Unreal Tournament 2003
How do you follow up a game like the original Unreal Tournament (UT)? It was the best of the breed when it was released, and it remained so for years after. That's a pretty tough act to follow. Still, with Unreal Tournament 2003 (UT2k3), Epic Games has filled some pretty big shoes. Though there are aspects in which I still prefer the original UT, I think the sequel is indeed its rightful heir and a worthy one at that.
As I noted in my review of UT, there were some who complained about its graphics. I can't imagine anyone complaining about UT2k3. Seriously, the latest version of the Unreal technology is simply amazing. UT2k3 is, hands down, the most amazingly pretty first-person-shooter (FPS) game made to date. It simply has no equal right now.
Whereas the characters in the original were somewhat blocky, both in their look and their animation, the characters in UT2k3 feature an insane level of detail. The models are so well done that they look like cartoon versions of real people. Technology has progressed to the point whereat it is possible to notice the expression on a character's face in the midst of a fight. Getting hit with some weapons may cause fire to break out temporarily on the surface of a player's armor. It's amazing.
If the models are amazing, the environments are even more so. The level of detail is at least a couple of orders magnitude higher than the original UT. Whereas the maps in the original were typically pretty sparse, it's hard to find a map in UT2k3 that isn't brimming with a wealth of little details. Everything from the beautiful foliage on some of the outdoor maps, to the corroded and pitted piping in some of the indoor maps lends a depth and a realism to each scene that simply hasn't been done previously.
As it stands, UT2k3 is the new benchmark game in terms of graphics. It's the game with the best modeling, the best texturing, the most amazing special effects, the most insane level of detail, etc. There simply isn't any other game like UT2k3. Suffice it to say that if you like eye-candy, UT2k3 is the way to go. Damn it's a good time to be a gamer (grin).
I should mention that this does come at a price, however. When I first bought UT2k3, I was still running a GeForce3 Ti200 graphics card. With that card in place, my framerates were kind of sluggish across the board unless I turned down the detail levels and ran at 800 x 600 x 32 bpp. That GeForce3 card carried me through a lot of gaming, but it simply lacks the muscle to do UT2k3 justice.
Since then, I've upgraded to an ATI Radeon 9700 Pro, and that card definitely has what it takes. With my new Radeon card, I can run UT2k3 at 1280 x 1024 x 32 bpp with all the graphical settings maxed out, and I still get butter-smooth framerates. Do yourself a favor; read my thoughts about ATI vs. NVIDIA and go buy a Radeon if you have the cash. You won't regret it.
The audio in UT2k3 is much improved over the original in almost every way. I say 'almost' because I think the original had more and more original music. Still, serious players turn off the music in pretty short order, so I don't think that's much of a complaint.
What has certainly improved is the overall power and stability of the audio portion of the engine. With UT2k3, I don't have any of the screwy audio problems I had with UT. I haven't once heard any distortion, any freaky reverb, any harsh and ridiculous environment changes, etc. The audio quality of UT2k3 is a big step forward for the franchise as a whole. It sounds positively amazing when using the EAX extensions with an Audigy 2 card.
The sound effects are all nicely done. The ambient sounds are even better than the original. The announcer has more, though arguably not very useful, things to say. There is a larger and more interesting selection of character voices. I particularly like the much larger palette of sounds used for jumping, pain, etc. The old UT got a bit boring in that regard after hundreds of hours, and the additional samples in UT2k3 should do much to alleviate that.
As I indicated previously, my only complaint with UT2k3 in the audio department is that I wish it had more and better music. I do turn the music off when playing competitively, but I often leave it on while playing on public servers. It helps add to the experience, and I just don't think UT2k3 does as well in this regard as UT. Still, this is a very minor complaint. I doubt if many gamers will even notice. I just happen to be a gaming geek and an audio geek.
The interface is a clear improvement over UT, though it arguably doesn't do as much as it should. I love the ability to tweak the system settings in greater detail without having to go to advanced preferences. I also like the more "tactile" feel it has thanks to the button clicks and other sounds. That kind of subtle feedback is very affirming insofar as it gives confidence that the interface really did respond to a command.
Essentially, the UT2k3 interface does what the UT interface did, but it does it better. Where I think it falls short is in community features. The original UT broke ground for its genre with its powerful game browser and chat facilities. I guess I was hoping that UT2k3 would go farther still, ala Tribes 2 (T2), and provide buddy lists, forums, clan/warrior pages, etc.
Granted, many other FPS games don't do this, but UT2k3 is so very clearly positioning itself as a game for "professional" competitors, I'm surprised such features are absent. Community features like these do a lot to help make T2 the amazing team-oriented game that it is. I think UT2k3 would benefit greatly from them as well insofar as they help people and clans connect.
I have but three complaints with the interface at present, and these should be alleviated by the next patch (for the most part) as I understand it. First, the internal weapon-switching command is less capable than it used to be. In UT, you could set up your configuration so that pressing a single button would toggle between two weapons. You can't do that so easily in UT2k3.
Second, there is presently no facility for recording demos. Demos have been a huge part of my UT experience. I've taken them for all the competitive matches ever I've played, and I've learned a ton from them. The next patch will supposedly allow demo recording at a server, but not at a client. This is simply wrong. UT2k3 should have the same (or better) demo-recording features as the original UT. Anything less would be a serious omission for hard-core players.
Third and finally, the interface provides too little feedback for common operations. The maps in UT2k3 are not exactly small, and many of them take a non-trivial time to load. You would think that a simple progress bar would be provided, but this isn't the case. Instead, a static graphic appears and just sits there. In my view, this is inexcusable in light of the length of some of the load times.
