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Sofware in Review → Games → First person shooters →

Unreal Tournament 2004 review

By Jem Matzan

The successful Unreal Tournament series continues with UT2004. In short, it's much like UT2003 in terms of graphics and gameplay, but there are some very important additions that make UT2004 a must-have: player vehicles and two new game modes that bring a whole new dimension to the standard FPS.

The More Things Change...

So what hasn't changed since UT2003? All of the characters are still there, and new ones have been added. Most notably the Skarrj race -- ugly, vicious aliens -- have been added. New robots and cyborgs have also been added, and the fan favorites (Malcolm, Brock, Lauren, Gorge) are of course still there. Several of the characters are "locked" and can't be selected for online play unless you unlock them by making progress in the single-player offline mode.

There are still game modes for Capture The Flag, Bombing Run, Double Domination, Deathmatch and Team Deathmatch. Some of the third-party add-ons from UT2003 have made it into UT2004 like Invasion, Mutant and Last Man Standing modes. Many of the maps from UT2003 have also been transferred to UT2004, and even one from the original Unreal Tournament.

New Game Modes

New to UT2004 are Assault and Onslaught modes, which dominate the online servers. They have all of the excitement of Capture The Flag and Bombing Run with the added challenges of being timed and having to accomplish certain objectives. These are the only two game modes that have vehicles in them, which kind of makes the other, older game modes superfluous. Deathmatch seems boring and insipid after you've played just one round of Assault. You could take the Deathmatch modes out of the game entirely and it wouldn't lessen the game's replayability one bit. Some of us have been playing Deathmatch since the original Doom, so after more than ten years and just as many FPS games, we're pretty sick of running around shooting each other with no real goal other than frag count. Assault and Onslaught bring a new, more intelligent dimension to "just killing each other," and in fact if you play these game modes like they're Deathmatches, you're probably going to lose.

Assault presents paramilitary-like missions in which you must accomplish a goal by meeting certain objectives. In offline play you're given a debriefing that describes each objective along with what it will accomplish. Examples of objectives are opening doors with explosives, destroying key targets, operating switches, and moving or manipulating machinery or vehicles to certain checkpoints or positions. Once an objective is accomplished you'll have to race to the next one before the enemy team can stop you.

Your team is given a certain amount of time to accomplish the mission; usually it's more than enough time if you're only playing against the computer, but you don't want to take too long because in the next round you'll be on defense trying to prevent the opposing team from beating your time. If neither team completes the mission, the team that accomplishes the most objectives in the least amount of time will win.

In Onslaught mode you're given the task of destroying an enemy base while defending your own. At each base is a power core with a certain amount of hit points. Between your base and the enemy base are power nodes which, when activated, will connect your base to the enemy base and allow you to attack their power core. If you don't connect the nodes, a shield will remain in place around the enemy power core, protecting it from harm.

To activate a power node it must be connected to your power core or to another node that you control. Just walk onto the node and it'll begin to power up -- a process which takes about a minute. You can speed up the process by adding power with your link gun (several people doing this at once can have a power node up in less than ten seconds). At the same time, the opposing team is also trying to take power nodes. Once you have a power node that is connected to an enemy power node, you can attack that node and try to take it down. Once it's down you can take control of it. Once you have all of the nodes (or enough to connect your power core with the enemy's) then you can attack the enemy base and destroy their power core. It sounds convoluted (and it is) but once you get used to it, an Onslaught match can be extremely intense.

Onslaught maps are enormous, and unless you make good use of the vehicles you're in for a long walk.

Vehicles

Onslaught has most of the vehicles while Assault has turrets and specialized vehicles that are generally closely affiliated with a mission objective. All have unlimited ammo.

Turrets can be of three types: link turrets, which are like superpowered link guns; minigun turrets which are like more powerful miniguns; and the plasma turrets found on the Mothership and most Onslaught maps. There are also automated turrets similar to the plasma turrets; these are called Sentinels and they will guard your spawn positions in Assault mode so that the enemy team can't wait around at your spawn point and kill you before you're ready to fight. Sentinels cannot be destroyed except in the Mothership level where destroying them is one of the objectives. Turrets and vehicles can be healed with the link gun, and link turrets can be supercharged if another player is using the link gun alt-fire on them, thereby increasing their firepower.

The Goliath tank has a decent amount of hit points and armor and its firepower is quite potent, even if it only fires once every two seconds or so. There is also a machine gunner position on top, which is designed to help defend against air attacks; unfortunately it isn't terribly effective as a defensive measure. Mantas and Raptors can easily take down a Goliath, but if you're on foot or in a Hellbender, turret or Scorpion, you're more or less dead if you come across a Goliath.

