Reviewed: November 13, 2002
Released: : October 1, 2002
If you have never heard of Unreal Tournament then you have been living in a cave for the past four years. The game surprisingly knocked the online shooter genre giant iD off their pedestal as many gamers chose UT over Quake 3 which was released at about the same time. UT was great for its several innovative gameplay modes that had been released in a commercial online shooter before, while Q3 on initial release merely offered a few modes that were essentially old hat, such as the standard Deathmatch mode. UT's graphics might not have been quite as slick looking as Q3's, but they were very good and the gameplay was fresh, especially the much touted "Assault Mode."
UT and Q3 both catered to essentially an online-only market, even though both of the games offered a single player tournament ladder that could be played alone against AI opponents. Q3's offline mode was little more than a short tutorial on how to play the online game. Only after iD released the Team Arena add-on did Quake 3 begin to approach the complexity of UT. UT's gameplay offered more gameplay modes and generally offered more gameplay for the single player gamer. Still, there's no denying where the effort went when making both of these games - they're primarily multiplayer games, designed for LAN and Internet play.
Now, four years later, Epic brings us Unreal Tournament 2003, which makes use of an all-new game engine. Like UT, UT2003 is primarily targeted at the online first person shooter community, even though it does offer a slightly better offline tournament mode than UT did. The graphics are quite frankly the best graphics available today on the PC platform. The sound effects are excellent, the network code nearly flawless, but what about the gameplay? Is UT2003 as innovative as the original UT was? The short answer to that is "not quite."
For Unreal Tournament 2003, the designers have upgraded the story as well as the gameplay. The arena combat is now styled after a major sporting event with all of the high-tech production values and screaming fans that you would find at any WWF event. The game sets up this theme with a great opening movie showing the heroes versus the stereotypical bad guys, complete with screaming fans cheering for their favorite fighters as each team makes their way to the teleportation pad. Once there, they select their arena of choice and are whisked away in a fizzle of a teleportation beam.
I won't cover the basic control scheme of UT2003, except to say that it's a standard first person shooter with fully customizable controls. Like most FPS games, the most popular method of controlling UT2003 is going to be the mouse and traditional WADS cluster on the keyboard. Like UT, UT2003 offers "advanced" moves like dodging with rapid double clicks of the movement keys, such as double-click left strafe for a quick jump to the left. You can also "double jump" by pressing the jump key and then pressing it again at the apex of the jump to get an extra lift.
There are four modes of play. Deathmatch is the first, which is your standard kill all the opponents and whoever scores the most wins, and in team mode this is kept as a team score. Then there is Capture the Flag which is where you have to go get the opponent team's flag and take it back to your flag while keeping them away from your flag. There is also Double Domination, which is where there are two "hot spots" on the map and your team has to control both of them for a period of about 10 seconds without letting the enemy team touch the hot spot to score.
Then there is a new mode, called Bomber Run, which is sort of like deathmatch football. The object of this game is to get the ball and take it into the opposing team's goal. You score by shooting the ball through the goal for 3 points or running through the goal with the ball for 7 points. First team to make 20 points wins. The ball carrier cannot use weapons, but he can pass the ball to team members. But wait - what about Assault? It looks like that got taken out of the game.
UT2003 has a single player mode that you can play through by creating a "profile" using one of 8 skill levels from Novice to god-like. The AI opponents increase in their skill level the higher the difficulty level you choose. Like UT, in UT2003 you will open up new maps by winning rounds as you rise through the tournament ladder. Eventually you will have to challenge the current reigning champions in some traditional but very brutal one-on-one deathmatch play.
If you are looking for a quick frag-fix you can always just setup and play a quick instant action game on any of the available maps. Just choose whatever game mode, any teammates and any other variables then head into the arena. Of course, anything you do in the single player mode is only meant to be training for the relentless challenges that await you when you eventually make your way online. No matter how good you "think" you are there will be a dozen other gamers who are ready, willing, and able to put your ego in check.
