Reviewed: April 21, 2004
Released: : March 16, 2004
Much like Quake, Unreal Tournament started off as a single-player FPS game and quickly evolved into an insanely popular multiplayer online frag-fest. The story was dropped and some incredible enemy and team-assist AI was added and some of the best arena-style levels in FPS history were tossed into the equation and a legend was born.
Unreal Tournament 2004 is the obligatory follow-up to UT2003, but rather than simply releasing a few new maps and calling it a “sequel” the designers have not only changed the style of the entire game, they have packed in more than twice the maps as last year’s game, brought back the infamous Assault mode, added a new Onslaught mode, and tweaked the game engine and AI to near-perfection.
Unreal Tournament has always had a reality TV spin to it, but it wasn’t until UT2003 that the game actually started to resemble a sporting event, complete with cheering fans and organized teams. Unfortunately, this illusion was all but lost after the opening movie, and the game quickly devolved into the same formulaic shooter.
UT2004 takes the sports concept to the next level by introducing new elements such as prize money. You then use this cash to pay your teammates each time you play a ladder match, pay medical bills to heal them when they take damage, purchase or pay penalties for backing out of a challenge match.
Great news for those who still have UT2003 installed on your hard drive; you can now free-up about 4gb of space since all of the 2003 maps have been enhanced for the improved engine and are included with the new 2004 maps. You’ll need that space anyway since UT2004 takes a whopping 5.5gb to install.
Rather than evolving the series, Epic seems to have taken all the elements that gamers loved about the original game and mixed them with the presentation values and new technology of the second to create the game you should now be playing. Chances are, if you are interested enough in the game to be reading this review you have already downloaded the demo and know for yourself just how good this game is, but if you still need convincing keep on reading.
Nobody can argue that Unreal Tournament 2004 delivers the goods. This game is packed with content starting with the ten game modes: Deathmatch, Team Deathmatch, Invasion, Mutant, Capture the Flag, Bombing Run, Last Man Standing, Double Domination, Assault, and Onslaught. Fans of the series will know how most of these work and will certainly rejoice in the return of everyone’s favorite Assault mode. The new Onslaught mode truly steals the spotlight this year and is a concept worthy of a game all its own.
For the solo gamer, you still have the ladder tournament; only things have been spiced up a bit. You start off with limited cash and must pay your team a salary. You earn money for winning matches but you also have to pay to heal the damage your team takes. You can recruit new members from other teams by challenging them to special matches, but don’t be surprised when the AI-controlled teams do the same, trying to steal away your best players.
The single-player game almost feels like a sports franchise mode. You can monitor the progress and rankings of all the teams since the computer is actually calculating all the stats and simulating all the games that are being played in the tournament. You can maintain a full roster then carefully select the right teammate for the upcoming event. Players are ranked as Weak, Strong, Godlike, etc. and with enough skill you can start recruiting from the more powerful teams like the Skaarj – yes, they are now playable characters.
As you complete each event in the ladder the next opens up. Eventually another branch of the tree opens up giving you access to a new game like CTF, or Bombing Run. When all branches have been completed you compete in the grand finale for the big trophy.
The team AI is better than ever and you can still issue basic commands to your entire team or select members using the intuitive pop-up command interface or the new voice-recognition system. It’s never been easier to play and control and entire team.
As always though, the solo portion of Unreal Tournament is merely a massive training camp that will hopefully mold the gamer into an online frag-machine. Multiplayer is the core of UT2004 and that is where the best of the new content lies.
As previously mentioned, there are more new maps in UT2004 than last year’s game, but the designers have gone ahead and “remastered” the 2003 levels and included them bringing the total to more than 100 levels. One nice new feature is the comet-trail that you can summon to point you in the general direction. Yes, some of these maps are large enough to get lost in if you aren’t careful.
While everyone is likely familiar with the traditional game modes like CTF, Deathmatch, and Double Domination, there are some truly classic modes that really shine above the rest. Bombing Run is perhaps my favorite, a sort of extreme-hockey (as if hockey wasn’t extreme enough) where everyone races to a centrally located ball and then tries to return that ball to the enemy ring. There is nothing more thrilling than making that final dash for the ring with enemy fire blazing behind you not knowing if you will make it in time.