The Manta is the most popular vehicle in UT2004. It's a fast, lightweight, poorly armored skimmer with moderately powerful weaponry. All vehicles can be used to run down players unlucky enough to be on foot, but the Manta is specially designed for the task of sweeping an area and lopping off the heads of enemies in a single pass. It's fast but not very maneuverable, so you'll want to line up your targets (preferably you'll want to come from behind so they can't see you approaching) and mow them down as quickly as possible. Mantas are especially vulnerable to AVRiL rockets, well-placed shock rifle shots, and air-to-air missiles from the Raptor. Three solid hits with the flak cannon will also take it down. The Manta is also useful for speeding from one power node to another, and for attacking nodes from a distance.

The Raptor is the vehicle of fools and experts. It flies very high and moves quickly, but it doesn't have much armor and if you're not careful you can fall to your death. Two AVRiL rockets or a barrage of machine gun fire or a few good shock rifle shots will take it down quickly. If you're high in the sky and someone has missile lock on you, more than likely you're going to die unless you can speed out of sight quickly. You can of course jump out and fall to the ground, but the chances of survival are just as good as they were in the doomed aircraft. Raptors are best used for covert operations, to sneak in behind the enemy team and take down their power nodes when they're not looking, a task best done at high altitude. They're also useful for remotely attacking the enemy power core, or for killing other Raptors and Mantas with your air-to-air missiles. Raptors are the best weapon for attacking Goliaths and Leviathans.

The Scorpion is a rolling death trap of a dune buggy. It's not as fast as the Manta but it's faster than the other land-based vehicles and has very little armor. It has only one weapon, which is a sort of rope-like plasma gun which shoots what looks like fluorescent green barbed wire. When that wire makes contact with any surface (an enemy vehicle or player or the ground or scenery) it'll sort of wrap it up and then explode. The Scorpion is also armed with mechanical blades that extend from its sides, giving it the ability to sweep an area and take down any enemies that are on foot. It's very easy to kill Mantas with the Scorpion's primary weaponry, but anything else will crush the Scorpion like a bug. If you're at all experienced, it's easy to avoid the Scorpion on foot by jumping or dodging (assuming you know it's coming).

The Hellbender is a Humvee from hell. It's got a lot of armor and two gunner positions (in addition to the driver, who can't shoot while driving) and it's useful for bringing along a crew to attack a power node and capture it. Some will drive a Hellbender to a strategic point -- like the top of a hill -- and then jump into one of the gunner positions to snipe from afar while staying nicely armored by the vehicle. Hellbenders are susceptible to attack from just about everything; even if you have gunners with you, it's hard to shoot anything while the vehicle is in motion. The passenger gunner shoots super-powered shock pulses which can then be shot again to create a series of shock combos. The tailgunner has a railgun at his disposal, which is useful for powerful long-range sniper attacks, but it can only be fired at full power after charging it for two or three seconds.

The Ion Tank is found in the Glacier Assault level. It's got twice the armor of a Goliath tank and the ion pulse it shoots is more destructive than a redeemer missile. The alt-fire will create a sort of ion ambiance around the tank which will kill any enemies that are very close to it. There is also a machine gunner position which is just as futile as the one in the Goliath (by the time you've killed someone with the machine gun, they've already taken away half of your hit points). Many Ion Tank drivers make the mistake of trying to shoot at the enemy team when they should be concentrating on helping their team achieve the next objective. If you get in the Ion Tank, never take your finger off of the trigger and watch where you're going.

The spacefighter (there are two, actually: the Human Spacefighter and the Skarrj Spacefighter) looks like fun at first, but it's very difficult to use if you have no X-Wing experience (and if you've never heard of X-Wing, you're hopelessly deprived). A lot of newer players hate the Mothership map because they're horrible at manipulating the spacefighters. You have to pay attention to your radar screen and listen for the beep that tells you that an enemy has a lock on you. Then you have to develop an effective evasive pattern to rid yourself of the incoming missile and get back to the task of concentrating on your objectives. It takes practice and patience, and even the best players can die several times before an objective is accomplished. The Skarrj Spacefighter is considerably faster than the Human Spacefighter, but the armament and armor on both is pretty much equal. Each is armed with unlimited homing missiles and a plasma cannon for shooting targets that you are close enough to see.

