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by Atari / Infogrames

Three years have passed since Unreal Tournament and Quake III Arena went head to head in the battle for online multiplayer fragfest champion. Here we are on the brink of another Christmas buying season, and Unreal Tournament 2003 stands alone. There isn’t much competition for this game, so it’s good that the package is so complete. UT2003 mixes up some new gameplay modes, a new lineup of weapons, and some of the prettiest graphics we’ve seen to create a worthy successor to the online multiplayer fragfest throne.

In fact, UT2003 does contain a single-player mode. You can climb the Deathmatch, Team Deathmatch, Capture the Flag, Double Domination and Bombing Run ladders with your team of robots, lizard ladies, and freaky goth dudes to get in shape for the online challenge. This single-player mode is about as shallow as it gets, similar to playing a game like Tekken or Virtua Fighter alone, but it does give you a chance to get into the game without being wiped on the wall every five seconds. The reality of online multiplayer is a tough challenge, so investing the evening it will take you to walk through the single-player ladders is worth it.

But the real fun starts when you open up the online server browser. UT2003 does everything it can to make the online experience simple and convenient. You can browse servers using their filtering system, allowing you to wade through the hundreds and hundreds of options a bit more easily. The game modes featured in the ladder tournaments are available online, ranging from free-for-all Deathmatches to challenges like Bombing Run that require some significant teamwork. The basic modes, Deathmatch, Team Deathmatch, and Capture the Flag, are just what you would expect.

The two new modes of play are Double Domination and Bombing Run. Double Domination requires your team to secure two points (creatively labeled points A and B) for 10 seconds , which are usually located at opposite ends of the arenas. Obviously, a bit of teamwork can make the Double Domination challenge a lot of fun, but the group effort is really required in Bombing Run, which is destined to become a major feature in videogame competitions.

Bombing Run is your basic field game where your job is to put a ball through a goal. A lot of folks compare this to American football, probably mainly due to the violent nature of UT in general, but it’s no more like football than it is like basketball or hockey. The ball starts out at a central location. At the beginning of the match, and after each goal, you begin in your team’s base. Defensive players stay to guard the goal while offensive players run to the center of the arena to scoop up the ball. Once you get the ball, your weapon automatically switches to the Ball Gun. You cannot use your weapons or translocator when you have the ball, which requires you to rely on your teammates for any and all protection. At any time you can pass the ball to one of your teammates (but be careful – that pass can be intercepted, too). You score points for getting the ball through the opposing team’s goal. This game is incredibly fun and difficult, and probably the shining star in the new modes UT2003 presents.

UT2003 also includes a new Adrenaline aspect in all the gameplay modes. You can pick up Adrenaline pills and you get Adrenaline boosts when you perform tasks that help you and your team in the game. For example, you get 5 Adrenaline points for killing a basic opponent in a Deathmatch. You get over 30 Adrenaline points for capturing a flag or scoring in Bombing Run. The number of points you get depends on the game type and action you perform. Once you have 100 Adrenaline points, you can perform a special move using a WASD button combo. These are undocumented (except for Speed) in the game, but here are some combos:

Speed Up: Forward, Forward, Forward, Forward (W,W,W,W)
Booster (restores health): Back, Back, Back, Back (S,S,S,S)
Invisibility: Right, Right, Left, Left (D,D,A,A)
Beserk (increased firing rate): Forward, Forward, Back, Back (W,W,S,S)

In addition to Adrenaline, new combat moves have been included. You can perform a dodge/leap by double-tapping any of the four direction buttons (WASD). You can double-jump by jumping again at the apex of your jump. The wall jump is another new technique: jump near a wall, and just as you touch it double-tap the direction button away from the wall. Your character will push off the wall. These moves can be combined for some insane maneuvering, especially if the low gravity modifier is turned on.

