Blog 479: Ultimate Unreal Binge 4: Unreal Tournament 2004

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

Unreal Tournament 2004

UT2004 is, for me, where the franchise lost its footing. I remember buying it a short time after getting my last computer, when I realised I finally had a system capable of running it.

I remember liking the fact that Deathmatch had been relegated to a little pre-tournament warm up, rather than a full ladder as it was in the original UT. My opinion has taken a sharp twist since then — originally, I felt that Deathmatch was a little aimless (hurf) and I preferred to spruce it up with Domination mode at the very least; but now, I appreciate the brutal simplicity of killing everyone faster than they can kill you.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s not exactly a bad game. But it does suffer from a lot of middle-aged ailments.

When you see Xan take rockets without flinching in this cinematic, you scoff -- but then you play the game.

UT2004 is a funny old sequel. It’s massively hammed up, the already over-the-top violence turned to cartoon levels, the hand-egg UT2003 announcer romping you through every match.

And yet, despite this huge amount of ham, the actual game is toned right down. Movement speed — dropped. Weapon damage — horribly dropped. The six-barreled rocket launcher? Naw, you can only have three. The sound effects — whoever heard a soft explosion? The link gun sounds like hitting some jelly with a pillow.

As Jack once described his (dad’s) Rolls-Royce, “it handles like a boat”. I think the same can be said of UT2004.

The atmosphere is much lighter, too. While the original UT tended to favour dank industrial units and forbidding ruins, no matter how hard it tries UT2004 just can’t seem to manage the same ambience. The most dank of the industrial levels are still quite clean and bright, the ancient temples comfortable and airy.

The severity of this particular arena is belied by its bright countryside atmosphere.

I think nothing highlights the rot more than the tournament ladder finale. It’s Hyperblast 2, a remake of the classic from the original Unreal Tournament.

Hyperblast 2 is at least five times the size of the original map, probably a lot more. The cosy little personal transport has been grown into a nightmare cathedral — throw slow movement speeds and weak weapons on top of this and the brutal lightning-skirmish is stretched out into a dull and seemingly endless slugfest. One on one deathmatches just don’t work at this scale.

The game allots a 20 minute limit for this match, and that alone should set alarm bells ringing. Even the most hard-won fights with Xan won’t push 10 minutes, and you’ll be skittering for every single second of it. Contrast this with UT2004, where you will not win (unless it’s on Easy) — you will score one or two up and spend the rest of the time waiting. Yes, the king of fast-paced combat, delivering no action more hearty than running several laps around the level while Malcolm gets his arse in gear.

There is no tension, only frustration.

Malcolm is a giant fuckface.

Where does UT2004 gain ground back?

Assault mode is a good place to start. Huge, expansive mini-campaigns where the more drawn-out nature of the game enhances rather than detracts. UT‘s assault missions, while good, are a bit hit and miss; either taking hours or dropping in a couple of minutes. UT2004‘s levels are long and throaty, throwing in vehicle sections and long strings of objectives to keep the game going.

The crowning glory of Assault is the Mothership Assault level. A brilliant rip-off of the attack on the Death Star from A New Hope, it combines the awesome Skaarj architecture of the original Unreal with the huge but detailed bombast of 2004 — commencing with space-fighter dogfighting and then proceeding on foot through the eerie green interior (one of the few places where the atmosphere is spot on).

While the Skaarj mothership does have a trench, you are not required to fly along it.

I think they could have done more with the team management stuff, too. A minor RPG element that only kicks in if you lose a match and have to go through the qualifying rounds again to get money, you have to pay your bot team-mates to play with you. Sometimes they get injured, and you have to pay to make them better again.

But that’s about it. There’s no buying upgrades or anything (unless you count bloodriting the best bots from other teams to join you), and if you lose all your money you’ll get magically bailed out. It’s just a piece of annoying fluff that makes losing a game even more punishing (as if having to slug it out for another 20 minutes wasn’t bad enough).

I would have done it with a full story. Make your sponsor a character, add in bonus “friendly” matches to please the crowds and get product advertising deals, have grudge matches against the guys you badly pasted in the last ladder game…

A missed opportunity, I’d say, and one they continued to miss with UT3. UT4, children?

TO BE CONTINUED...

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