In 1999 two games were released. Well, okay, a whole lot of games were released but all eyes were on two of them. Id released Quake 3 Arena to hordes of salivating Quake fans who had been playing the tech demo for some time. Despite strong sales the general opinion appeared to be "Yes, its pretty but its still Quake isn't it?" Making no new strides in gameplay was to prove costly at least in the eyes of the critics. Perhaps Quake 3 Arena would have been hailed as ushering in a new era of Multiplayer gameplay. That is, if it hadn't been for the competition.
Where Q3A failed, Unreal Tournament most certainly succeeded. In spades. Introducing new and fascinating modes of gameplay like Domination and Assault was just the thing UT needed to impress the critics and impress them it did. Multiplayer in Unreal had been disappointing in many ways, particularly in terms of the net code which was spotty to say the least. Also the weapon balance was way off which led to inevitable results. Nobody played it. Unreal Tournament fixed all those problems and then some. The balance of the weapons was superb, the net code was tight and as a result, players could concentrate on the new gameplay aspects. Q3A might have looked better but it didn't play nearly as well.
Which brings us to Unreal Tournament 2003. The designers know the strengths of Unreal Tournament and, it seems, are taking strides in all the right directions. Possibly the most heartening indication of this is the 'When its done' release date. This is always a tricky proposition for game designers. To see what can go wrong with this philosphy take a look at the farce that Duke Nukem Forever has become. Digital Extremes on the other hand are showing promising progress and release seems imminent. Final tweaking of the gameplay and balance are underway and we should see product hit the shelves in a month or two at most. The nice thing is that attention is being paid to the things that made UT shine. So what does it look like at the moment?
Much to the disappointment of many the Assault mode has been dropped. Assault was always a big hit with the critics but players voted with their feet. Compared to Deathmatch and CTF, Assault never really got off the ground. Its hard to find a fully populated Assault map on the few UT servers who bother with it and I think the decision to concentrate on other modes is perhaps a wise one.
Making an appearance is a brand new gameplay mode called Bombing Run in which players must carry a bomb into their opponents base. Sound simple? Not quite. The bomb can be passed between players making it into a sort of rugby with a really dangerous ball. The real kicker is that you can't fire and carry the bomb at the same time. I have visions of tossing the bomb over the head of an oppsing player, shooting him and picking the ball back up on the other side. Now that what I call an up and under. Eddie Waring must be spinning in his grave. In any event it sounds as intriguing as Assault was.
Domination is back, to the relief of many, myself included. Always the most frantic of UT gameplay modes Domination 2.0 promises some interesting twists to prevent control point camping. In essence there are two control points, each of which must be controlled for a certain length of time before a point is scored. In addition, once the point is scored the control point returns to neutrality and is immune to being retaken for a short period. Whether players will make Domination 2.0 a bigger sucess than the original only time will tell.
Of course the real star of any Unreal game is always going to be the remarkable UT engine. Unlike other engine developers, Epicdo not release the engine as a set of static versions but as a continuously evolving design. The engine today is simply a newer version of the engine that powered Unreal. The last Unreal Tournament patch left the engine at build 436. UT2003 should see the final version number in the 800s. Originally conceived with a strong emphasis on software rendering and 3dfx's Glide, current builds are optimised for Direct3D which in todays API market is the only sensible decision. With a reasonable gaming system in excess of about 700MHz with a Geforce 2 or higher video card we should see very playable framerates. With the top end systems that OC Addicts are rightly famed for the game should look simply amazing. To quote the official FAQ "it is likely that the minimum processor required will be a Pentium PIII 500 or equivalent."
Visuals were never really a high point of UT although they were competent enough. This time all that is set to change. Outdoor environments, always a forte of the Unreal engine should look stunning, indoors the look seems to maintain the moody technological decay that Unreal UT did so well. Detail levels have skyrocketed alongside available processing power and it shows. The indoor environments are beautifully detailed and extremely beliveable. Lighting is dim and moody and fogging seems to be making an appearance in all the right places.
Another notable strength of the Unreal Engine is the utterly superb UnrealEd editor that has been shipping with the games from day one. In its latest incarnation, UnrealEd 2.6 looks to continue the tradition of excellence. Of course the editing tools increase the value of the game even for those that will never use them. One of the wonderful things about Unreal Tournament was the huge number of high quality maps that began appearing shortly after its release. A large mapping community grew up around UT largely thanks to the ease of use of its editor which takes a different approach to construction from its competitors and makes it much easier to produce error free maps. If we start seeing the same quality of maps for Unreal Tournament 2003, and I'm sure we will, then the game will always be able to offer something new and interesting to players and keep the carnage coming for several years.
CONCLUSION: Unreal Tournament 2003 has a somewhat easier task this time around, not having to compete with a similar release from another major developer. That doesn't mean its going to be easy. Thanks to the consolidation that has taken place within the industry over the last few years, standards tend to be higher these days. Games are more expensive, the economy is less healthy than once it was and fewer games are being released, all of which serve to make gamers more discerning about purchases.
However, it is heartening to see that Digital Extremes and Epic are not resting on their laurels. All the stops have been pulled out for UT2003 and rightly so, given the towering reputation of its predecessor. The game looks great, the new gameplay sounds interesting and the developer has taken a no hold barred approach to quality control.
In short I have high hopes for UT2003 and all indications point to them being satisfied and then some. Now if you'll excuse me I need to go polish my pulse rifle.
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