow-up. When Unreal Tournament was released in 1999, it was widely celebrated, widely played, and widely loved. Could the sequel possibly repeat that huge success? Thankfully, Unreal Tournament 2003 manages to avoid the sophomore jinx, and in many ways the game is even better than its predecessor. On one hand, it's not the really exceptional game it could have been--there's just not enough diversity, depth, or innovation in the gameplay. But on the other hand, Unreal Tournament 2003 still delivers plenty of what you want from this type of game: exciting, nonstop combat in wild settings, all brought to life with a stunning, state-of-the-art graphics engine that leaves its competition in the dust.
In traditional shooter fashion, Unreal Tournament 2003 offers up a disposable background story that you can forget as soon as you start playing. The real point of the game is simply to viciously frag your opponents. You can challenge other players in four core game modes in either Internet games or on a LAN. You can also play offline with and against computer-controlled bots in a ladder-based tournament or in single matches. The bots' skill level can easily rival or even surpass that of most human players, depending on the difficulty setting you choose. You can also give them orders in team games, and they'll effectively carry them out, though there's apparently no easy way to bind commands to single keys as in the original UT, which makes them too hard to issue quickly in the heat of battle.
The selection of game modes includes straightforward versions of deathmatch and team deathmatch, as well as capture the flag. While it's great to see those classics return, it's a real shame that the developers only took the time to include two other game modes, and not very inventive ones at that. The original Unreal Tournament's domination mode has been replaced with double domination, in which your team must hold two control points concurrently for at least 10 seconds to score. And as a replacement for the original game's late, lamented assault mode, UT2003 offers a less-than-revolutionary new mode called bombing run. This is part of the designers' half-hearted and rather unconvincing attempt to make Unreal Tournament into some sort of sports game franchise. In bombing run, your team tries to grab a ball from the center of the map and then carry it to a goal in the enemy team's base. The fact that you can't shoot your weapons while carrying the ball, but can pass the ball to teammates, keeps things somewhat interesting.
While there is a distinct lack of new gameplay modes in UT2003, you can at least tweak the gameplay a bit using the small-scale modifications known as mutators. "Instagib," for example, arms everyone with a weapon that kills with a single shot. "Low gravity" alters the movement physics, while "vampire" heals you when you injure opponents. Those are just a few of the included mutators, and if the continuous support for the original Unreal Tournament is anything to go by, you can expect to see countless new mutators, maps, and mods to be released by the game's loyal fan community in the coming months.
One of UT2003's brand-new features is adrenaline, which you stockpile by grabbing oversized pills floating about the maps. When you collect 100 adrenaline points, you can perform keyboard maneuvers that let you temporarily turn invisible, increase your speed, boost your health, or do extra damage. These can have a major impact at crucial moments in team games like capture the flag. Even without adrenaline, you can perform a number of special jumping and dodging moves that expand on the dodges from the original Unreal Tournament. In addition to dodging quickly forward, backward, or to the side as you could in the original game, you can also double-jump and jump off walls in UT2003--new additions that help skilled players dodge incoming fire and get around the maps more quickly.
One of the most controversial elements of UT2003 will surely be the way its weapons have been implemented and the way they differ from those of original UT. Many of the UT weapons were insanely powerful--and for many fans of the game, insanely fun to use. The game's obligatory rocket launcher, for example, was no ordinary weapon: It let you launch heat-seeking rockets, fire up to six rockets at a time, or lob a bunch of grenades all at once. Sure, this was overkill, and the same was true of the game's devastating flak cannon. Those and other weapons tended to be abused by "spammers," players who would attempt to fill up small corridors and hallways by firing blindly and repeatedly. But in the original Unreal Tournament, everyone else could easily find a powerful weapon lying around, so things balanced out in the end. Just as importantly, all the weapons looked great, and some sounded truly brutal, which often made the simple act of pulling the trigger a real joy. The same can't usually be said of Unreal Tournament 2003's weapons, which for the most part seem rather dull by comparison.
In UT2003, you'll find some new weapons and some modified versions of the original game's weapons. Veteran players will quickly notice that most of the weapons have been toned down and largely equalized. The rocket launcher has been castrated for the new game--the primary fire is limited to a single relatively weak rocket and the secondary fire is limited to at most a slow, triple-rocket launch. The flak cannon, which was absurdly powerful at close range in the first game, is but a shadow of its former self in UT 2003.
That said, the action can still definitely be fast and exciting despite the relatively bland weapons, and it now takes more skill to hit and kill your targets. In UT2003, it's not as effective to simply spray and pray, hoping some splash damage might kill your opponent, as it was in Unreal Tournament. Then again, since most of the weapons deal similar amounts of damage, they can start to blur together. Most of them just aren't as distinctive, and don't have as much character, as the weapons from the original game. For that matter, some of the weapon models, particularly the default assault rifle weapon and the new link gun weapon, also look too similar.
