There’s always a suspicion, once publishers start releasing updated versions of products on an annual basis with just the year name changing in the title, that it’s just an excuse to slightly tart up last year’s effort and watch the pounds roll in.
It’s an accusation that could, with some merit, be weighed in the direction of Unreal Tournament 2004. But there’s a difference here. While other products may add a bit of spit and polish, and perhaps one or two new features to make the box copy look good, Unreal Tournament 2004 wears its pedigree on its sleeve, mixing in fresh innovations with brazen reworkings of what made the previous games great. And it works.
New to this whole Unreal Tournament thing? Then you’ve been missing a treat. Set in the future, it’s the sport of the day, where individuals and teams go fully armed and head-to-head in arenas of various size and surroundings.
The aim? To win whatever they’re playing at the time, be it a straight deathmatch (where you have to score the most kills), capture the flag (catch their flag while defending your own) or a bombing run (a kind of football but with lots of guns). That’s just a flavour of the game modes, which traditionally always came into their own when you played the game online.
But we’re jumping ahead of ourselves here. Let’s first and foremost describe what makes Unreal Tournament 2004 different, and what makes it essential. New this time around are forty extra maps, which vary from confined, gothic surrounds through to low-gravity space arenas and broad, sprawling, outdoor areas.
On the whole, the map design is superb, and each plays to differing skills. A map, for instance, with lots of beams and levels plays well to the sniper, while the confined battlegrounds legislate against the fan of the rocket launcher. There are lots of little permutations like that, in a game that’s dripping with detail.
This time there are also vehicles. This reviewer still prefers battling on foot, but there’s little doubt that the new machinery adds a welcome fresh mechanic to the gameplay. And then there’s the ‘onslaught’ mode that takes advantage of these new vehicles. Onslaught maps are big, sprawling and action-packed, taking a particularly entertaining turn when it comes to relieving the opposing team of their transportation.
Talking of teams, the whole game is based around them. Whether you fill your roster with human-controlled players or the computer controlled ‘bots (which do, on the whole, put up a stiff challenge and demonstrate strong AI), you are challenged to take your team to the top of the ladders for each of the game’s combat modes. Furthermore, you can trade team members, challenge other teams for one of their players, patch up injuries and pick those from your roster that you wish to take part in each individual match.
It all seems like a lot to take in, but in truth it isn’t. In fact, it’s a game that’s remarkably easy to get to grips with. The tutorials are perhaps a bit too bog-standard; they establish the basics and it’s debatable whether you’ll even need them. That said, the broad arsenal of weaponry and selection of pick-ups and enhancements are worth knowing about!
So then, the final question. What makes Unreal Tournament 2004 great? It’s a simple answer. You’d be hard pushed to find a game released this year that can match it for sheer fun and entertainment. It’s an absolutely superb game, frankly, that will happily eat up hours of your life (and that’s just in the single-player mode) and thanks to the vast reservoir of options, tactics, battles and modes contained within it, it also offers tremendous value for money.
Its main fault? It eats up 5.5GB of hard disk space. If you can handle that, head off to buy it, and we’ll be seeing you again in a couple of months.