According to my calculations, Santa brought me a copy of Unreal Tournament (GOTYE) at the end of 2002. It was something of a surprise; up until then, there had been a touch of the “no ultra-violence” about my access to games, and yet there we were, with my parents spontaneously introducing me to one of the most violent games available at the time. (It is a strong possibility that they had no idea what they were actually buying.)
I might play UT2004 every December to mark the festive season, but the big day itself belongs to the original and best.
UT Isn’t Just For Christmas
Unreal Tournament is in some ways the best possible introductory FPS one could ask for. Its arena structure is fundamentally forgiving — a single death is not the end, it’s just a single point on the scoreboard with plenty of room to catch up again. Even if you do lose a match, battles are always fast and varied so a replay of one little level is hardly a chore. There’s never that situation where you’ve forgotten to quick-save for half an hour and then have to walk through the exact same sequence — besides, a second go at one match is just another round to learn the layout and where to find all the best weapons and power-ups.
Unreal Tournament is also such an imaginative game that it still takes the breath away. It’s not just that it’s exactly all the things people say — pulse-pounding, adrenaline-rushing, fast-paced, joyous destruction — it’s that it’s all of those things in the most fantastical environments and with a satisfying narrative framework. It is the complete package.
It’s hard to capture in words the glee that UT causes. You think, sure, it’s an arena shooter, so you just run around blowing people up. What’s special about that?
It’s the time you lob a flak shell and it intersects perfectly with your target. It’s the time you capture the Flag with 3 hitpoints left. It’s the time you speculatively toss a rocket round the corner and it gibs somebody. It’s the time you get Godlike in a match with a 25 kill limit (yes, that’d be a Flawless Victory).
There’s something about the game that makes it very easy to feel skillful. But whether it’s fluke or genuine skill, snagging those ridiculous trick-shots and multi-kills is utterly priceless.
Of course it also works the other way. It’s the time you headshot yourself with a ricocheting Ripper blade. It’s the time you let off six rockets into a corner rather than as you round it. It’s the time you release your fully-loaded Biorifle shot into the face of an enemy and it destroys both of you. It’s the time you detonate the Redeemer missile a little bit too close. Winning or losing, UT has a boundless ability to spark joy.
It has to be down to the iconic weapon set, from which I find it impossible to pick a favourite. Maybe it’s the blazing green plasma bolts and kaiju-esque cutting torch of the Pulse Gun? Maybe it’s the instant purple beam or devastating explosive combo (that I can only pull off if I stand still so the cursor remains lined up) of the Shock Rifle? The green-glowing explosive minefield of the Biorifle? Or, yes, the glorious overkill of launching six rockets at somebody with the Rocket Launcher?
Every weapon (okay, except the Minigun) launches a projectile with some kind of fun twist. Whether it’s a ricochet or a high arc or just a beautiful glow, everything hums and swishes with bright pyrotechnics and satisfyingly crunchy impacts. I think some of the most fun levels are the ones where there’s a big room where everyone has space to dodge incoming missiles and launch their own salvos, leading to massive, sustained firework displays — and you’re right in the middle of it.
When I first read the back of the box, I was a little afraid that UT was an online-only game, and that I’d hardly be able to enjoy it at all. Thankfully that did not turn out to be the case: not only does it offer randomised Practice Matches to fill those ten-minute gaps between dinner and running a bath, it has the Ladder.
The thing about the Ladder is that it offers a gentle escalation of challenge. Playing an isolated DeathMatch with the bots on Auto-Adjust Skill Level can be quite swingy, bouncing between Godlike and merely Challenging as you alternately dominate and get dominated. (It also does not automatically adjust the number of bots to match the size of the map, so smaller maps can end up as explosive whirlwinds. Another thing I need to try modding in one day?)
The Ladder, though, is completely curated. Human beings went through each map and decided how many bots should be on each, and what traits they should have. While the raw difficulty of the bots rises gently across the Ladder, the maps are mostly arranged in order of difficulty and drama too. The DeathMatch run starts on a basic spaceship against a single weak enemy and ends on the brutally exposed Peak Monastery against the best of the best (let’s not dwell on how often I fall off those narrow paths). The first Domination match is a decaying city block, while the last is an imposing oil rig with aurorae playing in the sky overhead. And of course, the very final battle against Xan on his HyperBlast ship flying through open space is a suitably spectacular climax.
Once I had satiated myself on what the came in the box, I quickly realised that all those PC Gamer cover disks I had been accumulating for the past couple of years also contained UT mods.
Yes, my first truly singleplayer FPS wasn’t even a real game — it was the Team Vortex mod Operation: Na Pali. As if UT‘s fabulously varied and imaginative locales hadn’t already taken my breathe away, ONP blew my tiny little mind. You mean you can have a story in a shooter? You can travel across a landscape on a journey?! Even better, while I went in expecting maybe five or six levels, it has over 30 amazing places every bit as beautiful, intricate and spectacular as those I’d later find in the original Unreal.
This is how I know it was 2002 that I first encountered UT — because it was while playing through Operation: Na Pali that I fell in love with Erasure’s cover version of Solsbury Hill. That came out in January 2003, so would have been doing the rounds on the radio in the background while I was exploring the world of mods, after having gorged on the Ladder. Funny how some things stick with you. (…Actually it’s not that funny, I would have been 14 and this was literally a formative experience for me. Sheltered life etc.)
For all it’s almost a quarter of a century old, and I’ve been playing it for twenty years myself, UT doesn’t even need any coaxing to run on modern computers. I’ve never had trouble with it from starting in Windows 98, moving to ME and into XP, from Vista to 7 and now 10. It’s on my main PC. It’s on my gamedev laptop Overlook. It’s on my little writing laptop Evitar. It’s on my retro XP rig Monument. So not only is it a fantastic game, it’s a gift that has kept on giving through the years and is likely to continue doing so for many more to come. It’s always the first game I use to break in a new system, or even a new mouse or keyboard. If a setup can handle Unreal Tournament, you know everything’s going to be all right.
Alas, Epic have recently delisted Unreal Tournament from all storefronts for reasons unknown, so it may now be difficult for you to experience the carnage for yourself (if, by some horrible twist of fate, you have not already done so). Luckily the game has no DRM, and even its installer works from any old folder — so I always carry a copy around on my keyring USB stick… just in case it needs to be installed on a brand new system at any point. I don’t get new systems that often, but it’s best to be prepared, you know?
So thanks for twenty years of fragging, Unreal Tournament… and here’s to twenty more!