Genre: First-Person Shooter
Publisher: Midway Games
Developer: Epic Games
Release Date: July 7, 2008
You know what the Xbox 360 needs? No, not reliable hardware or some kind of IQ limit placed on the headset and microphone — what it really needs is more first-person shooters. I mean, sure we've got Battlefield, Call of Duty 4, The Darkness, F.E.A.R., Frontlines, GRAW, Halo 3, Medal of Honor, The Orange Box, Perfect Dark Zero, Quake Wars, Rainbow Six, Shadow Run, Timeshift and Turning Point, but ... I'm sorry, I seem to have forgotten my point. Or changed my mind. Yeah, if anything, this system doesn't need any more first-person shooters; it's got enough of the most hardcore genre to last the whole generation. Now the most hardcore of them all wants to join the party, and despite the genre's saturation over the console, I'm actually really pleased to see Unreal Tournament 3 join the Xbox 360. I've missed it.
For anyone who is somehow not aware of what to expect from the words "first-person shooter," this is what Unreal Tournament 3 involves: From a first-person perspective, you shoot the enemies with various meaty weapons. The action takes place in a futuristic environment and continues firmly in Epic's tradition of making anatomically unlikely heroes cause things to go boom without breaking a sweat or ever being short of an action film witticism to fill the space. Of course, in the case of Unreal, it's also an arena shooter, which means that it lacks a story and has a series of scenarios in its place, including capture the flag and team deathmatch.
Or rather, that should be the case. Unfortunately, Epic has decided that the "sterling work" done on the clichéd gravelly voiced nonsense spouted by the Gears of War protagonists should be repeated here, so you have some kind of absurd story line precariously balanced on top of the single-player mode. This is particularly interesting because the original Unreal Tournament (of which this often feels like more of a remake than a sequel) explained away the whole premise as some kind of grisly blood sport. Instead, here you have the premise of this being in the aid of some kind of war, which is fine (if you can stomach the corny dialogue and even cornier delivery) until it gets to the stage where they're trying to put an explanation on how taking a flag back to your base will help the war effort. Then the whole thing begins to unravel. Some kind of absurd explanation about the flag being a power generator is delivered to a stony-faced player, eager to get on and shoot some stuff. In fairness, it's deliberately absurd in its delivery (I hope!), but it manages to misfire quite badly.
But you know what? This is forgivable because the game hasn't changed a bit. The action is fast, explosive, adrenaline-pumping and hugely rewarding. The maps are varied and require different strategies. The weapons are well balanced, updated versions of those from the first in the series. In short, Unreal Tournament 3 plays wonderfully, and despite the huge number of rivals the system has to offer, none feel quite like this, meaning that it deserves to be a success on the 360. It plays just like the original Unreal Tournament on the PC, only with vehicles — and rather than stagnating, it manages to prove that there is nothing like the old school. The brilliant gameplay hasn't aged a bit, and it makes a nice rival to the chaos of Call of Duty 4, the tactics of Team Fortress and the underpowered firearms of Halo 3. The gameplay modes work well, although despite all of the maps, variety does run out in the single-player campaign after a short while. Thankfully, the instant action mode allows more customizable options than you can shake a stick at. It's actually a little overwhelming, but for hardcore players with twitchy trigger fingers, Unreal Tournament 3 should be the first-person shooter of choice on the 360. High praise indeed.
Whether or not it deserves to be as big a success as it has been on the PlayStation 3 is open to interpretation, largely because the latter has support for a mouse and keyboard. Purists will complain that this is the only way FPSes should be played, and you'll get no argument from me, even if the 360 controls work as well as can be expected. As is traditional, the right thumbstick aims, and the left thumbstick controls movement. There are the usual allowances made for the clumsiness of the controls, such as semi-automatic aiming and an option to have the view automatically center after an extended period of walking. It's no match for the mouse and keyboard, of course, which should make the PS3 or PC versions a no-brainer (unless you're some kind of Achievement junkie).
The key word there is "should." You see, Epic has gone and clouded the issue by bundling some rather splendid extras with the 360 version. Firstly, to make up for the lack of user-generated content on the rival platforms, they've included some new exclusive maps, which all play rather well. More importantly, they've gone and included a brilliant split-screen multiplayer mode that allows you to play through the story mode together with a friend on one TV screen. This deserves to be a deal clincher for many.
Plus of course, if you're a Live Gold subscriber (and if you're not, you may want to look elsewhere), you've got the usual polished multiplayer experience that Xbox Live offers, which is still streets ahead of its rivals (streets ahead of PlayStation, and a good few zip codes ahead of the Wii). All of the modes are available online, with the added bonus that you don't have to deal with some sort of flimsy premise for the violence. It plays nicely, and without the predictability of the single-player portion; this is a mode you'll come back to time and time again. It doesn't seem to suffer from much lag either, though when it does, it can be as damaging as a super-powered flak cannon to the face, thanks to the fast-paced nature of the game.
How much you will like the Unreal graphics depends on your tolerance for science fiction shininess and anatomically unlikely character models. Suffice it to say that dealing with body issue problems seems to be quite low on Epic's list of priorities, and as such, the characters are muscle-bound meatheads, grotesquely over-the-top aliens, or busty females with a hint of the sassy. Either the development team has never meet real women, or they've been incredibly fortunate in those that they have! If this style appeals to you, you can't go wrong. The Unreal engine has been the foundation for many of the 360's better games, and it runs well and looks pretty enough. The frame rate is smooth as silk for the most part, the draw distance is dramatic, and it's very easy to objectively state that this game is a looker and performs better here than it did on the PS3, despite the older version's hard disk install.
Dialogue apart, the sound in Unreal Tournament 3 is equally impressive. Looking back now, much of the atmosphere in all of the UT games to date can be attributed to the excellent use of sound and music. The latter is suitably pumping, pushing the adrenaline as you hunt for that final kill. The explosions are impressive, the taunts are juvenile but fitting, and the announcer is just the icing on the cake. If you get five kills without dying, a voice dripping in testosterone dramatically intones, "Killing spree," and if you're proficient enough with the Xbox controller, you will be grinning from ear to ear as the same fella yells, "Headshot!" around your living room. In short, the sound in Unreal Tournament 3 is the perfect supplement for the gameplay, and you can't say fairer than that.
Unreal Tournament 3 doesn't disappoint, and it's a game that every first-person shooter enthusiast should play. The question is, should you opt for the delayed Xbox 360 option, or play it on PC or PlayStation 3? The devs have balanced the three titles in a really difficult way: PlayStation 3 and PC have keyboard and mouse support and user-generated content, but the 360 version boasts new maps and split-screen multiplayer. That makes it a toss-up in my book, so make your own decision based on which of these features is most important to you. One thing is for sure, though: No matter how many first-person shooters the Xbox 360 has, there's always room for one of the quality of Unreal Tournament 3.
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