Unreal Tournament III
Gulpinc Down a cherry vanilla Dr Pepper I snaffled from the gigantic fridge in the Epic common room, 1 temporarily forget the taste of fizzy Benylin while chatting to producer Jeff Morris. "Favourite vehicle and weapon? Recently it's been the Axon Hellbender because of the instant shock combo weapon the driver has. It's pretty addictive spewing out this string of shock balls that you can trigger one after another like firecrackers, obliterating any pedestrians in the way!
When you chat to everyone at Epic involved with Unreal Tournament III, one thing is apparent - apart from their love of fizzy American pop - their passion and belief in the game they're making. While I'm here to play the latest build of UT3, it's clear that the development team are working like Tarydium miners to get the game done as soon as possible - and while as we go to press this looks like being November, Epic's ebullient vice president Mark Rein reiterated to me once again that it'll only be released "when it's done."
Unreal Tournament 3 is set on the planet Taryd, a distant planet from Earth ruled by three competing corporations: the cyberpunk Liandri, who actually created the tournament; the military Axon who specialize in beefy hardware; and the oriental Izanagi, who nab bits of technology from the Axon to continue their war effort. In the new single-player Campaign mode, you start out playing on behalf of the latter, along with three AI-controlled team-mates (or co-op with a multiplayer drop in/drop out ability) to take revenge on the person/s who killed your dear old dad.
You use a cool 3D globe map to choose which branching missions you take on next, a la Command & Conquer, and your choices will affect how the story arc progresses.
"Your choices can have huge ramifications down the line in who and where your future fights take place," says Morris. "The special abilities bestowed by completing optional objectives really helps flesh out the universe, and it's great fun to pull these rule breakers out when confronted with near impossible odds." So, for example, you could find yourself taking part in a mission to steal a rival faction's vehicle - if you succeed, that vehicle will be unlocked for future missions.
Partway through the campaign, the game's fourth faction - the' alien Necris - invade the planet, intent on stealing precious Tarydium, infecting everywhere with the goopy nanoblack substance that runs through their veins, unleashing the reptilian race the Krall, and basically turning the human race into an exciting new kind of pie filling. This is where the choices really do have a major impact - do you stem the Necris invasion, or perhaps use it as an opportunity to increase your faction's territory at the expense Of the others?
Kill Or Be Killed
These Machiavellian machinations are all well and good, but let's face it however good the single-player mode is, UT has always been about the multiplayer - the first time I sniped someone's face off and heard the guttural tones of "Headshot!", accompanied by a screen awash with bloody bouncing gibs back in 1999,I was hooked. UT3 has six types of slaughter: Deathmatch, Team Deathmatch, Capture The Flag, Vehicle CTF, Duel (one on one!), and Warfare: the brand new mode that's a hectic mix of Onslaught and Assault.
I immediately hurled myself into a Deathmatch against five other bots on Average difficulty - one up from easy and five away from the frightening Inhuman setting - on an Izanagi Corporation map known as Shangri La, complete with pagodas, statues, lanterns, waterfalls and atmospheric cobwebs strewn across indoor levels. While Morris assured me that there was still balancing to do on the bots, the first match resulted in an artificial intelligence 10-kill win in under two minutes, with me languishing in fourth place. Programming legend Steve Polge, he of the Quake "Reaperbot" back in the mid-90s, is again the man behind the bot tech in UT3 and it really shows - these are some of the best, most realistic Al opponents I've fought.
In one memorable encounter, I was about to gain a point from a sneaky "from behind" frag of a weak opponent, when a rival bot came from a side corridor and blatantly stole my kill. In team games, you can also issue voice commands to bots using a microphone headset which means that the more socially-inept can still enjoy pure multiplayer deathmatches without having to interact with other humans.
Other levels I briefly skirmished included an ice level called Biohazard, a classic UT indoor techno level named Sentinel packed with industrial pipes and enclosed spaces screaming for the Flak Cannon, and a level set on the Necris home planet of Absalom, with ominous religious buildings and nanoblack pumping through the outskirts.
