UT is back, but this time it lacks the consistency of previous installments.
First off, I was quite amused by the media, which kept playing the redemption song: UT3 is a return to the roots, to what you loved about UT99, no more of that future-sport cr*p etc. Then I played the game and noticed that it wasn't too much of a return to the roots, it was more of a departure, a departure to the warmer climate of console-city. Sure, the core gameplay is nicely executed, UT3 is indeed similar to UT99 from this point of view: it's loud, spammy and grounded. But the transition to console-town brought a host of extremely annoying problems which we'll discuss in the following paragraphs.
I'll start with the all important weapons locker. From this point of view, UT3 is a success. The weapons do indeed feel spammy, and thanks to their look, sound and animation they also 'feel' very dangerous. There have been some changes of course, mostly to help with the balancing. The Bio-Rifle is actually useful now and the alt-fire allows you to set up small traps for players who aren't paying as much attention as they should. The Stinger Minigun replaces UT2004's Minigun; it's also very deadly, but for the sake of balance, Epic made it a bit slow to start. There's also a new Sniper Rifle, which I must say, is the best the series has ever had. Those who've played UT99 know how easy it was to get a headshot, while UT2004 players know how difficult the Sniper was to master. UT3's Sniper is somewhere in between... and that's exactly where it should be. It's sad to see the Mine Layer is no more while the AVRiL is a bit different now, it feels less bulky. It's worth noting that the Enforcer is back as the primary weapon, but it doesn't feel as deadly as the original enforcer; it can be quite effective when dual-wielded though. And finally, the Shield Gun (a vital tactical element in UT2004) is replaced by the old Impact Hammer, which has very little use. It can be used to jump in high places but since the jump boots are back (and in abundance I might add) there's little use for that function. Small changes have been operated to all weapons actually, the Translocator is one such example. If you remember from previous installments of the series, the Translocator allowed you to switch back to your previous weapon by simply clicking alt-fire and fire in rapid succession. Well, now that function is gone. This is disappointing to be honest because that little feature helped the flow of CTF games very much. The Flak Cannon's alt-fire is also very weird, its arc is a bit gravity defying: it seems to go upward a bit as soon as you shoot. Overall though, the weapons locker is OK and covers any type of situation you might encounter. Also, I'm not going to go over every pick up so I'll just say that the jump boots, thigh pads, shield belt etc. are back, there's no more adrenaline. But if you ask me, adrenaline was an elegant solution, now you just have arenas littered with pickups that I'm sure will be confusing for most newbies.
Now that the weapons are out of the way, lets talk vehicles. Epic made a good effort with this element as well. The Axon vehicles are mostly unchanged, just tweaked here and there and the results are good. They feel more balanced although the HellBender's steering is a bit too sensitive. New are the Necris vehicles, which look spectacular but for the most part play as you'd expect. The Scavanger is probably the weirdest of them all, its alt-fire makes it roll up into a ball and just roll across the landscape at high speed. The big Darkwalker is probably a bit overpowered as it can take out vehicles a bit too easy, leaving the Axon faction at a slight disadvantage. But overall, the vehicles are excellently done, there's a vehicle in here for everybody.
From now on though, it's going to start hurting. The weapons and vehicles are well done but you need adequate environments in order to take advantage of them... and here's where UT3 starts to shake. First off, the Deathmatch map selection is poor and uninspired. The levels are too small, you just swing that Rocket Launcher and there you have it, a frag. Out of the DM maps, CarbonFire, Deck (a remake of the classic Deck 16) and ShangriLa felt decent, the rest were just mediocre. UT2004 had some brilliant 1on1 levels, UT3's smaller maps are really nothing special. CTF mode also suffers from weak map selection. So far, only OmicronDawn and Coret (another remake) were actually remarkable. This is especially disappointing after UT2004's stellar line-up of CTF maps: Maul, Geothermal, Orbital2, Citadel, Magma... nothing in the current line-up can compete with those maps.
