They call it the sophomore jinx: A rookie pitcher has a stunning debut season in the major leagues, only to be sent back to triple-A ball the next year. A band puts out a phenomenal first album, but there's only one good song at best on the follow-up. When Unreal Tournament was released in 1999, it was widely celebrated, widely played, and widely loved. Could the sequel possibly repeat that huge success? Thankfully, Unreal Tournament 2003 manages to avoid the sophomore jinx, and in many ways the game is even better than its predecessor. On one hand, it's not the really exceptional game it could have been--there's just not enough diversity, depth, or innovation in the gameplay. But on the other hand, Unreal Tournament 2003 still delivers plenty of what you want from this type of game: exciting, nonstop combat in wild settings, all brought to life with a stunning, state-of-the-art graphics engine that leaves its competition in the dust.
The sequel includes a wider range of player models.
In traditional shooter fashion, Unreal Tournament 2003 offers up a disposable background story that you can forget as soon as you start playing. The real point of the game is simply to viciously frag your opponents. You can challenge other players in four core game modes in either Internet games or on a LAN. You can also play offline with and against computer-controlled bots in a ladder-based tournament or in single matches. The bots' skill level can easily rival or even surpass that of most human players, depending on the difficulty setting you choose. You can also give them orders in team games, and they'll effectively carry them out, though there's apparently no easy way to bind commands to single keys as in the original UT, which makes them too hard to issue quickly in the heat of battle.
The selection of game modes includes straightforward versions of deathmatch and team deathmatch, as well as capture the flag. While it's great to see those classics return, it's a real shame that the developers only took the time to include two other game modes, and not very inventive ones at that. The original Unreal Tournament's domination mode has been replaced with double domination, in which your team must hold two control points concurrently for at least 10 seconds to score. And as a replacement for the original game's late, lamented assault mode, UT2003 offers a less-than-revolutionary new mode called bombing run. This is part of the designers' half-hearted and rather unconvincing attempt to make Unreal Tournament into some sort of sports game franchise. In bombing run, your team tries to grab a ball from the center of the map and then carry it to a goal in the enemy team's base. The fact that you can't shoot your weapons while carrying the ball, but can pass the ball to teammates, keeps things somewhat interesting.
You can play it straight, or use mutators to enhance the game.
While there is a distinct lack of new gameplay modes in UT2003, you can at least tweak the gameplay a bit using the small-scale modifications known as mutators. "Instagib," for example, arms everyone with a weapon that kills with a single shot. "Low gravity" alters the movement physics, while "vampire" heals you when you injure opponents. Those are just a few of the included mutators, and if the continuous support for the original Unreal Tournament is anything to go by, you can expect to see countless new mutators, maps, and mods to be released by the game's loyal fan community in the coming months.
One of UT2003's brand-new features is adrenaline, which you stockpile by grabbing oversized pills floating about the maps. When you collect 100 adrenaline points, you can perform keyboard maneuvers that let you temporarily turn invisible, increase your speed, boost your health, or do extra damage. These can have a major impact at crucial moments in team games like capture the flag. Even without adrenaline, you can perform a number of special jumping and dodging moves that expand on the dodges from the original Unreal Tournament. In addition to dodging quickly forward, backward, or to the side as you could in the original game, you can also double-jump and jump off walls in UT2003--new additions that help skilled players dodge incoming fire and get around the maps more quickly.
One of the most controversial elements of UT2003 will surely be the way its weapons have been implemented and the way they differ from those of original UT. Many of the UT weapons were insanely powerful--and for many fans of the game, insanely fun to use. The game's obligatory rocket launcher, for example, was no ordinary weapon: It let you launch heat-seeking rockets, fire up to six rockets at a time, or lob a bunch of grenades all at once. Sure, this was overkill, and the same was true of the game's devastating flak cannon. Those and other weapons tended to be abused by "spammers," players who would attempt to fill up small corridors and hallways by firing blindly and repeatedly. But in the original Unreal Tournament, everyone else could easily find a powerful weapon lying around, so things balanced out in the end. Just as importantly, all the weapons looked great, and some sounded truly brutal, which often made the simple act of pulling the trigger a real joy. The same can't usually be said of Unreal Tournament 2003's weapons, which for the most part seem rather dull by comparison.
Fans of the original game may take issue with some of UT2003's weapons.
In UT2003, you'll find some new weapons and some modified versions of the original game's weapons. Veteran players will quickly notice that most of the weapons have been toned down and largely equalized. The rocket launcher has been castrated for the new game--the primary fire is limited to a single relatively weak rocket and the secondary fire is limited to at most a slow, triple-rocket launch. The flak cannon, which was absurdly powerful at close range in the first game, is but a shadow of its former self in UT 2003.
That said, the action can still definitely be fast and exciting despite the relatively bland weapons, and it now takes more skill to hit and kill your targets. In UT2003, it's not as effective to simply spray and pray, hoping some splash damage might kill your opponent, as it was in Unreal Tournament. Then again, since most of the weapons deal similar amounts of damage, they can start to blur together. Most of them just aren't as distinctive, and don't have as much character, as the weapons from the original game. For that matter, some of the weapon models, particularly the default assault rifle weapon and the new link gun weapon, also look too similar.