Unreal Tournament 3 Preview

Before getting my hands on Unreal Tournament 3, I really had no clue what I was in for. What was the deal with this one again? They're calling it the third, but it's really the fourth? And something about mods on the PlayStation? I knew that was somehow important. Navigating through Epic's labyrinthine office for the second time in two weeks, deja vu assaulting me at every turn, I was placed before a big box of a Dell, and tasked with playing the next in Epic's flagship series--all while keeping my pride intact in the process.

Direct Expectations
Unreal Tournament 3 continues in the footsteps of its forebears, offering fast-paced online FPS gameplay across several modes and dozens of maps. To that effect, the game will ship with around 40 battlefields in all. While Epic is taking the opposite approach of recent multiplayer games like Team Fortress 2 and Shadowrun, which attempt to provide a handful of focused maps, this still counts as a reduction in real estate from previous titles in the series. Of the few maps I played, and the list I skimmed, each seemed suitably varied in their environments. I saw Endor-like forests, cold rocky moons, sweeping plains, and, of course, space stations with ominously large planetary backdrops.

I'm not going to elaborate at length on Deathmatch or Capture The Flag. Mutators are back, as are several fan-favorite maps. Outside of a few minor tweaks, these modes are about what you would expect, in that they feel very much as they did in earlier entries--but with vastly improved graphics. Unreal Tournament 3 takes its numeric title from the engine that powers it, which is appropriate: the game looks fantastic. Epic is banking on this extra glitz to attract new fans to its base, and they look to be well on their way in that respect.

On the PC there will be limited differences between DirectX 10 and 9 display, and game servers will not discern between the two clients. As far as required system specs, it's safe to say that anything under a dual-core processor and an nVidia 7800 GPU will have a hard time running the game with the flashiest effects enabled. However, like Gears of War PC, UT3 will benefit from year-long scalability improvements made to the Unreal Engine 3, so your dusty single-core CPU will have a shot at minimum performance. A 2.0 GHz single-core processor, 512 MB of system RAM, and an NVIDIA 6200 is the current bottom-line spec. While 512 MB of RAM may sound low, the game was designed for consoles with just that much RAM, so it's not out of the question--unless, of course, you are running the memory-consuming Windows Vista.

After a few quick rounds of DM-ShangriLa--a lovely little stomping ground with a great sniper's roost--we jumped into another map you'll see in the upcoming demo, VCTF-Suspense. Vehicle Capture The Flag is just as it sounds--capture the flag, with tanks and fighters and artillery abound. This particular map is oriented so that each base is on one end of two perpendicular bridges. Both teams have a bridge to snipe at vehicles from with the Anti Vehicle Rocket Launchers, making it difficult to dominate on either end. In order to run the flag, it became necessary to make use of the new transportation method--the hoverboard.

88 Miles Per Hour
Think "Back to the Future," with a spring-loaded board for jumps. Activated by hitting "Q" at any time, the hoverboard will greatly increase your speed, at the cost of being unable to shoot. While on the board, you can also attach yourself to a friendly vehicle with an energy beam, catching a much faster ride to the front lines. The whole concept is akin to Tribes' jet-pack gliding, albeit slower, and more along the lines of surfing rather than skiing. Zipping around on these things was a lot of fun, and a great way to speed up the dead-space of getting to the fight. It's not as fun when you get shot, as you instantly tumble from the board, and are unable to return fire until the character recovers from the fall.

Another new addition to the series is the arrow-based guide system. Not sure which path to take toward the enemy flag? Transparent markers will form a long chain along the floor, pointing you all the way out of your base and toward your opponents'. These arrows can be turned on and off with the press of a button, letting novices get the help they need and freeing veteran tournament entrants from the annoyance of unnecessary help.

