It’s been a while since I played more than a few rounds of Unreal Tournament. I was a big fan of the original, but the need to get my fix of the team-based multiplayer combat of subsequent releases was satiated by returns to the original and demo of the latest iteration. Despite not picking up the last two titles – Unreal Tournament III is actually the fourth release – there has always been something about the series that I enjoy. The general aesthetic of the ridiculously over armored units, guns that shoot teleport pads, and the bulky vehicles all lent themselves to a system that was built around a fast paced and intentional speed that was just right – running, jumping, shooting, and even reloading all had a pace to it that required working with and understanding. It was mainly my fondness of Day of Defeat and the Battlefield series that kept Unreal Tournament and I apart, but that also brings up in 3 why that was so.
In terms of why I like the game, the feel of it all, not much has changed. The goals revolve around depleting the opposing side’s respawn ability, capturing flags, and linking nodes, much the same as before. I’m not sure why an explanation as to why all of this is possible was deemed necessary, but nevertheless there is a single-player component that is actually a story that involves the hows and whys of the characters and their equipment. After having your colony obliterated by the Necris, you and your sister seek revenge by becoming Ronin and hiring on with Malcolm, a previous tournament champion. It is all very heavy-handed and overly dramatic. Unlike Gears of War, however, it never really clicks and often embarrasses itself, with a script that is often hampered by ridiculous dialog and poor timing.
The story does serve as means to include a globe from which missions are assigned – and I am a sucker of Risk-style campaigns. Picking which task to take doesn’t amount to a whole lot though, considering that the choice is often limited to two. There is a perk to taking on additional missions, which are bonuses in the form of cards. Similar to Rise of Nations, bonus cards are earned through victory and played before a later mission. The cards offer a number of enhancements, including weaken the enemy’s respawners or adding a few teammates, which are both handy but the latter more so because the computer gets extra members to ‘balance’ things out (re: screw you over). I actually really like the addition of the cards, and they were often the key to keeping the game moving and not being bogged down by the AI’s inability to work as a cohesive unit.
The story runs its course in about six hours, and it’s actually decent for what it is, but the usage of Malcolm’s early ‘90s overly accentuated slang is surreal. I had flashbacks to Superfly Johnson. I know his role has been out pointed out several times in other reviews and even by Penny Arcade, but he really misses the mark – imagine the Cole Train (Wooo!), but without the nods to its own ridiculousness. The rest of the presentation is nearly as silly, but it’s really the voice-overs that cause eyes to roll, and the bits that are supposed do double duty as mission briefings and background bits are often choppy due to being playing during the loading screen for the next map. And there is more, enough so that I can’t help but imagine there’s a 9-year-old somewhere with a large check from coming up with such hot concepts as calling flags FLaGS.
Granted, you didn’t come for the gripping narrative, you came for the combat. For diehard fans of the series, there is a lot to like; for those who have been dabbling with more team-oriented, class-based shooters, then this might not be the title for you.
There is a lot standard material here, the type that involves bringing an enemy’s flag to your base and hitting a designated body count before the other side. There is also a variation of capture the flag that involves vehicles. The biggest draw is Warfare, an all-out mode that involves capturing and holding nodes. The nodes are connected to one another, and each must be weakened and taken in an order that strings the power from your base to the enemy’s. There are also independent nodes that give benefits, such as a vehicle, to the side that holds it. Each side also has an orb, and this orb can both protect nodes when held nearby and also gain possession of a node without having to damage it. The orbs can break stalemates and turn the tide fairly quickly, if properly used. They are so dangerous that someone can sacrifice themselves whenever they run across an enemy’s orb, giving their life to send the orb back to its generator.
The maps are generally good, often compact but giving a larger sense of scale by the use of 3D background objects (buildings, rock formations, etc.) – cities look especially cool. In fact, there were really only two that I wasn’t crazy about. From jump pads to pipes, there are all kinds of areas to explore and objects that will get you to them – with the ability to double jump, portals, and hoverboard keeping things strictly in the arcade camp. The vehicles also add a lot. Large tanks power through node defenses while tripod-like Necris darkwalkers tower overhead. Speed is the key throughout, and even the bulkier vehicles move around at a decent clip. The designs are universally solid, though the hoverboard, as handy as it is and as fun as it is to sling back and forth with behind a vehicle, looks really goofy. Ridiculous looking or not, and even though weapons are unusable while on it, it does save a lot of time from having to hoof it from node to node, so function definitely wins out over form. Again, not quite hitting the intended mark.
Going through the story will certainly familiarize you with the maps for online play, as you’ll be putting them through their paces, thanks to a single-minded AI. The bots are competent when it comes to free-for-all and one-on-one, but they are horrible at working as a team. The lack of cohesion is particularly nasty in capture the flag games, with someone grabbing the flag while others just rummage about without any serious aim at protecting the carrier. Most bouts ended up with me having to capture the flag myself. This is varied for multiplayer, of course, reliant as the experience is on players’ skills, but the story mode is filled with harrowing moments of desperate flag. Multiplayer is as one would expect, with the AI no longer an issue and player performance the key factor in how enjoyable the game is. Aside from a cleaner and more concise interface and browser, there isn’t much else on that front that could be fixed, because, save for character customization, it is largely the same as before.
The games that tore me away from III’s predecessors also present a problem today. In a world where most multiplayer first-person shooters are class-based, the Unreal Tournament series would seem behind the times. But that’s not necessarily true. I was having a great time after a round or two of readjusting. There is plenty of room for all kinds of styles, from the quick burst, class-based action of Day of Defeat to the realism of Red Orchestra to the hyperkinetic, over-the-top style of Unreal Tournament. So for fans of this style of first-person shooter, there is a lot to like here, random acts of silliness aside. The problem that Epic faces is the same one faced by those behind successful competitive fighters, like Sega and Capcom, which is that they have a winning formula that both the core fan base and the general gaming community is familiar with and fairly fond of. Any significant changes will be met with howls from one camp and a general uneasiness from the other, but to cater to the former involves making seemingly minute, needless changes that will be utterly lost on the latter. Choosing the safer route, Epic went with slight tweaks, slightly adjusting the damage rate here, the firing rate there, and wrapped it all up within the bloom- and reflective surface-heavy third Unreal Engine. The action is still solid, but those who got their fill in 2004 will find this outing one that can wait – until some tantalizing mods come out to sweeten the deal, that is.
For those that have simply dabbled, like myself, then now is a great time to take the plunge. There is as much room for fast-paced action that emphasis solo skills within a team as there is a class-based system in which the team itself is the unit. The single-player campaign is a good way to practice, and enjoyable for what it is, though the computer receiving an extra teammate handicap is an annoying duct tape answer to AI. The spectator sport-tastic – “RAMPAGE!” – style is still holding, though, for now.
Unreal Tournament III doesn’t go nearly as far as its predecessors in terms of bringing the series forward. In fact, from a layman’s perspective, not much has changed at all – graphics aside. Series aficionados will notice the gameplay tweaks, with the same rigorous defending and hatred of that comes with progressing a competitive series. It would be easy to scoff at Unreal Tournament, what with multiplayer class-based first-person shooters having taken prominence over the faster and all-encompassing style of UT et al., but I still have a fondness for this style of game: a white-knuckled, arcade-paced experience that is as much a throwback as it is timeless. This isn’t for those who have long tired of the series, but it certainly is for those who still enjoy the flag carrier's sweaty palms and quickened heartbeat.