Regardless of whether you feel the weapons should have been toned down, you have to admit that the developers did a fine job moderating their power. Consider, for instance, the lightning gun, which replaces the original game's sniper rifle. Now when you zoom in, you get only a small clear area in the center of the screen with which to target your prey, while the surrounding area partially obscures your vision. The gun takes a while to recharge and also gives away your position by firing a glowing arc of electricity at your target when you pull the trigger, so you can't hide in the shadows and repeatedly snipe people with impunity anymore.
Other weapons include a relatively useless default weapon, an assault rifle with a mounted grenade launcher. You can also pick up a minigun, a shock rifle, a bio-rifle, and a redeemer guided missile similar to those in UT, with roughly equivalent (though generally weaker) primary and secondary firing modes. The pulse blaster has been replaced by the link gun, which has similar firing modes but also lets you "charge" teammates with the secondary fire mode, which lets them dole out more damage with their own link gun blasts. The impact hammer has been replaced with a shield generator for blocking shots and causing melee damage. The new ion painter lets you call down blasts from an orbital weapon, which is the ultimate in overkill next to the redeemer. You'll also get a slightly modified version of the old translocator teleportation device. While it's not primarily a weapon, you can still "telefrag" with it by teleporting on top of someone. It's usually more important for navigating certain map areas, defending your base, dodging shots, or saving yourself at the last second from nasty falls into a pit.
One of the most interesting things about Unreal Tournament 2003 is the way the game "feels" when you play it. The "feel" of a shooter is a nebulous, subjective thing, but it's something you notice easily enough when you play. It's the way the physics, graphics, and audio interact to give you a sense of motion through the game's environments. It's the way the weapons look and sound and the amount of damage they can cause with each shot. It's the average amount of time or number of shots it takes to frag an opponent, the average frequency with which combat encounters occur, and so forth. You'll notice that UT2003 just "feels" different from the original Unreal Tournament--some of the raw intensity and thrilling brutality of that game have been lost--and you'll notice that the physics sometimes "feel" rather reminiscent of Quake III Arena, which generally had a slightly slower pace and emphasized player gravity a bit more, especially when falling from a great height.
One thing that UT2003 does have in common with the original Unreal Tournament is the generally top-notch level design. In fact, the levels in UT2003 are often better than those of the original game. You'll be treated to a wide range of colorful maps, and while some of the team-based maps are a bit too large and convoluted, most maps are designed well enough to keep the action going. You'll charge across bridges suspended over gaping chasms to reach ominous, spiky towers. You'll battle through eerie forests, fight in low gravity atop a space station, leap across the roofs of mile-high skyscrapers, duel in futuristic Egyptian temples, and a lot more. Fans of the first game will be happy to find exciting new reinterpretations of old favorites like Facing Worlds, Phobos, and Orbital. Unfortunately, the developers apparently felt compelled to fall back on the tired cliché of grimy industrial settings for some maps. But among the lot of them, you'll generally find at least a few maps that you'll enjoy.
Along with the level design, another obvious strength of UT2003 is its visuals, which are simply outstanding on a technical level, even if they're sometimes lacking in overall artistic vision. This latest version of the Unreal engine is capable of pumping out massive numbers of polygons with highly detailed textures, though you'll need a very powerful computer to enjoy them to their fullest. Interestingly, both the overall appearance and the level of visual detail in the game are more reminiscent of Quake III (or, at least, a Quake III-engine game) than the original Unreal Tournament, though that's not necessarily a bad thing. While these excellent visuals ultimately can't compensate for the lack of gameplay variety, they are a real feast for the eyes--at least when you can slow down long enough to appreciate them.
Another highlight of UT2003 is its rousing, martial musical score, which would be right at home in some epic sci-fi military film. At its best, it combines symphonic grandeur with the galloping rhythms of heavy metal (as in the main theme), creating the perfect mood music for a game like this. The rest of the game's audio doesn't always fare as well. More than a few of the weapons sound surprisingly underpowered, which is a significant flaw in a game in which all you do is run around and shoot people. Also, the embarrassingly childish taunts like "Try turning the safety off!" and "My house!" (let alone the unprintably profane ones) of the original Unreal Tournament are back in UT2003. Making matters worse, an overexuberant sportscaster-style announcer makes his debut in this game. His frequent, cheesy-sounding cries of "Blue team dominating!" and "Red team on offense!" might very well make you want to kill him instead of your opponents. Fortunately, you can turn these voice samples off.
Hopefully the developers will either ditch the hokey sports concept or flesh it out fully the next time around, and hopefully they'll also put more effort into creating innovative and diverse gameplay and better weapons to match the great visuals, level design, and soundtrack. A series this important should lead the way in the field of first-person shooters, rather than coasting along on the strength of its good name and its fancy graphics. Though, while it's not all that it could have been, Unreal Tournament 2003 does deliver tons of bloody, in-your-face combat in some beautifully designed arenas, and sometimes that's all you need for a really fun game.