Unreal Tournament 2004 Review

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Publisher: Atari
Developer: Epic Games, Digital Extremes

Platform: PC
Reviewed on PC
Windows System Requirements: Pentium III 1 GHz, 128 MB RAM, 3D video card, DirectX 8.1, internet connection for online play

When games transform into a franchise with annual installments, there's a certain sense of dread that comes over me. The Madden series of games, while usually fantastic, also innovate little from year to year, relying instead on roster changes and a graphical facelift. Back when the team at Epic Games unveiled their intentions and new naming scheme, many of us were skeptical. Had Unreal Tournament run out of steam? Were we setting ourselves up for minuscule upgrades and a $50 a year fee to have the latest and greatest? Thankfully, at least so far, the answer is a resounding no. Unreal Tournament 2004 is close to a master work, containing tons of new levels, new modes, and a great excuse for upgrading your video card.

Kevin Rice

For the six of you that may be unfamiliar with this series, Unreal Tournament (UT) is a first-person shooter (FPS) designed to play like a sport. While there are games with similar descriptions, UT sets itself apart with an extremely fast pace and unique, gorgeous environments. The game includes standard modes like Deathmatch and Capture the Flag, but unique modes add life and replayability, such as Double Domination, Assault (which is back this year), and Onslaught (brand new to this year). In fact, the game has around 100 maps that come with the game to accommodate the multifarious game modes, which is far more than many games, even after modders and map makers have had their turn. The sheer variety is incredible.

Training Camp

While the run-and-gun style of play is familiar to any FPS fan, there are a few things that separate UT 2004 from the crowd. First, nearly every weapon has an alternate firing mode, making it like carrying two weapons at once (and there's no limit on the number of weapons you can carry). For example, the Shock Core's alternate fire is a large energy ball that, when shot with the Shock Core's primary fire, explodes into a big plasma-like bomb. Your Assault Rifle doubles as a basic grenade launcher. With some guns, the alternate fire instead acts as a zoom or homing device, so picking off that pesky enemy halfway across the map becomes that much easier.

Second, movement in UT 2004 is a game in its own right. While the usual crouching, jumping, and running are all in place, UT has always featured special moves and dodges. Press any directional button twice quickly and you'll dodge-jump. Dodge-jump onto a wall and then jump again, and you'll wall jump. Fill the adrenaline meter and you can use the direction keys to enter platformer-game-like commands to gain special enhancements like temporary invisibility or double speed. Good players will never run for more than a few seconds without jumping in some direction. Learning this skill can be disorienting, but once mastered it becomes an enormous advantage.

Finally, the single-player enemies (bots) are pretty damn good. There are plenty of difficulty levels to select from, and that setting changes more than just the bot's accuracy. The bots use all the firing modes on weapons and take advantage of the special movements. More importantly, the bots use these commands appropriately – not just randomly in an effort to make them look clever. Depending on the game mode, you may have bots on your side as well, and they approximate human players, making the offline experience almost as compelling at the online mayhem.

Going Solo

For those of you new to the series, the best place to start may be offline. Online requires some experience. Instead of the typical progression of maps resulting in an arbitrary trophy, there is an actual tournament of sorts in the single-player mode. Each game mode is introduced and explained, providing valuable preparation for the online experience. There's nothing worse than hopping online in a new game and having no clue where you are or what you're supposed to be doing.

While the offline gameplay plays second fiddle here, it could easily be sold separately. Beyond the usual features (lots of maps, bots with varying degrees of skill, etc.), there are major enhancements. You can control each bot with your voice. Instead of using a sequence of keystrokes to command your computer controlled teammate to defend, you can simply speak the bot's call signal and a command. Most of the time, this works. You'll need a microphone, of course, and for the extra $10 you spent on the DVD Special Edition, a decent Logitech headset is included.

This year's version adds challenges, a few of which are mandatory. After you win the first few rounds in the Deathmatch tournament, you'll be challenged to a high stakes game. While most challenges allow you to opt-out at some cost, a few are mandatory. The opt-out cost is also new. Each round in the tournament costs a number of credits, and boasts prizes larger than the entrance fee. If you struggle with FPS games this could be a pain, but you can also repeat rounds to build your nest egg if you get stuck.

After qualifying, you'll be forced to pick teammates to help you battle an opposing side. Each teammate has statistics like accuracy, agility, and aggressiveness to help you customize your side to your playing style. In a nice twist, the game will make you play against potential teammates before they will join you. In other words, if want a team of sniper-like bots, you'll need to be doubly accurate to defeat them all and "prove your leadership."

As you progress through the single player game, new modes of play become available and optional challenges arise. While most FPS games with a multiplayer emphasis have a simple single-player mode, UT 2004's single-player mode is challenging and extremely well done. Not only will it take you a few days to complete (depending on bot difficulty and your dedication), you'll want to replay certain maps for the sheer fun of it all.

