Summary: You've waited a while, but here it is - the Unreal Tournament 2003 Review. We've played this baby for all she's worth to give the best possible review. Grab a seat, a drink, a bag of pretzels and enjoy!
When Unreal Tournament was released, it came as a bit of a surprise to many gamers. Although there was considerable hype, pomp and marketing of the game, not everyone expected it to succeed as it had. With its numerous game modes, competitive graphics and unique levels it attracted a large crowd of FPS players, many of them new to the online deathmatch scene. UT never competed successfully against Quake III as a hardcore deathmatch game, but it had other features that made up for it.
Enter Unreal Tournament 2003. When the demo was released, we were stoked and ran out to buy the full game as soon as it was available. The sequel, developed by Digital Extremes, a company partnered closely with UT/Unreal developer Epic Games, faced some big challenges. How does one make a sequel to an online deathmatch title? id software got blasted by many for rehashing the same old formula with Quake III, and this was their first dedicated online title. UT2K3, being the second game in the series, has a lot of question to answer.
Is it just a ‘patch’ game?
Complaining about something is trendy. It gets attention, it often gets somebody a welcome to the bandwagon and some might even argue that it looks sophisticated, since the complainer demonstrates a critical eye. Even complaining about complaining is a fashionable activity – to call someone out for being a whiner is as likely to get as much applause as being the original complainant. Why bring this up? Inevitably you will hear comments like “they could’ve patched UT to do this”, as we heard them with Quake III “why not just patch the Quake II gameplay and let map authors design the maps?” Ingore those comments – they do horrible injustice to the developers that work hard at making the game.
The time a developer spends updating or designing an engine, creating the textures, models, animations, special effects, sound effects – and then putting it all together on levels with actual gameplay – is staggering. To suggest that Unreal Tournament 2003 could have been a patch to UT is an insult to that effort. All that work is precisely what went into UT2K3, the same with any sequel. If Civilization had supported a mod community, gave players access to the code and let them mess around with it, would people be saying the same about Civilization II?
With that out of the way, let’s cover what Unreal Tournament 2003 brings to the table. The most immediately noticeable change is the graphics, which have undergone a complete overhaul. There are new weapons like the assault rifle, and modified old ones such as the link gun and lightning gun (sniper rifle.)
SIDEBAR: Athlon/Pentium 733Mhz
128MB of RAM
16MB DirectX 8.1 compatible card
2.5GB hard drive space (!)
512MB of RAM
GF4 or better
Unreal Tournament had one of the most plainly functional FPS interfaces out there, and little has changed for UT2K3. It’s not flashy or elegant, but remarkably easy to use and obvious. Everything is divided into a large assortment of specific menus, each dealing clearly with the subject it’s supposed to. Somehow this massive system avoids being cluttered or overwhelming. It takes a short while to get used to, but it’s never confusing. In fact, it has some features we loved, like the ability to queue up weapon auto-selection to your preference. Hate the flak cannon? Put it as low as you want. Always want to pick up a rocket launcher, even if you have a lightning gun? Rate the RL higher!
That’s not to say that the interface is perfect. There are a few issues that could be squared away in a patch. Character selection for the singleplayer portion of the game includes a facial portrait of the model, but not the 3D model itself. Granted, no one will notice what character you are using in the singleplayer game… except you, the person to whom the model is most important. What makes this design decision even more baffling is that model viewing is supported in the engine, as evidenced by the multiplayer character selection system.
The sounds that come with UT2K3 are basically the same as the ones in the original UT. Even the controversial announcer makes a re-appearance, as do the trash talk character voices. Not all sounds are identical, some may have been re-recorded or to use the popular movie catchphrase, “digitally remastered”. Whatever the case may be, the sounds are very appropriate for the game and still high quality. We are upset somewhat at the fact that more new sounds weren’t included, but we’ll cover that later in the ballistics report.
Sound in competitive FPS is used as much as sight to provide players with clues what’s going on. Quake players are able to track an opponent’s progress by the sound of him picking up armor, a weapon, or jumping or going through a teleport. There’s no special trick to making sound effects useful, except by making them distinctive and heard over a long distance. UT2K3 manages this to some extent, over the cluttered sound of other effects. In truth, playing the game is a bit like playing a slot machine – it makes pleasant, mechanical noises that reinforce the fun of playing. Nothing wrong with that, since that’s how all games are designed, but we feel more effort could have been devoted to making the sounds useful.
SIDEBAR: Athlon T-Bird 1GHz
32MB GF2 GT-S
UT2K3 is the finest looking shooter out on the market. It’s not realistic, the models aren’t to scale or natural and they wield caricature guns, but damn us if it’s not a sweet looking game. The Unreal engine has clearly moved forward by leaps and bounds since we last saw it in Rune. There is absolutely no comparison, it’s like comparing StarCraft to Homeworld. Characters are more expressive and have a far greater variety of motions. Weapon effects are on a new level and players show damage they take by leaving trails of sparks/flames.
