There isn't some clear-cut formula for making a great game, but Epic hasn't ignored bullet-point features in expanding the Unreal Tournament series, which is now in its third installment. The multiplayer-focused first-person shooter series started off in 1999 with great graphics, crisp control, solid networking (which led to smooth online gameplay), and hectic action. These basics haven't been neglected, even as expectations have changed--and have significantly increased--over the last five years. However, UT has never been just about settling for the basics, and to this end, the new Unreal Tournament 2004 has a tremendous variety of maps and modes of play. In the same package, you'll find cutthroat deathmatching as good as it's ever been, plus large team-based modes in the style that's become so popular lately. Simply put, this is the multiplayer action game that offers something for everyone--even those who prefer playing offline, since the UT bots are better than ever and are still the best in the business.
Unreal Tournament 2004 is an impressive game in every respect.
Anyone who bought or considered buying Unreal Tournament 2003 will wonder what's new and improved in this latest game. Epic didn't take UT 2003's tepid response lying down, so not only did it work to make the inclusion of vehicles and new modes a success but also went back and added in some classic elements from the original UT. In this everything-plus-the-kitchen-sink approach, the classic sniper rifle coexists with UT 2003's lightning gun--or rather, it replaces it in some maps. Also returning is an improved version of the objective-based assault mode that was popular in the original UT but was taken away in the sequel. You've even got the original UT announcer's voice, who is just one of five announcers now included. Before we go into the truly new features in detail, it's worth noting that Atari has included a $10-off rebate coupon for owners of UT 2003, thus bringing the new stand-alone game to the price point of an expansion pack at $29.99.
While there's a whopping total of 10 different game modes, assault and onslaught are bound to get the most attention. The new onslaught mode is the biggest departure from past UT games, and it sets up team battles for 10 to 32 players on large outdoor maps. At first glance, the expansive, rolling terrain might look a lot like Tribes 2 or Halo, and like these games, there are maps big enough to make running from point-to-point seem prohibitively slow. But a few key innovations keep the pace fast, and as powerful as the vehicles are, those on foot are far from helpless. Onslaught focuses on power nodes that are strategically distributed on the maps, and the ultimate goal of the mode consists of destroying the power core located in the opposing base. The nodes connect in certain configurations, and nodes located behind front lines can't be attacked, which concentrates the action around just a node or two at a time. Once a node linking to the power core is captured, the core itself can be attacked directly, thus pressuring the defenders to desperately man the base defenses or recapture the pivotal node.
Oftentimes, the tide of battle will swing in one side's favor, but in the ensuing tug-of-war, things can drag out to the time limit. This sends the game to sudden death, with both cores draining based on the number of nodes each team controls. Other maps lend themselves to more volatile battles, with the cores being connected and attacked in parallel. In every case, it's easy to understand which team is leading and what you have to do to win. Unlike the abstract system of a game like Battlefield 1942, onslaught's scoring system is concrete, and a glance at the power core health meters and the minimap reveals how a match's momentum is swinging.
Skillful use of the new vehicles is one way to turn the battle, but for the most part, they don't overwhelm the battlefield. Even the goliath tank, which can take out most anything with one hit from the main gun, can be taken out by a high-flying raptor fighter, turrets located at most nodes, or even a few hits from the rocket launcher. In the meantime, the swift ground vehicles--like the manta hovercraft, scorpion buggy, and hellbender heavy truck--are all lots of fun to drive, thanks to a top-notch physics system. Pulling off stunts rewards you with a special message detailing your achievement, and running enemies over, while plenty satisfying, isn't quite as spectacular as timing a jump in the manta just right to "pancake" an opponent. The common ground vehicles are pretty abundant around the main bases and nodes, so it's not often that you absolutely have to run across the map on foot (particularly since you can instantly teleport between your own nodes, as long as they're not under attack). But the tank, the fighter, and especially the five-man leviathan supertank have slower respawn rates, so taking one out means at least a short respite.
The new onslaught mode, with its large-scale battles and fun-to-drive vehicles, is probably the main attraction of the game--though the spectacular return of the assault mode is just about as remarkable.
UT's fast, explosive weapons are still just as well suited to furious deathmatching as coordinated capture the flag matches, and somehow the addition of powerful tanks and fighters doesn't throw off the balance. While UT 2004 has no formal character class system, anyone can play a variety of roles, since standard weapons and ammo are easy to come by. Running over the weapon locker pickup points that are commonly located around bases and nodes instantly gives you a varied weapon loadout.
The link gun, introduced in UT 2003, is more multipurpose than ever because it now repairs vehicles and nodes and even makes capturing nodes faster. The new AVRiL guided missile single-handedly evens the game out by making it possible for anyone to take out a high-flying raptor or a fast manta, as long as a lock is maintained on the target. The three other new weapons are more specialized. A mine gun spits out a few autonomous spider mines that will swiftly close with any nearby enemies; a grenade launcher rapidly spits out timed charges; and a laser painter can be used to launch a devastating air strike from the unpiloted phoenix bomber. Although onslaught's vehicles seem to steal the show, it's the infantry that's in the best position to capture and defend critical nodes. Even better, there's no need to waste time defending rear guard positions, since not only are these nodes safe from attack, but in a smart design choice, freshly spawned vehicles are off-limits to enemies. However, if abandoned, they're fair game for any player.