GameSpot Head-to-Head: Battlefield Vietnam Versus Unreal Tournament 2004
Two online multiplayer shooters enter the arena. Only one leaves. GameSpot editors explore the pros and cons of these major titles from EA and Atari.
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Design by Collin Oguro
It's been years since two high profile, online multiplayer shooters shipped in the same week. The debate raged for months between gamers who were divided over Quake 3 and Unreal Tournament after they shipped in late 1999. While it can be certain that gamers always win when two similar, but extremely high quality games ship in such close proximity to each other, it's human nature to compare the two games and argue about which one is better. Comparing Quake 3 and Unreal Tournament in 1999 was natural because both games featured fast-paced gameplay and over-the-top arsenals that characterized classic shooters. While both games made their marks on the genre, most people would agree that Unreal Tournament ended up being the more historically significant game.
The comparison between Battlefield Vietnam and Unreal Tournament 2004 isn't necessarily so straightforward. The former isn't a realistic simulator like the Tom Clancy shooters, but it certainly has realistic elements, such as weapons and vehicles modeled after real-life counterparts. Also, the game's maps are inspired by actual battles that were fought in the real-life Vietnam War. Unreal Tournament 2004, on the other hand, is a classic shooter with ultrafast gameplay and an array of vehicles and weapons that were inspired more by wild imaginations than any real-life piece of machinery. Unreal Tournament 2004 also has so many more game modes than Battlefield Vietnam. While the former's onslaught mode is quite similar to the latter's conquest mode, it's certainly possible that many people who play UT 2004 may focus solely on its other modes, like deathmatch and capture the flag.
Is it even fair to make a comparison between the two? Absolutely. Despite the differences we just outlined, both of these games are still action-packed, online first-person shooters. Their primary game mode involves vehicles and fighting for control of bases. They both retail for about the same amount of money, and they are competing for mindshare among the same core group of gamers.
The first-person shooter enthusiasts on the GameSpot staff have all had a chance to play these two fine games. You've probably already read our reviews of both Battlefield Vietnam and Unreal Tournament 2004. But like the rest of the shooter community, each of us at GameSpot has formulated a first impression of each game. Furthermore, each of us has an idea about what is liked and disliked about these particular games so far. While time is the only true test of which game will end up having a bigger following and a bigger impact on the first-person genre, that won't stop us from weighing in on the debate--based on our first week with these games. The following pages include impressions from a number of different GameSpot editors on Battlefield Vietnam and Unreal Tournament 2004, including an ultimate verdict on which of the two games we prefer.
Honestly, it's been some years since I've really gotten into a multiplayer shooter, but I couldn't wait to try both Battlefield Vietnam and Unreal Tournament 2004, since each one looked incredibly promising. Mostly, though, I'm a fan of old-school shooters--starting with Wolfenstein and Doom. I suppose I've always been partial to single-player first-person shooting experiences, as well as the simpler sorts of multiplayer modes. I'm talking about pure deathmatch.
When relatively complicated team-based, objective-based multiplayer modes started becoming popular, with games like Return to Castle Wolfenstein and Battlefield 1942, I admit it all started to go a bit over my head. I play shooters because they're a contest of skills between individual players, kind of like a first-person fighting game. But when I suddenly found myself trying to shoot and type at the same time, I cooled off on the whole genre for a while. I got pretty into a few tactical shooters, like Counter-Strike and Rainbow Six 3, but again, not to the extent that I enjoyed older games like Quake III Arena and the original Quake.
Given all this, it's no wonder why I'm thrilled with UT 2004. Basically, it's like a survey of everything that's ever been great about competitive first-person shooters (and it's even got a co-op mode for good measure!). I know it's not fashionable to be a deathmatch fan anymore, but the game's incredibly fast speed, beautiful graphics and level design make the plain, vanilla deathmatching really satisfying for me. I'm still warming up to the admittedly impressive assault mode, but for now, I really like going from a claustrophobic deathmatch to a sprawling onslaught, what with all those incredibly fun-to-drive vehicles and wide-open levels.
