It’s been some time coming, but after a long wait Unreal Tournament III has finally hit the 360, quite a while after PC and PS3 owners were initially able to indulge in some frantic fragging action. The question is, was it worth the wait, and do a handful of new maps and a couple of extra characters justify the delays?
I’ve been a fan of Unreal ever since I first stepped foot out of the Vortex Rikers prison ship and onto Na Pali’s soil, and have played every incarnation of the series thrust onto the market. I was blown away by the original Unreal Tournament and its superb bots and unrivalled multiplayer (sorry Quake fans, but QIII didn’t cut it for me), but was let down by the sub-standard Unreal II and dismayed at the stripped-down and far too Quake-like UT 2003. Fearing that Unreal was going downhill fast, I was then blown away all over again by the excellent UT2004, which, in my opinion, restored the series to its former glory. Following such a high point, UTIII was always going to have a difficult challenge ahead of it, but this is one task that it has, thankfully, managed to scale fairly successfully.
Featuring the same blend of hardcore, high octane fragging that the UT series has become known for, UTIII brings with it plenty of new tricks, along with the usual next generation flair. At its core, UTIII is the same, fast-paced multiplayer experience it’s always been, with more than a smidgen of tactical play thrown in. And, as has become the main focus of the series, much of the gameplay revolves around team play, with the majority of game modes pitting one team against the other, although there’s still a free for all deathmatch to get your teeth into.
This time, however, the whole tournament aspect of the game has taken a sabbatical, and has been replaced by a single player campaign which sees the UT new guy, Reaper, and his own mercenary team forge an alliance with decorated tourney champ, and long time UT favourite, Malcolm.
Malcolm is currently working for the Izanagi Corporation, helping them wage a war against both their corporate rivals, Axon and Liandri, as well as fending off attacks from the Nercis and a new UT faction, the fearsome Khrall (the Skarrj are not present sadly).
This story mode basically features UT matches strung together in a mission format. You select missions from the map screen, and, once you acquire them, by completing certain missions, you can play ‘tactical cards’. These give you a tactical advantage, such as reducing the number of opponents or granting you reinforcements.
As you move through mission after mission, you’ll compete in more challenging matches that encompass all of the included game types, and CG movies help move the story on between chapters.
The rest of the game is purely a multiplayer (or single player against bots) experience, and you can select any game type and map to play, or create map lists that cycle through locations and game types at the end of each game.
The game types included in UTIII are vastly trimmed down from UT2004 transition – , and UT favourites like Domination, Double Domination, Mutant, Bombing Run and, unfortunately, Assault, are no longer available. But, the modes that have made theDeathmatch, Team Deathmatch, Capture the flag (CTF), Vehicle CTF and Warfare – are all spot on, with Warfare being of particular interest.
Warfare is basically an updated version of UT2004’s Onslaught mode. In this, two teams fight to destroy each other’s power cores. To do this, teams need to capture ‘power nodes’ to establish a link between their power core and the enemy’s. Once this link is established, the core’s shields drop, leaving it open to attack.
As well as the important linkable power nodes, Warfare adds to the Onslaught mode by including ‘support nodes’. These can be captured at any time (they aren’t linked), and usually grant access to more powerful vehicles and weapons, which can change the tide of battle. Some Assault style elements are included too, such as the need to capture tank factories or destroy roadblocks to proceed.
A major change to the mode is the addition of the Node Buster Orb. This glowing sphere can be picked up and, if carried into an enemy node, will immediately capture it (you normally need to destroy the enemy’s node and then build your own in its place, which takes time). The orb can be used defensively too, and holding it next to one of your nodes protects the node from damage, as long as you stay alive.
The result of these changes is a refined and much improved Onslaught mode, which, while still very tactical, is far more focused and action-packed.
