We all know how important the FPS genre is to PC gaming, without it the graphic card industry wouldn't be anywhere near its size, people like John Carmack and Tim Sweeney wouldn't be quite as god like and PC gaming in general as we know it today would practically be nonexistent. However, this only means that new FPS titles entering the market are having to increasingly offer more to the gamer at a much higher rate than most genre's - we expect newly released FPS blockbusters to feature the latest in hardware and software technology, not to mention gameplay that takes us to a new level in almost every aspect. Luckily for us, there is hardly a better way to describe what Unreal Tournament 2004 has managed to do.
One of the very first impressions you get from UT2004 is the sheer amount of included features and content the game features. First of all, you have 10 unique game modes, including Assault, Onslaught, Deathmatch, Team Deathmatch, Capture The Flag, Double Domination, Bombing Run, Mutant, Invasion and Last Man Standing. Most of these modes are self explanatory, with Onslaught as the latest addition and quite possibly already the most popular. On top of this, you have over 20 new maps included, land and air vehicles, in-game voice communication technology and more. Our review copy and that said most copies come in the form of 6CD's, not ideal by anyone's standards and quite a chore to keep around for future installs. Never fear though, a DVD version is available, however this is getting harder to find, particularly here in Australia with one retailer holding all sales rights.
Online gameplay is the premier attraction in UT2004, and one of the truly impressive aspects of the online gameplay is the way in which the game forces action to reach its fullest almost non stop. For example, unlike many other online shooters, most modes in UT2004 simply don't allow for camping, or atleast, they don't have any need for it. For example, in Onslaught, bases are captured in a chain like fashion and not randomly, so attacking enemy bases early in the chain not vulnerable to capture is pointless and hence usually not practiced by the majority of online gamers who have a clue on what's going on. This keeps the action focused on one or two locations on any given map, creating a true sense of battle and not a scattered 'camp-n-snipe' fest so many of today's online games suffer from. Assault, another popular online mode, also succeeds in dictating the location(s) of action, as objectives need to be fulfilled by the offensive side, while the defensive side defend. There is no point in straying away from the action, as you'll more than likely be alone.
However, the online component is not the only area in which UT2004 excels, offline gaming is quite enjoyable as well. Included for single player gameplay are two distinct modes, a storyline style tournament mode and an 'instant action' mode. In the tournament mode, the player progressively makes his/her way through a league style setup, eventually drafting a team of fellow warriors making way to the top of the latter. Instant Action on the other hand is the offline 'stress reliever' so to speak, simply select a mode of play, customise the setup options and let loose on the computer A.I. All the online game modes are available offline, and the A.I. is quite a challenge for the most part. Of course, human intelligence (or lack thereof) is unmatched so online gameplay is still the best experience, although I would still consider UT2004 a great game should the player be without an Internet connection at all.
Both offline and online allow the gamer to use the new land and air vehicles. These are in a similar vein as Battlefield 1942, with some featuring more than one function for multiple users to control, which include fantasy style tanks, buggies, aircraft and more. Most of the vehicles are featured in Onslaught mode, which is a contributing factor towards its instant popularity, however they do make appearances elsewhere in the game. For example, in the Assault map "Mothership", gamers will be required to fly space craft early on in the objective list. Vehicles are a proven success for online gaming and UT2004 have implemented them nicely, whilst they are powerful tools for both combat and travel, they are also expendable and reasonably easy to face, it is not likely any given vehicle will last more than a few kills.
As with most popular PC titles, the community behind UT2004 is a selling point itself. With such a versatile engine and community friendly developers, it is only a matter of time before we see some great new mods along with possible updates to some of your favorites from previous versions. As well as this, you also have maps to download when they become available and whatever else the creative contributors of the Unreal community have planned. It is hard to say which game community would be considered the most lively as there are so many, but with the release of UT2004 it is getting safer to presume the Unreal community leads the pack. Keep your eyes open and on the fansites, because I have a feeling amateur coders and artists alike will be having a field day with this game.
As far as the actual in game action goes, FPS has never felt better. As already expressed, whether it is online or offline, the action is non stop in most game modes, from the new Onslaught to the traditional Deathmatch. I attribute this to a few factors - as explained, the rules of most modes don't allow for boring gameplay, you can either go in ready to fire whatever the heck you have stocked or die. Although I'm sure some people will manage, there is little room for exploits and shady tactics. Another factor is the weapons, the actual amount of weapons isn't groundbreaking but the variety is huge, each one designed for a specific situation. For example, the Avril is a great way to knock out a vehicle short or long distance, while the Link gun is not only handy for combat, but also for repairing capture points and vehicles. Finally, I also believe map design is a huge reason as to why UT2004 plays so well. Each mode has unique maps and they are individually tailored to expose the capabilities of its host game mode. For instance, Severance, an Onslaught map, features tall mountains acting as walls forcing players to follow each capture point like a maze, containing the action to a specific point. This is handy as most online games in UT2004 tend to be around 6 v 6. This sounds small, but when all 12 players are fighting it out in the same location it is more than enough action to swallow.
It seems that every revision to the Unreal series raises the bar of visual quality in the gaming industry, and UT2004 is no exception. Presuming you have the hardware present, this game will looks absolutely stunning while remaining very smooth to play. On the other hand, modest systems running at modest settings still manage to look above par while performing equally as impressive. It seems the Unreal engine has really reached a point of excellence, not only is it something you can enjoy now but I imagine, as usual, developers of other titles will continue to flock to the engine and put it to good use, with such recent examples as Rainbow Six 3 and the Splinter Cell series.
The standard for an excellent FPS game was always high, but thanks to Unreal Tournament 2004, it is now even higher. This proven series has come back from what many considered a moderate attempt in 2003 to a standout all round beauty in 2004. Everything the UT gamer could ask for and more is practically here, and whilst there is no shortage of competition when it comes to online FPS gaming, I have a feeling a vast number of new and old fans will be playing this scorcher online for some time to come, and even if your Internet connection lets you down, offline gameplay is almost equally as compelling. Unreal Tournament 2004 is an early candidate for 2004's best PC game and quite possibly the smartest game purchase choice you'll make since leaving Daikatana on the shelf.