Gears of War’s elder sibling shows its age.
Unreal Tournament is late to its own party. Even the fashionably late kids have already come and gone. The booze is tapped out. All that’s left to do is clean up after everyone else’s good time.
[image1]Once upon a time, the Unreal series was setting standards in the PC-based multiplayer FPS scene, but this latest incarnation seems like a last-ditch effort to mine the ground already scoured by the Halo’s and Call of Duty’s of the world. Now finally hitting the 360 after its appearance on PC and PS3 late last year, Unreal Tournament 3 is as relevant and trend-setting as a sock hop.
Back in the heyday of PC fragfests, the Unreal Tournament series went to bat against genre stalwarts like Quake and Counter-Strike, and it set the stage for future games in the genre, particularly the Halo series. Now with Unreal Tournament 3, the series is desperately trying to play catch-up. Ironically, many of the games that it’s trying to catch up with are games—like Rainbow Six: Vegas—that already use Epic’s Unreal Engine.
Unreal Tournament 3 does everything you’d expect of the series and nothing you don’t. It looks and feels great, but it all feels painfully familiar and dated. At its best, this is a great multiplayer FPS with more customization options than most other games out there. At its worst, this is just another installment in a stagnant series in need of a major makeover.
Perhaps the most lame-duck appendage is the game’s attempt at a single-player campaign. Essentially a series of bot-populated matches peppered with some of the worst dialogue you’re likely to find this side of reality TV reruns, the single-player game gets old very quickly. Attempting to fashion a “story” out of a sequence of capture the flag and team deathmatch games comes off as goofily as you’d imagine. It’s like tying a paintbrush to a mongoose’s tail, putting the mongoose into a snake pit, and calling the resulting mess of color “art”.
[image2]Also included is an “Instant Action” option that is more fitting in a single-player game, since it does away with story, and you get the added benefit of adjusting the options to suit your fragging fancy. Since you can adjust the number and intelligence of your NPC opponents and teammates, it makes the other single-player mode totally useless and repetitive by comparison.
But really, these two options are both just practice modes for online multiplayer. Unreal Tournament 3 is a real “meat-and-potatoes” online game, and you get plenty of gaming calories for your buck; just don’t expect much variety. While there are more than a few different game modes, they all boil down to variations on three core play modes: deathmatch, capture the flag, and zone capture (called “Warfare”). There are some small variations to each of these, but it’s all stuff you’ve seen a hundred times in many other games.
The weapon types may be uninspired but they’re effectively balanced, each one suiting a particular purpose or play-style. There’s a reason you can almost always find in almost any FPS game the central combination of shotgun, semi-automatic weapon, ranged weapon, and explosives; they work well together and can fit almost any situation.
However, shield and health upgrades feel like something straight out of the first Doom—released 15 years ago—but without any of that old game’s Satanic charm. Unreal Tournament 3 seems dated when compared to most other current FPS games’ use of Halo-inspired shield regeneration. But for all its datedness, it’s still remarkably quick and easy to find an online match. If you want quick, dirty, basic action, UT3’s got you covered.
[image3]The controls are sensitive, but there are places where they’re too sensitive. Even with the sensitivity turned all the way down, if your controller is at all worn in, you may encounter some control issues. Most FPS games account for a loose “dead zone”—the neutral position of your control stick—by giving controllers some wiggle room before they kick in movement, but Unreal Tournament 3 has an impossibly small dead zone. If you haven’t replaced your controller in the past few months, you might run into some unwelcome and unintended directional movement.
Despite some of these shortcomings, Unreal Tournament 3 looks stunning. For obvious reasons, it closely resembles Epic’s other big game, Gears of War. Character models, environments, textures, and lighting effects all demonstrate a close family resemblance to Gears, but without its sibling’s visceral and fresh gameplay. The carnage wrought by a chainsaw gun will always trump the carnage from yet another rocket launcher. If Gears is the fun kid, then UT3 is the sibling you hang out with when the other one is sick.
There are a few surprises, though. In certain game types, a hoverboard helps to get you quickly from place to place, and there are many more vehicles than ever before—some small, some big, and some even bigger. But even with these additions, it feels like Unreal Tournament is just borrowing directly from the Halo series for its vehicle ideas. Unreal may have been there first, but now the series is just tragically imitating its successors. Just because grandpa may have been among the first to make out in the back of a convertible, that doesn’t make it any less pathetic that he’s still doing it.
Another unexpected highlight of this game is its level design. Objects, walls, paths, and hallways are strategically placed, making for some fresh experiences that give even the best multiplayer FPS games a run for their money. Sadly lacking from the 360 version, however, is the ability to add further freshness by allowing for user-created mods. These are available to both PC and PS3 gamers, but inexplicably denied to 360 gamers.
[image4]If Epic had instead chosen to dedicate this game completely to its online multiplayer features, they may have been able to devote more time and energy developing new and more interesting game types and weapons. Instead, Unreal Tournament 3 is a solid but predictable multiplayer title with a pitifully awkward single-player mode. It’s a vision of gaming planted firmly in the late 1990s that utterly disregards all of the many innovations that have been introduced to the gaming world since then.
The history of gaming according to Unreal Tournament 3 takes no account of Halo 3, Call of Duty 4, or even Epic’s own Gears of War. UT3 would have been a stroke of genius ten years ago, but now is just a passable entry into a genre that has exploded since the series was first introduced. Is it good? Sure, but if your multiplayer diet is already given over to consuming much better games, there’s no reason to make the switch.