Extended memories of our youth seem to run on a 10 year cycle. 10 years ago today, and anything that happened before that, will be hazy, foggy, incomplete. All that remains of this period are stand out moments, images of such clarity you can not only recall specific details about where you were standing and what you were seeing, but exactly how you were thinking and feeling. When I first came across Unreal Tournament, the experience was clearly so memorable it has etched itself definitively in my mind, a burning, high definition image.
It was the year 2001, I was at my best mates house, and I’d just entered his room. I saw on his giant (at the time) computer screen an equally huge crosshair aimed at a vivid depiction of an enemy base, with tiny little ants running madly around it that he was picking off at will. For a child who was used to playing Minesweeper and 3D Windows Pinball, this was like discovering girls had breasts. It was monumental. I had to have it immediately, and I must play it incessantly with little or no regard to any muscular atrophy and social alienation that would surely accompany it.
Not being a gamer I had no grasp of the influence UT had on the gaming world, or whether it was groundbreaking or merely another mundane FPS. I’d played Quake before, a handful of times, and I’d snuck a rented copy of Duke Nukem on PS1 in to my room once, until it was found by my mum and duly dispatched with. As a ‘Noob’, UT had me entranced. The sheer weight of options, customisations, weapons, maps. Rather than create a small, efficient package that could be modded by talented individuals, Epic and Digital decided to release a game that was already heavy on options and allow gamers to take it even further if they wished.
There was little need for this. In contemporary gaming, choice and freedom through customisation and game play is now deemed an absolute necessity, but in the dark ages of the early 00s an FPS was merely a revolving door of 5 or so maps, 5 or so guns and 5 or so characters. Put them all in a mildly interesting room and see who comes out victorious. Unreal Tournament utilised a preposterous amount of maps (41 in single player, many more in multiplayer and many many more to be found on the internet). In comparison, Quake 3, the giant franchise that many predicted would easily account for UT, only managed 26. Not a complete walkover, but we haven’t finished yet.
A novelty at the time was character customisation. Having no real bearing upon game play, it nonetheless provided the chance to create your own back story for your chosen character – pick his or her appearance, their name, what team they were on, what colours of war they were to wear. Features that became basic issue on FPS games post-2000, but pioneering on UT. Piloting your own creation through the single player campaign became an even more enjoyable experience, and I’d wager there were more than a few young teenage lads using the strangely sexualised female characters, wondering what secrets those bulges in their uniforms held.
Weapons. Lots of them. 12 in fact, all with alternate firing capabilities. This served to enrich the strategy of the game and enhance the game play dramatically. Every gamer became familiar and deadly with their favourite weapon, and knew where to find it on each map once they’d logged enough game hours. Because these weapons were so vastly different in method, no weapon stood out as overly dominant (Redeemer of course exempt from that). Some preferred the accuracy of the Sniper Rifle, some (like myself) less gifted mouse jockeys flocked to the flak cannon, allowing a good spread of fire. Others still went for the Shock Rifle, using its alternate fire mode to create mini explosions, plastering the walls with their enemy’s body parts. There were lesser weapons, but even these could be used to maim and brutalise. The Chainsaw was a favourite of one of my friends, who took delight in his ability to reduce even the most skilful of our group to a bloody stump before they could blink.
Whilst multiplayer was the mode of choice for most gamers, me and my friends included, the single player campaign was so deep and involving that even if you weren’t blessed with the gift of friends (and there were a couple of years where this applied to me), you could spend stupid amounts of time engrossed in this game. Not only was there a huge campaign mode, you had the option of creating your own free form games, on any map, any form of game, against any number of opponents, with any number of allies. It was insane; you couldn’t possibly play every permutation in a decade let alone a rainy weekend! Options like single weapon maps (Chainsaw Melee, Flak Arena etc) and even InstaGib and InstaRocket (one shot one kill), JumpMatch (gravity turned WAY down, great for sniper maps), Stealth (everyone is invisible) and FatBoy (the more you get shot the smaller you get, making you harder to shoot in the process!) meant more choice than a Texan oil tycoon at a prostitute convention.
It was the single player campaign that excelled though. Structured through 4 separate game styles: Death Match, Capture the Flag, Domination, and Assault, players worked through individual maps, unlocking more content and earning rankings as they progressed. You began to know the individual characters; my bogey man was always Kragoth, who managed to pick me off from the most unlikely of locations as I scuttled about the map, flakking all in my path. Death Match is quite self explanatory: a bunch of characters duke it out and the most frags win. Capture The Flag equally simple. Domination involved holding on to certain checkpoints on the map for the longest period of time. Kills didn’t count, except to slow the opposition down, points came from holding these locations. Assault was the most like a modern day FPS, specific mission objectives had to be achieved in sequence, each harder than the first, in a team setting. This mode was the most enjoyable, working together with your team mates (or computer generated mates) to achieve a common goal. Once you’ve succeeded, the teams swap around and rather than assaulting the base you must defend it, and keep the opposition out for longer than it took you to get in! It’s wildly addictive, and every game mode can come down the wire. More than once I found myself gripping the mouse tighter, heart rate increasing beyond its slothful 80 BPM as the timer ticks down and the pressure increases. Games shouldn’t do that to you, but this one did. You become invested, addicted, drawn in. Exactly what you look for in a game.
Finally, a note on the multiplayer qualities. The sheer range of options makes this an absolute must to revisit with your mates next time you all find yourself sitting at home with nothing to do. There’s no camp value, I’ve gone back and played it in 2013 and been sucked straight back in, not due to retro appeal but just genuinely delightful game play. The colossal number of different situations and settings means you’ll never tire. You can team up with 2 of your friends and assault the Frigate, you can work in tandem with a gifted sniping friend on Face to capture the flag, or you can hook up your head sets and work out a strategy for the perfectly played game of Domination. Better yet, just flood the map with expert bots and duke it out in a death match. There’s an option for everyone, and once you’ve tried them all you’ll have your favourite to play over and over again.
What else? The graphics STILL hold up in 2013. The detail that has gone in to every map, the secret passages, the hiding locations, the perfect camping spots. The way you can see individual body parts scattering to all corners. The sound is unmatched. Huge booming basses, no trace of quality loss, the spacey, airy sensation the ambient noise gives you when you’ve turned gravity off and you’re floating through space, the explosion as you crash off the map in to the sun. The voice exclaiming MONSTER KILL!!! Hook it up to a decent speaker system and you’ll be amazed at its depth, even today.
Unreal Tournament, Game Of The Year Edition. Ground breaking, time stealing, pioneering, addictive, complex, deep. Utterly brilliant.