There isn't some clear-cut formula for making a great game, but Epic hasn't ignored bullet-point features in expanding the Unreal Tournament series, which is now in its third installment. The multiplayer-focused first-person shooter series started off in 1999 with great graphics, crisp control, solid networking (which led to smooth online gameplay), and hectic action. These basics haven't been neglected, even as expectations have changed--and have significantly increased--over the last five years. However, UT has never been just about settling for the basics, and to this end, the new Unreal Tournament 2004 has a tremendous variety of maps and modes of play. In the same package, you'll find cutthroat deathmatching as good as it's ever been, plus large team-based modes in the style that's become so popular lately. Simply put, this is the multiplayer action game that offers something for everyone--even those who prefer playing offline, since the UT bots are better than ever and are still the best in the business.
Anyone who bought or considered buying Unreal Tournament 2003 will wonder what's new and improved in this latest game. Epic didn't take UT 2003's tepid response lying down, so not only did it work to make the inclusion of vehicles and new modes a success but also went back and added in some classic elements from the original UT. In this everything-plus-the-kitchen-sink approach, the classic sniper rifle coexists with UT 2003's lightning gun--or rather, it replaces it in some maps. Also returning is an improved version of the objective-based assault mode that was popular in the original UT but was taken away in the sequel. You've even got the original UT announcer's voice, who is just one of five announcers now included. Before we go into the truly new features in detail, it's worth noting that Atari has included a $10-off rebate coupon for owners of UT 2003, thus bringing the new stand-alone game to the price point of an expansion pack at $29.99.
While there's a whopping total of 10 different game modes, assault and onslaught are bound to get the most attention. The new onslaught mode is the biggest departure from past UT games, and it sets up team battles for 10 to 32 players on large outdoor maps. At first glance, the expansive, rolling terrain might look a lot like Tribes 2 or Halo, and like these games, there are maps big enough to make running from point-to-point seem prohibitively slow. But a few key innovations keep the pace fast, and as powerful as the vehicles are, those on foot are far from helpless. Onslaught focuses on power nodes that are strategically distributed on the maps, and the ultimate goal of the mode consists of destroying the power core located in the opposing base. The nodes connect in certain configurations, and nodes located behind front lines can't be attacked, which concentrates the action around just a node or two at a time. Once a node linking to the power core is captured, the core itself can be attacked directly, thus pressuring the defenders to desperately man the base defenses or recapture the pivotal node.
Oftentimes, the tide of battle will swing in one side's favor, but in the ensuing tug-of-war, things can drag out to the time limit. This sends the game to sudden death, with both cores draining based on the number of nodes each team controls. Other maps lend themselves to more volatile battles, with the cores being connected and attacked in parallel. In every case, it's easy to understand which team is leading and what you have to do to win. Unlike the abstract system of a game like Battlefield 1942, onslaught's scoring system is concrete, and a glance at the power core health meters and the minimap reveals how a match's momentum is swinging.
Skillful use of the new vehicles is one way to turn the battle, but for the most part, they don't overwhelm the battlefield. Even the goliath tank, which can take out most anything with one hit from the main gun, can be taken out by a high-flying raptor fighter, turrets located at most nodes, or even a few hits from the rocket launcher. In the meantime, the swift ground vehicles--like the manta hovercraft, scorpion buggy, and hellbender heavy truck--are all lots of fun to drive, thanks to a top-notch physics system. Pulling off stunts rewards you with a special message detailing your achievement, and running enemies over, while plenty satisfying, isn't quite as spectacular as timing a jump in the manta just right to "pancake" an opponent. The common ground vehicles are pretty abundant around the main bases and nodes, so it's not often that you absolutely have to run across the map on foot (particularly since you can instantly teleport between your own nodes, as long as they're not under attack). But the tank, the fighter, and especially the five-man leviathan supertank have slower respawn rates, so taking one out means at least a short respite.
UT's fast, explosive weapons are still just as well suited to furious deathmatching as coordinated capture the flag matches, and somehow the addition of powerful tanks and fighters doesn't throw off the balance. While UT 2004 has no formal character class system, anyone can play a variety of roles, since standard weapons and ammo are easy to come by. Running over the weapon locker pickup points that are commonly located around bases and nodes instantly gives you a varied weapon loadout.
The link gun, introduced in UT 2003, is more multipurpose than ever because it now repairs vehicles and nodes and even makes capturing nodes faster. The new AVRiL guided missile single-handedly evens the game out by making it possible for anyone to take out a high-flying raptor or a fast manta, as long as a lock is maintained on the target. The three other new weapons are more specialized. A mine gun spits out a few autonomous spider mines that will swiftly close with any nearby enemies; a grenade launcher rapidly spits out timed charges; and a laser painter can be used to launch a devastating air strike from the unpiloted phoenix bomber. Although onslaught's vehicles seem to steal the show, it's the infantry that's in the best position to capture and defend critical nodes. Even better, there's no need to waste time defending rear guard positions, since not only are these nodes safe from attack, but in a smart design choice, freshly spawned vehicles are off-limits to enemies. However, if abandoned, they're fair game for any player.