The thing that really grabs me about onslaught, unlike any other similar gameplay type, is that it's perfectly clear where the action is and where the player is supposed to be. The minimap, along with some helpful voice-over, indicates key areas that are being contested, so it's just a matter of hightailing it over there and trying to help out by causing some damage. Plus, I love that you can just respawn right away when you die. As much as I like playing Counter-Strike, I have to admit that I've ultimately never cared as much for shooters that force you to sit out the rest of the round as I have cared for ones that let you get right back into the action. It's probably because A) I'm reckless when I play online shooters, or B) I just suck at them. If it's B, then how am I gonna get better if I keep being relegated to the spectator role?
Well, I could practice against UT 2004's awesome bots. Frankly, I love the single-player component of the game. When I just want to play a quick session or mess around in a game mode or learn a map, I'm glad the game gives me the option to do so offline and against satisfying competition.
OK, OK, I don't want Battlefield Vietnam to feel neglected here. The truth is, I wish I had time to become proficient at this game, but I choose UT over it because it includes the tools to help me regain my long-lost competitive edge when it comes to online shooters. But there's a lot of stuff about BV that I really like. The soundtrack is one major factor, and I like the fact that the aircraft add a lot of complexity to the on-foot action. I do intend to accomplish one thing in BV, and that's figure out how to keep those helicopters airborne and productive. The scale of the action in the game can really be impressive at times, but since it's harder to tell what's going on in the battle than in UT's onslaught mode, I sometimes find myself wandering around looking for where the action is. And then someone smokes me with an M60. So when's the patch for that?
GREG'S VERDICT: UNREAL TOURNAMENT 2004
To the question, "Battlefield Vietnam or Unreal Tournament 2004?", I offer you the following short answer: "Both." You can now click the link at the bottom of the page to move on to the next entry.
To those who actually want to hear the long answer, I'd say that the two games each offer something very different, yet both are outstanding. You could make the argument that Battlefield Vietnam doesn't break much new ground and that it's too similar to Battlefield 1942 (which was, in itself, a more-groundbreaking game). Like the original game, Battlefield Vietnam is all about coordinated assaults and skilled vehicle piloting--with no single-player game to speak of.
Then again, you could make the same argument for Unreal Tournament 2004, since it's based on Unreal Tournament 2003 (a game that was itself popularly criticized for failing to innovate). Most of the same weapons from the game prior to Unreal Tournament 2003, plus the sniper rifle and assault mode (which you could argue), should have shipped with UT 2003 anyway. And if you're still in the mood for debating, you could argue that the new onslaught mode itself is derivative of such games as Battlefield 1942, Tribes 2, and others, since (in its simplest form) it's a team-based first-person shooter with vehicles.
The thing about onslaught is--it's fantastic. Onslaught's vehicles are completely over-the-top. Some vehicles, like the scorpion buggy (which has highly practical blades that stick out of its sides for use as weapons), are preposterous. But onslaught is great fun. Its gameplay is much faster-paced than that of Battlefield Vietnam. However, if you've played Battlefield 1942 and Unreal Tournament 2003 (and if you've read this far, it's a safe bet that you have), you'd probably expect this. Also, vehicles aren't completely dominant in onslaught like they were in some Battlefield 1942 maps. In fact, some vehicles have very real weaknesses, in terms of speed and maneuverability, that make them sitting ducks.
The same can be said, to some extent, of Battlefield Vietnam's vehicles, which are far better-balanced in the new game's maps. You can't dominate maps as easily in a single tank as you could have in Battlefield 1942 because there are far fewer stretches of even ground to navigate, and there are a bunch of hostile engineers armed with blowtorches, or worse, hostile heavy assault troops with M79 rocket launchers.
