Released just days apart, Unreal Tournament and Quake III Arena set the tone for first-person shooters for years to come. Online play was the star of the show, and nothing else mattered. No longer would deathmatchers have to settle for a handful of maps repurposed from the single-player game, and no longer would they have to fret over wildly imbalanced weapons that were never made with competition in mind. These two giants raised the bar over night, and online gaming has never been the same.
For a while it seemed the Unreal Tournament beast could not be stopped, and Epic was even cocky enough to make it an annual franchise, if only briefly. Unreal Tournament 2004 was a crowning achievement for Epic, with a seemingly bottomless number of maps, an unmatched variety of modes, and a balanced design that made it the deathmatch game of choice, with a devoted community that remains active to this day.
It may take Epic an expansion pack release to really get their latest up to the bulk of the last, but you shouldn't let that stop you from jumping in now.
But a lot has changed since 2004. A number of games, including Half-Life 2 and Doom 3, have helped to put single-player shooting back in the spotlight, and more tactical, console-friendly designs have slowly replaced the wild, frantic twitch that Unreal championed for so many years. Even Epic took time off to develop a more methodical shooter with Gears of War.
Now it's time to dust off those Jump Boots, fire up the Rocket Launchers, and get ready to do it old-school. Right off the bat, it's clear that Unreal Tournament III has made no concessions to modern day gaming trends, and the matches are still wall-dodging, double-jumping, high-flying madness. It's just like we never left. It's funny how in just three years, Unreal has become as nostalgic as it has, but it really gave me a warm fuzzy feeling to be back.
While that faithfulness could be UT3's biggest enemy, Epic has worked hard to improve this game. The Unreal Engine 3 powers an amazing looking game that runs incredibly smoothly, and the somewhat campy and inconsistent designs of old Unreals have been swapped for a new look heavily inspired by Gears of War. There are new vehicles, reworked weapons, and updated modes to enjoy, too, but through it all, there's a sense that we've all played this game before.
It's also almost impossible to compete with the amount of content in the last Unreal (which included the content from UT2003, as well). With 38 maps and six modes, UT3 really packs more value than any other multiplayer shooter this year, but unfortunately, it will be compared to the massive 2K4, and in this regard, there just isn't as much there.
But it's quality over quantity, right? This has been the mantra for nearly every multiplayer FPS lately, with Team Fortress 2 shipping with a scant six maps, and Shadowrun only nine. In this regard, Unreal really stacks up, with some great maps sporting diverse, interesting gimmicks. Every level seems to have its own personality both in terms of look and design. With an included level editor, user-created content will soon populate servers and keep things fresh, but until then, there are some great levels to stomp around.
The lack of modes is somewhat disappointing, with only the more popular modes like Deathmatch, Team Deathmatch, and Capture the Flag returning. New modes are Duel, a slightly modified deathmatch for one-on-one fights, Warfare, a nicely updated successor to 2K4's Onslaught, and Vehicle Capture the Flag, a twist on the old CTF mode played on giant maps packed with vehicles.
Warfare and Vehicle Capture the Flag feel very fresh. While Warfare is similar to Onslaught, the many new vehicles added to the mix make it a whole new game. These new rides are wildly creative; a spindly, three-legged mech that can climb, crawl, and roll up into a ball; a giant towering tripod straight out of War of the Worlds; a flying craft with four laser-equipped tentacles… The once exciting tanks and gunships seem down right boring compared to these fantastic new rides. And trust me when I say you'll never want to be without the ubiquitous Hoverboard again.
It may take Epic an expansion pack release to really get their latest up to the bulk of the last, but you shouldn't let that stop you from jumping in now. Unreal Tournament III never meant to revolutionize the game, but a gussied up, refined version of the best competitive online shooter of all time is nothing to balk at. Uneasy 2K4 die-hards should put their hesitations aside and take the leap. The quality design will give this the staying power it needs, as long as the community is there to support it.