Genre: First-Person Shooter
Developer: Epic Games
Release Date: December 11, 2007
Rare is the occasion to review a game — for that matter, review any creative work of entertainment media — in a single sentence. Epic Games' Unreal Tournament III in its PlayStation 3 incarnation offers just this opportunity: The title brings the touchstone, if not inaugural, franchise in the PC-shooter sub-genre often called "twitch gaming" to a console, feature-complete with all distinction in visuals, sounds, control and gameplay intact. Although a couple of spin-off or bowdlerized versions — depending on your perspective — of Unreal multiplayer games were developed for consoles by or in association with Epic, none have duplicated the PC Unreal Tournament versions from stem to stern, as does the PS3 version of Unreal Tournament III.
The franchise is legendary in the PC gaming world: love it or leave it, you know it by name. The PC game is famous for its player community, many of whom use the computer-based Unreal Editor software to create modified content — in the jargon, "to mod" — games in the series, from merely swapping out in-game voices with those of popular cartoon characters, to creating new maps that fit, perhaps mimic, the aesthetic of Epic's Unreal Tournament art direction or stray into the sophomoric humor of mammoth-scale, low-gravity household bathroom maps; mods often include a combination of new character models, weapons, vehicles and maps so as to shift the setting to a modern-day, fictional military assault or a post-holocaust environment of the near future built upon the decimated remains of real-world locales.
Some mods, known as "total conversions," create, essentially, an entirely different game — say, a cooperative multiplayer survival/horror game complete with an intriguing story line. These things make Unreal Tournament titles not only excellent FPS titles in their own right, but, via modding, with sometimes significant time investment for talented modders or, alternatively, requiring very little effort and technical expertise if you only care for playing the mods, a virtually endless experience for gamers and hobbyist developers alike — although a few of these hobbyists easily equal in ability the most talented professional game designers.
This has all been well and good for PC gamers. On consoles, even if the version of Unreal Tournament adapted to the console suited your tastes, there were always heavily adapted and it was close-ended by their own content, never capable of using the numerous good — and certainly a wealth of mediocre, trivial or merely humorous — PC mods. With the release of Unreal Tournament III for PS3, Epic has refined for console play a full, uncompromising version of the current PC release of the game, complete with support for PC mods. It's great news in console games, but far more significantly, it's groundbreaking news, period.
Graphically, the game is as stunning as you'd want from Epic and their line of Unreal graphics engines, engines used not only for their own titles but also licensed to many console developers; some iteration or another of the Unreal engine is always turning up like, well, a good penny. But this sort of universal success and market penetration creates extremely high, often unrealistic — sorry, had to be done just the once — expectations, always a thin-ice scenario for developers in creating their latest and greatest; yet visually, Unreal Tournament III does not fail PS3 players at any point. The art direction befits the science-fiction themed future combat game design, and the graphics are indeed top-of-form.
It's not uncommon today for top-tier titles to release their soundtracks as separate albums available for purchase. In most cases, the original music is of high enough quality, or the licensed tracks of such diversity, the soundtracks are a reasonable purchase on musical merit alone. The Unreal Tournament III soundtrack is already available as an album, and it fits in that rather small window of video game soundtracks worth owning. So, obviously, the in-game music is excellent. All of it leans very much to electronica, of course well suiting this type of game, but there is enough variety within the musical genre to keep it interesting, from the electrifying 122.3 BPM variety to the more subdued and ambient. Weapons effects, both discharging and the concussive results thereof, are pitch-perfect. And as always in Unreal Tournament titles, the ringside-style booming voices of taunts and the match announcer's bon mots are not only triumphant but at the same time provide comic relief, to remind you, yes, it's only a game.
