Unreal Tournament

So, fitting with my recent decision to get back into gaming, I picked up the ‘Unreal Anthology’ a couple weeks ago since I felt like getting some mindless shooting action.  Also, five games for twenty bucks is pretty hard to resist.  Since I possess the attention span of a four year old, I began playing every game in the box on the same day.  I’ve had three (and a half, if you’re counting ‘Unreal Tournament 2003’) of the games before, but since I decided to rebuy them, I simply gave them all a go with the intent to look at them with fresh eyes and fingers.  Since it plays the fastest, I was able to complete the original ‘Unreal Tournament’ first out of the five, and here we are now, with me having given it my first run-through in probably three years.

Unfortunately, if there’s one thing I can say about the collection as a whole before I delve into this particular entry into the series, it’s that (and I can’t be alone on this) the Unreal series has not aged well.  I know that many will disagree with me, but it appears that while every Unreal game is phenomenal for its time, they seem to decrease in quality exponentially after they’ve been out for just a few years.  It’s not very noticeable if you pick one up and keep playing it for a long while, but when you revisit one, my god do you give it a much more critical eye.  You start discovering many, many more flaws and strange design decisions than you did when you first gave it a run, and the end results are generally games that manage to be fun, but are deeply troubled due to rather archaic styles of design and gameplay.  There are plenty of games that are able to still be magnificent despite their age: ‘Starcraft’, ‘Deus Ex’, ‘Fallout 2’, and numerous others, but the Unreal series so far has not turned out any of them.

Now, I’ll be the first to say that when it first came out, I was totally in the ‘Unreal Tournament’ camp instead of ‘Quake 3’.  I played the living hell out of this game when I first acquired it, pouring ungodly hours into random matches on Morpheus and other classic maps.  I probably tried out every mutator, every map, and every mode a thousand times each.  I loved it.  But the light of hindsight is harsh and glaring indeed, and aside from a few token matches on Facing Worlds and Morpheus just for old time’s sake (in case you haven’t guessed, that’s pretty much my favorite map in any FPS ever), I haven’t really had any desire to play it since I completed the campaign.  After grinding through the single player aspect, which wasn’t nearly as fun as it used to be, and actually beating Hyperblast for the first time in my life, I just feel like uninstalling it and freeing up the hard drive space.  My passion for the game simply isn’t there now.  I don’t even know what happened.  I still recognize it as being a really good game, but it seriously just feels like work after a while.

But before we get to why that is, let’s back up and look at the game.  ‘Unreal Tournament’ ostensibly takes place in the future where a major mining conglomerate named Liandri has established a neo-gladiatorial tournament that pits competitors from various walks of life against each other in bullet-based competition.  Some aspects of it make no sense whatsoever, like how the mechanics of respawning actually work, but otherwise, it’s good enough for what is essentially a plotless game.  An average level of ‘Unreal Tournament’ is simply you versus your competitors in a closed arena, filled with weapons, ammo, power-ups, and the occasional deadly trap.  All the various game modes are pretty typical fair, with the usual deathmatch and capture the flag variants represented, albeit with a couple more unique additions.  Domination requires that your team hold a set of control points in order to generate points, while assault, easily the most popular and talked-about of the modes when the game was first released, requires an attacking team to assault a defending squad while completing several objectives in the process.  The last, despite its limited map selection, is probably the most fun you’ll ever have with the game.  Each map is challenging, balanced, and unique, and never gets old even after numerous plays.

The weapon selection of ‘Unreal Tournament’ exemplifies the ethos of the series quite well: a variety of precise, highly specialized weapons for very different situations, each of which generally has an application in any level.  Nearly none of the weapons are typical, and those that are have been spiced up with additional features, such as the minigun’s dual firing modes or the rocket launcher’s ability to launch grenades, track targets with a single rocket, or launch up to six rockets/grenades at once.  Each weapon is quite balanced and a hell of a lot of fun to play with.  All the powerups are pretty standard material for this style: armor, health, damage amplifiers, and the like.  Nothing amazing and genre-defining, but still good enough to make things more than just rote point->shoot affairs.