The weapons in UT2003 are mostly similar to UT but vary in a few subtle and delightfully unique ways. For one thing the sniper rifle has been replaced by a sniper-lightning gun, which makes it a lot easier to see snipers after they reveal themselves with a shot. The basic melee gun has an alternate fire shield now, which is sometimes useful for blocking during Bomber Runs. The pulse rifle is about the same; the plasma rifle is about the same; the rocket launcher has been toned down somewhat by only allowing 3 "multirocket" shots at a time; the flak cannon is more or less the same, yet still devastating at close range. All of the weapons have really great looking special effects including the Redeemer, which creates a mushroom cloud of destruction so large you are lucky if you can witness the effect without dying.
There are a lot of power-ups in the game now, such as adrenaline pills, armor shields, and extra damage. You gain adrenaline by picking up the pills or by making kills or scoring points for your team. After you collect 100 adrenaline points, you are enabled for adrenaline mode. You can then press a key combination to activate a special power-up mode that can greatly enhance your abilities. For example, you could hit forward 4 times to get the Speed power-up, which makes you move significantly faster. Or you could hit the backward key 4 times to enable the Booster power-up which will act like an automatic regeneration for your health. The tutorial informs you of only one of these special moves leaving you to explore through trial and error to find all of the other combinations and their results.
Many of the maps are brand new and UT veterans will recognize many favorites even though they have been given a massive facelift as far as the visuals are concerned, as well as tweaked with regard to weapon and power-up placement. A few of the maps seem to have that gothic Q3 style to them while other maps will dazzle you with their lush outdoor environments or towering skyscrapers that extend into the stratosphere. There are always plenty of pick-ups, shortcuts, and lots of jump pads that let players bounce all around the arena. All of the maps are extremely creative and well suited to the various styles of combat. There were only one or two levels that seemed a bit oversized leaving you to look for the action.
AI has been improved upon to the point where even while playing against bots you will swear you are playing against real humans. This goes for both teammates and opponents. The best example of improved AI is in the Bomber Run missions where your teammates will actually work in a coordinated effort, even passing you the ball when appropriate. As in the first game, you can bring up a communication menu and order your teammates to guard, attack, or assign them a variety of other duties, either individually, or as a team. This is useful for assigning a guard to your flag or domination point, or if you return to your base with the enemy flag and yours has been stolen you can order them to retrieve your flag while you hide in a corner.
The gameplay is fast and furious even in single player mode. It is constant mayhem and a pure adrenaline rush, possibly even more exciting than the original UT. It is a perfelct blend of the gameplay of UT and Q3 but using an all-new, much improved engine. The only downside is that other than the new Bomber Run, the gameplay is more or less just a slightly tweaked UT, so it's not very innovative. In fact, with the loss of the infamous Assault mode, some might think gameplay has taken a step backward. But it's still a heck of a lot of fun.
The new graphics engine is simply amazing. The effects for the weapons and explosions are second to none, but where the graphics truly excel are in the maps which are simply stunning. There are tons of little details all throughout the maps and there are plenty of curved surfaces, making the arenas much more realistic looking. If you have the hardware to run this game at the highest level you will get to experience over 2gb of textures.
Each level is as close to reality as you will experience with currently available hardware. The gothic levels have a fine mist that refracts the light, and the outdoor levels feature terrain so lush that Turok fans will be envious. Water effects are spectacular and if you have the detail cranked up high enough you will see the glowing ripple reflections on walls and ceilings. There is excellent use of subtle color details to mark the path to the red and blue team goals. In any given location you will find some hint at which way to go to reach your desired target.
Other lighting effects aren't so subtle. The colored real-time lighting and shadows break new ground in realism. You have your standard lens flares and tint reflections from nearby lights bouncing off your weapon, but the true level of detail only becomes apparent when you take the time to appreciate the swirling dust particles in the high intensity beams of the spotlights or the spinning patterns of the Bomber Run goal vortex.
The characters look much more detailed than they did in UT, and there's a lot more variety in the types of skins you can use. You'll spend at least thirty minutes just marveling at each of the dozens of characters you can choose from ranging from punk rock warriors in battle suits, to all sorts of whacked out aliens, giant insects, and even some Egyptian themed warriors. As amazing as these characters can look, this is the first detail setting you will want to reduce in favor of faster frame rates. The simple truth is that you will seldom get close enough to these characters to ever see, let alone appreciate the intricate details the artists have put into their creations.