On the larger levels, the newly-added hoverboard (yes that's right - bits of UT3 have been inspired by Back to the Future II!) becomes essential to zip about when there are no vehicles to commandeer, although it's worth remembering that you can't fire weapons while riding, and you take considerable damage if hit.
"Things like the hoverboard and the Necris Darkwalker really shook up our vehicle-focused gametypes," chips in Morris, as I hitch my hoverboard onto a fast-moving Manta hover-vehicle, "which is precisely what we wanted to do."
The huge variety of vehicles in UT3 is staggering - every time I get hands-on with a new build of the game, I manage to get behind the wheel of something new, alien and very, very dangerous.
This time I managed to have a blast with the Scavenger - a spider vehicle that can roll itself into a ball, or spin its razor-sharp legs around dicing any nearby enemies into thin moussakastyle slices - and the Nightshade, a cloaking mini-tank with a link beam weapon.
You'll have heard about the Necris Dark Walker before - a terrifying War of the Worlds tripod that fires a devastating death ray that incinerates all in its path - but another equally awesome vehicle is the Axon Leviathan, a monster tank that can actually hold up to five players, with each on a different weapon, or when deployed, launch a very powerful cannon blast that can destroy other vehicles with one hit.
War At The Mall
Suddenly, a gaggle of games testers (or is that a geek of games testers?) pours into the Epic games room and I'm joined for an Unreal Tournament III multiplayer session with the new Warfare mode on the Market District map, made up of tight urban areas, multi-leveled walkways and wide-open areas ideal for sniping. Warfare involves two teams battling for the domination of a number of nodes on a map, by either destroying them or by grabbing and delivering a glowing orb into their shimmering faces. Link a few nodes together and you can then destroy the enemy's core, winning the match.
With two nodes active at any time, the result is a fast and incredibly frantic team game, with action concentrated around certain areas, and blood, gibs, plasma and body parts scattering in every direction.
As a new multiplayer mode, Warfare works incredibly well - the balancing of the weapons and vehicles makes for some tight matches, and there are tons of useful tips that you discover as you play, such as the fact you can heal your team's nodes with the Link Gun's alternate fire. If the timer ticks down to zero and no-one has destroyed the other team's core, the game goes into Overtime, and it becomes a tense fight to the death - with much angry smashing of a mouse into the desk if you're eliminated (or maybe that's just me...)
We can't be more excited about Unreal Tournament III - there really isn't any other shooter on the radar that has the game's breadth and depth of weapons, vehicles and level design, all enveloped in truly mesmerizing 60fps graphics that ache to be displayed on a giant monitor.
If Epic's long-awaited new formula Unreal Tournament continues to fizz and delight the tastebuds (unlike the new Dr Pepper) as much as this playtest, we're all in for a rather satisfying and loud gaming burp.
Download Unreal Tournament III
Its My Moment of glory. A fellow Blue Team player holding the stolen red flag is desperately hoverlioarding back to base, pursued relentlessly by two nasty red types. I spot the trouble, hijack a Necris Viper bike and mow both of the shocked foes down from behind, allowing my team-mate to plant the flag triumpliantly and win the round. A brief laugh and acknowledgement from my team-mates, and then I'm back in the action. I sat down to play Unreal Tournament III eight-player LAN Capture The Flag an hour ago and haven't moved since, my eyes fixed unblinking on the dazzling images, hands dancing over the mouse and keyboard, drool glistening and collecting in the corner of my mouth...
Unreal Tournament 3 is the new confirmed name for Epic's next instalment of the classic sci-fi shooter that first exploded its first headshot gibs back in 1999. I've always personally preferred UT's glorious colourful sci-fi/fantasy universe with imaginative alternative fire options to Quake's rather drab red/brown decor and straight-down-the-line weapons, but apart from the supreme vehicle additions in UT2004.I never felt the sequels had managed to achieve the heights of the magnificent original. That is, until now. While there's obviously still tons of work for Epic to undertake, including thorough balancing and playtesting, I can confidently say that Unreal Tournament 3 is on course to be the best of the entire series. Why? Read on...