Control via the PS3's SixAxis dual-stick model is sublime, especially considering the pace at which UT matches move. The signature "head shot" is not easy per se, but it is regularly achieved, on the run, in the middle of total chaos, with some hours of practice. In fact, since the "Halo Epiphany" in console FPS, Unreal Tournament III's PS3 control is the best yet. Epic has included a keyboard and mouse scheme via PS3's ability to easily support it; this interface works well, but overall I found the SixAxis control as good and more ergonomically satisfying for a typical console gaming environment; certainly, if I was indeed disadvantaged against keyboard/mouse opponents, I never felt hobbled by my choice of SixAxis.
Unreal Tournament III includes a couple of different single-player modes: campaign, most suitable for training — it's a "bot match" with a plot and progressive cut scenes; and in addition there is instant action, pure "bot match" sans story line. Of course, once you learn the ropes, or if you're already quite familiar, online multiplayer matches is where'll you reside. For hours. Lots of them. In the middle of the night.
In this new title, the laundry list of online match modes has been pared down to the venerable deathmatch, every man and woman for themselves; and team deathmatch, every man and woman for themselves, but please try not to shoot your teammate in the back. There are two capture-the-flag (CTF) modes: one, the usual pedestrian arrangement — by that, I mean "on foot," hardly mundane; the second, vehicle CTF, introduces larger maps and a wide variety of mechanical transport. Warfare is a team game, the objective being obliteration of the opposing faction's power core before the clock runs out. The last match type, duel, is not the simple grudge match its name implies; it is indeed one-on-one, but a round-robin affair, with the winner staying on for the next challenger, the loser shoved to the back of the line, awaiting again his turn for knocking the crown off the champion's head, this time to leave him to cool his heels for a while. Longtime Unreal Tournament players will notice, perhaps lament, the eliminated multiplayer match types, but you need not worry: If these legacy modes are truly as popular as everyone might contend, they can be added back by the gaming community via PC mods.
All of your favorite Unreal Tournament weapons are here, though not all are available on all maps in all game types. The flak cannon, a sniper rifle with single-depth scope feature, a rocket launcher with single- and multiple-fire modes, and of course, the often unwieldy — I tremble so much when I get hold of it I can't do anything useful with it — yet magnificent Redeemer. The weapons balance in the game is outstanding. Rockets require some precision in aiming, and you can create quite a bit of trouble for opponents armed only with the default Enforcer pistol — dual-wielding Enforcers is positively lethal.
Server hosts have a reasonably robust set of options for customizing matches, including definition of map rotations, and allowing, or not, keyboard/mouse players to join their games. (In the online lobby interface, there's a very obvious icon displayed alongside the names of matches allowing keyboard/mouse control, so if you're convinced the mouseketeers will shred you but quick, you may easily avoid these servers.) Also included are the ever-popular mutators, from the frankly hilarious Big Head, associating the head size of players' in-game characters with their match performance, to the classic, infuriating, fantastic Instagib — take one good hit in Instagib, and you're dead.
Unreal Tournament III all by itself, without PC mods, without the novelty of keyboard/mouse support, is an excellent shooter title and would thus come highly recommended. But I can't ignore the fact that in providing PC-mod support in the console title, Epic has leveraged PS3's open storage device standards and established a viable community-based model for additional content distribution, a model for fee-free new content, sparing gamers the waiting around for official developers to create new content, then waiting some more for the console online network operators to release it. Thus they've created an environment in which the hobbyist game designer and programmer can, conceivably, become not only a community legend in PC gaming but also in the formerly more restrictive realm of high-end consoles.
The score for Unreal Tournament III reflects an aggregation of all elements of gameplay I've covered in the foregoing, as well as the gravity of innovation in making PC mods accessible on a console title. What this numerical score can't possibly demonstrate, in the past several years of ever-better games across all genres, not a few of them arriving in recent months, Unreal Tournament III is the first title in a long time making me recall that this is why I long ago started loving games, compelling me to, almost literally, jump and down, and to keep me up playing late into the night and seduce me into a few morning matches before I sit down to work. Yes, it's that good, and, yes, it does so greatly transcend the mere sum of its fractions.
More articles about Unreal Tournament 3