Blog 374: Three Wise Tournaments

Theoretically, this is a festive blog — because it was many crimbos ago that I found the delightful Unreal Tournament waiting for me under the tree.

This is funny because that was way back when my parents were all “can’t let that Robbie have those violent shooter games, he’ll grow up to be a very nasty man” — and then they got me one of the bastions of computerised brutality. Also fun to note that I’m a lot less angry now than I ever was, after years of fragging bots. Coincidence?

Spurred on by my returning mouse control skills, I’ve been playing all three installments’ singleplayer campaigns. This is a little unusual; I’d usually spend large spurts on a single title (both on the campaign and randomised Deathmatches) rather than quick-fire slamming through them all.

This puts me in a very good position to objectively compare and contrast all three titles…

In General

The original Unreal Tournament was developed as an add-on for the game that started it all, Unreal — hence why one of the main code libraries and a lot of the music files are labelled “botpack”. It’s pretty much the same game experience except that you’re up against bots in tight arenas instead of winding your way through a linear alien landscape. I think that’s what makes it really my favourite title — it’s raw, unprocessed, barely refined from the singleplayer game that spawned it. That means it’s not been balanced into oblivion, like its immediate successor.

Going from UT to UT2k4, a massive slow-down is apparent, and not just in the movement speed. Large maps, combined with weapons that simply don’t do enough damage, make most UT2k4 matches dull slug-fests; except possibly smaller Bombing Run maps, where everyone congeals into a massive brawl around the bomb (bad guys kept pouring in at me in Disclosure the other day, allowing me to get to HOLY SHIT and keep it there for a further seven kills while standing over the bomb). Take the final fight against Xan Mk.III — it’s HyperBlast, just like in UT, but it’s been expanded to at least three times the size of the original map.

For a start, this makes it take hours before you run into your single opponent. By the time you finally do, both of you have hoovered up all the health potions and armour and you’re sitting on 150/199 — oh look, slug-fest time again! Needless to say, Xan always has the best weapons and better aim, so unless you’re really hot/lucky, then you’ve lost it and you’re back to waiting another five minutes before the next fight. The best you can hope for is for him to fall off the ship by accident and put himself back to zero in terms of kit and power-ups, then stumble into him with your massive advantage intact.

UT3 is refreshingly fast again. The singleplayer campaign, though, is pretty nuts. “Respawners… On a battlefield.” — it’s a story-driven campaign that doesn’t quite work given the game-types. One day I’ll sit down and tell you my grand plan for an awesome tournament-based RPG campaign, but that’s not important now. Rockets do a lot of damage again (alas, they still only stack up to three), the sound is loud and bassy (unlike the muted thumps of UT2k4, my entire desk rumbles to the roar of combined rocket explosions)… Unfortunately, due to its next-gen nature, the graphical style is somewhat over-bloomed and over-detailed and generally a bit ugly (Mass Effect has shown that shit can look damn hot in the Unreal Engine 3 without over-doing it; why didn’t you listen to them?). But we can forgive it that, because it is rather fun. And say what you like about the campaign, the inter-team banter is mildly amusing… If you can hear it amongst the sounds of battle.

Considering Domination

I used to love domination. It’s just like Deathmatch, but a teensy tiny bit less mindless (nowadays I don’t mind going for pure kill value anymore) — you have to run around controlling the points for points instead of just blowing everything that moves to pieces. I even converted some DM maps (like Phobos… And HyperBlast. Mmmm) into Dom arenas (that was after I stopped running scared from UnrealEd; still quite a few years ago now).

Domination has had a rough time of it. Jumping to UT2k4, it turned into Double Domination which is an unmitigated disaster. Instead of every second in control of a point giving you points, you have to control both points for about ten seconds to gain one point. The problem with this may just lie in map design, but actually holding both points for that time is damn hard — you can only keep enemies at bay for one of them, and the bots can’t be trusted most of the time. Cue more slug-fests. One map in particular has both control points open from three entrances, making holding them nigh-on impossible.

And then UT3 just didn’t mention it ever again. Some Dom elements were probably fielded for the ultra-mega-hyper version of Warfare they kept trumpeting before release (before it was scaled down into Onslaught++), but there’s nothing recognisable there.

Considering Assault

The Assault game-type was a real triumph of UT. Both teams have a chance attacking and defending a mad assault course, from storming a train as it pelts down the tracks to storming the beaches of Normandy on D-Day. UT2k4 pulled itself up out of the mire with an absolutely intense and clearly Death Star-attack inspired assault on a Skaarj Mothership, complete with space-battle to start it off, before you battle around its innards to reach and destroy the core.

UT3 claims that Assault was absorbed by Warfare. This isn’t really evident except by the fact that controlling some of the nodes makes things happen; like “Tank Crossing”, where controlling a central node lowers a drawbridge. That’s really about it — some minor elements that force some more sequence into your capturing of nodes. I’d say it was more a natural evolution of the game-type, creating more dynamic worlds to conquer, than an integration of Assault.