But don't take what I've said to mean that the two games are essentially the same, because they absolutely aren't. As any fan of either game will tell you, each game offers very, very different experiences. For instance, while both games are fast-paced enough for anyone to pick up and play, Battlefield Vietnam's pacing more closely approximates the challenge of handling military vehicles. Also, Unreal Tournament's vehicles don't present the option of blasting Jefferson Airplane and Creedence Clearwater Revival. And really, there isn't anyone who actually wishes otherwise. (When you're driving a manta in Unreal Tournament's onslaught mode, your mind isn't on how great it would be to hear the hits of the '60s and '70s; instead, it's on one thing--pancakes.) The two are simply very different games, yet each game will likely age quite well in the coming months because both games' predecessors have been supported by game publishers--who have produced free content additions after launch--and loyal fan communities--who have produced fantastic modifications and new maps.
If after reading this, you still want to know my answer to the question, "Which game should I buy?", I'd advise you to check the review and previous coverage for each game to get an idea of what each is about. Then you can get whichever one you think you'd enjoy more. They're both great games, and if you're a fan of first-person shooters, they both deserve space on your shelf--and on your hard drive.
ANDREW'S VERDICT: BOTH
Two of the year's biggest first-person shooters, released on the same day? It's like anyone's worst nightmare. It's certainly my nightmare, because both of their predecessors received ample playtime. Both of them kept me playing late into the night, so what will their sequels do to me? I'll end up playing both of them, but I think I'll end up playing more Unreal Tournament 2004 than Battlefield Vietnam.
I think both games are absolutely great, but UT 2004 just has this draw to it. I mean, I really like Battlefield's approach to gaming. I've been a fan of team-based shooters ever since 1996, with Quake mods like CTF and Team Fortress and then with Battlefield 1942. Battlefield Vietnam improves the formula even more. There's even more emphasis on sticking together. Not only are infantry weapons more powerful, making it easier for you to die from even one enemy, but flags are captured quicker with multiple allies. I like having to wait up for reinforcements because you should be attacking in waves.
I'm not a real fan of most of the vehicles, though. They usually end up being just transportation to the next control point. I really liked tanks in 1942, but they have a reduced role in Vietnam. They are too easy to destroy and have limited mobility. That said, the helicopters are awesome. I was having so much fun cruising around in the Hueys and Cobras. In one mission, Jason and I were tearing up the skies in our Cobra. We shot down every VC chopper that dared take to the skies. Once you get the hang of it, the helicopters are a lot of fun.
Moving on, there's really nothing I don't like about Unreal Tournament 2004. There's just so much packed into that little box. You just know that 5.5 gigs of an install, with no movies, has to be quite a game. I was pretty skeptical of the game at first. I mean, how can it be even better than Unreal Tournament 2003 if it's pretty much the same game? Well, Epic Megagames improved the old formula, threw in some new stuff, and added an entirely new mode.
I've always loved the Unreal Tournament variety. I'll get sick of playing the same game mode after a while. If I get sick of deathmatch, I can play some capture the flag, for example. You really don't have that option with Battlefield Vietnam. You're always doing the same thing in that game. But in UT, I can frag other humans in a free-for-all, or I can join forces and fight wave after wave of Skaarj in invasion mode. With more than a hundred maps, how can you get bored?
Not to mention the new onslaught mode... Oh no, another game with vehicles, right? Wrong. Well, right in that it has vehicles but wrong in that it's "just another game." The mode is so well designed. The node system is ingenious. In other team-based shooters, you may not quite know where to go to find the action. You never have that problem in UT 2004. You have to destroy nodes in succession, so there are only a small handful of nodes that are in contention at any given point. The map flashes when a node is under attack, so the game is basically telling you to get your butt over there. The vehicles add life to the mode, not only for functionality but also for transport. I like to hop in the manta to get to the next node, even if I don't get a chance to decapitate someone with it. There are so many little pleasures to be found in the game that make Unreal Tournament 2004 my multiplayer shooter of choice right now.
CRAIG'S VERDICT: UNREAL TOURNAMENT 2004
Before playing either of these two games, I fully expected to enjoy Battlefield Vietnam more than Unreal Tournament 2004. I was a huge fan of Battlefield 1942, and at the same time, I was never very keen on Unreal Tournament 2003 or even the original Unreal Tournament. To this day, I still think Quake 3 is a superior game to UT. That's why I was surprised that after playing both games a good deal, I liked them both. However, there's no doubt in my mind that UT 2004 is better than BF Vietnam.