After a long CTF stalemate was broken, I was ready to mix things up. Capture the flag is nice and all, but where UT3 really comes alive gameplay-wise is in the new Warfare mode. Fans will recognize the general idea of Warfare immediately, as it borrows from the now-defunct Onslaught mode found in Unreal Tournament 2004. You'll be capturing a series of connected "nodes," which must be destroyed, controlled, and then recharged with the beam of the Link Gun. When either team's base-bound Power Core becomes unlinked from a node, it is rendered vulnerable to attack, and can be subsequently destroyed, ending the round with a win for the attackers.

Warfare differs from Onslaught in one significant way--the addition of orbs. Each team has an orb-spawning point in their base, which produces a single glowing football that anybody can grab and run down the field. The orb is then used as a sort of detonator, which instantly wipes out an opposing team's control of a node, speeding up the process of node control enormously. Only one of these orbs spawns at a time, and if dropped--either by death, or by being knocked off of your hoverboard--a timer slowly ticks down until the orb's self-destruction. In the event that an enemy orb is dropped near your base, you can choose to sacrifice yourself to immediately destroy the orb, ensuring that a random player won't come along and scoop it up for an easy score. This self-sacrifice actually earns you a point, encouraging players to help out their team in this way.

It sounds complicated, and on some maps, it sort of is. One small map had me disabling a node, which then lowered a bridge, allowing me to drive a tank onto a platform near the enemy's base and fire down into their Power Core. Having to stay alive while doing all of this was a real task, but to the game's credit, the process was always challenging rather than frustrating. The levels are often wide open, and getting sidetracked with self-contained battles and random encounters while boarding from objective to objective is part of the fun. In that way, Warfare really is CTF, DM, and Onslaught, all rolled into a complete package.

Continue reading for more on bots, vehicles, War of the Worlds, and Warfare on the PlayStation 3.

_PAGE_BREAK_ Epic has been touting their new AI-controlled bots as something special, so I took this opportunity to put them to the test. With something like 53 levels of difficulty, I set it near the mid-to-high range, on the "Adept" skill rating. At this level, bots would dodge and shoot straight, but I rarely felt as if the fight had been unfair. Often I would come upon a sniping bot who seemed unaware of my presence, and earned a quick kill with a rocket or headshot. In team play, the AI players will run orbs, attack, defend, or perform any number of objectives based on your commands. If left alone, they seem to perform their duties well enough to fill in for missing players.

Road Rage
Warfare supports all of the vehicles from VCTF, from mobile artillery--which can rain down deadly flak directly onto a Power Core from half a map away--to the towering Necris Darkwalkers. Most of the vehicles are holdovers from UT 2004, but some of the older rides have received tune-ups for their new debut. For instance, the Scorpion now has a boost which rockets the car forward, sending it blazing toward the enemy, nearly uncontrollable. If the player times his exit correctly, rather than simply jumping out of the car, he will eject at high speed.

The Necris Darkwalkers resemble the tripods from Spielberg's War of the Worlds, and when I say resemble, I mean they are the tripods from Spielberg's War of the Worlds--right down to the twin lasers and whale-humping rumble. It makes for a fantastic vehicle, but I have to admit I had some trouble getting over the blatant rip-off, which unfortunately adds another game to a growing list-- one that includes the likes of StarCraft 2, Universe at War, and Crysis--of "ILM-inspired" vehicles.

Before dropping into the game, I also had a chance to check out the new player customization options. Four major factions are available to choose from, each with 3-4 clans that offer a wide choice of player models. Players will have control over every piece of that model's armor, including facemasks, helmets, goggles, boots, shoulderpads, and other miscellaneous items to doll up your snarling avatar. The developers noted that this armor separation will allow modders to simply design a single helmet, rather than devoting the time to a full mesh. Sombreros and Santa hats were noted as likely candidates for early attempts.

Late Fight Consoling
During the middle of our play-session, Epic VP Mark Rein asked if anyone wanted to try out the PlayStation 3 version of the game. In a room full of PC gamers, most began to concentrate their gaze on the carpet. Embracing the opportunity to fumble with a gamepad whilst missing exciting multiplayer action, I stepped forward and dove into the game as presented on Sony's console.

