Over the past eight years the Unreal Tournament franchise has carved out a violent path through a blasé sea of first-person shooter competitors, arriving consistently at the top of the pile as one of the best titles in the genre.
The series has never been much for grand crusades, elaborate story campaigns or execution of carefully thought-out strategies. Instead, it provides an incredibly fast run-and-gun assault across an enticing array of futuristic arenas in an adrenaline fueled explosion of charred metal, flying limbs, and high-impact projectiles. Like its predecessors, Unreal Tournament 3 follows suit with an immense and highly satisfying multi-player slugfest, though in the end it feels like more could have been done in its three year development cycle to improve the formula a little further with some fresh ideas.
As a genre, the first-person shooter continues to steadily evolve. In recent years many of the mega-hit games have slowed-down the action to a more deliberate, strategic pace that places a greater emphasis on tactics, completing mission objectives, and conservative use of weaponry and ammunition. That’s all fine and good, but sometimes you just need to get a little crazy. UT3 shows the old-school days of carrying a full arsenal on your back and running around an arena at high-speeds while firing off volleys from a dozen different weapons in less than 20 seconds is still just as awesome as it was years ago. Its lack of intelligence is surprisingly one of the game’s strengths; you don’t have to spend much time bothering with lengthy dialogue or contemplating your next move since it has all been very clearly spelled out for you. It’s time to grab some guns, hop in a tank, and get blasting.
Your arsenal is primarily comprised of tried-and-true devices. The majority of the weapons come directly from previous games and may elicit a ho-hum response from UT veterans. Some have received a graphic overhaul and minor adjustments in firing physics while others are essentially the same. The Impact Hammer and the Enforcer return once again to replace the Shield Gun and Assault Rifle. The rest is made up of machine guns, rocket launchers, and other destructive gizmos including the much-loved Redeemer. The weapons look great and have nice visual effects, but there’s not a ton of new stuff here.
From the second you drop into your first match, it will become quickly clear the improvements made in the graphics department are significant. If you’ve got a machine that will run the game on its highest settings without any chug, then by all means turn that sucker up. Everything about the visuals in UT3 – from incredible lighting effects and amazing map scenery right down to the minute detailing on the massive vehicles and players themselves – is impressive. Fortunately, it even looks sick on a mid-range PC. This very well could be the one area where the game has seen the greatest level of improvement since Unreal Tournament 2004. The third-generation game engine is the one and the same used in Gears of War (only expect a lot more color), so it’s no surprise the game looks this good. For better or worse, UT3 also features the same beefy, testosterone-injected style character models found in the aforementioned Epic title.
Even with a major graphic update, a sweet new engine, and a handful of added features, UT3’s gameplay retains much of the same feel as the earlier games. There are a few pleasant surprises, some of which are greatly appreciated, but overall you’ll still get the exact same brand of gameplay out of UT3 as you did from other games in the series. There are six basic play modes – we’ll get to those a bit later – and a campaign mode that dabbles in a bit of all of them. If you’re new to Unreal Tournament, the solo campaign is perhaps the best way to get a crash course in the different play modes. It’s essentially a mish-mash of the other game modes played in sequence with bots and meshed together with a bit of a story. Unlike the previous games, this time around the campaign mode partly ditches the tournament vibe in favor an actual plot. You’ll play as a hulking meat-head named Reaper whose colony is one of the first to be destroyed by a gruesome alien force known as the Necris. Together with his sister Jester and two other pals, Reaper survives the attack and sets out for some payback. The small group takes on a mercenary mission which pits them against a handful of other human factions to gain the weaponry necessary to take on the Necris. The story is not completely laughable, yet it’s not exactly the high point of the game.
UT3 features fewer play modes than the other series games. You’ll find standard modes like duel, deathmatch, team deathmatch, and capture the flag alongside more complex games such as vehicle capture the flag and warfare. The gameplay in the first few modes is fairly self-explanatory. Vehicle capture the flag changes things up by giving every player a cool new hoverboard in addition to the option of going for some larger destructive vehicular devices.