Levels are similarly beautiful. The textures used on maps must be gigantic; they evidence more detail than we were able to encompass our first time through. In true Unreal fashion, lighting is abundant and fancy – love it or hate it, that’s up to you. After Earth and Beyond, any other game’s lighting seems timid and benign.
Models have taken a clear cue from Quake III. They’re oversized, with bulky, exaggerated in proportion and limbs. Warhammer 40K fans need only think of Space Marines to get an idea. There are more than just male/female models now too. There are slim and uh… packing versions of the females, there are robots and an alien race. Of course, there are a few return appearances from the original UT, but again they don’t have the normal proportions at all. Despite our disappointment with the variety of models in the original, we didn’t mind the fact that there were normal looking characters. This change feels like it’s taken away some of the UT identity.
In a strange twist of fate…
The review system happens to have exactly the ‘recommended’ requirements listed by Infogrames. After spending days with the game, we can safely say based on this circumstantial evidence that whatever the development, marketing and testing teams were smoking, it hit them pretty hard. The ‘recommended’ system requirements should be listed as the minimum specs, and even then that would be borderline criminal lying. The 1GHz Athlon with 512MB of RAM and 32MB GF2 GTS was chugging along at barely playable framerates that this author hasn’t experienced since trying 640x480 software mode Quake on a Pentium 133, or Ultima 9. This is at 800x600 resolution with all the goodies turned to the minimum. On small maps with few players, we can almost see getting by on this setup. Unfortunately, UT2K3 is chock-full of those panoramic, grand gestures which the creator deigned to call a ‘map’. If you intend to play UT2K3 for a long time, kiss your upgrade budget goodbye.
It is only in extreme cases of poorly performing games where we go to the effort of making our dismay clear. While the review system is hardly a shining beacon of l33t hardware, we’re pretty sure it represents at least the average gaming platform for a FPS fan. To make matters worse for UT2K3, it clearly misleads buyers with the deceptively low system requirements on the box.
SIDEBAR: The rose petal blooms
As the rose itself bloomed in
Springtime, morning death
The actual play
When the UT2K3 demo came out, I was extremely excited over the possibilities. Yeah, the maps it offered weren’t the best, but the gameplay was frantic, fast and vicious. We hadn’t spent enough time with the game yet to see exactly what we liked specifically, besides the speed. After about a week of playing, we’re glad we spent so much time before the review to take a close look.
The game is played in regular deathmatch, team deathmatch, double domination or bombing run modes. Double domination is like domination in that you need the capture control areas, but you don’t earn points by holding them. Rather, when both areas are under your control, a 10-second timer starts counting down until a point is scored. Bombing run is essentially football without the downs, or Rugby without a scrum. There’s a ball on the map and the ballcarrier’s weapon becomes the ball launcher, with which he can score a 3-point fieldgoal, punt or pass. He can also score a 7-point touchdown by running into the endzone… er… portal. If not for the map design, this would be our favorite mode of play.
As the rose itself bloomed in
Springtime, morning death
Where the fun stops
That, ladies and gentlemen, is all that we have to say about UT2K3 that’s complimentary. The rest falls into the ‘major gripes’ category. We’ve already gone over the performance problems that UT2K3 faces, and the disadvantage it puts players who even have the recommended system specs at. But there are more serious issues purely with the design.
The weapons are just… bad. The most effective tools in the game are essentially all about spam. Even the assault rifle starts with four grenades that come off the alternate fire. Just find a crowd and spam the area for cheap kills. There’s no skill involved. The BioGun, rocket launcher, flak cannon and shock rifle don’t require any aim. Knockback effects seem random – sometimes someone flies wildly, other times they barely budge. In a game where the primary test of skill is in avoiding damage, what’s the point of littering it with area-effect high-damage weapons? The only weapons worth keeping for a competition mod are the chaingun, rocket launcher and shock rifle. In its current shape, UT2K3 demands less skill and is less likely to show the difference between good and average players than even its predecessor was.
Graphics. Easily the best-looking FPS that’s available, or at least the flashiest. People may argue for the realism of Battlefield 1942, but the point is that BF1942 just doesn’t have as many features.
Gameplay. Call us out on it, but we’re hardcore, we’re biased towards games which give the freedom for a skilled player to dominate, not restrict their abilities. That’s because after a while, sooner or later everyone starts noticing the limitations. UT never surpassed Q3A’s online popularity, being right on its tail during these past few years, but slowly dropping off every few months.
SIDEBAR: The more I played UT2K3, the less I liked it. Not a good sign, considering I thought it was a mid-80s game with a few performance issues when the demo came out.
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