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I like a bit of controversy every now and again so I’m going to make this review very simple. You should buy Unreal Tournament 3 now, play it, and then come back here to see why I was right telling you to do so. You won’t regret it – trust me on this. Assuming you’ve followed those instructions, first: well done second: was I right or what?
You see, as I mentioned in my UT3 preview, I’m a bit of a fanatic for the franchise (some might say fanboy) and until I received my copy of this latest game through the post, UT2K4 still found itself subject to regular playtime even three years after release, although recently Team Fortress 2 has rather usurped it.
However I’m not here to talk about Valve’s possible Game of the Year, but rather Epic Games’ contender for that same title. So, let’s start with what you should already know: Unreal Tournament 3 is built on the Unreal Engine 3 as used by last year’s Xbox 360 hit, Gears of War and this year’s PC hit Bioshock and the similarities are noticeable, and not just in terms of graphical style either.
Those familiar with the UT franchise might be shocked by one parallel between Gears and UT3: this instalment has a real, honest to goodness single player campaign with a plot. Okay so I’m pushing the definition somewhat because it’s basically just a series of fights against bots interspersed with cut scenes, but nonetheless despite UT3 being primarily a multiplayer game, the story line is pretty compelling, if a little (read: a lot) similar to that of Gears.
While it sounds great in theory, and indeed the cut scenes are a joy to behold, I expect 90 per cent of people won’t ever see the Campaign mode because, let’s face it, you don’t buy UT to play against bots. Ok, so I found myself mildly interested in our hero’s plight to rid his planet of the invading Necris (yes, they’re back) but not enough that I didn’t give up half way through the story in order to get a quick online deathmatch fix – I think I may be an addict.
Anyhow, if you don’t bother with the campaign in favour of eking out a bit more time on the multiplayer front then who can blame you? Not me, because multiplayer is exactly what makes Unreal Tournament so great and any excuse to play it should be a welcome one. Alas, some of us have to stop convincing our bosses that we really should be paid to play games and get on with the less adrenaline-inducing task of relaying that greatness to you, the reader, via that ever-so-useful medium we call the interweb.
I’m not in a position to ask what order you’d prefer this in, so you’re getting the bad news first. You see, as much as I love the multiplayer aspect of UT3 almost as much as I love my appendix, I find one particular aspect of the former as useless as the latter: the menu interface, especially the server browser. As if it wasn’t bad enough that servers seem to pop on an off the list depending on if there’s a ‘T’ in the day, there’s no option to connect directly to the server without using the console (and if you’re thinking ‘the what’ you’ve proved my point as to how stupid that is). This means that even if you do know that you can connect to the TrustedReviews server on the IP address 22.214.171.124:7777, there’s no option on the menu to do so.
Filtering is pretty lax too; for a start it’s on a separate page to the browser, which sounds reasonable, unless you know that there isn’t an option to just show every server available in the world and that instead you’ll find you have to choose a particular game mode within which to browse. I will concede that all of these are minor annoyances, but that doesn’t make them forgivable, especially in this day and age. On the lighter side, by the time I’ve managed to navigate my way through the unwieldy interface and actually get onto a server, I’m just about infuriated enough to be in the mood for some killing and a small part of me can’t help but think Epic purposely made the menus so bad for just that reason.
So, you finally get on to a server without throwing your mouse out the window, what next? Well, that would depend on what game mode you chose and on that basis I guess I’d better explain what said modes are. Starting with the old-school UT originals, we find the classic all versus all Deathmatch, the almost-as-classic Team Deathmatch and the not-all-that-classic-but-still-brilliant Capture the Flag game types – pretty self explanatory. The latter also comes in a second variety that adds vehicles to the mix, more on which later, and to my mind is probably the second best game mode.
The best mode, if you want my opinion, by far has to be Warfare. Building on the Assault and Onslaught modes from UT and UT2K4 (and sadly omitted from 2003) the basic premise is fairly simple, but it leads to some complex strategy. Warfare maps are interspersed with various capture points, called nodes, which are lined together and must be captured in order until you have a direct path from your base to the enemy’s, whereupon you rain destruction on their reactor core casing an explosion and winning the round. Last we find Duel mode, a winner stays on one versus one battle to survive. The twist, if it can be called that, is that the winner also gets to keep armour and weapons form the previous round giving them the advantage over the newly spawned opponent. While duelling is fun for a few minutes, I personally found it got old pretty quickly; at the end of the day UT is not a two player game.
It’s all well and good knowing why we’re killing each other (aside from the fun of it) but we still don’t know how. Luckily, that’s an easy question to answer: guns, lots of them, and big ones at that.
I’m really not going to do the 18-24 male gamer stereotype any good here, but my word UT3 has some cool weapons. Importantly the stupid Shield Gun and Assault Rifle have been removed and the original UT’s Impact Hammer and Enforcer (pistol) are back; the latter, of course, can be dual wielded for increased damage and coolness. Also harking back from the good old days is the Redeemer, other wise known as a portable nuke. As ever two fire modes are available, primarily you send your missile off in a straight line and cross your fingers hoping it hits something, secondary fire allows you to guide the rocket with your mouse – either way you’re looking at the mother of all explosions.