Weapons in this outing of UT include the Assault Rifle, Flak Cannon, Lightning Gun, Minigun, Rocket Launcher, Shieldgun, Shock Rifle, Ion Painter, Redeemer, Biorifle, and Link Gun. The Assault Rifle is the default weapon, and using it is a lot like cutting a steak with a butter knife – it can get the job done, but it takes way too much effort. Much better to stick with the classics – Flak Cannon, Rocket Launcher, Minigun and Shock Rifle. The Shieldgun is what you use when you have nothing else. It provides a decent melee attack by charging up and discharging when you run into another player. It can also be effective as a shield generator, but in UT2003 the best defense is really a good offense. The Shock Rifle, Flak Cannon, Minigun and Redeemer should be familiar to folks who have played UT before, although the Redeemer’s nuclear blast and the energy balls from the Shock Rifle have never looked so beautiful. The Lightning Gun is a sniper weapon – deadly, but with a slow firing rate.

The Ion Painter is a new super weapon that allows you to tag a target for vaporization. You must hold steady with an innocuous laser-sight until lock-on is achieved, and then you must run, run away. A satellite orbiting the level will come into range and beam down a huge ion ray to incinerate the target and anything else within fifty meters. This is a hugely satisfying way to dispose of an enemy. The Link Gun is similar in that it has a secondary function that allows you to shoot a steady beam of energy. The primary firing mode is a rapid-fire laser. The secondary mode fires a beam of energy. You can shoot enemies with this beam or you can point it at a teammate who is also equipped with the link gun. When you connect your beams this way, the final laser beam is twice as powerful. Of course, you can get your whole team in on the linking, allowing you to shoot a hugely powerful beam that can mow down all comers. This is a tricky team tactic, but it seems like it could make the difference in games like Bombing Run and Capture the Flag if teams get good at making that happen.

There are over 50 maps available in UT2003, and with the robust UT Editor there are unlimited possibilities. Dozens and dozens of character skins are also available from the outset, although it will not be long before dozens more are available from modders and editors online. Each of the included maps are really well done. Ranging from indoor to outdoor, small to gigantic, burning pits of hell to snowy wastelands, these maps are a lot of fun to play. The ambiance in these environments is at a level never before seen in multiplayer FPS titles, due in no small part to the insanely good graphics of UT2003.

UT2003 is designed to make your GeForce 4 card beg for mercy. It will make your 2.8Ghz machine with 256 MB of RAM plead for a break. These graphics are designed for the long-term. Water moves as you run through it, and churns in reaction to the amount of traffic it experiences. Shadows from foliage cast across the landscape and players, gently swaying in the breeze. There is generally not a chance to slow down and admire the pretty visuals in an actual game, so take the opportunity to spectate when you can. The mist rising from waterfalls is gorgeous; the steam from pipes lining the walls of compounds, or the rotating shadows ventilation fans, makes you feel like you are playing in a place that really exists. These little graphical tweaks will not only make the flood of games that will use the Unreal Warfare engine in the coming years really beautiful, but they also make UT2003 that much more of an involving experience.

UT2003 takes the idea of a cybersport to a new level. The game features an incredible statistics tracking system. In the Network menu simply click the box to track stats, enter your username and password (you just make these up when you first enable statistics), and then play on stats enabled servers. Stats are recorded in real-time (or close to it if the servers are heavily burdened) and an in-depth ranking system tracks every match and every UT2003 player. You can view a complete record of each match you’ve participated in, lists of players who have fragged you, players you have fragged, and statistics such as your number of head shots and weapon usage. These statistics just make UT2003 even more addictive.

So while Unreal Tournament 2003 doesn’t break a whole lot of new ground, it is a significant enough upgrade to warrant serious inspection. It is obvious that Epic and Digital Extremes think of UT2003 as a sporting game, and the popularity of LAN bashes and network gaming tournaments supports this view. In that sense, Unreal Tournament 2003 can’t be topped. UT2003 offers enough to appeal to more than the hardcore UT or online FPS fans, so whether you’ve been fragging your best friends for years or if you’ve never had your computer automatically curse at you, get this game now.

Shawn Rider   (10/11/2002)


Ups: Great visuals; fun new gameplay modes; lots of maps; new weapons; robust stats system.

Downs: Maybe you don't like change...

Platform: PC