Just to be clear, BF Vietnam is a fantastic game in its own right. The designers at Digital Illusions have done a great job at improving the graphics engine and making attempts to differentiate the armies. I'm especially fond of the radio feature on the vehicles and the ability to broadcast a song for the world to hear. It may sound like a corny thing to those who haven't played the game, but when you're an infantryman crawling around the bush, there's nothing more unnerving than hearing a tank rumbling nearby playing "Surfin' Bird" or listening as a Huey blasts Wagner's "Ride of the Valkyries." I also appreciate the other improvements, like the visible countdown timer on base captures and the ability of squadmates to capture bases more quickly.
What brings down an otherwise fine game is the lack of polish that BF Vietnam shipped with. Simple errors, like the server browser's sorting mechanism not working properly and hiccups in the netcode, are almost inexcusable. You'd think DICE and EA would have known better by now, after the issues that plagued BF 1942's launch. The weapon balance at this point in time seems pretty rough as well. The M60, in particular, is an undeniably abusive weapon that combines a high rate of fire, a massive clip, and more-than-adequate power. And overall, there's no escaping the feeling that the game is just an incremental improvement over and a refinement of its predecessor more than a true leap forward for the Battlefield franchise.
Despite these shortcomings, there's one main reason I'll continue to play BF Vietnam for the coming months (as it gets refined through a series of patches)--the comic relief. In one recent play session, I hopped into the turret of a ZSU mobile antiaircraft gun and engaged in a duel with a Huey gunship. The chopper headed straight toward me as we exchanged shots. Eventually I dealt the Huey a killing blow. Unfortunately for me, the helicopter's momentum propelled the burning chassis straight into my ZSU, which presented an ironic yet funny end to the confrontation. It's in moments like these that I love Battlefield Vietnam.
In contrast to the rough edges of BF Vietnam, UT 2004 is the very definition of polish. The game runs smoothly, whether I play at work on a high-end computer or at home on my more modest machine, thus proving that the engine is truly scalable across a wide range of setups. And while onslaught seems to be the most popular game type, UT 2004 offers plenty of different multiplayer modes to suit anyone or to allow you to taste something a little different. Assault, bombing run, capture the flag, or even just plain deathmatch are all available in UT 2004 and are done well. And while many of the game's 100 maps are recycled from older versions, the fact remains that they're there, giving UT 2004 a content advantage that is unmatched in the genre. It's almost inconceivable that someone could grow tired of UT 2004 quickly because there's always another mode to try or another map to play. The sheer amount of content available out of the box is astounding.
Perhaps most importantly, UT 2004 is a maverick in this era of slow-paced, tactical first-person shooters. The popularity of games like Counter-Strike and Rainbow Six have caused many companies to slow down their games and only offer realistic or semirealistic game modes, where the play style is largely careful and deliberate. These types of games are great, but many of us old-school shooter fans still love our rocket launchers, railguns, and lightning guns. UT 2004 brings us back in time to an age when shooters were fast and required that your reflexes be even faster. For those of us who grew up on Quake and the original UT, UT 2004 gives us a contemporary choice and proves that this style of shooter is far from dead.
BOB'S VERDICT: UNREAL TOURNAMENT 2004
It's all about vehicles. Thanks to games like Halo, Tribes, and, yes, Battlefield 1942, it's getting harder and harder to justify a first-person shooter without vehicles. Even Half-Life 2 will have vehicles, judging from the stunning dune buggy sequence showcased at last year's E3. Vehicles change the way first-person shooters are played--and for the better. So you'd expect Battlefield Vietnam to have the edge in this department. After all, it has more vehicles than Unreal Tournament 2004. And vehicles in UT2004 are only available in onslaught mode, which is just a small fraction of the game.
However, I have to give the nod to Unreal in this department. Simply put, the vehicles in Battlefield Vietnam aren't that much different from those in Battlefield 1942. The jeep is the same. The tanks are the same. The planes are faster, but they're essentially the same. The only worthy new addition is the helicopter, which literally revolutionizes the way Battlefield is played. In fact, the levels that don't have helicopters suffer for it, because the game reverts back to essentially Battlefield 1942 with better graphics.
