It might seem a little late to the party, but the Xbox 360 version of Unreal Tournament 3 proves that fast, furious online action, when done correctly, is timeless. Of course, it's a lot like previous games in the series: You'll cringe when you're stuck with the bio-rifle, celebrate killing sprees that come courtesy of the powerful rocket launcher, and memorize all the best vehicle spawn points. But whether or not you've played an Unreal Tournament game before, this sequel provides endless replay value and plenty of memorable, fist-pumping moments that will keep the adrenaline flowing.
But the awesome action at its core doesn't make this version of Unreal Tournament 3 the best. Noticeably missing is the inclusion of player-created content, which greatly expanded the PlayStation 3 version's online possibilities and was (unsurprisingly) a central element of the original PC release. To help ease the blow, however, developer Epic Games has added a few new maps and local split-screen play. Local split-screen multiplayer is probably the most interesting addition, allowing you and a buddy to join each other in an online game or even play the single-player campaign together. Jumping into a vehicle in split-screen limits your viewing area a little more than you may be comfortable with, but the feature itself is a welcome addition that helps mitigate the missing user content.
That campaign isn't the scripted story mode you would expect from a single-player shooter, but it's a good way to get used to the maps and modes before jumping into the fray online. It is simply a series of offline matches in which you and your AI teammates take on another squad of bots. Thankfully the bots are actually pretty decent, particularly in Deathmatch and Team Deathmatch, though experienced FPS fans will want to ratchet up the difficulty level, since the standard setting is a cakewalk. There are some AI issues that crop up from time to time in the other modes, but for the most part, you can find some challenge in offline campaign and instant action matches.
But the bulk of your time with Unreal Tournament 3 will be spent online with like-minded fraggers, and the game offers some quality ways to make your opponents weep. This is the speediest, twitchiest first-person shooter available for the platform, and it controls well with a gamepad, even with it's keyboard-and-mouse roots. The star of the show is Warfare mode, which is a retooling of Unreal Tournament 2004's Onslaught. Here, you capture the nodes spread across the map in order to link them up with your enemy's base; once the base is vulnerable, your team must destroy the enemy's nuclear core to win the match. As it happens, the best of the new maps are Warfare levels: Cold Harbor, in which you gain control of mountaintop nodes in order to rain missiles onto the enemy's prime node, and Necris Downtown, which is jam-packed with the game's most unique vehicles. What makes the mode so exciting, and easily the best way of playing UT3, is that the action remains focused in just a few key areas at any given moment. Teams must be constantly on the move, adjusting tactics on the fly whenever a node becomes unlinked or the enemy captures a node that gives them access to vehicles that can only be found at that location.
Speaking of vehicles, you'll want to test out the game's terrific assortment of mobile death machines. The speedy hovercrafts called Mantas and their cousins, the Vipers, are the most helpful on large maps, and zipping around on them is a blast, particularly when you string together multiple road kills in a single lunge. The most entertaining of them, however, are the new Necris vehicles, such as the frightening Darkwalker tripod, which fires plasma beams and can crush players that venture underneath it. Another Necris favorite is the Scavenger, which uses an energy orb to target other foes, or can roll up into a ball and act as a tumbling sphere of devastation. They control well, are fun to pilot, and are important assets in any map that includes them.
Deathmatch and team deathmatch are staples of the series, and few games can inject as much excitement into these standbys as Unreal 3 does. You can thank the weapons for the this driving energy, from the famed rocket launcher to the powerful flak cannon, since most of them pack a punch and are liberally scattered across the maps. The only weapon you may miss from previous games is the lightning gun, but the reintroduction of the sniper rifle and the nicely retooled shock rifle should help fill in any perceived gap. The other familiar mode is capture the flag (and its vehicle-added variant), and the speedy pace at the heart of the game lends thrills to even this relic of multiplayer game design.
This version of Unreal Tournament 3 looks just as beautiful as the PlayStation 3 releasend plays just as well. And, like the PS3 version, the engine performs smoothly, with only the occasional hiccup. While the game usually performed well online during play-testing, we did encounter fleeting moments of lag, even on official dedicated servers, and the lack of a ping meter makes it tough to select a game based on this criterion. Another glitch we encountered that appears to popping up for a number of players is drifting: Even if you don't touch the left analog stick, your avatar may still strafe to the left on its own. This occurred only a few times and didn't affect the course of the game, but as with any passing quirk, your experience may vary. Another consideration is the size of the player community. As of this writing, it is difficult to find ranked matches, and we encountered rather few full unranked matches in a week's worth of play-testing.
Even with these issues, Unreal Tournament 3 lives up to its pedigree. Great maps, explosive online action, and the thrilling Warfare mode are reasons enough to pick up a copy if you like filling online foes with flak. Split-screen co-op is icing on the cake, so while the Xbox 360 version may not provide as much community-driven flexibility as the others, you'll still get a rush.