Game of the Week, March 7, 2012: Unreal Tournament 2004

It’s time for another Game of the Week, where our writers tells us all about their favorite games! This week, Brendan gets into the blood and guts of Unreal Tournament 2004.

I love the smell of gibs in the morning… There was a time before Halo, before Call of Duty, when multiplayer death match wasn’t fought with analogue sticks and SMG’s, but instead with giant rocket launchers and the mightest of all weapons: the mouse and keyboard.

I’m talking, of course, about the golden age of Arena Shooters. It started with DOOM and gained popularity through games like Quake, Starseige, and Unreal Tournament. There’s a wide range of opinions regarding which of these numerous games are the perfect representation of the genre, but for me, no game encapsulates the meaning of the arena shooter better than Unreal Tournament 2004.

What it is: Unreal Tournament is a fast-paced, futuristic first person shooter, released by Epic Games in 2004 (natch), and is the sequel to Unreal Tournament 2003 (which was actually released in 2002) and the original Unreal Tournament.

What defines this series of games (along with others in the Arena Shooter genre like Quake III) is the fast pace of combat. Players  dart and rocket jump around maps, firing massive weapons, and blow each other to bits — the “shooter” part Arena Shooter. These matches took place on maps — the “arena” part — that allowed for high mobility and speed.

Each map varied in size, location, and style. Anywhere from 4-32 players (or bots) could be on the map, engaging in modes like death match, team death match, capture the flag, assault (objective-based matches), and onslaught (point-control style gameplay on large maps, and featuring vehicles).

There’s no story to speak of here; there’s some narrative to be found in the bios for each selectable character, and the single player “tournament mode” will take you through a guided set of matches, much like an “arcade mode” in games like Street Fighter or Tekken, but for the most part story is virtually non-existent (which as we would later find, is a good thing).

Similar to titles like Team Fortress 2 and League of Legends, Unreal Tournament offered players an online battlefield to test their skills against each other. This was by far the best way to experience UT2K4 (though, admittedly, I wasn’t much of an online player until Unreal Tournament 3). The speed and intensity of the online matches was addicting, and lead to many adrenaline-fueled afternoons in front of my computer screen.

Why I love it: One word: instagib. For those who don’t know, instagib is an “instant kill” mode, where each successful shot resulted in a satisfyingly violent explosion of gore, or “gib”, short for giblets.

This was just one of the many ways you could modify your experience. UT2K4 included a vast number of viable you could change in the settings, including low grav, faster characters, instagib, higher health, and many more.

I used to turn on low grav, high speed, and instagib, and try to rack up as many kills as possible, while facing the max number of bots on a tiny map.

On top of this, the Unreal Tournament series is well-known for its mod community. The unreal Editor allows for modders and map makers to create new content — be it new skins, character models, maps, or game modes — and easily export them so they could be uploaded and played by anyone. This opened the door for literally hundreds of custom maps and characters to be imported to your game, increasing the game’s replayability exponentially.This was great, and something I absolutely loved about the game.

When it comes to the actual gameplay however, my favorite thing about UT2K4 was the Onslaught mode. Here, large teams battled for control over specific points on the map called nodes. Each node linked to another, and you could only capture/attack nodes connected to one of yours. Once you had captured enough nodes, you would be able to attack the other team’s main base, and win the round.

These maps were much larger than the normal CTF or deathmatch maps, and also featured vehiles that could be piloted to move across the terrain quickly, or even brutally slaughter our opponents. This was by far my favorite mode online, as it combined the intensity of the deathmatch and CTF modes with the strategy and large maps of point-control. In my mind, few games have ever melded these two styles together as seamlessly as the Unreal Tournament series.

Nexuiz -- Hope for the future.

In recent years, the Arena Shooter genre has basically died out. Since the rise in console FPS games, the PC has been left by the wayside. Games like Counter Strike and Team Fortress still carry the banner, but they offer different experiences than Arena Shooters of the past. Even Epic Games, the development studio responsible for Unreal Tournament, have moved onto the consoles with the highly successful Gears of War series (following their good-not-great sequel to UT2K4, Unreal Tournament 3). There’s still hope for a return of Arena shooters with games like Tribes: Ascend and Nexuiz, but they are still in development and only time will tell if they will succeed.

While I still hold out hope that we’ll see a new title in the series after the launch of Unreal Engine 3 (each Unreal Engine has come with a new Unreal Tournament, so there’s a chance) in all honesty, I’m more than happy with the memories I have of UT2K4. Hell, there’s still a small community playing the game. So if you ever get the hankering to blow some dudes up, and just have fun, get yourself a copy of Unreal Tournament 2004, you’ll be happy you did.

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