But the vehicles in UT2004's onslaught mode revolutionize the way Unreal Tournament is played. Like with all things Unreal, there's an over-the-top feeling to the vehicles. If you think the vehicle physics in Halo are insane, then try taking UT2004's scorpion buggy straight up a cliff. Or catch some air in the hefty hellbender assault truck and land on some poor sap. You'll be rewarded with style points, and the game will announce "pancake" to the world.
Don't get me wrong. Battlefield Vietnam is certainly a fine game, and the helicopter is a wonderful addition to the franchise. But learning to fly the helicopter is torture. On the other hand, learning to fly the raptor in UT2004 is a lot easier, and it's more forgiving. You can bounce the raptor against canyon walls, and it'll take the punishment. Just try that with any of the helicopters in Battlefield Vietnam. There's an instant gratification factor with the vehicles in Unreal Tournament 2004. You can just get in them and start decapitating heads, whereas some of the vehicles in Battlefield Vietnam require a lot of patience to master.
Battlefield Vietnam just doesn't raise the bar far enough to win this battle because it feels too much like familiar territory, even for a sequel. The helicopter is certainly a great addition, and the levels where the helicopters are absent suffer for it. This illustrates the point that if you take away the vehicles, the Battlefield infantry combat doesn't quite measure up to other shooters. It lacks the "butter smooth" sense of movement and action that Unreal Tournament has. The addition of vehicles to Unreal Tournament 2004's onslaught mode transforms the way UT is played. And even without the vehicles, you still have a first-rate first-person shooter with a silky smooth sense of motion.
JASON'S VERDICT: UNREAL TOURNAMENT 2004
For the record, I was a big fan of both Battlefield 1942 and Unreal Tournament 2003. I thought the bombing run mode in UT2k3 was one of the most innovative and unusual FPS gameplay types in a long, long time. Bombing run is honestly what sold me on that game, since I wasn't too big on the standard deathmatch stuff, and it was lacking any other novelty game types like assault. UT2k3 was a nice refinement of the original UT that didn't take a lot of chances. It was a good sequel, in other words.
As for 1942, I had...well, let's call it an unhealthy obsession with that game. When the demo came out back in something like September of 2002, I'd never even heard of it. I only downloaded it because I saw people on forums spazzing out about how cool it was. When I started playing it, I just could not believe all the stuff happening around me. Tanks, planes, and battleships! These machines of destruction were not meant to be controlled by human players in the same game whose default mode of play had you running around on foot with a peashooter. Anyway, the point is, 1942 felt really, really alive. Maybe it was a clone of Tribes--who knows--but it succeeded in every way that Tribes failed. To me, it was revolutionary because it worked.
So now we've got sequels to both of these games on our hands in the same week. Lucky us. I've spent a decent amount of time playing both of them, and they're inspiring very different feelings. When I think of UT2k4, I think about how exciting the new onslaught and the (newly revisited) assault modes are. I also can't help feeling admiration for Epic for putting so much content into the game. It's got everything 2k3 had and a whole new game's worth of stuff besides. Maybe it's a testament to how great 2k3 looked when it came out that 2k4 doesn't really look much different. However, it's still one of the best-looking PC games on the market. It runs smoothly (I haven't had any problems with latency), and it's easy to get into. So I'm sold. In fact, I already bought the DVD special edition. (And thank you, Epic, for making a game on DVD when nobody else will.)
To me, the relationship between 1942 and BF 'Nam is basically the inverse of that between Unreal Tournaments oh-three and oh-four. Whereas Unreal started off OK and became great, 1942 was phenomenal and its sequel is a tad underwhelming. I know I'm echoing the sentiment of every reviewer here, but 'Nam is just too much like 1942. It feels like a glossy expansion pack. OK, they did a few new things. The helicopters are cool, I guess, and you can listen to some '60s road-trip rock when you're in a vehicle (Creedence!), but generally, playing the game just doesn't give me the same feeling of grandiosity as the first time I played 1942. Where are the big battleships delivering their hellish bombardment off the glistening shores of Wake Island? Where is the advancing phalanx of German panzers thundering toward the Allied position? 'Nam is the same game, mechanically, but it just doesn't feel the same.
