I like the Unreal universe, and all of the Unreal games (yes, even the oft-lambasted UT3). I’ve reviewed some of the Unreal games multiple times, and some none at all — but since I haven’t played any one of them all the way through for a little while now, I thought it would be a nice exercise to play all of them all the way through. Back to back.
- Unreal and Return to Na Pali
- Unreal Tournament
- Unreal II: the Awakening
- Unreal Tournament 2004
- Unreal Tournament 3
UT is the first shooter I ever owned. The funny thing is that it was given to me as a crimbo present; up until then, it was all Age of Empires II and Command & Conquer: Tiberian Sun and Nox and all that kind of thing. Family-friendly stuff.
So I was a bit surprised when, not only did I find a good and proper first-person shooter under the tree, but one of the goriest and most brutal money could buy.
I never looked back.
UT instilled in me (or perhaps simply unlocked) the desire for speed. I was never much into racing games, mind you (too much effort to actually drive the car), but running around pretty fast… I could handle that. Running fast and shooting at the same time… Well, it took me a little while to get the hang of that.
UT has the mystical get-out-of-criticism-free card for me. Every minor complaint is mercilessly gibbed by all the things I love about it. Even when, for a fleeting moment, I think I might doubt my love, I throw open its doors and it hauls me right back in again. It’s pure, unadulterated adrenaline-rush fun.
But it’s not just fun, it’s always fun. It’s fun when it’s too easy and you steam-roll the bots. It’s fun when it’s too difficult and you walk into rockets every thirty seconds. It’s fun when you live and bolt around the levels, it’s fun when you die and the camera goes spinning away in a cloud of blood and giblets. Skillful kills, amazing flukes and daft suicides alike elicit the same grin of delight.
UT is one game where I don’t mind losing. Matches are lightning fast, so even if you lose there’s no hanging around — there’s instant action until you bloody well win.
I love the look of Unreal Tournament — the same glorious environments from Unreal wound into claustrophobic deathmatch arenas or wild capture-the-flag zones, the much improved weapon designs (well, except the minigun, which became the Ultimate Generic Gun), the less wonky-faced character models… It’s a visual treat, even today; while you can argue polycount and texture resolution (and bloom and normal maps), you can’t argue scope and style. Playing Facing Worlds for the first time, when all your world until that moment has been isometric top-down strategies, is a pretty mind-blowing experience. The fantastical universe of Unreal only gets bigger and wilder with UT.
I love its sound too, as matches turn into a cacophonous mush of explosions and burning projectile impacts. Most weapon sounds are the same harsh blasts as in Unreal, and while in that game they often felt like they desecrated the soft, atmospheric music, the pulse-pounding arena battle beats of UT fit them perfectly.
Like Unreal before it, UT eschews telling an actual story in favour of delivering teensy little sub-stories in level and character descriptions. The tournament ladder may be a linear series of stand-alone challenges of ever-increasing difficulty, but the blurbs manage to paint a picture of a bleak future run by corrupt organisations, full of terrorists and criminals. It’s surprisingly atmospheric.
I think the finale of UT‘s singleplayer tournament ladder has to be one of the finest missions ever made, let alone one of the finest end bosses to ever grace our screens.
Xan Kreigor. The mighty Darth Vader-without-the-tassles bad-ass you’ve never seen before but (if you’ve been reading the blurbs) have heard all about. He’s like everyone else in the whole game, except better. And you’re fighting on his home turf, his personal spaceship — the tight, jittery Hyperblast, one of the finest levels in the whole game. Large enough that it’s packed with goodies, but small enough that you don’t spend hours running around without ever seeing your opponent (but we’ll go into that when we get to UT2k4).
While the rest of the game builds up in difficulty, you can never be ready for Xan (let alone the lightning deathmatches that come before him). But in the end, nothing compares to that satisfaction when you finally beat him 15:14, when you’ve clawed your way back from a 1:7 losing streak or kept it point-for-point the whole time.
That is Unreal Tournament.