On the other hand, the Warfare (WAR) and Vehicle CTF (VCTF) maps are generally well done, both visually and in terms of gameplay. WAR mode is a combination of the old Onslaught and Assault modes and it works quite well. Each map has its own twist and for the most part everything is well balanced. Now there's a little orb that when carried to an enemy node will convert it to a friendly node instantly, which can turn matches completely upside down in a minute or two. Side nodes also carry different benefits now (like extra vehicles and pickups) so it's a good idea to know the maps well. So far I've been loving Torlan (which is also a remake and has 4 versions here), Dusk (a level who's layout reminds me a lot of ONS-Dawn from UT2004) and Serenity, (which comes in two versions). But in my opinion, the jewel of this year's installment is VCTF. It's obviously not as complex as WAR but that's the point, VCTF offers a simple, straightforward (and very focused) experience. Most of the maps in VCTF mode work really well, specially Sandstorm (the name is very appropriate), Suspense (the same level that rocked in the UT3 demo) and Corruption. These two modes also replace the Translocator with a Hoverboard, which is tons of fun to use. I will not go into details, suffice to say that this feature is pretty neat, definitely one of the better ideas of this game.
In VCTF and WAR, UT3 finds its redeeming qualities, but the game has a lot of small problems that drag it down. I'll start with the campaign mode, which is a ridiculous attempt at storytelling. I wonder what exactly was the problem with the Ladder Mode? It has been present in the series since the first game, so why change it? And more importantly: why change it with this ridiculous mode? Anyway, that's ultimately unimportant, the campaign sucks, nothing else worth saying about it. What really counts though is the lack of tweaking options. Anyone who played UT2004 knows that the game has a myriad of customization options, UT3 on the other hand has little. In some cases it lacks even the basics. Recent patches have brought some additional functionality, but there's still a long way to go. For advanced tweaking, please consult the .ini files (not recommended if you don't know anything about it). Actually, the game's menus are a disaster, even the server browser is lacking in options, which is puzzling since multiplayer is the bread and butter of this game. Furthermore, character customization is very limited. The system is interesting but there's little in the way of variety. Even voices and taunts are limited in number, and quite lame compared to previous installments. What's the point of censoring mature taunts if your game is all about violence anyway? There are also some minor AI problems, bots still have difficulty driving the Leviathan for example (same as in UT2004), and in DM mode they occasionally walk right by you sometimes. Thankfully, patches have been gradually sorting out these glitches so don't forget to install them before firing up the game.
What more is there to say? Ah yes, lets talk a bit about graphics and sound. First off, the game is quite well optimized. Visually, UT3 is impressive but the bloom is overdone. Pardon the expression, but the game will literally vomit bloom into your face, making it hard to see who's shooting from where. Architecturally though, the new oriental theme is beautiful, although the huge amount of details can be distracting. In terms of sound the game is alright, except for the new taunts, which I mentioned earlier. The music is great but it's action sensitive, so it tends to slip into the background. Continuous play would have been preferable. However, there are a lot of sound queues that I felt were spot on, and the weapons and vehicles sound awesome.
Overall, UT3 isn't as consistent as I expected, but I feel that it has great potential. Maybe Epic will do what they did with UT2003 a few years ago, when they took that game as the foundation and built the brilliant UT2004 on top of it. It's also worth mentioning that the modding tools are excellent and quality mods are already starting to come out. Besides, the 'Make Something Unreal' contest will surely generate a lot of quality content. I remember seeing a demo of a Domination mod, and another one of Double Domination, two game modes present in previous installments of the series. Epic has also proved that it intends to fix many of the small problems that plague the game and that's also good. As for a recommendation: I don't know. If you're still comfortable with your version of UT99 or UT2004 then you should wait a while longer. UT3 servers aren't particularly full and as I mentioned already, there are still many annoying problems that need fixing. Know that UT3 is still a pretty solid release but if you're expecting this to be the ultimate UT then you might want to lower your expectations.