We can all rejoice at the return of the Assault mode, not seen since the original Unreal Tournament. This game plays out in a two-phase process. You start off by assaulting a particular target that consists of multiple objectives. While this was a simple affair in the original game the scenarios are much more elaborate this time around and are presented as reenactments of “historical” events. You are even given a narrated walkthrough of the level, which helps to know where to go and what to do.
The time it takes you to successfully complete your assault mission is now the new “par” time for the enemy to do the same when you take on the role of defender. Obviously, it’s in your best interested to complete the attacks as quickly as possible thus putting extra pressure on the opposing team.
Of course the brilliant Onslaught mode is the real star of UT2004. Like Assault mode, you have full use of any available vehicles or turrets, which helps to mix up your strategy. Your goal here is to take control over various power nodes scattered about the level. When you control them all you can attack the enemy base – yes, it’s much harder than it sounds. The maps are massive and you will play most of the game in one sort of vehicle or another. This mode deviates so far from what you expect from a UT game that it nearly seems out of place, but that doesn’t make it any less enjoyable.
Onslaught games normally unfold the same way each time. Everyone races to capture all the power nodes, which ultimately results in one node becoming the key to controlling them all. Teams will centralize combat at this location while one or two lone commandos sneak off and try to attack the base whenever their teammates assume control over the final node. It’s all very tactical and requires good communication amongst your teammates.
Onslaught is very unpredictable so trying to plan elaborate strategies before the match is nearly impossible. You have to think on your feet and depending on the skills (or lack thereof) of both teams, matches in this mode can last anywhere from 2-20 minutes. The vehicles alone are enough reason to never stop playing Onslaught and I look forward to future mods that focus on more strategic use of these craft. You now get to drive vehicles like trucks, tanks, hovercraft, and even a Halo-inspired buggy. There is even a primitive, but no less exciting space battle where you climb inside the cockpit of a space fighter and assault a Skaarj orbital platform in one of the most advanced mission designs seen in the game.
The devastating arsenal of bone-crunching weaponry that Unreal has become famous for returns, with several enhancements. Many existing weapons have received model and texture updates as well as sound improvements. The game also includes all new weaponry for the massive Onslaught and Assault battles, including the massive AVRiL (Anti-Vehicle Rocket Launcher) to take down incoming vehicles, the Grenade Launcher, which discharges sticky explosives on enemy emplacements, vehicles and personnel, the Spider Mines, the vile and brutal arachnid bombs that scuttle the landscape searching for unsuspecting adversaries, and a completely redesigned and reintroduced Sniper Rifle, not seen since the original Unreal Tournament.
There is a new insta-gib option you can toggle when picking a match. This effectively puts a rail-gun in the hands of every player and every hit, any hit, is a one-hit explosive kill. These matches can really rack up the frag count in record time, but they can be equally as frustrating when you are playing against expert players or advanced AI.
With so many weapons of varying power it would seem an impossible task to keep the gameplay balanced. Surprising enough, every powerful weapons has its own disadvantage. Sure, the Redeemer might be able to clear out half a level with a mini-nuke blast but you only get one shot and it only spawns every three minutes. Snipers might be great at picking you off from a mile away but if they stand still long enough to zoom you in they are likely to get picked off themselves.
There is a new enhanced voting system that allows users to choose game type, maps, mutators, rules and settings and enables players to remove troublesome competitors from the game. Custom clan-match voting system allows clans to negotiate acceptable game settings prior to a competitive match.
Do you like to watch rather than play? Check out UnrealTV, a match broadcast system that allows for hundreds of people to view an Unreal Tournament 2004 match with minimal performance impact on a game server. This creates a television sports-like viewing environment for fans to watch professional and other matches.