The CTF map I played is called Corruption - a gorgeously rendered Far Eastern environment, complete with golden lion sculptures, orange lanterns, water features, rolling hills, ornate wooden temples and, erm, large robotic tentacles pumping poisonous goop into the Earth's crust. Here, the human Izanagi Corporation are attempting a last-ditch effort to repel the evil Nccris Black Legion alien invaders who are slowly turning the idyllic rural setting into a poisoned, otherworldly nightmare.
Beginning on the goody-goody Blue team, I storm straight into a round of CTF and attempt to make it to the enemy temple at the opposite end of the map, grab their banner and return it to base without getting gibbed. Tricky, when you start to appreciate the huge array of weapons that both teams have at their disposal - the classic UT gibsplattering collection of Flak Cannon, Rocket Launcher, Shock Rifle and BioRifle joined by others including the Stinger and Link Gun. All feel substantial, with detailed animated parts on-screen, and each has alternative fire modes for varying kills - the Rocket Launcher, for example, again has the ability to launch multiple projectiles or deadly bouncing grenades, simply by holding the right mousebutton until the on-screen receptacle changes to the mode you require.
One problem in UT2004 was getting around the larger levels quickly without a vehicle, an issue that's been neatly solved by the Hoverboard. Accessible at all times, this device can be used to I grapple onto faster-moving vehicles or even pull yourself into them, as well as various Tony Hawk-style tricks. However, the highlight of this first playtest was the vehicle combat, and although a few of the aerial craft weren't available (including the tentacled and menacing Necris Fury shown opposite), UT3 was still a blast. Highlights from the opposing Axon team include the two-person Hellbender truck that launches lethal sky mines, Goliath tank for pounding enemy positions into dust, and a extremely nimble Scorpion fast car that unleashes bouncing blue balls of death, reminiscent of the weaponry of the clumsy CG twats the Gungans in Star Wars: Episode 1.
Yet nothing can prepare yon for the fun you can have with the awesome Necris Dark Walker, a War Of The Worlds-style killer tripod with snaking legs, a beam weapon that destroys all in its path and an extremely cool sonic blast reminiscent of the "Ullah" from HG Wells' classic novel. In fact, it's so good, it's in danger of dominating vehiclebased multiplayer in UT3 as players inevitably flock to the evil Reds for the chance to climb in the cockpit and unleash Martian-inspired devastation.
So the big question - when will UT3 be released? There are rumblings of a multiplayer demo release in autumn to allow Epic to fully test the online capabilities a few months before release Christmas 2007, but for Epic's lead producer Jeff Morris, UT3 will only be released when it's completely finished: We think we're going to be done by the end of this year, but we're not going to ship it if it isn't ready. One of the reasons for the name change is that we wouldn't want to sell a game called UT2007 in 2008.
Somewhat Belying The fact that I'm an evil badass from space intent on puncturing a planet with giant alien vertebrae and dripping blackened tentacles, I'm currently more occupied with giggling like a schoolgirl. Skimming over charred hill and craggy dale in my personal Viper hover-bike with a joy previously reserved for nuns singing atop the Alps, I tumble over the crest of a hill beneath the sunny skies of the Izanagi Corporation's base of operations.
I see a tank in front of me, and instinctively raise the Viper's suicide hackles - slowing down and bringing up its sides so that my craft looks like a mixture of Batman in flight, a Cobra about to strike and an angry short man leaning back and arching his shoulders so that he can spit into the face of a provincial bouncer. I release the payload and the body of my craft jets into the innocent wall next to the tank while I'm flung backwards and neatly scythed in half by the blades of a passing Scorpion buggy. The tank, it seems, was empty.
As I suppress manic laughter at my ineptitude, a door behind me inches open and the beaming face of Epic boss Mark Rein pokes through and stage-whispers to his cohorts: "You're not showing them that crappy game are you?'' I nod almost unconsciously, my grin extending further upwards; I've just seen a vacant Necris Darkwalker and am about to piss molten laser-fire into the faces off all those who oppose me. Today is a good day.
