Unreal Tournament has had a rocky history, particularly on consoles. The original Unreal Tournament was an instant hit when it was released for PC in 1999. Building upon the fast-paced multiplayer action of predecessors like Quake and the original Unreal, it introduced innovative and complex weaponry, AI bots that could take orders, a large variety of options and game-types, and a slew of well-constructed maps tailored specifically for each of those gametypes. The included UnrealEd software and flexible game engine also yielded one of the largest modding communities ever, and a huge pool of user-made models, maps, new gametypes and total conversion mods were available to download online. Unfortunately, things after that became a bit dicey.
The first official follow-up, Unreal Tournament 2003 featured improved Unreal Engine 2 graphics, added new acrobatic moves such as the dodge-jump, double-jump, and wall-jump, and introduced a novel sports-themed game-type called Bombing Run. However, UT2003 also had a fairly small selection of maps and omitted prior game-types like Domination and Assault, making for a rather limited experience and yielding disappointed fans, poor sales, and empty servers. Epic had to go back to the drawing board and add a slew of new maps, game-types, vehicles, balance revisions, and other features to the game, releasing it a year later as Unreal Tournament 2004, before players were satisfied and things were turned around to renewed success.
When it comes to consoles, UT series releases have always been plagued by one set of issues or another as things get lost in translation on their way from the PC. Despite proud claims that consoles were finally powerful enough to run PC-quality first person shooters, ports of the original Unreal Tournament for Sega Dreamcast and Sony PS2 early last generation were extremely butchered in all features from controls, to content and features, to multiplayer capability. The Xbox version of UT2003, known as Unreal Championship, was built with porting to Xbox in mind since the early development stages and released to support the launch of Xbox Live, but aside from a pretty spare selection of maps and modes, suffered above all from un-polished controls. Without taking a page from Halo and implementing things like crosshair magnetism to compensate for the lack of mouse-caliber precision in analog sticks, the breakneck pace of UT‘s gameplay became merely sloppy rather than deep and went completely lost on the console audience. With Unreal Championship 2, Epic made a valiant attempt to work around the imprecision of gamepads and analog-sticks by creating a completely new, console-exclusive game from the ground up focused on melee combat and fighting game elements. It introduced a lot of innovative ideas and did manage to control much better than prior console outings, but Epic bit off more than they could chew revising so much so drastically all at once, and the gameplay didn’t quite work.
With Unreal Tournament 3, Epic has attempted to redeem their prior mistakes. While UT2004 was eventually considered a success and loved by fans, it still lacked much of the feel of the original UT, so Epic has striven to remedy this by dialing the movement physics back, tightening up maps, and punching up weapon damage a bit, while retaining the moves, the vehicles, and more competitive balance of UT2004 and revising its Onslaught gametype. With consoles being more powerful than ever, the PS3 and Xbox 360 versions were promised to be practically “PC perfect”, the PS3 version even sporting the option of mouse/keyboard control and the ability to download and play user-generated maps and mods.
For better or for worse, despite arriving six months after other versions, the Xbox 360 port of the UT3 may actually be the most successful. Unfortunately, UT3 has been poorly received by the PC community, most of whom cite an unwieldy and sparse menu user interface and a limited selection of maps, gametypes, and new features. It has been likened to Unreal Tournament 2003, empty servers, poor sales and all. The game seemed to be well received and popular among PS3 owners, but dodgy PlaystationNetwork service has been reported as an obstacle…Otaku USA‘s own Joseph Luster resorting to match-long phone calls when voice chat became non-functional. Meanwhile, the Xbox 360 is home to Xbox Live, with millions of active gamers hardened by Halo 3 and Call of Duty 4 stomping to try out the new blockbuster by the developers of Gears of War.
Sorry for the stupid pun, but Epic has finally turned things around with the Xbox 360 when it comes to shoddy console ports. Not only is Unreal Tournament 3 for 360 a straight port with all the maps, modes, and content of the PC version, but it controls far better than any prior PC-to-console port – in fact, better than any prior console shooter! The key here is that Epic has implemented a “turn acceleration” control setting independent of the standard “sensitivity” setting. In the past, sensitivity in console shooters has always been a compromise; set it lower for accuracy but loose out in speed, or set it high for lightning-fast reaction times, but loose out in precision accuracy. Analog sticks simply don’t have the range of motion to measure movement with the subtlety that mice do without special programming. Thus, in the past, the high speed of games like UT and Quake have always necessitated cranking your sensitivity to keep up until you could no longer actually hit anything with the balanced and precise weaponry common of these series. Now in UT3 you can set the turn acceleration high while keeping the sensitivity low, and a slight nudge of the stick will still make fine, precise adjustments – while jamming hard left or right on the stick will send you into a breakneck spin allowing you to quickly attack enemies rushing in from the side or behind you. This combination of both speed and precision is unparalleled, and comes far closer to the accuracy of a mouse than any prior game using analog sticks on a gamepad.
There is also a very tiny amount of auto-aim and crosshair magnetism, but it’s so little I didn’t even notice it my first couple times playing, so most of your control is totally manual. Yet with a little practice I’ve been able to play to a comparable degree of performance as with prior Unreal games on PC…right down to winning with the same frequency against the same difficulty level of AI bots, whereas in the past, console control has been such a handicap that I had to play 1-2 levels under what I would normally play on PC just to survive. Once properly setting your controls, things are so precise that going back to Halo recently, I felt bogged down by the heavy degree of crosshair magnetism and things felt far too sluggish to engage with the speed and precision found in Unreal. Given that UT3 plays lightyears faster than Halo, the fact that it’s able to control so much better is no small feat to be trifled with!