Though it’s relatively obvious why they were reluctant to keep Assault in there — it’s damn complicated to make Assault maps. The Assault maps in both UT and UT2k4 are brilliant, but I suppose with the emphasis on normal mapping these days, something in their development plan had to give — and it just happened to be the best game-type they ever had to offer.

Considering Onslaught & Warfare

One of UT2k4‘s major failings is that it was so slow. Combine that slowness with absolutely fuck-off massive environments and you have a problem. By all means, we love giant worlds, but without the means to traverse them (and UT will never be Morrowind, so its slow pace doesn’t count as a counter-point, bitch!) quickly, they’re just dull. Slug-fests again — by and large, an Onslaught map goes such that once you’ve got the right set of nodes, you’ll just spend hours battling over the last one before you can finally drop the power core. That’s not fun.

The concept of Onslaught is masterful. Get a large number of bots, give them vehicles, and play join-the-dots over vast landscapes. I played it loads, back in the day, and it was good. Looking back on it, though, too much of a match is just dull slugging. Not to mention that if you’re caught without a vehicle, there is very little you can do — anti-vehicle weaponry tends to be awfully scarce and slow-firing.

I was initially unconvinced by UT3‘s solution — the Orb, that can instantly capture a node whether the enemy has it or not. But it actually adds so much more dynamism; now, even on the brink of loss, with a bit of skill and daring you can make a push that completely turns the tide of the game. Suddenly the last ten minutes are not a boring exchange of rockets, but rather a heart-pounding “we can do this, boys, we can fuckin’ do this” — or “fuck fuck fuck how did they get that last node fuck fuck”. It doesn’t matter if you spill into overtime and your core finally bites the dust — as long as you’re occupied, as long as shit is happening, it’s all good. Hope is important.

They also added the hoverboard. A personal, fast way of getting across the world. The down-side is that you can’t shoot with it (but you can grapple friendly vehicles for a bit of jet-skiing), and if you get hit by even the slightest damage you’ll go tumbling to the ground — which entails being completely vulnerable for a couple of seconds as you pick yourself up again. But careful use really eats up the terrain, so I am definitely pleased by that.

Considering the Weapons

The Unreal franchise has had a distinctive set of weapons since the very beginning (except Unreal‘s mission pack, Return to Na Pali, and Unreal II: the Awakening, which were both developed externally). It hasn’t changed much, except for the mysterious dropping of the Ripper (imagine a gun that shoots circular saws… that bounce) for UT2k4 and beyond. I don’t understand this at all, because round-the-corner ricochet headshots were awesome.

One very intriguing change from UT/2k4 to UT3 is the Biorifle. I’ve always loved the biorifle — slather your enemies in explosive, toxic sludge, or stock up a huge blob with the alt-fire for a one-hit kill in quite a scary radius. The thing about the alt-fire (which I always use) is that the biorifle is quite a short-range gun. One tends to be, say, right in the enemy’s face when one releases one’s dripping, green load. This tends to make one explode too. Now, in UT3 this has changed — it’s not explosive anymore, making it much safer to feed your opponents. What happens instead is that the sludge sticks, and slowly drains their health… Or rather, quite speedily drains their health. Before making them explode. The few moments’ grace allows you to make good your escape (and fill up another blob for the next man), but it also gives your hapless victim enough time to get a shot or two back at you. Which may or may not be enough to take you down.

Always a point of annoyance for me is the Rocket Launcher, which originally allowed you to stack up six — six! — rockets. This went down to 3 and has so far shown no signs of rising. It could be a balance issue — I don’t think even with full health and armour you could survive six rockets in a spiral. But that’s what was so fun about UT — it was completely insane. When your head suddenly went spinning off into the air… Death was as fun as life. And you knew that two seconds after waking up again, there would be somebody else to fill with lead.

In Conclusion

My undisputed favourite is still the original Unreal Tournament. It’s fast, it’s raw, it’s brutal — it looks cool, it sounds cool, and whoops you’re dead, pay more attention.

In second place has to be UT3. Despite its general ugliness, it plays extremely well, and it has undeniably refined the new features and modes that UT2k4 introduced. I think UT3 is a grower; initially, I was not impressed. But with the release of the Titan Pack, a completely free 900Mb add-on (including achievements — something the franchise had been missing for a long time), I gave the game some proper love and it really does rise to the challenge.

In third is UT2k4. This title brought so many wonderful things to the table; vehicles, Assault again, and it still looks very agreeable (Sapphire is more attractive than Jester, despite having a considerably lower poly-count). But it suffers from slowness, and every time I try to come back to the game this hits me. I don’t like slow slug-fests.

But if you’re into your first-person shooters, buy all three. They are, each one of them, very fine games, and will reward you with many hours of joy.

And you tell me...

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