The Killer Mod

The standout addition to UT's familiar gameplay styles is Onslaught. It adds something the UT franchise has lacked since inception: vehicles. We're not talking a generic plane and a run of the mill Jeep here, either. There are plenty of creative airborne and ground-based vehicles here for the choosing, and each of them is useful in its own way. But why are they only available in Onslaught?

To start with, Onslaught is sort of a mix between Tribes 2, Battlefield 1942, and PlanetSide. The maps are gigantic, and each map has a set of nodes, with players starting in power cores on opposite ends. The only way to destroy the opponent's power core is by grabbing a chain of nodes from your core to the enemy's by capturing each individual node. Despite the maps' huge scale, this keeps the firefight concentrated in specific areas. You can teleport between any nodes your team owns, keeping the action moving.

This is where the vehicles really come into play. Vehicles are much faster than hoofing it, and are vital for simultaneously protecting one node while capturing another. Each vehicle is unique and almost perfectly balanced against the others. (You'll swear those damn tanks take too much punishment until you man the turret of one.) The airborne vehicles have the distinct advantage of... well... flight. Epic Games has wisely added a new weapon, the AVRIL, a homing missile designed to take out both airborne and ground vehicles. These easily turn battles into virtual mayhem, especially once you have eight or more players on each side.

The vehicles also add tactical elements to Onslaught. The Leviathan tank is powerful and will annihilate nearly anything in its way, but it's often better to leave it protecting important nodes and off the front line. The Manta is fast and agile, but has a low armor rating that best suits it to battling foes on foot. The Hellbender ATV is certainly strong, but you'll want a gunner with you. Otherwise, your only choice is to run over the enemy (which is fun). Some feared vehicles would unbalance the game, but their implementation is nearly flawless, and there are enough of them to prevent everyone on the server from lining up for just one.

Taking It to the Masses

UT 2004 is truly meant for online play, so after you've had your fill of practice in the single player game, it's time to venture onto a server. As of this writing, there are thousands of servers available, accommodating nearly every style of gameplay. Keep in mind the ESRB warning that "Gameplay experience may change during online play." It does. The game already swears at you a little (this is a Mature-rated game), but some online gamers are there to test out their sailor speak. This normally isn't a big deal (who hasn't sworn at a game at some point?), but it's exacerbated by UT 2004's built-in voice chat. It's my recommendation that you disable the built-in chat and use a third party program like Ventrilo unless you want to listen loud-mouthed gamers with few brain cells.

Once you've found a server, there isn't much difference between offline and online gameplay, save teamwork and the skill levels of other players. While you'll run into newbies on occasion, chances are that you'll get slaughtered your first few times online. Much of the online community is comprised of veterans of the series, and it shows. Real humans use tactics more complex and unpredictable than bots, and while this is ultimately more fun it can begin as frustrating. But online play is the core of UT 2004. It's the reason you honed your skills offline in the first place. Stick with it, find a group of like-minded players, and call in sick. Once this game hooks you, it's time for a few all-nighters.

Other Notables

Epic didn't stop after adding new gameplay modes, bringing back Assault and introducing vehicles. If you've got a beefy machine, crank up every detail setting and be awed by the sheer beauty of UT 2004. Like every version of UT, UT 2004 runs well even on older equipment, but games like this can justify that $500 video card and RAM upgrade. Fire looks like fire. Smoke looks like smoke. Water reflects properly. It's all here, and flying by at extremely high frame rates. (I'm playing on a Pentium IV 3.2 GHz with 1GB of RAM and a Radeon 9800XT at 1600x1200, pulling 75 frames a second on average.)

The goodness doesn't stop there. Unlike many games of this ilk, the music is great. Instead of a generic techno or metal soundtrack, the music fits the mostly industrial environments amazingly well. Of course, you're free to turn off the music, but you owe it to yourself to leave it on for a few hours. It adds to the tension and adrenaline rush. The voice work is mostly pulled directly from UT 2003, and thankfully, there are several choices for the announcer's voice. (Admit it; you'll be using the "sexy" voice.)

Which Version Should I Get?

Atari has made the standard game (all six CDs) available for $29.99. For an extra $10, you can get the Special Edition on two DVDs. The difference here is that the DVD version includes over 70 hours of training videos for the included map making tools and a Logitech headset with a microphone. It also comes in a nice tin case. Other than that, the shipping game is exactly the same in both versions, so if you're not into making maps and you've already got a headset, you can go with the less expensive of the two.

I've been covering UT 2004 for nearly a year now, and I was really expecting to find some glaring fault, something forgotten, or something unpolished. I'm happy to report that I was wrong. UT 2004 is the embodiment of an AAA title. It's polished to a shine, it plays like a dream, it's gorgeous, and best of all, it is an absolute blast to play and a must-have for anyone remotely interested in FPS games.

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This page contains a single entry by Editor published on March 18, 2004 5:07 PM.

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