You can customize the graphics engine to get them to run extremely fast on even a modest PC, but the graphics engine is capable of pushing even the top of the line computers with everything on at max. You can set resolution from 320x240 all the way up to 1600x1200. There are many options in the game for setting the level of detail you wish to see. It will be up to you to make the appropriate visual sacrifices to get the framerate as smooth as you want. It may take you many hours of gameplay to find the perfect mix.
The best part is that this new engine will most assuredly be used in many more games to come and with each new title we will see what this engine is really capable of in non-arena type games, and in the mod's that are sure to come out for this game.
The sound effects are well done. Each weapon makes its own unique sound and surround sound is implemented allowing you to hear your enemy shooting at you from behind so you know when to spin around and return the favor. The sound of footsteps running changes depending on the material you're running across. There are voices for each of the characters in the game and they will taunt you and each other as they make frags. There are also visual taunts like pelvic thrusts and others that are rather humorous to see in the heat of battle.
During multiplay mode you can set keyboard shortcuts for your favorite taunts if you want to taunt live players. An announcer will come in and describe some things that happen, such as when you get a multikill or activate the adrenaline modes. I'm not sure if it was amusing or annoying that the announcer couldn't keep up with the constantly changing conditions during Double Domination. He would constantly cut himself off as the Red and Blue teams would alternate possession of a domination point. There is also an excellent tutorial for each of the game modes that is narrated by a pleasant female voice who describes every aspect of gameplay. As with the graphics, there is excellent support for a wide range of sound cards, but if you have an Audigy or another advanced card with surround or even Dolby Digital surround, you will be treated to one of the most immersive audio experiences in FPS history. Even the standard EAX mix is a step above anything released before this.
The music is pretty much the same kind of stuff you heard in UT, but there are some new tracks for some of the newer maps. It's all techno-synth stuff that slips into the background, overwhelmed by the glorious sounds of weapons fire, explosions, team and enemy taunts, and announcer voice-overs.
You can expect about 10-15 hours to make your way through the entire single player experience on normal difficulty. Many of the early ladders offer simple gameplay where you can dominate and win on your first try. Once you get into the CTF and DD modes your success if largely dependent on your team, who you pick before the match, and how you command them during the match. I didn't lose my first match until the third or forth round of CTF.
However, this game offers endless replay in the form of the instant action for single player and in the form of multiplayer online modes. Multiplayer is really what Unreal Tournament 2003 is all about, and with the new optimized network code anybody - even those with standard dial-up connections - will be able to take their fragging skills online.
And let's not forget the wonderful map editor that ships with the game. There will no doubt be a ton of mod's and new levels for this game once people are up to speed on the level designer. With a huge existing fan base and excellent community support you can rest assured that this game can stay on your hardrive for at least another four years, or until the next installment of Unreal Tournament hits the shelves.
The net code for UT2003 is among the best of any game out. Playing on my cable modem I almost never encountered lag and it seemed like I were playing over a LAN. This was refreshing compared to other new games like Battlefield 1942, which has a lot of lag even for broadband users. The multiplayer plays out pretty much exactly like the single player mode, except that you get the joys of having human opponents and teammates. The built-in game matching service is extremely well done and makes it very easy to find a game that you want. It has filters, lets you save out your favorite servers, and even lets you mark certain players as your buddy so that you can later find out when they are on and get together in the same maps.
While Unreal Tournament 2003 doesn't offer anything innovative, it certainly does what it does do very well. Essentially this is a facelift to the original UT game, and that in and of itself is probably worth buying the game for since the quality of the graphics is so good. There are some innovations in how the gameplay works. For one thing the action seems more fluid in UT2003 compared to UT, and there are the jump pads and the power-ups and adrenaline mode and the new Bomber Run mode to consider.
Fans of online arena combat games will most likely find UT2003 a worthwhile purchase. If you didn't like UT then UT2003 isn't going to change your mind. This type of game takes quite a bit of practice to really get good at, but there are a ton of servers and plenty of opponents available to school you and keep you challenged for the months and years to come.