Thus far, my effort to play Battlefield Vietnam has been stymied by poor performance and an unforgivable out-of-the-box crash bug that's been around since before 1942 shipped, so I'm not exactly thrilled with the technical execution of the game. UT2k4, on the other hand, has presented no such problems, so it gets another nod there. I'm sure 'Nam will be quite playable after a couple of patches, but for now it feels a lot more flimsy than I expected. Let's not say I dislike 'Nam, exactly. Even as I'm writing this, I have a strange desire to go play more of it. For my money, though, UT2k4 is the one to get, considering it runs great right out of the box, and it's got effectively two games' worth of content in one.
BRAD'S VERDICT: UNREAL TOURNAMENT 2004
In hours-long multiplayer sessions, one thing that can keep you going in the cycle of killing, dying, and spawning is having strategic context. It doesn't take much--deathmatch-style kill counts as a start--but isn't it that much more satisfying to know when you've achieved some larger objective and have turned the tide for you team? For years there have been games like Team Fortress and Tribes, which have let players assume very different, very specific roles to help the greater cause. But the latest generation of large-scale team games does a much better job of giving teams larger strategic challenges--something beyond capture the flag--and clearer rewards. What I love about both Unreal Tournament 2004 and Battlefield Vietnam is that they include an interesting strategic layer without overcomplicating the basic action.
Battlefield 1942 marked a huge leap forward for team-based shooters. There was lots of cool stuff to do, so you could pick a role, like ace pilot, tank-repairing engineer, aggressive flag-assaulting infantryman, and more. And it was easy enough to switch to something else equally vital and interesting. The vehicles had an authentic flavor, but Digital Illusions didn't get so caught up in simlike realism that one person couldn't jump into a tank and play both driver and gunner. What I like most about Battlefield Vietnam is how there's at least as much variety to the vehicles. The Russian MiGs fly pretty differently than the US jets, and it's a totally different experience when you jump into a helicopter.
At the same time, the Vietnam-era guns are much more effective, so I'm not ever too put out when I find myself on foot. That's a huge change from when Battlefield first came out. I thought the basic gun combat was easily the worst part about BF 1942, until there were a few patches released. The better animations have something to do with it, but mostly it's that the action is a whole lot tighter and smoother. With an M16 and an underbarrel grenade launcher in hand, you can do some real damage in a close-quarters flag fight, take out guys hiding in cover, or squeeze off rounds for long-range kills. The M60 is even more fun and visceral. Unfortunately, I've never been a fan of running around in backwater parts of huge maps looking for someone to kill, and this does happen more often than I'd like in ordinary servers.
As fun as Battlefield Vietnam is, Unreal Tournament 2004 anticipates and addresses a number of the issues I've had with the Digital Illusions games. The best part is that the game's foundation is a solid engine that's flexible enough to give me explosive deathmatches at perfectly smooth 60 to 90fps and can then take the basic action into bigger maps, where there's more to do. It's great that onslaught concentrates fights in certain parts of maps, so there's never much question as to where the action is. You don't get people running back to pick up rearguard control points (though Vietnam's long timers also help prevent this), and even better, you don't have enemies jumping into your newly spawned vehicles.
It took me a little while to warm up to some of the UT 2004 vehicles, but they're all fun. It's great that the first bonus map is multileveled, with extra opportunities to jump the ground vehicles, including the hefty hellbender. Flying the raptor takes some getting used to after the simulation-style aircraft controls in Battlefield. The fact that you use the jump and crouch keys to dive and climb seems a bit odd, but it works out brilliantly as a way to keep both guns and flight controls instantly responsive. Diving one way to avoid a missile while firing in another direction is par for the course. And if you somehow get tired of all that driving and flying, there's always assault and the eight other modes to jump back to. UT 2004 pulls off the basics better than any action game and still packs in a ton of variety.
SAM'S VERDICT: UNREAL TOURNAMENT 2004