There is no denying that UT2004 is the best looking Unreal game to date, outshining even it’s story-driven cousin, Unreal 2. Crank this baby up to maximum detail and pick your jaw up off the floor. Most of that 5.5gb installation is levels and textures and it shows with some of the best reflective surfaces, real-time lighting including dynamic effects from your weapons, self-shadowing from the characters, and wonderful explosions and particle effects.
The levels are gorgeous, even when you are playing in the dingy bowels of an old factory. Some of the new levels are breathtaking like the oriental-style dojo set in the mountains, and other like the orbital space station are truly inspired. I’ve caught myself wandering around these levels for several minutes just admiring the scenery in that pre-match tour you can take.
Character models are highly advanced and the textures are borderline photorealistic. At maximum settings you can turn on subtle details you will never see unless you are looking down at their dead body before they fade away into that signature spiral of binary 1’s and 0’s.
Naturally, you are going to need a pretty powerful rig to play this game as it was meant to be played, but UT is probably responsible for more hardware upgrades than any other franchise, so you probably already knew that. Even so, there are a bevy of options you can tweak to make this work on any system meeting at least the minimum specs.
Not much is new in the sound department. We have the same majestic music for the menus that turns into some killer tunes during the gameplay. You’ll ultimately turn down or turn off the music for multiplayer matches so you can concentrate on tactics, especially if you are using the new voice support.
Yes, there is now integrated voice communications, including voice-over-IP technology to allow real-time chat with teammates and opponents during gameplay; voice recognition, allowing players to issue orders to computer controlled bots; and, text-to-voice conversion of typed chat. Voice chat includes 3D audio on supported sound cards, so players can sense where voices emanate from.
Weapon sound effects are excellent and offer satisfying and convincing audio enhancement to the visual effects they produce. While I’ve never actually heard a Flak Cannon I can imagine it would sound just like it does in this game.
Vocally, we have our male and female commentators back for another year. The female voice narrates the historical scenarios of the Assault missions and instructs you during the tutorial. The evil-sounding male voice basically delivers sinister one-liners like “RAMPAGE, DOUBLE KILL, KILLING SPREE”. It’s a little cliché but still pretty cool. The player taunts are getting really old and it’s time for a speech pack upgrade. I’m hearing taunts from 1999. Of course, if you use a microphone, your taunts are limited only by your own vocabulary.
It took me about a week, or 30 hours, to make my way through the ladder matches. Some of those later events are just brutal, and there was a time when I actually ran out of money and had to play a few quick deathmatch challenges to earn some spare cash. As before, there are multiple skill levels so you can tailor the challenge level to your liking or abilities.
The true staying power is the online gaming element and no other game currently available will dominate your online game time like UT2004. This is one of those games that’s easy to start and impossible to turn off. You’ll keep telling yourself, “Just one more match…”
And for those who enjoy the creative side of FPS gaming, Unreal Tournament 2004 ships with the most powerful game creation toolsets ever released to the public - the same software the developers used to make the game. Amateur level designers and mod makers can use the Unreal Editor, including the Unreal Editor's "Matinee" tool, to make their own maps, new game modes and animated movies using the Unreal Technology. Expect some killer mods in the very near future as well as some upcoming licensed titles.
I think Epic has really gone the distance on their latest installment and I’m not quite sure how they will be able to top Unreal Tournament 2004 without taking the franchise in a totally new direction. They’ve proven that vehicles can become an effective tool in large-scale tactical battles and gamers certainly don’t mind stepping out of the first-person view to exercise this combat option. Hopefully we will see even more clever use of both land and air, and perhaps even watercraft, in the next game.
But for now, UT2004 is one of the best, if not the best, tactical FPS games you can play on your PC, either alone or online. With improved gameplay, enhanced AI, and new game modes it’s packed with enough content to keep you entertained for months, and it will take a good solid year to master all the levels and tactical subtleties this game offers. By then, there will be plenty of mods, new maps, and perhaps even a new official installment in the series.
This is a must-own game for every FPS gamer and a good incentive to upgrade your computer if you need to. Just make sure you play Unreal Tournament 2004.