Onslaught is a terrific balance of large-scale and full-on intense action, but it's only one of UT 2004's shining facets. No matter where your tastes lie, there's a plethora of maps to choose from. The official collection of maps has ballooned to around 100, nearly half of which are new. It's true that the majority of these are for deathmatch and capture the flag, and some of the "new" maps were released as free bonus packs for UT 2003 owners, but there's no denying that this is a sizeable collection of quality content.
If the map collection seems meager in any area, it might be due to the fact that there are only six assault maps (compared with nine for onslaught). But it's not hard to overlook this because the assault maps are by far the most elaborate. Not only do the assault maps take place in busy, intricately designed environments--like a rebel base that runs you through a half-demolished cityscape, a couple of sci-fi military installations, and an unusual space-based mothership--but the game walks you through the objectives and lays out the backstory for the futuristic events depicted. As in UT and Return to Castle Wolfenstein, teams attempt to attack or defend a series of objectives, and the asymmetrical and scripted nature of the maps seem to have really freed the designers' imaginations. UT's "style" is perhaps that it has no set style, and these maps' disparate settings run the gamut from the Mad Max look of a desert convoy attack to the more standard sci-fi fare (with more than a few mentions of Unreal II's mercenary corporations).
Naturally, UT 2004 is best as a multiplayer game, but the offline modes can't be overlooked. The instant action bot matches are a good way to learn the new modes and maps and are quite enjoyable, since the bots do indeed work together as a team and exhibit only rare hang-ups in the larger, more unwieldy vehicles. The additions to the single-player tournament campaign are still little more than a footnote, however, mostly adding the concept of earning credits, which are used for hiring better teammates or for betting in challenge matches. It's also unfortunate that it takes several rounds of deathmatch, capture the flag, and double domination matches before you get anywhere near assault or onslaught. But the real accomplishment is simply that the bots work well and are fun to play against. That's a feat few, if any, other games can claim to match.
The Unreal engine has become an institution in PC gaming--its various iterations have been licensed as the basis for a variety of other games--and justifiably so. UT 2004's graphics are simply outstanding. It's not just that the game runs fast and smooth, that the textures are crisp and distinct at even medium settings, or that the designers have tossed together an eclectic mix of interesting characters and environments. It's that it all adds up to making the action that much more visceral. UT 2004 doesn't lack flashy effects, but there's nothing extraneous that might bog down the frame rate on PCs that meet the recommended requirements. And some of the best effects are of the interactive variety anyway. The vehicles add a lot to the mayhem, with physics effects that can have buggies exploding skyward, only to land on hapless defenders. Damaged vehicles noticeably appear so, too. The gore effects and rag doll-like death animations still look plenty convincing, if unchanged from last year, apart from a new, little skeletal anatomy lesson when some weapons melt players down to the bones. Then there are all the little surprising touches, like how player names appear on vehicle license plates.
The years of optimizing and refining pay off with UT 2004's reasonable system specs, except in one way: The game requires a whopping 5.5GB of hard drive space. It's just a natural result of all these maps and the great-looking textures that make them look unique, one from another. But since drive space is cheap nowadays, this should be less a barrier than an inconvenience. Installing 5.5GB of content takes time, especially in the standard North American version, which comes on six CDs. In cases like this, a DVD is more than welcome, and at least there's a special DVD edition available for a limited time.
It's hard to fault UT 2004's production values in any area. The audio isn't as distinctive as the visuals, but it's great, and features crisp sound effects and an appropriate soundtrack. There's also a long list of built-in voice communication options, starting with voice chat features that make it easy to chat with teammates as long as you have a headset or microphone plugged into your PC. Fortunately, for sanity's sake, there are options to ban annoying or abusive players you might meet in public servers. Another useful feature is text-to-voice, which can be set to read off typed messages so you don't have to divert your attention from battle to read team orders. The effect is robotic but not in an overly annoying way, and it even spells out ordinary gaming abbreviations like "gg" for "good game." The game is a technical tour de force in other ways--standing up to UT's prominent position over the years--with 3D audio features and native cross-platform support (Windows, Linux, and Mac OS X), which ensures a diverse base of game servers, in addition to some extra players. It's hardly an afterthought to point out that the game is stable or that the glossy color manual and clear tutorials make getting into challenging multiplayer matches or solo bot battles that much simpler.
Unreal Tournament 2004 will remind you how satisfying explosive, extremely fast action gaming can be. The smooth engine and core gameplay inherited from UT 2003 make a great foundation, and the onslaught and assault modes take the whole package up another notch. And, to help you come to grips with a multiplayer world increasingly focused on teamplay, the voice chat features can make any team game better by facilitating real tactical coordination. Then, just when (or if) you start to tire of all the official maps (and combinations of maps with the library of preset mutators), there are community tools to make creating and installing custom content as straightforward as possible. No other multiplayer-focused action game has this much to offer.