Review: Unreal Tournament 3

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The expectation of any game series is that it will improve and grow with time, adding features and polishing its positive aspects while chipping away at its problems. All too few series truly embody this ethic of positive change. Those that do typically stand out, and hopefully are recognized for the effort and skill of their design teams. UT3 is one such series. This is a seriously polished and overall quality game, and one that tries to cater to several ranges of skill and involvement, largely with surprising success.

This next paragraph is important, but I’ll try to keep it brief. I think most readers assume reviewers are ultra-gamers who have played every game in a series and know all about the total product. This often isn’t the case – now for instance. I’ve played UC2: TLC and before that only Unreal Tournament for the Sega Dreamcast. Further, bluntly, I don’t typically like FPS games all that much. Again, forgive the digression; it’s to let you know a little where the review is coming from. If your views on this sort of game are like mine, that may be meaningful.

Like almost all its predecessors (excepting the aforementioned UC2), UT3 is a FPS. Its signal attributes compared to the field of such titles currently available are that it’s rather old-school in weapons selection, and it’s extremely fast and twitchy. The core gameplay is based on frantic, almost spastic shootouts between highly mobile fighters, rather than the slog-and-cover mechanics common to more tactical shooters. Former editions of UT and UC have incorporated an Adrenaline system off which the player’s special movement and (in some cases) attack options were based; this has been removed, making all movement abilities universally available. This was a very good choice, for all that it makes the game even more frenetic. Players can double-jump (changing directions in midflight), bounce off walls, and sidestep. The base speed of movement is also quite high. There’s no limit on the number of weapons a soldier can carry – the tactical considerations of HALO or a Tom Clancy’s shooter are nowhere to be found here. UT3 is old-school running and gunning from barrel to butt. While it’s rare to be toting the entire complement of available weapons, it can happen, depending on the arena you fight in – and, of course, how long you stay alive.

Chaos reigns

From your first view of the game, UT3 is all too obviously crafted by Epic, the team responsible for Gears of War. The visual style is nearly identical, differences evident only in the subject matter. The main story character looks suspiciously like a melange of Dominic Santiago and Marcus Fenix in fact, only younger. If you like that graphical look, you’ll be in for a treat; while it might not be quite up to the standards of the prerendered footage released some months ago, UT3 is very high-resolution and slick-looking. Delving into menus before play will give you the welcome option to choose with which hand your character wields a gun (lefties unite!), as well as slightly reducing the size of the weapon in hand, or even hiding it entirely (effectively stealing less screen real-estate, which is good). Further customization allows pad-users to increment both their aiming speed and turning speed separately. While this still fails utterly to simulate the extreme turning speed and aiming precision possible with mouse control, the tweakability is a very nice option and will be much appreciated.

Where's Dom?

UT3’s single-player “Campaign” (quotes because it’s simply a string of different battle types, just like multiplayer would be) is subdivided into chapters loosely linked by a skeletal storyline. There are good guys and bad guys, and… really really bad guys, but what it comes down to is that you’re going to shoot the guys who glow the opposite color than you – or maybe steal their stuff, or blow it up. Oh, who am I kidding – you’ll be shooting them regardless of mission type, and they’ll be shooting you. At the opening of each new chapter there’ll be a brief cutscene introducing the new baddies and outlining the general objectives involved; after that you go shoot stuff. The story is threadbare at best and overtly ludicrous at worst, but doesn’t take up enough time to wear out its welcome; there’s also enough self-referential humor to keep it enjoyable. However, those who thought Gears of War had a bare-bones plotline will get an even harder laugh out of UT3. Bear in mind, there is an actual semi-cohesive sequence of events here, and you can follow it if you try – but it’s definitely not spoon-fed to the observer. Things do get more digestible near the end.

Each chapter begins with fairly easy fights (varying with difficulty selected, needless to say) but ramps up into challenging battles as you progress. The later missions in each chapter typically see the player’s squad faced with 2-to-1 odds in many cases, or 6-to-4 odds with the enemy squad getting exclusive access to an advanced vehicle. Enemy AI is designed for a gamepad-using player, at least on the lower levels; enemies move around a little bit when exchanging fire, but don’t really get into a lot of double-jumping or other evasion. Enemy flag-carriers (what, it’s an FPS – you didn’t think there was a Cap-the-Flag mode in?) will just keep right on walking as you shoot them in the back, rather than trying to dodge or returning fire. Needless to say the bots will ratchet up in intelligence and deadliness as you crank the difficulty level, culminating with aiming ability more suited to a mouse-using opponent. They’ll still fall apart under well-coordinated team tactics, but their evasiveness and godlike aiming compensates pretty effectively.