Epic has also succeeded in restoring the gameplay style of the original Unreal Tournament. Dodge-jumping has been entirely removed, double-jumps and wall-jumps de-emphasized, and running/dodging set to a pace comparable to UT1. The maps combine tight hallways and CQB scuffles with open areas and long-range shootouts. The accurate and reliable Enforcer pistol has returned from the first game to replace the weak, spammy, and inaccurate Assault Rifle from UT2003 and UT2004. The beauty of it is that most of the successful gameplay refinements of UT2004 have also been retained… For example, the original UT was rather heavy-handed on weapon damage, degenerating easily into a mindless fragfest of easy 1-hit kills when too many players were tossed in the mix. UT2004 strove for a more competitive balance, where a rocket would only deal at maximum 90 hit points out of 100 needed to kill the average player, so that you always needed multiple hits to score a kill and only consistently good performance would yield success. UT3 has improved on both models; a direct hit from a rocket can deal 100 damage, but glancing blows deal very little damage… even less damage than in UT2004. This allows for both the immediacy and satisfaction of 1-hit kills while still punishing sloppy performance with drastically inferior results.
First person shooter action of this caliber is such a rarity these days that playing a quality Unreal is a real treat, particularly on as mainstream a platform as Xbox 360. UT‘s design philosophy avoids so many bad design habits seen in other mainstream shooters that it’s truly refreshing to play. Unlike most games, where grenades and rocket launchers deliver such heavy splash damage that you barely need to aim to make a kill, UT‘s explosives have relatively little splash, so you need precise hits to deal real damage. In other games, weapons which shoot slow-moving projectiles like plasma bolts or spikes still tend to do the same damage as weapons which shoot bullets and hit instantly like rifles or machineguns; thus the slow-projectile weapons tend to be reduced to novelty use, roughly as effective as a pepper spray/baseball bat combo rather than legitimately effective, lethal weapons. Epic understands that such slow-moving projectiles need to deal at least double the damage of their instant-hitting counterparts in order to compensate for the fact that the enemy has a chance to move out of the way before being hit, and thus if you have the skill to lead and predict properly with the Link Gun or Stinger in UT3 and can hit players even when they are trying to move out of the way, they will be dealt devastating damage which grants these weapons prodigious efficacy. All in all, while mainstream shooters all tend to focus on instant-hitting assault rifles or battle rifles, which require simplistic camp, point, and click approaches, UT places heavy emphasis on quick, skilled maneuvering, leading and predicting targets to strike with slow projectile attacks, and calculating special factors like arc and ricochet in order to kill from unexpected angles.
Online functionality, predictably, is quite decent. You can choose “quickmatch” and have the system automatically toss you in the fastest available game, or you can actually view a PC-style server list and choose the one you want manually. Also as in PC games, there are dedicated servers available maintained by Epic/Midway, which tend to be quite fast and don’t grant any one player host advantage. The skill level and play style of players in the public venues tend to vary a fair degree, but if you utilize the social tools made available to you through Live, befriending those players who play similarly to yourself, you can stick to private games of like-minded players whenever the public games don’t suit you.
There are some things you could nitpick in UT3. There is no separate Y-axis sensitivity setting, nor a Y-axis acceleration variable, so aiming up and down tends to always be slower than aiming horizontally — making it unnaturally difficult to do things like hit enemies below you while jumping over them or standing on a high ledge (this actually serves to emphasize using arcing weapons like the Biorifle and Flak Cannon in these situations, so it’s not all bad). There is no option to disable auto-aim or crosshair magnetism, which is most frustrating when attempting shock combos; your crosshair is often pulled a millimeter or two towards your target and away from the shock core you need to zap in order to trigger the attack’s telltale explosion. The online play options are ample and functional, but could be better — for example, why is there no true Halo 2-style matchmaking option to supplement the basic server search functions? However, these factors are relatively minor and can be worked around — for example after some practice I am now making many standing shock combos and even some moving shock combos on a regular basis, despite the crosshair magnetism.
Lastly, it’s worth pointing out that the selection of maps and modes is a bit sparse compared to prior PC Unreal titles, and while UT3 greatly polishes all preexisting elements of the series, it does not make any considerable innovations or add any new gametypes. The lack of downloadable user content and post-release bonus packs from Epic does not help this situation. Thus, if this were the PC version being reviewed, I would be a degree harder on it and see it as a more mediocre release.
However, as a console game, Unreal Tournament 3 on Xbox 360 is an outstanding title. Given the series’ past history with shoddy console ports, and the lack of any other games which truly excel in this style of FPS action, creating a PC-perfect, unadulterated Unreal on consoles is quite an accomplishment. The deal is sweetened even further by the fact that UT3 is the most polished iteration of Unreal combat to date.
UT‘s brand of combat is not for everybody; it’s so fast paced that players accustomed to Halo‘s plodding pace will be left in the dust and smashed ruthlessly until they learn and adapt. Likewise, the typical rules of “realistic” tactical shooters like Call of Duty and Counterstrike do not apply, and making sniper headshots while dodging off the wall into a sideways flip at 30 mph will conquer conventional attempts to crouch behind a wooden crate mowing people down at chokepoints. It’s not that UT lacks skill, strategy, or tactics by any means — in fact it can be argued that it greatly surpasses more popular games in these areas, however, the skills and tactics are quite different than the mundane conventions popularized by its casual, mainstream brethren, so players new to the series must go in prepared to have their preconceptions challenged. UT is the Street Fighter of First Person Shooters, if you can learn to throw fireballs and dragon punches instead of boxing or wrestling conventionally, there is a deep and rewarding competitive game there.
As a result, Unreal Tournament 3 comes highly recommended. There is no more successfully executed shooter of this style on consoles, and by extension, I’d say that this is easily the best FPS on Xbox 360. If you take the time to learn this game, you will not be disappointed!