This is where I think UT2k3 only improves on the brilliance of UT. The original UT brought a depth and flexibility to FPS games that was heretofore largely unseen. UT2k3 keeps all the best features (e.g., dodging, multiple weapon modes, etc.) while fixing some problems (e.g., gratuitous "spam", translocator abuse, etc.) and adding a host of subtle and wonderful refinements.
For example, I'm not sure whether the overall weapon damage has been scaled down or whether the player armor/health has been scaled up, but whatever has happened it's welcome. It was just too easy in UT to kill another player. Far too often, mindless spam dominated maps in UT. That is, largely un-aimed fire from rockets, flak, etc. would often carry the day. One or two players with shock rifles could pretty much dominate any location. This is no longer the case in UT. Battles are more involved, and can be far more thoughtful.
Similarly, power-ups have been toned down. The damage amplifier no longer provides a ridiculous power boost; rather, it provides a potent but more manageable boost. The different sorts of shield power-ups make it easier to acquire protection without conveying the same huge advantage as the shield belt in UT. Better still, the addition of the adrenaline-powered moves allows players to activate certain benefits selectively when most needed. This does much to make adrenaline a tactically important and largely impossible to dominate resource.
Just moving from point to point in UT2k3 is much richer than in UT. Jumping and dodging remain largely intact, but jump-dodging, double-jumps, wall-jumps, and other neat moves have been added. This only heightens the importance of intelligent play. UT was a world apart from Quake III Arena, and UT2k3 is just as far beyond the original UT. I don't think these changes can be underestimated in the degree to which they give the gameplay greater depth.
Sorry, but UT2k3 is no better than UT in this regard; i.e., it doesn't have a story either. It does feature an absolutely stunning opening in-game (i.e., not pre-rendered) cinematic, but the whole tournament thing still fails to provide any story beyond kill or be killed. But as with UT, I can't say it bothers me. I didn't buy UT2k3 because I wanted a story.
Just as the original UT offered a lot, so too UT2k3 packs a lot into a single game. Traditional deathmatch and capture-the-flag modes are present, and a host of mutators make a return in this sequel as well, as do many favorite maps (though sometimes with significant changes for the remake). The domination mode of play has been altered significantly, and I think for the better. In the past, it was possible for a team to win at domination simply by translocating around the map without firing a single shot. The new approach should force teams to be more intelligent in how they approaching taking and holding control points.
Sadly, the assault mode has been ditched, though the get-the-ball-to-the-goal bombing run mode is an almost sports-like substitute. It remains to be seen, of course, whether these changes have the staying power of the original UT, but I think they will. The sports-like quality of the bombing run mode is particularly intriguing and might turn out to be strangely addictive.
UT2k3 offers a lot of different maps on which to play, and these are not traditional fare. The environments are so detailed, so beautiful and alive, that they almost detract from play. They are actually so graphically amazing that staring at the scenery is a real danger. Still, I think this is a good thing. Some of the maps aren't quite right, I think, in their "flow", but this is a relatively subjective impression. The new CTF-Face3, for example, just doesn't have the same appeal as the original, but I do think it is enjoyable nevertheless. Overall, the map selection is strong.
As with the original UT, the bots are still some of the best AI bots in FPS games made to date. They don't seem to be quite as smart about selection of tactics and weapons, in my experience, but perhaps this is deliberate. In the original UT, some of the bots were inhumanly precise with their fire. I welcome bots that display human-like fallibilities.
The arsenal of weapons has been greatly improved in UT2k3 as well. Almost all of the weapons from the original are present (sorry, ripper-fans), but they are all less spammy and have been tweaked to better reward teamplay. The link gun alone is a great—and to date underutilized in my experience—tool for two or three man teams. The rocket launcher is no longer so clearly dominant. The flak cannon is more useful at range. Neither the shock rifle nor the lightning gun are the ridiculously over-powered weapons that they were in UT. In my view, the weapons have all been improved this time around.
All things considered, I would have to say that UT2k3 serves up exactly what one might expect. For your gaming dollar, you get a bunch of amazing maps, entertaining game modes, solid bots, fabulous weapons, a plethora of mutators, and the most aesthetically beautiful gaming engine yet made on which to run them. I've got no substantive complaints with the content of UT2k3.
As might be expected, the multi-player element of UT2k3 is great. The network code is as smooth (or perhaps smoother) than the original game. All of the game-based features are well-thought-out and implemented in UT2k3. I think what I've said already about the content of the game summarizes it nicely. UT2k3 is a great multi-player experience, plain and simple.
Just as I thought UT was a must-have game, so too I think UT2k3 is a must-have game. I can't say I'm surprised that the UT community still remains vibrant and largely unaffected by the introduction of a sequel. The original game is still a blast to play, and UT2k3 requires an awfully beefy system to make full use of it. The number of servers, players, leagues, ladders, events, and so forth will only grow over time, however, as more powerful hardware becomes more common.
For those with a powerful system, I recommend buying UT2k3 immediately. It's a game worth getting into "on the ground floor", so to speak. I think it's definitely the future of the UT franchise, and I think it's also destined to help shape the future of competitive gaming. Lots of other games feature more complex modes of play, vehicles, and other such niceties, but UT2k3 definitely gets it right where it counts, offering rock-solid, pulse-pounding gameplay. Trust me, you won't be disappointed with UT2k3 once you get the hang of it.
Reviewed by Phileosophos