Hold still

The Campaign missions do a reasonable job of familiarizing you with the basics of the game, for all that play against other humans is inevitably very different from a bot-populated battle. Missions will range from basic Team Deathmatches, to Flag-Capture, to Flag-Cap with vehicles, and finally full-on Warfare. This last mode shows up most commonly and is basically UT2004’s Onslaught with some modifications. If you didn’t play any Onslaught (and bear in mind, I never have), the basic premise is that each team of fighters is out to destroy the enemy team’s Power Core; however, you can’t just walk in and shoot it. To render a Power Core vulnerable, you have to capture all the Power Nodes directly between your Core and the enemy Core – think of it like wiring an electrical circuit. Nodes are glowing energy globes suspended in midair, always quite visible (and open to attack from many angles). When neutral, a Node can be converted to your team’s color simply by walking over it; however, the node’s still pretty vulnerable at that point. A Node will gradually build up defensive armor, but you can strengthen the node’s defenses more quickly by shooting at it with the Link Gun weapon’s secondary fire mode (more on weapons later); the effect of said strengthening is multiplied by the number of team members directing reinforcement energy at the node, so being the lone wolf isn’t always a good thing.

Vehicle tethering in Warfare

Once a Node is fully armored for either team, quite a bit of firepower is required to make it neutral again; however, here’s where the addition to old-style Onslaught comes in. Each team also has access to a single Orb (only one can be on the field for each team at one time), a trooper-portable device that captures and fully armors any Node immediately for your team, simply by bringing it into contact with said Node. The Orb also provides shielding and armor-regeneration for any Node held by your team if kept in proximity to it. Not all Nodes must actually be captured to render an opposing Core vulnerable; some of them grant special bonuses to your team, like access to specific vehicles or exposing the enemy core to more direct attack by mounted heavy weaponry. Some particularly entertaining arenas even have a specific Node which, when captured, causes damage to the opponent team’s Core every 60 seconds while held – regardless of whether or not your team has actually completed the Node linkage to the Core. Needless to say, said Node is as hotly contested as the Prime Nodes required for the actual link, and a team which holds both types of Node successfully is likely to destroy the opposition in short order. However, in any Warfare match, the battle is always vicious and fluid. There are several useful things each team member can be doing at any one time (though teamwork is always vital), and maintaining control of the needed Nodes to destroy an enemy core will keep all the fighters moving across the battlefield at high speeds, exchanging fire and battling it out to capture or defend their Nodes and Core. It’s fast, furious, explosive, and surprisingly deep compared to the objective-based modes of most FPS games. The other game modes are always busy and tense, but Warfare – once you know what you’re doing – is really kind of the meat of the game. This is reflected in its prevalence as a mission type.

hammer and tongs

Of course, you’re not going to know what you’re doing at first (especially if you’re an Unreal near-n00b like me), and Warfare is going to be rather intimidating at first go. Two big positive points are in UT3’s corner though; first, if you take the time to play some Campaign Warfare, you’ll be introduced to the game concept at a less-than-brutal rate as the AI starts out with its murder-meter set to “manageable.” Second – again, following in the successful footsteps of UT2004 – the player will receive plenty of automated help from the game itself. As objectives become critical to your team’s success, a glowing trail of arrows will illuminate your character’s path to each one, typically accompanied by voice-over from the robotic-female announcer. “Grab your Orb… Attack the Prime Node… Attack the West Tank Node… Red Core vulnerable – defend your Core.” Get used to phrases like this being chanted like a background mantra while you play – you’re going to be hearing a lot of them. The callouts are useful though – you’ll be glad they’re there, even if they do get annoying sometimes.

This general sense of aiding the player to adapt quickly to new battlefields and objectives is maintained throughout the game. Campaign CTF battles feature the ability to tap Triangle to immediately display a glowing arrow-trail to the enemy’s flag site, or to yours if an opposing fighter has your flag. The heads-up display for CTF also features compass-like indicators always pointing the direction to each team’s flag site. A mini-map is also visible (it can be electively turned off in menus, though I can’t imagine why one would do so) which for both CTF and Warfare allows players to locate objectives quickly. Important ones will always be highlighted – though sometimes the game’s decision about what’s immediately important in a Warfare match may not mirror your own. Regardless, all these aids are highly useful for the new player to learn each battlefield and game type. They may be like acid on the skin to truly old-school shooter players, who I’m sure would rather we neophytes be thrown into shark-infested waters without life-vests just as they were years ago; each help-indicator can be turned off, however, so they’re not mandatory. In any case, all the help for newbies is much appreciated and makes a fast and complex game much more accessible.