What missions you embark on and whether or not you defect to a rival corporation will remain up to you -Epic are designing the game so you'll be able to see the ramifications of your decisions in the world at large. This whole shebang is controlled from what's currently a global view - a beautiful Earth-like planet with clusters of white spots marking specific map/mission areas. It's from here, or a screen very like it (Epic are still fine-tuning) that most of your decisions will be made as you play through the game. The 35-40 dots spiral up and over the globe alongside the story arc, eventually leaving terra firma for a few orbital frag-fests, then to another planet entirely for the final set of face-offs.
The Necris faction, yon see, with their devastating Darkwalker tripods and flying Furies aren't just sitting around the multiplayer maps looking menacing. Partway through the singleplayer campaign they invade the planet of the bickering corporations and start transforming it to their own needs, hungry for Tarydium.
For a while you'll be able to ignore it, carrying on with the petty squabbles and demands of your faction, but it's not something you can ignore forever. To begin with, the Necris send in the Krall - horned reptilian chaps who thrive on outnumbering UT squads -and then the Necris and the big guns of their terrifying armoury start to hit the ground. After the invasion, you return to familiar maps that have become infected with the goopy nanoblack that not only runs in the Necris' veins, but also is pumped through their lands. Dark clouds hang over Necris bases, black bony tentacles punch through walls and viscous black liquid oozes where clear water once ran. In short, in single-player and multiplayer alike, it's pretty bloody obvious at which end of the map the goodies and baddies live. In the single-player campaign you won't be alone in your fight either, since Epic don't want you to feel like you're relentlessly fighting alongside barking Al bots. There'll be four main characters in your team, with plenty of verbal sparring, neat dialogue and personal tics crammed in. The aim is to make them feel and fight like real humans, though if you want to test the comparison there will also be a four-player co-op option with all the usual drop-in/clrop-out functionality.
Despite intense journalistic pressure, Jeff Morris refuses to spill exactly which characters will be in your squad, what former UT teams are kicking around (although the Iron Guard certainly seem to be) or what role UT icon Malcolm will play. However, he does admit that you can see some of your pals in the surrounding screenshots, including, "the chick with the reverse bandit mask and the guy with the corn-rows and the tattoos".
When quizzed further, Morris also mentions that a fair number of key UT characters, such as Necris villain Loque, will be making a return to keep the fans happy. No more details escape the man's lips, however, as he uses the brilliant diversionary tactic of dropping a delightful nugget of game trivia into the conversation: Gears Of War's lead character is voiced by the same guy who plays Bender in Futurama. Did you know that? I didn't know that...
Warm And Fuzzy
Unreal Tournament III may have been built from the ground up with an entirely new engine, but the old 'comfy slippers' adage still holds with the gameplay. That familiar, nay iconic, roster of weaponry remains intact - the Bio-Rifle, the glorious Redeemer, the Shock Rifle with its ingenious ploy of being able to shoot the alt-fire plasma emission with the primary fire zapgun for added death-bringing hilarity. But look closer and you become aware of one or two gaps having been plugged - gaps that you probably weren't aware of in the first place.
At the shallower end of the pool, for example, the Stinger (UT-speak for mini-gun) always had a slightly crap alt-fire option. Now, however, it's been gifted with the ability to fire bursts that can pin an enemy to a wall by his head. In a similar fashion, the rocket launcher can now chuck grenades as well as its familiar racked-up missile salvos, while the Unreal Engine physics can now provide stuff like real physical attributes for every individual pellet of a Flak Cannon round.
Gobsmackingly, Epic also claim that the insane graphical complexity of each weapon means that each holds more polygons than an entire map in UT2004. Honestly, that's the sort of factoid that would make the Germans declare a national holiday.
Epic have also noticed that when people are speeding around their imaginary lands in vehicles, two of the most common action keys are rendered redundant, namely duck and jump. So it is that, in a tradition kickstarted by UT2004's Manta, many of the vehicles now have different modes of manoeuvre, to thunderously brilliant effect.
