Unreal Tournament 2004
The Unreal series has enjoyed plenty of success over the last six or so years, and the "Tournament" games have been very popular for online play. Unreal Tournament 2003 was released in late 2003, and while it was somewhat successful, people felt it was missing something to really make it a classic. The core gameplay was adjusted a little too much for the dedicated UT fans' tastes, and the new game mode called Bombing Run never really took off.
Despite the relatively short development time of about a year and half, Epic and publisher Atari have really done a great job making a truly "epic" experience (pun intended) with Unreal Tournament 2004. It contains all of the game content from UT2003 and then kicks in plenty of new maps, models, and game modes. On top of all this, the game has some of the best mod support I've ever seen, both inside the box and from Epic themselves.
The Unreal engine has been presented in many iterations over the years, and it has certainly had its ups and downs. For example, the engine suffered from poor OpenGL performance (and no real working Direct3D support) for a while, meaning that owners of both nVidia and ATI video cards had to deal with some really iffy frame rates. The best example of this would be Deus Ex - which still doesn't run that well, even on today's fastest video cards. UT2003 first debuted a much-improved engine, and while the engine hasn't really changed much on the surface for UT2004, the frame rates do seem to be a bit more consistent.
The UT2004 engine does actually include many changes that have been implemented over the last year and a half, but those who aren't busy making mods will likely have trouble noticing. That's ok, though, as the engine works beautifully nevertheless. While we don't get any of the really fancy pixel shader effects seen in Far Cry or Prince of Persia: Sands of Time, the game still includes some great art and basic special effects - and it does an excellent job at maintaining consistent frame rates and supplying loads of tweakable options.
The inclusion of a well-supported Linux client and server shows that Epic still cares about this underdog operating system, and MacOS executables are also available. This is the kind of support many developers dream of supplying; the one major patch we've seen so far for the game did make several changes, but UT2004 still shipped with very few major bugs. It's a shining example of how to deliver a complex, multiplatform game with almost no real issues.
Epic has packed an absolute ton of options into UT2004, and it's all contained in a series of tabbed interface panels. Epic also supplied a console for the serious tweakers. Put it all together, and this is an absolute paradise for those who love fine-tuning their game.
The game's basic controls are pretty simple to learn, and only a few more keys are really needed for the more complex game modes. Vehicles in the new Onslaught mode also handle in an intuitive fashion - these weren't afterthoughts that were thrown in at the last minute.
Some of the game modes have slightly different interfaces based on the rules of what you're playing, and the internet-favorite Onslaught is probably the most complicated of them all. Still, the on-screen minimap works perfectly, and it only takes a little while to get the hang of how Onslaught works.
I also have to give credit to Epic for their new map and scripting editor. It's easier than ever to use, and I was able to screw around for an hour and actually build stuff that didn't look that bad. And since Epic has been running a million dollar contest (also sponsored by nVidia), there are plenty of mods that are being released as well. More on that later.
The Unreal Tournament games have always been a bit of a mishmash of styles. Some maps take place inside futuristic spaceships, some are large Egyptian-themed teamplay maps, while others are huge, open areas with rolling terrain and lots of vegetation. Still others are tight, well-balanced deathmatch maps reminiscent of classic Quake levels - no matter what it is, these maps almost always look great. Just about every map has a completely unique look, and the textures are unique from one to the next. You'll know it too once you complete the game's massive 6GB install - all those graphics have to go somewhere.
The game's character models vary greatly. You'll see Egyptian princes, robots, mercenaries, and even the classic Unreal villains the Skaarj. You'll notice that the overall theme of the weapons and characters is very sci-fi, but sometimes the maps will clash a bit. Still, the textures, characters, weapons, and special effects are excellent. The best part is that the frame rates are surprisingly good for all that detail.
Unreal Tournament 2004 is the most content-loaded first person shooter you'll find. Not only is there a pretty decent single player mode where you recruit a team, win money, and heal your injured teammates, but the bots work in every game mode (and fairly well too, I might add). Then there's the actual multiplayer - the bots make it interesting, but other players really make this game fun. The game ships with dozens upon dozens of maps, and then you can go download the Community Bonus Packs for dozens more of them. These maps aren't half-assed either, as they're all fully fleshed out and fairly well balanced.
