When I sat down with the Unreal Tournament 2004 demo, I surprised myself again. By the end of the first match, I knew something was different this time around. After spending some quality time with the full version, I realize what it is. Unreal Tournament 2004 is the best damn Unreal Tournament ever made, and then some.Gameplay
Unreal Tournament 2004 is a primarily online game in the vein of the original UT, Quake 3 or Tribes. You logon, find a server and play various games like Capture the Flag, Assault, Onslaught or Last Man Standing. There are no shortage of fun games to play and even oddball games like Invasion are great fun with the right group of people. In fact, it's one of the major strengths of UT2004, the ridiculous number of game types available. Strike that, the ridiculous number of fun game types available. Just click somewhere on the game type list and start playing, there's a good chance you're going to have fun soon.
There's also great bot support in every game type and map, so you can play by yourself if your net connection happens to be down or you need the computer to fill in a team. The bots can be very challenging in a realistic way, not because they're hyper-accurate but because they actually give you a sense of challenge you can usually only find with a human player.
The vehicles range from tiny cars to lumbering turrets on wheels, complete with the requisite laser of death. Multiple people can get in some of the vehicles and in fact the larger vehicles require teamwork to really be effective. There are also plenty of vehicles for loners, which can be equally effective in the right circumstance. The vehicle physics are great fun, you can have as much fun doing tricks in a Scorpion as you can running over your enemies. The sounds of the vehicles, and the rest of the sounds for that matter, feel great. The satisfying crunch of running over an enemy really leaves an impression. I'm going to pretend that's not a pun and move on, you should too.
Wrapped around all those different game types is an updated and polished UT2003 engine, which means great looking graphics and a very stable engine. UT2004 is one of the few PC games in recent memory where I wasn't waiting for a patch after I got it. I still haven't found any show-stopping bugs outside of the demo, nor have I heard of any. Though I expect to hear about a few after writing that sentence. The network code is great, I've seen a disturbingly small number of graphics glitches and almost everything in the game just plain works. It's like I've been transported to 1997 when PC games were actually completed before being shipped.Then there's the Linux and Macintosh clients that come in the box. In a world where anybody who doesn't use Windows is an afterthought, lucky to get any games at all, a game that has clients and servers for multiple platforms out of the box is a refreshing change.
UT2004 may be built around an updated UT2003 engine, but it got built in all the right places. Simple things like the Ã‚"Add to FavoritesÃ‚" on the in-game menu to add the server you're currently playing on to your favorites litter the game. The game is just filled with little touches that make you go Ã‚"Why the hell didn't they do that before?Ã‚" A tab in the game explaining the game rules is a great way to stem the inevitable tide of Ã‚"RTFM n00b l0l!Ã‚" Weapon stations to reload ammo and get weapons from help streamline the non-deathmatch game types such as Onslaught. A simple arrow at the top of the screen that points to your next objective in Assault makes it easier to get to the action and allows level designers to create much more complicated maps. Text-to-Speech reads the text typed in the game aloud so you don't have to read it. Not only is it useful, it's damn funny when it works (try typing in Ã‚"SnozberriesÃ‚").
Voice Chat is also available in the game, with several niceties that can only come with being integrated into the game like it is. You can speak and have your voice come through your character in the game and when you talk a picture of your character appears on the screen of everyone who can hear you. There are also modes where you can talk to everyone or simply your teammates. You can even mute people who are annoying, selectively ignore people by team, or turn it off completely. All of this is great, however the quality of the voice chat is rather unreliable. Most of the time people would sound fine, however randomly they'd be garbled beyond recognition. After some initial experimentation we decided to move back to our old standby TeamSpeak, however it was a tough call. The voice chat is really integrated well in UT2004, if the quality was just a little more reliable it'd be the way to talk in the game. As it is, it's nice if you don't want to setup a 3rd party voice application.
A lot of this has been done before but it's a common theme with UT2004. It doesn't do anything radically different than the rest of the online FPS genre, it differs itself in 1,000 tiny ways until it becomes a game that's clearly a notch above the rest. The devil is in the details, after all.
UT2004 costs $39.99 at retail. The game comes with all the levels and content of UT2003 and includes a $10 rebate for owners of UT2003. That brings the total number of levels to about 112 levels. You also get a copy of Maya Gaming Edition for your model creation needs and all the other tools necessary to mod the game. The latest UnrealEd comes with UT2004, which has already spawned several new maps converted from UT2003 and the original UT. Then there's already been one official Onslaught map and one official Assault map released that I know of. Considering Epic's reputation for offering free content in a timely manner, I have no doubt we'll see many more levels and other goodies coming from Epic. This all leaves us with a bunch of levels, game types and the reputation of great support for a really low price. The value is simply outstanding.
I know this review is all roses and puppies but damnit, I think Epic has earned it. I've been racking my brain all day trying to think of something bad to say about this game. I really have. I hate leaving a review without bringing up some of the downsides to the game. There are the tiny voice chat issues, which are valid. There's also the problem with any online game, if you don't have someone to play with it gets boring quick. Still UT2004 keeps it as fun as possible in this regard, you can mute anyone too annoying or vote to kick them and UT2004 makes it easy to keep track of where your friends are playing so that you can join them anytime.
You could possibly say it's a lot like UT and UT2003, which is also true. However I don't think this is to the game's detriment but to it's credit. It just shows you just how far it surpasses them both. The original UT had charm and originality on it's side. UT2003 was prettier and had several nice features, but seemed shallow in comparison and lacked any personality whatsoever. UT2004 has them both beat in every category. All the charm and originality of UT yet it has the features and graphics of UT2003 beat. But it would be doing the game a disservice to stop there. It's the latest version of Unreal Tournament, sure. It's also something entirely different. The little details changed here and there add up to an entirely different, yet familiar, picture. It's not just a sequel or just the latest version of UT, it's a damn fine game in it's own right.