Unreal Tournament 3 Review
Pentium M 2GHz CPU
2GB DDR2 RAM
GeForce 7800GTX Go
nVidia 6200+ or
ATI 9600+ Video
2.4GHz Dual Core CPU
nVidia 7800GTX+ or
ATI X1300+ Video
Epic Games might have made Gears of War their primary game franchise, but the one that gave them their fame - Unreal Tournament - has not been forgotten. Epic's been working for a few years now on Unreal Tournament 3, a follow-up to their first person shooter series that started out as a story-based game but moved to the "Tournament" name and gameplay once competitive multiplayer shooters became immensely popular.
And UT3 is a pretty impressive new iteration in the series, as it uses Epic's powerful Unreal Engine 3 to give us maximum visuals with smooth, stable frame rates. Granted, most of the game is pretty similar: we've got a slightly tweaked arsenal of the same classic UT weapons like the Flak Cannon, ASMD Shock Rifle, multiple-rocket firing Rocket Launcher, Redeemer, Minigun, and more. Just about all of the unique things that made these weapons great return, although a few small things seem to have been changed. Dodging and double jumping are back, too, and the movement feels quite a bit like past UT games, although I'm sure that purists and expert players will find things that my mediocre skill level hasn't yet.
The story in Unreal Tournament 3 moves away from brutal sports theme to an all-out war, with the premise that the ability to respawn when you die has changed the way the war is fought. Now, your "games" are actual battles between hardened soldiers who have tons of experience since they aren't replaced by a fresh recruit every time they get killed. This setup works pretty well for me, as it provides a pretty good explanation for battles involving dozens, rather than thousands, of combatants at once. Unfortunately, that's about as far as the suspension of disbelief goes.
In UT3, many of your favorite shooter rules have been given story-based whitewashes to try and hobble together an over-arcing plot. There are still Deathmatch and Team Deathmatch modes where you're supposed to reduce their Respawner charges or something like that, but you're actually still just killing your way to a given fragcount. These make some sense, but the Capture the Flag modes sure don't seem very warlike to me. Epic tries to explain how capturing "FLaGs" (the name stands for Field Lattice Generator now - this is me rolling my eyes) will help you win a battle, and it's just plain stupid. But it's the new Warfare gameplay mode, which is the ultimate culmination of this game's teamplay, that finally seems at least something closer to the idea of all-out war. Not only do you need to capture and hold points across a large map, but your ultimate goal is to do enough damage to your enemy base's power core to cause it to explode. And of course, you'll have to defend your own at the same time.
The single player mode in UT3 includes low-resolution, pre-rendered cutscenes to advance the story which, after seeing the impressive in-engine cutscenes in their last game, Gears of War, is a bit of a disappointment. Plus, this story tries to go on about the war against the Necrids and such and how your character is going to get revenge on some queen of the Necrids blah blah blah. Maybe it was the fact that Gears obscured so much of the story and its main character's past that it seemed so engrossing, but here the story really does feel like a tacked-on excuse to go jump into deathmatches.
First person shooters without any stories generally don't do well, but I kind of wish that Epic had just stuck to their original plot-free UT idea instead of this. It really seems like they just threw all this babble in since that's what you're supposed to have in a modern-day shooter, and it would have been nice to break that trend and just have a straight-up action game with no story and lots of killing people. At least you can jump online with your campaign and get four people together to all play while totally ignoring the plot. It's not really the same experience as, say, Gears of War's online cooperative action, but you can still definitely work together and start kicking ass as a team pretty quickly.
You can always skip the cutscenes too if they are getting in the way of you owning bots, and if you do, then this turns quite nicely into an old-school shooter which, with the help of the fairly decent AI, can help to get you prepared for the game's online modes on dedicated servers. Unfortunately, I found many instances of the bots spazzing out or standing there doing literally nothing, and when it's four-on-four, every bot that's doing nothing is really hurting your team. Epic is working on the game's first patch, but unfortunately nothing on the bots has been mentioned yet in their publicly released changelogs. Let's hope that the poor bots' inactivity can be reduced a little further.
Epic has always tried to throw in a ton of maps with the UT games, and this one's no exception. UT3 includes dozens of maps, many of which are specialized to work only with certain gameplay modes - even the CTF maps are different from the Vehicle CTF ones, and this is a good thing because they're balanced for that gametype pretty well. All of the maps have fun layouts with multiple passages and tough-to-get-to spots with powerful items waiting for those who can find them, and there's a great diversity in graphical themes and overall styles.
The vehicles have been reworked for UT3, as the new Necrid alien race has their own set of vehicles reminiscent of the walkers from the recent War of the Worlds movie. Some classics like the Manta, Goliath and Scorpion return from UT2004, usually with slightly different movement, and others have been reworked. The most important new vehicle is the Hoverboard, a Back to the Future 2-style vehicle that you can pop to at any time on the maps that support it. It's got the advantage of moving faster than walking (and can go even faster than that if you "skitch" and hold on to the back of a real, powered vehicle), but you can't shoot while you're using it and you will get knocked down for a second if you take damage while riding the hoverboard. If you do manage to fall down, that's all the time your enemy all the time he needs to put a rocket right on your prone, helpless body. Still, the Hoverboard is a great little innovation that lets people start out at their base but still jump into the fight quickly, and it also removes some of the frustration with people taking and wasting good vehicles just to get out to the front lines faster.
There seems to have been a lot of nervousness about the console releases of the game and whether they've negatively affected the PC version, but it seems to me that there's little to worry about. The menus are a little odd, but not unusable (and Epic has already committed to reworking them), and the controls and online multiplayer modes work just as well as they ever have. The only thing that's really missing from UT2004 are the adrenaline-based powerups and a couple of advanced maneuvers like dive/double jumping, but I have found that I'm not missing them at all. An editor is included with the game and new mutators will surely be getting churned out as well, although there's already a good selection built-in. Either way, I don't really see how this game won't have an active and productive community, unless they really try to "bury" it as some strange revenge for Epic getting console-friendly. (Hey, the Tribes community tried something similar on the game's two sequels, and actually succeeded once.)
Anyway, the graphics are great, especially considering the game's performance which winds up doing just fine on mid-range computers, and those with very powerful machines will still be impressed with the visuals when they also realize that just about any machine that can play Crysis at a reasonable speed can do Unreal Tournament 3 at two to three times the frame rate (assuming similar detail/resolution settings are used, that is). The sound is pretty much on par with the past games and while the voice acting for story elements isn't bad, it's the constant, useless communication between the AI teammates for game events that really can get on one's nerves. Do three people really need to tell me repeatedly that they're about to return our flag? Just shut up and return it! Of course, that annoyance goes away once you start playing online.
From the sheer number of maps to the entertaining gameplay modes and overall presentation, Unreal Tournament 3 is a winner. The story sucks, but once you start skipping the cutscenes you'll realize that this is an old-school, competitive first person shooter at heart with a lot of depth to be found. It seems some PC gamers feel betrayed that this game's also coming out on the 360 and PS3 and are trying pretty hard to find fault in this game, but we can't blame Epic just because console games sell many times better than PC titles do. The best we can hope for is a solid PC release that caters to what that audience wants, and I think Epic has accomplished that.