I have to give credit to Atari for not asking Epic to "dumb down" UT2004 in search of a broader audience. Those who have played games like Deus Ex: Invisible War or Fallout: Brotherhood of Steel probably know that this is becoming a problem; namely, that many older PC franchises are being cannibalized to become shallow cash cows. There's no question here that UT2004 is quite a bit more complex (and complete) than previous iterations.
The most popular mode for online play is Onslaught, which combines UT gunplay with a bit of Tribes and a bit of the Domination mode. In Onslaught, your team must take over and control power nodes that will create a link to the enemy's own power core. Once you have done so, attack the enemy's core to win. The whole time, the enemy will be attacking the same power nodes in an attempt to create a link to your own power core. Throw in six very unique vehicles as well as new weapons to deal with them, and this becomes an altogether different game from the rest of UT2004. While there are other new modes to play as well, this is the one that stands apart from the rest.
We also see the return of Assault, the fairly popular mode that was canned for UT2003. This mode has you attacking a target while the enemy defends it. Then you switch sides; if you completed the goal inside the given time limit, then the enemy only has that long to do it themselves. It's a great mode and the maps are a ton of fun. It forces teams to work together, which will hopefully make it a favorite for clan play.
This whole time, you'll be using some classic UT weapons along with some new instant favorites. A few modes will have unique weapons, and other modes have you rely on the basics - either way, learning how to use a weapon in one game mode will help you in any other mode. The overall mechanics feel better in UT2004 than in last year's game, and many diehard players of the classic UT find that it's right in line with what they wanted last year.
If none of this really gets your pot boiling, then the allure of mods should help out. There are already a ton of excellent mods and total conversions out for the game, only a few months after its release - no game yet has had this many mods out so quickly. These are really good, too, as many of the modmakers have had a year or more to work. Many mod developers had been working with UT2003, and the move to this year's game seemed to be a relatively simple one. I can't stress enough that Epic and Atari have really treated modmakers well, and I think it will pay off in the long run in sales and longevity of their game.
It remains to be seen how Epic and Atari handle UT2004's inevitable sequel (which may or may not be a "2005" game), as it might be a bit much asking PC gamers to spend a new $40 every year. If they can add plenty of new content and give sufficient rewards to repeat buyers in the form of special deals and rebates, then I think they'll find yearly success. If not, then I have a feeling players will skip to something else before spending the money on UT2005.
UT2005 or not, though, it's hard to deny that this year's game delivers a ton of action that's unique and engaging. Just about any first person shooter fan will find something to fall in love with in this game. The only complaints I really have are that the single player mode still falls behind and that there aren't enough servers running modes other than Onslaught. I certainly can't fault Epic or Atari for the latter, but the former needs work. While we do see a much improved single player game here than in UT2003, it just needed a little bit more to truly round the whole game out. I still find it hard to complain about this, though, considering just how much stuff they packed into the multiplayer mode.
Quite a few of UT2003's sound effects have been recycled for this year's edition, but there are still plenty of new sounds as well. They mix together nicely, and the new voice commands and taunts are as amusing as ever. The game includes several announcer voices for you to play around with as well, as many gamers were annoyed of the default one we got in UT2003. It's much improved now, and you can even go back to the classic voice announcers if you want as well.
The music is just plain hideous to me, though. Imagine the most generic "hard hitting" techno-rock music that's been orchestrated on a computer - that's half as boring as the music in UT2004. While there are plenty of tracks to go around, most of them were instantly forgettable to me. I do hope that Epic and Atari can put some more effort into the music next time around, and I really hope they can get a wider range of musical genres as well.
Epic does manage to include some pretty cool sound technologies into UT2004. Not only does voice chat work nicely, but text-to-speech is thrown in as well. You can even have the game speak out things said in an IRC channel with its built-in client. I will grant that this is a feature few players will actually use, but those serious players who love it won't know what to do without it.
It's hard to find any real fault in Unreal Tournament 2004. Sure, the single player mode is limited and the music is atrocious, but the excellent multiplayer action and mind-boggling amount of maps and other content easily make up for these shortcomings many times over. Just about any FPS player will find something here to really enjoy, and the new mods being released constantly will assure us many more months of action.