Unreal Tournament Classic: Superb Multiplayer Shooter
The original Unreal was an atmospheric, dark shooter that utilized the rapidly advancing sophistication of personal computers to develop a story incorporating weapons with multiple firing modes, high intensity combat against intelligent AI bots, and particularly gruesome (for the time) wound animations. Successful in its own right, Unreal was soon to be surpassed by Unreal Tournament.
UT took the Unreal Engine and built an entirely different experience. Still a shooter, UT was unique in that it placed the player in the position of one contestant in a combat themed bloodsport used in a dystopic future to dispose of criminals and psychopaths as well as provide an opportunity of fame and fortune for disgraced soldiers and the urban poor. The ultimate objective: fight through dozens of arenas and scenarios to win a chance to take on Xan Kriegor: a man so determined to be the pinnacle of combat technology that he downloaded his brain into a robot body. To meet, not to mention defeat, Xan the player had to master numerous weapons and highly varied environments that ranged skyscrapers in low orbit to a re-enactment of a portion of the D-Day landings of 1944.
Unreal Tournament 1999 was unique when compared to its contemporaries and successors because it did not emphasize jumping and spam firing. Rather precision was the key to domination in UT: 4 head shots with a pistol or two shots anywhere on the body with the fast firing sniper rifle were enought to force a respawn, and both weapons hit where aimed. Compared to Quake or later UT iterations this precision focus rewarded players who practiced.
UT 2009: Its Place in Shooter Development
UT was a unique shooter at the time because most contemporaries focused on gameplay ripped straight from DOOM: Player is dropped at the start of a large, complex level and has to make it from point A to point B alone and under fire, often completing scripted objectives along the way. Unreal itself followed this path which had been blazed by Blake Stone, Wolfenstein, and Goldeneye.
UT was more of a sandbox style of game and the various levels were generally small but focused. The objectives in mission type games were limited to capturing an opponent’s flag, holding certain points for a period of time, or securing objectives. In addition, the player was accompanied by a team on any mission map comprised of AI players that could be set to follow any of a wide variety of scripts ranging from covering the player to all out attacks on mission objectives. The game rewarded smart use of allied forces and some matches could take an hour depending on the map and objectives.
Not focused on realism to the degree that Team Fortress and the various military oriented shooters took one branch of the shooter genre after 2001, Unreal Tournament 1999 was still concerned with keeping battles grounded to a certain degree. Skilled players led opponents into traps or became deadly accurate with the Shock Rifle’s explosive primary-secondary combo attack. Savvy snipers could specialize in taking out two or three opponents in quick succession from across an open map. And skilled use of the translocator in capture the flag maps meant that the team base couldn’t simply be garrisoned and defended against all costs - the teleporting attacker would always get through.
Unreal Tournament’s Successors: Failing to Keep the Faith
Unreal Tournament 1999, also called Unreal Tournament Classic now that a number of iterations of the franchise are on the market, was different than any of its successors. In 2003 an updated UT was released that was radically different. Sniper rifles now had extensive reload times, head shots were more difficult to achieve, the Enforcer pistols with their excellent accuracy were replaced by a basic weapon that was terribly inaccurate. Jumping was emphasized so that players could now jump twice - even jumping off walls. In effect, UT sacrificed its integrity to compete with the Quake series.
UT 2004 was an improvement over 2003 in parts but it began the trend of regular releases in the Madden style. The engine became the real focal point of the game - the Unreal Engine was marketed to various game developers and in a way iterations of UT became mere marketing add-ons to the base engine which would then be used for more easily programming new games without having to build an engine from scratch. And the addition of vehicles, while fun to a degre, reeked of chasing Halo which was contributing to a long term switch on the part of PC gamers towards consoles.
Possibly the most obnoxious part of all, the taunts automatically made by players in the original UT that contained innocuous little celebratory statements like “Anyone else want some?” and “Oh yeah!” degenerated into misognystic and asinine cracks at the defeated player’s masculinity. “bitch” and “whore” became the taunts of choice, the type insults that usually lose all appeal to anyone over the age of 13.
UT Classic: Part of a Golden Age?
But while UT became something obnoxious and derivative in later years, the gem that was Unreal Tournament 1999 will always be a classic tournament shooter. In a way, UT was part of a sort of golden age in PC gaming that lasted from around 1996 to about 2002. By the mid 90’s PC operating systems were mature and technology was rapidly improving. Games like Total Annihilation, Starcraft, Freespace 2, Homeworld, the Total War series, the early Command and Conquer games, Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind, and Mechwarrior were released and dominant in their respective genres. Unreal Tournament fit well into those years - the years before the increased costs of game development pushed developers to broaden each game’s appeal and the console market took off with the maturity of the Xbox and Playstation 2.
Like its contemporaries UT took old formulas and twisted them to be innovative, it incorporated advancements in technology to look pretty and be playable. Incredible attention to detail in the ballistic modeling of various weapons and the development of a decent AI shone through. And the ability to create mods and maps brought out the best in the tradition of shipping developer tools with games and gave it a long life after its prime.
Unreal Tournament Classic is still played online, on a few dedicated servers that either rotate through user created maps or stick to the classics like Facing Worlds. Many of these incorporate anti-cheating updates that ensure no one can use an aimbot to ruin the game for anyone else. Best of all, with internet connections improved relative to the 1990’s, lag is minimized.
So if you’re interested in playing a classic shooter from years when PC games were still largely labors of love on the part of their developers, UT 2009 is worth a look.