Take the Necris Nemesis for example. As lead designer Steve Polge eloquently puts it: "Real tanks can't crouch" - but this one can. Or at least, it can switch between a ground-hugging sleek-mobile whose turret is firmly fixed forward and a standard drive-and-aim mode, before slipping into a far more interesting gear: having you move along at an absolute crawl but granting you a higher viewpoint, a tremendous amount of firepower and (I admit, grudgingly) a lot more rockets fired in your direction. If you think that's quite cool though, just wait until you see the Leviathan. Jesus 'Capital H' Christ! A tank of the corporations rather than the Necris, the Leviathan is a five-man beast and is - as you might have guessed - bloody big. The driver has control of the accelerator pedal and a smaller gun, while each of his companions blasts happily away with different varieties of heavy weaponry from the tank's roof and sides - each with their own cheery purple energy shield to boot.
When you first see the tank deploy itself into 'crouch' mode, however, your eyes will widen and you'll temporarily forget to breathe. Unfolding itself like the best Transformer base you've seen, with its four guns raising on fire enginestyle hinged platforms, the thing becomes a veritable machine o' death: double the gun barrels circling one liber-gun with infinite range and almighty explosive capabilities.
The Power Of The Dark Side
The Leviathan still doesn't quite match the Necris Darkwalker though. I know you've seen a ton of material on these wavy-legged monstrosities - but I promise you that until you fight against them yourself, there's no way you'll realise quite how intimidating they are.
In my playtest, I was happily nipping around atop my Marty McFly patentpending liovei board on the crest of a craggy outcrop, when a previously crouched Darkwalker raised itself to its full height so it popped into view directly in front of me. At the risk of using two Back To The Future references in close proximity, it was almost exactly like the bit in Back To The Future II where Biff stands on the top of his hotel and is thunderstruck by the sight of the De Lorean appearing over the lip of the building. Only this time the encounter ended with a burning death-ray and a beautifully rendered fried skeleton. Oh, and burning trees. The trees got set on fire too...
To wrap things up, the Epic lads show me a final scene of Whisperish -an outcrop of rock hundreds of feet above water on the Necris home world. For some reason, the broken buildings (minus the black tentacles) remind me of some unholy mixture of Alcatraz and the Vatican. As a tower of smoke billows up in the centre of the map and pillars flare up with flame in the neardistance to indicate the presence of the Redeemer in their midst, I get to wondering - are we actually going to get to play the finished product this year? As ever, Epic respond to that question with a shrug - it'll be released when they're happy with it. There's still a lot they refuse to spill on as well. The introduction of employables for example (something beyond the spider mines of UT2004, although categorically not including auto-turrets, which Epic see as distinctly 'not fun') - not to mention a number of still undisclosed vehicles.
I loved UT2004 because it seemed to do everything - whatever mood I was in, I could find a map or a mode that slotted into the pleasure-hunting parts of my brain like a missing jigsaw piece. UT3 is pulling the same trick -but has found a remarkable number of areas to drizzle tasty gameplay juices into an already successful recipe. I don't know whether it's the hoverboards, the eye-candy or simply the way it delivers instant exhilaration when others specialise in frustration, but it's suddenly leapt above Quake Wars in my estimation. I like having fun, and Unreal Tournament 3 really likes being fun. Blood, pain and death aside, it's a match made in heaven.
Considering How Often Unreal Tournament III seems to be being given away for nowt on Steam, it might seem silly to actually consider buying this game any other way, but Mastertronic believe people will still want a boxed copy, and who are we to argue? Of course, whether you actually want a copy of this is another question.
We don't think the age of the old-school deathmatch shooter is dead, but perhaps modern PC gamers are just tired of extraordinarily homoerotic virtual butt-slapping in a world where men wear ridiculous armour and wield obscenely phallic weaponry. While the women do and dress the same, they just look a bit less ridiculous.
The gaming equivalent of Dynastystyle shoulder pads, UT3 has turned into a vaguely unpleasant version of the game we fell in love with nearly 10 years ago. Substance has been replaced by style and the only time we really ever go back to it is to play some of the imaginative mods that the community keep belching out.
Perhaps that's the reason you should actually buy it, as the main game isn't as fun as it used to be, sadly.
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