You can easily hop on-and-off the thing by hitting the Q key. The hoverboard lets you cover ground quickly in larger levels where outrunning enemy vehicles on foot is impossible. It’s necessary since you can’t carry an enemy flag in a vehicle, but it’s also great fun just to float around and attempt tricks. While on the hoverboard you can even grapple onto the back of a friendly vehicle and zip along for a ride. It’s a great addition that’s not without its drawbacks. Getting hit with any enemy fire – even a single shot – while you’re on the hoverboard will send you face-planting into the scorched concrete, dropping the flag and giving the enemy a few extra seconds to sneak up for the kill.
Warfare is essentially an improved version of the vehicle-heavy onslaught mode of UT2004. Both sides will seek to destroy their opponent’s power core which is protected by a force field. Capturing nodes for your side will begin to drain your foe’s power core shield, and controlling all of the power nodes will make their core vulnerable to fire. Capturing certain other non-essential nodes on the battlefield will give you access to vehicles, turrets, spawn points, and other equipment which provides an advantage. You’ll constantly be dividing your time between protecting your own power core, capturing nodes, fragging enemies, and trying to chip away at the opposing team’s core. The inclusion of orbs makes this mode even more frantic. Both teams will have access to these helpful devices which allow you to instantaneously capture an enemy node by running into it with an orb in hand. With the orbs in play, you’ll be required to keep a better eye on your captured nodes if you want to keep them intact. If an enemy drops an orb, you can sacrifice yourself to take it out by jumping on the thing like it was a grenade, which is pretty sweet.
Another major area where UT3 has made excellent gains is in its vehicles, which have doubled in number since the last game. There are some carry-overs from UT2004 such as the Goliath, Hellbender, Raptor, and Manta, among others. These older vehicles are given a slightly fresh look, and a few minor changes have been made to their weaponry and function. The Axon faction also gets a few new machines in the form of the heavily-shielded and destructive Paladin, a long-range self-propelled mobile artillery unit (SPMA), and the airborne Cicada. The best new rides can be found on the dark side. Aside from just looking badass, the Necris vehicles are a great addition to the action. Some of the Necris vehicles have similar functions to the Axon air and ground machines, but there a few which are insane. An early favorite is the Darkwalker. This behemoth is mounted on huge legs, and it’s armed with slow-but-devastating twin laser cannons. The Nightshade is a cloak-able support vehicle capable of laying mines and other traps. Essentially a strange orb with tentacles, the Scavenger is a small and versatile ground walker which can deploy a protective drone.
It’s quite possible to derive a good deal of enjoyment from playing UT3 on your own without ever setting foot online. The A.I. of the enemy bots can be manually adjusted – it’s unfortunate the same can’t be said for your teammates – to suit your ability level. On their easiest setting, the bots bumble around like morons practically waiting to be slaughtered. On their higher settings, you’ll be swallowing mouthfuls of shrapnel. Still, UT3 is really meant to be played against human opponents via local LAN matches or online multi-player frag-fests. This is what the game’s entire design is all about, and it’s where you’ll spend some quality time.
UT3 is visually stunning and the action is non-stop. It’s hard to find much to seriously complain about once you drop in and start annihilating opponents in the huge number of high-quality maps with awesome vehicles and a variety of decent play modes. Epic doesn’t reinvent the wheel here, but it does give players a fresh update on a classic old-school design that will keep you fragging long into the night. After a three year wait, fans may be a little disappointed by some of the changes (or lack thereof), yet on the whole UT3 delivers the goods. And it’s damn good.
RATING OUT OF 5 RATING DESCRIPTION 4.9 Graphics
Unreal Tournament has never looked this great. 4.7 Control
Smooth and responsive controls make high-speed firefights a delight. 3.5 Music / Sound FX / Voice Acting
The music is so-so, the voice acting is solid, and man do I love hearing the announcer yell “Killing Spree.” 4.0 Play Value
It’s more of the same UT excitement with a few upgrades. More could have been done to make the game stand apart from its predecessors in terms of actual gameplay, yet it’s still quite enjoyable. 4.3 Overall Rating – Great
Not an average. See Rating legend above for a final score breakdown.