Also making it from the first UT is the shock rifle, which as you should remember shoots an instant hitting beam of energy as its primary fire and a slow moving glowing ball of plasma as its secondary; the real kicker of course being that you can shoot this glowing blob and have it explode, damaging anything in a small-ish radius. Annoyingly the Bio-cannon is still in, so I guess they won’t remove it just because I hate it, as are the Flak Cannon, Link Gun and Minigun. The Lightning Gun is gone buy popular request, but thankfully the Sniper Rifle remains. Finally, the Translocator still functions as a handy ‘Get out of Jail Free’ card in a jam.
As already mentioned, UT3 sees vehicles reappearing from 2K4 and while many members of Epic’s forums are seemingly incensed by this inclusion, I still feel that if Quake can do it UT can, and better. The most interesting new addition to large-scale maps is a replacement for the Translocator; the Hoverboard. Obviously this is much faster than running, but it does have the slight disadvantage that if you get shot you go flying onto your face and are left venerable for a few moments. It is also possible to fire a sort of energy tow-rope onto the back of a friendly vehicle and hitch a ride; this is especially interesting as the Hoverboard is the only vehicle you can use while carrying the enemy’s flag in CTF matches.
When you add the new Necris to the mix, things get even more interesting. My absolute favourite, on the basis of it looking totally cool, is the DarkWalker. As I mentioned in the preview, this beast is pretty much grabbed straight from H. G. Wells’ War of the Worlds but the plagiarism isn’t a bad thing in the least and there’s no end of satisfaction in vaporising countless enemies with the dual heat rays the DarkWalker sports.
A more controversial addition is the Nemesis, a slow moving minelayer which also shoots Link Gun style beams of energy and has the ability to cloak, although it will flicker into view slightly if hit by a weapon. It’s as slow as sin when it’s invisible but it is also, and this is important, invisible so you’re unlikely to be hit anyway, add to that the healing ability of the gun when fired on teammates and their vehicles and you have a potentially game winning vehicle. The thing is, the Nemesis doesn’t win the game, because most players seem to not bother with it, favouring the faster, more damaging options.
Of course, UT3 isn’t just about the gameplay, oh no, it’s about having a fantastic time with a game that plays brilliantly and looks equally awesome. So was I disappointed? Of course not; we already knew what the Unreal Engine 3 was capable of from Bioshock and Gears of War, but as the game the engine was built for UT3 is the real test, so passing that test is important. Better still, the game is surprisingly scalable. Ok, so running on last year’s tech will require you to lower the detail settings and resolution, but given games like Crysis are simply unplayable on anything older than the contents of your fridge, being scalable at all is laudable.
If you’ve invested in a multi-core processor you’ll be pleased to know that UT3 utilises all the available cores, running in single player with 19 bots on a Q6600 I saw each core running at about 70 per cent load; in multiplayer the load is a lot less as there’s no AI opponents to drive, so a dual core processor will be fine. On the subject of hardware UT3 has one more trick to offer: Ageia PhysX. I’m sure the three of you reading this who own PhysX cards will be disappointed to hear me say this, but the implementation in UT3 is not exactly compelling. For a start, although there is apparently some improved physics simulation in the normal game, I couldn’t see it, which means that if you want to see the benefit of the add-on board you’ll be restricted to the two Ageia maps currently available.
Of these the Tornado level is probably the coolest, with bits of debris being pulled of buildings (destroying cover and making sniping that much easier) and hurled around, sometimes hitting an unwary combatant. The Lighthouse level is a big tower with walls you can shoot through to open up new passage ways and such like. The problem with both of these levels is that although the PhysX implementation sounds great in theory, it doesn’t actually add any more enjoyment to the game, and Ageia seems to think that increased realism means more bits flying around. I’m not giving up hope quite yet, because once the modding community gets going we may well see some must-have PhysX content, but for now I can’t recommend anyone buy a PhysX card just for UT3.
In this sense it’s a good thing that epic hasn’t shoehorned PhysX into the game proper. For all its small foibles UT3 is a fantastic game; the single player story is gripping enough to make one run through worthwhile, the variety of multiplayer modes and maps is enough that after two weeks I still haven’t played all of them (is that a good or a bad thing?) and already a stream of custom mutators have populated the web, be it adding infinite ammo or making Hoverboarding players immortal. Add to that the removal of all the superfluous rubbish brought in with by 2K3 and 2K4, along with the truly awesome graphics and you have a match made in heaven.
Unreal Tournament 3 isn’t perfect and it isn’t innovative but it doesn’t need to be. If you’re looking for a back to basics online shooter with the capability to also cover large scale combat with panache you really can’t do better. UT3 really is in a class of its own, and for that reason I can’t help but recommend it.