Usually I find playing a console port of a first person shooter to be a needless restriction, like driving a sports car with one hand tied behind your back. You can do it, but it's just not as fun. The way Unreal Tournament is built, with its pixel-accurate long-range kills and intense, in-your-face strafing battles, I figured this would be a fairly dizzying, frustrating exercise.

Instead, I was surprised to find myself really enjoying the game with a PlayStation 3 controller firmly clenched between my twitching fingers. After an upping of the default sensitivity and acceleration settings, I was jumping, dodging, and picking off bots quite easily. The only significant changes to the PlayStation version include the weapons HUD, a circular selection window in the style of Oblivion's spells or, to a lesser extent, Gears of War's crosshatch menu. The standard weapon weapon cycle is also an option if using a compass feels too 18th Century.

Though it's hard to believe, the game looks almost as sharp on a PS3 as it does on a beefy PC, undoubtedly due to the simultaneous cross-platform development. The hoverboards also seemed to control easier with a gamepad. The keyboard and mouse combination will of course be an option for PlayStation 3 users, but it was nice to see that the gamepad handled nearly as well in most circumstances.

Epic designer Jim Brown stated that somewhere around half of all Unreal Tournament 2004 players never registered for online combat, so this turned into somewhat of a priority for UT3 development. I didn't get my hands on any of the singleplayer levels, but I was shown a few slick cutscenes featuring a soldier in the style of Marcus Fenix, who complained about invading hordes of aliens as if they were getting in the way of his weight training. The plot revolves around three warring factions, interrupted by a common enemy's invasion in the form of the Necris. There's nothing special in any of this, but it's certainly a step up from Epic's previous singleplayer efforts.

In beginning the singleplayer mode--which can be played through cooperatively with a friend, either via LAN or online--players will be presented a view of a globe, with various flash-points representing choices of battle, all forming a dynamically progressive campaign. Some of these missions are optional, while others will branch off into different routes. These levels won't just be multiplayer maps with bots. Epic hopes that scripted sequences and boss fights, where you will often be outnumbered, will keep the gameplay fresh enough to warrant a play-through.

Mod is Alive
Both the PC and PlayStation 3 versions will be very moddable thanks to the included editor. Brown took us through a whirlwind tour of the PS3 version, showing off the basic features. PlayStation 3 and PC users will require different types of compiled map files, but that difference amounts to a single button, labeled something like, "Compile for PlayStation." After that, any map is a memory stick away from loading on the PS3. Both maps and mods will auto-download when first encountered on a server, and the PlayStation Store will be utilized for this kind of content in the future. Epic reps were quick to note that copyright concerns may lead to a blacklisting of certain mods, but that there would be no initial certification process. The issue of Xbox 360 modding is still in limbo.

Kismet, the visual scripting language I first mentioned in the Gears of War PC preview, will also be supported, allowing programming newcomers to easily slap together a mod simply by combining pre-set statement boxes--like a game of coding connect-the-dots. One box might say, "If level starts," and another, "Spawn actor." By connecting the two with a line, the actor will spawn when the level begins, and you are surely on your way to a winning mod. There will be some 15 hours of Unreal Editor 3 instructional videos included with the Collector's Edition of the game, so instances of "Nick Breckon's House UT3" will hopefully be few.

In terms of community support, another Make Something Unreal contest is likely, along with a revival of CliffyB's Ownage website, which once highlighted some of the best maps of past Unreal Tournament games. Epic seems serious about bringing the Unreal Tournament franchise to new faces, and rendering the tag-line "From the makers of Gears of War" unnecessary.

While Unreal Tournament 3 had barely registered on my radar a week ago, I came away impressed by the game's dynamic Warfare mode, which may alone justify a purchase following its release later this year. On top of the planned mod support and classic, tried-and-true gameplay, Unreal Tournament 3 is shaping up to be a solid competitor in this busy season, and worthy of your attention.