Not the best odds

This isn’t to say UT3 is by any means easy, unless you opt for the Casual difficulty mode. Normal is perfect for the marginally competent gamer with little FPS experience (like this reviewer), while Hard will amp up the challenge for decent players and Insane cranks everything to teeth-grinding intensity. As with most FPSs, success in UT3 is heavily, heavily dependent on thorough knowledge of each combat arena, including not only the locations and respawn-times of its powerups and weapons but also the prime spots to camp with certain weapons, or to wait for certain events. As a good example, the U-Damage (tripled attack power) in the final Campaign boss battle can only be accessed in one direction, but can be fired upon from two. Further, attempting to grab the damage amp forces the fighter to crawl for some distance, rendering them slow and unable to jump. Thus, even if you can’t get at the thing, you can probably gut your enemy as they scuttle towards it – if you know where to be and when to be there. Warfare, again, is the mode in which this need for terrain knowledge is most prevalent. Knowing where you can get an always-useful vehicle or which direction to head when you hear a certain callout is the difference between effective play and frustrating defeat. Too, the actual combat is (I can’t say this enough) absolutely off the chain. Fighters run at scandalous speeds (though slightly slower than the PC version), and can double-jump, bounce from walls, sidestep a remarkable distance, and run backwards at full speed. There’s surely a sense of skill and timing involved, but actually pinning down and killing a skilled opponent is sometimes quite the task. Despite this, frags are very frequent occurrences. Certain weapons, and some vehicle-mounted weapons, are basically instant kills even if your character has maxed-out armor and health. There’s no mandatory wait to respawn after death in UT3, which is a good thing – because you’re going to die. A lot.

glowy blue death

Despite the frantic pace of combat and how easy it is to get fragged, UT3’s designers did throw in a few bones to take most of the typical frustration out of the experience. Respawn points in UT3 aren’t random places on the map; you’ll pretty much always come back with weapon upgrades and (sometimes) armor or health-enhancers in easy reach. As aforementioned, you also come back instantly – quick as you can tap the button. There are canned taunts you’ll be hearing a lot of when you get shot down, but there’s also plenty of humor in the game on the same subject. In the first campaign mission, an obligatory tutorial, both your character and his sister (the opponent for the training duel) joke about how much dying “hurts;” you even get advised not to tense up, since that’s supposed to help. Since we are, in theory, talking about dying here – you know, death? – relativizing it to something like a stubbed toe sets the tone for the rest of the game and how common it becomes. The humor doesn’t stop with death and resurrection; as in prior editions, UT3 bends the boundaries of creative sci-fi far past the limit of credibility both in the manual and in-game. The explanation of Flags – Field LAttice Generators – and their effect on respawner units is particularly chuckle-worthy.

FLaG guard duty

Sci-fi explanations aside, the weapons of UT3 will be immediately familiar (if slightly different in visual design) to those of prior UT and UC games. This is one of the (many) areas where the design team’s familiarity with this game and how to make it good really shines through; all the weapons are powerful and feel pretty balanced. There’s no real reason to feel pissed if you get nailed with a Sniper headshot, especially by a pad-using opponent. Each gun has the Unreal-native alternate fire mode, and some of those are really worthwhile. The player is likely to develop a favorite gun or set of guns. Each weapon type is somewhat adaptable given user skill, but Flak Cannons (shotguns on crack) aren’t ever going to be good for distant shooting. Recoil is a non-factor regardless of weapon; it’s another one of those considerations that might be really fun in a WW2 sim or tactical shooter, but has no place in a blitzkrieg-speed game like UT3. Too, all the guns look and sound really beefy – obviously fictional or not, they’re intimidating enough. The one minor negative note about weapons has nothing at all to do with selection or presentation, but controller-native mechanics. Control pads just aren’t really great for FPS games, at least when compared to mouse control. There is some cursor-stickiness with a gamepad, but it’s not much, and it’s not really enough when measured against the much finer control possible by the alternate method. There’s definite room for improvement, but it’s a pandemic issue with FPSs rather than something specific to UT3, and less bad here than in some other examples.

UT3’s vehicles are at least as impressive as its weapon selection. In appropriate battle types (mostly Warfare), they can be real tide-turners; like weapons, you’re likely to quickly pick a favorite or three. Ranging from quick single-seaters to heavily loaded tanks, the selection is fairly broad and has interesting technical variations. Despite the robust command vocabulary for vehicles (some of which are capable of full-3D flight), they’re all relatively simple to control. Perhaps more importantly, there’s a sense again of overarching balance. It really is possible to take down even one of those heavier tanks or APCs, given proper tactics and lack of recklessness. The faster vehicles tend to be better at taking out slower, more armored types, and less at crushing ground troops. Conversely, a well-used heavy vehicle (say defending a Flag base) can be a real nightmare to crack – but the tools are always there to do it if you look. Just as with Nodes, Link Guns can actually be used to repair a friendly vehicle; this adds another dimension to the successful use of both Link Gun and whatever vehicle you – or you and a teammate for the turreted types – happen to be driving.

