The rivalry between the online first-person shooters Quake III Arena and Unreal Tournament is similar to the rivalry that existed between the Street Fighter and Mortal Kombat fighting game series. Depending on whom and when you asked, you'd receive entirely different answers as to which of the two was better. The most relevant factors involved in the Quake III Arena and Unreal Tournament question, however, are when you ask and for what platform.
Both games first appeared on the PC, where their focus was online multiplayer matches. Though both were exceptional, Unreal Tournament rated slightly higher because it offered many more options right out of the box (although user and developer-created modifications may have since changed that balance). Since then, a version of Unreal Tournament without online options has arrived on the PlayStation 2, where it will soon be joined by a similarly single-player focused Quake III Revolution. And over on the Dreamcast, online-capable versions of Unreal Tournament and Quake III Arena both vie for supremacy.
The heart of the Dreamcast edition of Unreal Tournament is the same as that of its PC forebear. The single-player (or tournament) game prepares you for online competition against living, breathing opponents through a series of ladder matches spanning four gameplay types: deathmatch, capture the flag, domination, and challenge. Deathmatch is a straightforward battle against computer-controlled opponents (or bots) for the most points, which you earn by blowing your opponents up. Capture the flag places you on one of two teams that attempt to steal the flag from their opponents' base and then return it to their own. You can choose to defend your base and instruct your teammates to retrieve the opposition's flag or command your bots to guard your flag while you storm your enemy's base like an action-movie hero. Domination is a distant relative of capture the flag in which each level has three control points that you claim for your team by tagging. The longer you control a domination zone, the more points you score for your team. And, similar to the boss fights in Quake III Arena, challenge mode is made up of duels you fight with incredibly intelligent bots. It replaces the PC Unreal Tournament's assault mode, which didn't make the cut in the Dreamcast version because its maps were too large to translate over.
Although Unreal Tournament focuses on multiplayer online battles, the single-player mode is a lot of fun. The intelligence level of the bots has been upgraded since the previous versions of the game, and now they're almost more fun to play against than real-life people. With 13 deathmatch, 12 capture the flag, nine domination, and four challenge stages, there's certainly enough to keep you busy if your phone line is being used for something else. Besides those options, Unreal Tournament has a practice mode that's actually worth playing. In it, you can choose any of the levels and modes of play that you've opened up in tournament mode and play with or against human or computer-controlled players. You can even configure any of these stages with "mutators," modifications that slightly tweak the gameplay. You can disable power-ups, lower the level of gravity, play at a faster or slower game speed, and more. The two-player split-screen mode has a slower frame rate than the full-screen single, although is still very playable--unlike the four-player split screen mode, which has a choppy frame rate and should be avoided.
The main draw in this version of Unreal Tournament is its excellent online play. It's very easy to get started and join a game online. And even if you can't find anyone already playing the mode with the exact mutators you prefer, you can begin playing against bots while you wait for real players to join you. The developers streamlined the game to use the Dreamcast's 56k modem, so lag is rarely an issue, but those extremely concerned with it will find their broadband adaptor supported by this game as well. Up to eight players can simultaneously compete online, twice the number supported in the Dreamcast version of Quake III Arena. A greater number of players makes for a more challenging experience, as you're more likely to run around a corner and straight into another player's flak cannon. There are more than 60 different maps available (at least five times the number found in Quake III Arena) in Unreal Tournament for the Dreamcast, and most of them are exceptionally well designed. Lava Giant, for instance, is the perfect capture the flag level. Each base is a castle separated by a series of catwalks over a field of lava. There are opportunities for players to snipe opponents crossing this expanse and ways to sneak around it from below. It presents both close-quarter battles in the castles and fighting in the open in the field, and it's an excellent example of the kind of variety found in the game's levels.
The weapons in Unreal Tournament may seem a little odd at first to players used to first-person shooter mainstays like the rail gun and BFG, but they quickly become second nature. Each weapon has a secondary function, but unlike in Rare's Perfect Dark, you don't need to switch to that second mode in order to use it. You simply use the second mode by pushing a separate button, which is awfully handy. For example, you're exchanging fire with an opponent down the hallway from you. If you have the flak cannon, you can fire shotgun-type shots at him and hope to catch him in the spray, duck around the corner and lob balled shots at him in grenade-launcher fashion, or quickly fire one then the other. The real charm of the weapons in Unreal Tournament is that they're extremely well balanced. A player using a seemingly all-powerful rocket launcher can be taken out by a fast-moving opponent with a pulse cannon. You'll rarely find yourself without some sort of fighting chance with the weapons they provide you with.
Without a doubt, playing with the Dreamcast mouse and keyboard is the ideal setup for Unreal Tournament, but the Dreamcast controller works better than you'd expect. It's difficult to target enemies at different heights than you, but it's much easier to use than it was in Quake III Arena, where the controller was so touchy it was nearly impossible to use the rocket launcher or rail gun.
For all its good points, the game does have a few drawbacks. The most noteworthy among them are that its graphics aren't as sharp as those found in Quake III Arena for the Dreamcast, the challenge mode is a poor substitute for assault, and that chat icons don't appear over your character when you're typing (the universal "don't shoot!"). But in light of the huge number of gameplay options, levels, and players able to play online at once, all those complaints seem relatively minor in comparison. It's an immensely fun game that sets new standards for console ports of PC first-person shooters and will have you coming back many months down the line. Quake III Arena on the Dreamcast may offer more visceral gameplay, but Unreal Tournament is the most complete package yet.