Here’s one of the big things about the way I play games: I pretty much don’t do multiplayer online.  I like playing games on LANs with friends, or gathered around a single TV playing whatever console game is being played at the time, but as far as seeking out games on the internet to play with others goes, I don’t do it.  But despite how ‘Unreal Tournament’ is designed to be a multiplayer game, I don’t really feel like I’m missing anything because the developer truly did their best to replicate the online experience offline via their extensive system of bots.  You can make your own bots or play with the existing ones; either way, Epic put a huge amount of time into the bot system in order for it to really bring the multiplayer experience home.  I applaud the effort and think that more games should do the same.  The bots are okay; they’re capable enough to play against and have fun.  But in general, they run predefined routes unless they run into you, which makes the whole process rather predictable after a number of games.  It’s tolerable enough, though.

This is the problem with ‘Unreal Tournament’ in retrospect: it lacks depth.  Yes, everything about the game is very well balanced, and it is fun.  But that fun, at least for me, and at least at this time, only lasts until I’ve essentially got a full grip on the mechanics of everything.  After that, what is there to do?  I’ve cleared the single player campaign, done a bunch of single levels, and toyed around with all the bonus settings, so what is there left to accomplish?  There’s honestly nothing to enjoy apart from what you’ve already experienced.  The bots don’t really change, the game mechanics themselves are relatively unsophisticated, and the maps don’t really have much depth to them after a few plays.  I understand why this game is (or at least was) so popular in tournament-level play; that’s because balance and precise design take precedence over some of the more ‘fun-based’ elements.  But this is, when you get down to it, a game, and when a game gets rote and formulaic, that’s when it starts to die.

‘Unreal Tournament’ manages to halfway cripple itself by literally giving the player everything from square one.  There’s essentially nothing to unlock (unless you’re playing the single player campaign, and then all the stuff there you can get in the practice mode), there’s no real rewards for completing anything or doing anything special.  It may be lame of me to be calling a game out for something like this, but I think it’s fair when you show what it means: there’s nothing to strive for.  I know for a fact that I’m not the only person who plays games for some sort of rule structure which necessitates something to try and accomplish.  As it stands, this is ‘The Sims’ with gore.  While the root game is still balanced and fun, it still doesn’t have enough depth to keep me coming back again and again like I did before.

All the problems with this game come back to the issue of aging.  ‘Unreal Tournament’, quite simply, is a very primitive game compared to what is available now.  Although it was one of the first of its time as far as the multiplayer-focused FPS angle goes, there are many more and many better on the market now.  I would be lying if I said I didn’t still feel a bit of a soft spot for the game; I loved it to death a while back, and I still get some pang of nostalgia while playing it.  But my heart has metaphorically gotten several sizes smaller with time, and it’s pretty hard to ignore some of its more glaring flaws.  I could go deeper into the things I find wrong with it: some of the maps are incredibly stale, the single player’s campaign ramps up stupidly in the last ladder, the really repetitive taunts and voiceovers, etc.  But really, it’s not worth going into.

‘Unreal Tournament’ is a great game that served its purpose when it was made.  Upon its release, it was easily one of the best shooters available at the time, and even today, your time is not wasted getting acquainted with it.  However, suggesting that it still carries the weight it once did is ludicrous; it was never a game meant to last, and last it did not.  All the oldschoolers already have their copies, but all the new gamers should at least play it a couple times just to see what one of the originals is like.  Is it still a strictly necessary game in this day and age, though?  No, I don’t think it is.

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~ by noktorn on January 19, 2008.

2 Responses to “Unreal Tournament”

  1. You’d like it more if you played online! It’s a surprisingly deep game online, that takes a fair bit of effort to get good at. Yeah, in single player it’s boring. But it’s a multiplayer game! I highly advise you get online, it’s a whole different experience.

  2. So, how is the single player campaign? Would that alone make it worth buying?

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