UT’s weapon roster has always been a highlight, and UTIII doesn’t disappoint. But, like the game types, several weapons have now been cast away. All the staple UT armaments are present and correct though, such as the rocket launcher, Link Gun, Bio Rifle, Shock Rifle and the mighty Redeemer, while the likes of the Lightening Gun, Mine layer, Assault Rifle and Ion Cannon are no longer in use. The weapons included have either been replicated intact, such as the flexible, and always deadly rocket launcher, while others have been tweaked, like the new ‘Stinger’ minigun (which was actually included in Unreal Championship) and improved Sniper Rifle. And others have been modified to be more balanced. For example, the Redeemer is now far easier to shoot down, making it harder to nail that massive kill, and once picked up, you have to use the Redeemer before you can cycle to another weapon.
There are also some new deployable items. These include shaped charges, for blowing up barriers and vehicles, and the very cool time dilation field, which creates a large cube of ‘slow time’. Walking into this makes you, or anyone else slow down to a crawl. This makes for a great defensive tool, as it can severely hinder the enemy attack. But beware, bullets and rockets also travel slowly through the cube.
Vehicles are a definite high point, especially in Warfare, and all of the UT2004 vehicles are back, along with some nasty new Necris transport, including the War of the Worlds-like tripods and speedy attack bikes. Like the weapons, some returning vehicles have been refined, such as the improved Scorpion, and more balanced Goliath tank. And yes, the ridiculously powerful Leviathan returns, but it’s now easier to destroy, so it’s not as cheap as it was in UT2004, and the opposing team still has a chance (but it’s still a match winner in the right hands).
A great new addition in some game modes is the hoverboard. Accessible at any time by pressing X, this allows speedy movement without a vehicle. This really comes into its own when in a CTF game (where flags can no longer be carried in vehicles) and getting the flag from A to B is much faster on your trusty hoverboard. This is made even more effective as, while hoverboarding, you can latch onto vehicles with a kind of laser grapple beam, letting the faster vehicle drag you around at speed. But, if you take a single hit while on a your board, you’ll go flying, dropping the flag at the same time, so you need to be careful.
Being the first next-gen UT title, UTIII immediately aims for the visual jugular, and Epic Games has pulled out the stops to make this one of the most aesthetically pleasing FPS titles around, and it uses the powerful Unreal engine to great effect. The visual style has changed greatly from UT2004 though, and while previous UT games were far bolder and brighter, UTIII is distinctly more grimy and darker in feel. This isn’t a bad thing as such, but I can see that some purists may prefer the older style. In fact, if you could describe the style, it’d be Gears of War-chic, and it’s obvious that the development team that produced UTIII is the same responsible for GoW. This similarity includes the characters, especially the main protagonist, Reaper, who is surely the long lost brother of Marcus Fenix.
Of course, all of these incredible visuals, game types, weapons and vehicles don’t mean anything if the gameplay isn’t there to support them, and luckily, this is true UT, and the gameplay is spot on. Action is fast and frantic, and despite the lush visuals and amount of action going on, there’s not a single bit of slowdown in sight. Epic has clearly taken time out to make sure that everything is balanced, and this is true in all aspects, with no one weapon being too overpowered, and opposing team’s vehicles all having weaknesses. The usual, rock solid level design that UT is well known for is present and correct too, and the plethora of levels are all great. Even better is that the 360 version comes with 5 ‘exclusive’ levels. Well, I say exclusive, but let’s face it, it’ll take a few days before community map makers reproduce these levels for the other formats.
And it’s here, with user-made content, that the 360 version stumbles. As good as the game is (and it’s very, very good), Microsoft’s downright draconian approach to Xbox Live content is currently stopping any future likelihood of user made content being available to download. This is something that both the PC and PS3 allow, and if Microsoft doesn’t give in to Epic Games and the community’s requests to allow said content, it could severely hurt the game’s overall appeal for many on the Xbox. Yes, I’m sure that there’ll be plenty of official (read: costly) content made available, but tons of free user maps, characters and mods would turn a great game into a truly, ahem, epic one.
As it stands, extra content or not, UTIII on the 360 is an excellent port, and while COD4 fans may still meander off to their beloved after a while, this is one of the best multiplayer blasters you can get on the platform. Oh, and there’s also an exclusive Gears of War video included on the disc too. But, I’d bet real money on it being made available on YouTube by the time you read this.