Review by Auto Rock

"El Tournament returns, with cars, rifles, and... assaults"

Unreal Tournament 2004 is the sequel to Unreal Tournament 2003, which in (reverse) turn was the sequel to Unreal Tournament, one of the most popular online multiplayer first-person-shooters. UT2003 was a disappointment to many, but Epic have truly redeemed themselves with the 2004 version. Frankly, it's sublime.

I could say that the graphics are of a quality never seen before, but that'd be a lie. Technically, it's not a huge step up from UT2003, and a lot of the maps are the same industrial warehouse joints and ancient temples that have been done to death. Where the visuals really shine, however, is in both the details, and the sheer scale of some of the maps. The indoor levels are some of the most intricate and detailed there is, and the epic vistas of the outdoor maps, particularly the Onslaught-specific ones, are stunning. Arriving on top of the tower in ONS_Torlan, to see the entire field spread below you, players sending lasers and missiles streaking through the air, vehicles roaming the land and the sky; it's gorgeous. Consider that the game runs on most mid-level systems with ease, and it's impossible to be unimpressed.

It's common for audio in these games to be something of an afterthought. Thankfully, that isn't really the case here. While the sound effects are merely functional, a lot of the music is very enjoyable, particularly the drama-laden soundtracks for the Assault levels. If you hate all videogame music with a fiery passion though, there's an inbuilt music player. The game has the MP3 compatibility that the demo lacked, so whatever your choice of music, you can have it pumped into the game to back your firefights. Also worth noting is the inbuilt voice communication feature, to let you scream rage at your opponents. There's also the standard repertoire of audio insults available, so you have the option of having an furious bald man from the future scream OWNAGE at your enemies for you.

Gameplay-wise, UT2004 isn't a huge divergence from it's predecessors, or indeed any other action FPS, but that's to be expected. The main additions from UT2003 are the glorious return of the Assault mode, and much-touted vehicles which you can drive and fly and man and pilot. These will be tackled in order, as is the way to do these things.

Assault was one of the favourite gamemodes of the original UT, and it's absence in UT2003 was bemoaned by many. It returns, with a set of maps that feature more varied and structured goals than in the original. The gist is that one team must complete a series of goals and the other must stop them from doing so, and then vice verse next round. Each map has a vague story that's expounded by an opening cutscene and voiceover. While not adding to the game in any major way, it's nice to have a little context to the proceedings, as well as the more interesting scenarios that the stories involve. Along with Onslaught, the Assault maps are where the designers' skills and the variety of the engine really shine. From a hit-and-run on a gigantic people-carrier vehicle in a desert that rivals the silver screen for sheer action-packed excitement, to an invasion of a mothership in which you actually fly space fighters through vents and into the hulls of the vessel; the assault maps are simply astounding.

Vehicles, then. Aside from the aforementioned space fighters (which come with all the lock-on-missile dogfightery that you'd expect), there's buggies, jeeps, tanks, bigger tanks, helicopters, and land-skimming jumping things. Most have some form of firepower, and some have more than one seat. On their own, the vehicles wouldn't really be that special, as it's more or less an essential these days to keep up in the genre. What really makes UT2004's vehicles special is the way that they're integrated into the rest of the game. The vehicles could have ended being what the whole game revolves around; they're not. On foot, with the right weapon and some skill and luck, you'll be able to take down most any vehicle you come across. Sure, one guy with an assault rifle won't stand a chance against a fully-manned Leviathan, but overall the vehicles work well with the rest of the game and rarely give one side or player a ludicrous advantage.

And that's where UT's gameplay so much fun: balance. There isn't much there to revolutionize the genre, but the game mechanics are put together so well that there's never an unfair death. No one weapon stands heads and shoulders above the rest; none of the maps give any advantage to one side. The whole experience is so finely tuned that it's always insanely good fun, even if you're losing hard. Combine this with the fluid and responsive controls, the user-friendliness of the experience (a help menu in the ingame menu, tooltips for everything, level and gamemode tutorials explained by one of those pleasant formless female voices that explain things in games these days), and the casual enlightened bots and the entire affair is a joy to play.

So, a massive amount of unbelievably addictive gameplay, taking place in magnificintly rendered arenas, with the backing beats of your choice. With vehicles. There's nothing major for me to fault. 10 on 10 it is.

Reviewer's Rating:   5.0 - Flawless

Originally Posted: 03/25/04

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