You don't want to be the guy on the ground

However good the game is offline, a poor online experience would kill it. Thankfully, UT3 online is a real joy – fast, visceral and mostly lag-free. The few instances of enemies “popping” in and out of existence I saw were pretty far between, and tended to happen (from what I could tell) more frequently with specific people than with the field in general, implying their connection speed was an issue rather than the game’s network code. All the modes of Campaign play are designed to prep you for this experience, and while there’s nothing really like seeing other humans move and fight (two words: worlds different), the preparation doesn’t come amiss. UT3’s map selection is excellent for some modes and a tiny bit anemic for others, but each map is well-designed, and more are supposedly coming. Some of the vaunted player-crafted mods are already available, including a 3rd-person view which can make the intense action a little easier to follow. Sadly, it’s a Mutator (meaning a match type modifier), thus it’s host-level. Everyone has it or no-one does. I can’t speak for others, but I’m of the opinion this 3PV would really be welcome as a game-native option. Epic has certainly dabbled with the concept before; UC2 was 3PV-native. Minor things aside, there’s little to quibble about in online UT3, and quite a bit to be excited over.

Tag - you just got 3 rockets to the face

Few games are really without flaws, and though UT3’s are mostly forgivable, they’re there. The strangest and least forgivable is the total lack of local multiplayer. This may seem an odd complaint in this age of online competitive and cooperative play (both of which UT3 supports), but there’s something to be said for being able to just pound through a couple of Campaign or Instant-Action battles when a friend drops by. This omission is probably native to UT3’s roots as a PC game, but still seems rather jarring. It’s certainly something I’d hope to see addressed in future editions, possibly even the upcoming 360 port (though one tends to doubt it). Graphics in UT3 are in the main quite impressive (if you like the style), but there’s quite a bit of noticeable texture draw-in as a match is starting. Fortunately, once it’s done it stays done – you’ll see it only for a few seconds as players are connecting (or bots being placed) for a battle, and soon forget it’s there. Bloom lighting isn’t abused as it is in other recent games of this type, but there is that visible “next-gen sheen” on many surfaces. Finally, the scenery is often overflowing with bright “signpost” markers indicating which team’s territory you happen to be in. This isn’t something I object to, since it’s helpful to non-veterans like myself, but feedback from other players hasn’t been consistently positive. Personally I’d vote for the markers to remain – they’re useful to keep the game flow intense, which is what UT3 is really all about. The last caveat to UT3 is the after-battle load times, especially in Campaign mode. All the player has to look at after a battle is the scoring screen, and you’ll be looking at it for so long that at first you might wonder if the game’s glitched and locked up. You do get used to it, but given that load times aren’t extreme for the rest of the experience – especially if one chooses to install UT3 directly to HDD, which is an option – it’s impossible to ignore and can break the rhythm of an otherwise very fast-paced game.

One of many impressive vistas you won't have time to appreciate

All in all, UT3 is a very positive experience. The recent trend with popular shooters has been the introduction of tactical considerations, be they mild or stiff, but UT3 disdains this fad entirely. In doing so, it relegates itself to a more arcadelike and theoretically simpler experience, but makes up for any lost ground with well-implemented mechanics and internal balance. Make no mistake, this is a thoroughly different experience from Call of Duty 4 or even HALO 3, but it’s a very, very good experience in and of itself. Whether or not UT3 lives up to its hype is something each player can only decide for him/herself, but whether it’s worth your money is quite a different question. This is one of the finer examples of the FPS genre, only made sweeter by the promise of new content coming and currently available; it should at least be given its turn at bat. To be fair, if you don’t like this less cerebral type of FPS, the speed and intensity of UT3 alone make it unlikely to change your mind – but rent it anyway and see. There are some problems at the moment getting new content available on your actual system, but the issues are surmountable, even if you have to jump through some rather odd hoops. To put that in less obtuse language: for some weird reason, you can’t just, you know, download the mod to your PS3. You actually have to put it on a memory card, zip drive or other removable media, then import it to the PS3’s memory. Don’t ask why – just think of the 360-only users pining for their shiny new copy of UT3 and grin maniacally to yourself.

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