Lastly we have the Leviathan, a massive five-person rolling temple of doom. It's very slow (you can get out and walk and the Leviathan wouldn't give you much competition in a race) but it's armed with four link cannon positions and the driver is armed with both mini homing missiles that home in on all enemy targets and a superpowered ion cannon. The ion cannon requires the Leviathan to go into a special firing mode which takes about five seconds to achieve and requires that the machine be on level ground. One shot will kill a power node and any surrounding enemies. It has the highest armor of any vehicle by far; if you have a full complement of weapons (minus the superweapons) you could exhaust all of your firepower and the Leviathan would still be rolling. Even a direct hit with a Redeemer missile won't kill it. It's only found on two maps, although newer maps are popping up all the time on the game servers and many of them include at least one Leviathan.

If you launch a ground vehicle off of a cliff, you can score Daredevil points for landing on your feet (so to speak). Daredevil points get you absolutely nothing but the admiration of your peers (if that). If you don't land right, you'll end up with an overturned vehicle, and you'll be ejected (usually safely, but sometimes the vehicle can roll over onto you and kill you). You can flip the vehicle back over and ride in it again in most cases.

If a vehicle explodes with you in it, you die. The only exception is in Assault mode where the Ion Tank and the Hellbender will eject all occupants when they explode. The Scorpion, Manta, and the rear gunner on the Hellbender can be wounded with certain weapons, and that means that they can be killed while in the vehicle.

Vehicles can be stolen -- you can steal an enemy's vehicle -- but you can't steal it at enemy spawn points because the vehicles are locked at first and can only be unlocked by a member of the team it spawned for. Once unlocked, you can "carjack" it, assuming the original occupant has vacated the vehicle first.

Problems

The list of bugs in this game is staggering. This is a screen I see all too often, and it's not just GNU/Linux users that have crash problems -- Windows users have instability issues as well. I've noticed that it happens mostly in Onslaught mode (I can't play for 30 minutes without a crash) and usually when I'm in a vehicle. Assault mode is less prone to crashing, but it does still happen, usually on crowded servers when the action is really intense.

Aside from crashing, there is the CD key problem. Unreal Tournament 2004 requires a unique CD key and player ID from you in order to play online. If your CD key is already in use by another player (if someone has somehow stolen your key or you gave it away) then you can't play. But many players (including myself) have come across a problem with busy servers that cause this error message to be displayed on your computer even if your CD key is not in use -- how can it be in use if you're the only one who has it? Restarting the game and logging back in to the server will solve the issue, but that doesn't lessen its level of annoyance.

Then there's the fact that the stats servers are still down. They were in operation for about two weeks, then Epic took them down for one reason or another and now they've been offline since the end of March (as of 5/9/04, they are still not working). So that means that you can't keep track of your all-time stats.

The server selection is trailing off gradually. When I first started playing back in March, you could always find a good server somewhere, no matter what time of day it was. Now it's hard to find a server that doesn't have latency problems, and players are becoming more scarce. A lot of people are fed up with all of the problems with UT2004 and have abandoned it until the major issues have been addressed. The other problem is that most of the good servers are gone -- they cost too much money and people stopped paying for them. You shouldn't have to pay for a server to play online; there should be enough standard Epic/Atari servers to accommodate all players who bought the game, and if people want private servers they can rent their own.

Cheating

Cheating has driven me away from online games many times. At first I noticed a lot of cheating and I was ready to return UT2004 for a refund because I was so upset. Fortunately the sysadmins cracked down on it and Epic even changed the license agreement to add a specific item to deal with cheaters. I don't see too much cheating anymore, but I have noticed that some people are able to submit multiple votes in the map voting screen -- this seems to me to be a cheat, but I'm not totally certain.

There is of course a lot of blame being passed for cheating when the reality of the matter is that there are some people who are really good at the game and they know a lot of shortcuts, secrets, strategies and tips. True cheating is extremely rare now that there are measures in place to detect, track and report it.

Community

The online in-game community is unmoderated and extremely vulgar. Racially intolerant, anti-semitic, and homophobic comments on both the voice and text messages are extremely common and swear words are practically required of every player. There is a lot of whining about unfair teams, a decent amount of cheating accusations, and a ton of frustration at new players who don't know how the game works. You can't enjoy online play in UT2004 if you're sensitive to this sort of language -- unless of course you disable the chat functions, in which case you'll be at a disadvantage when playing against people who know what they're doing. Communication is an integral part of online strategy. To a certain extent you have to expect a degree of trash-talking, antagonism, and swearing in a game as intense as UT2004, but some of the things you're going to hear are bound to be wildly offensive.

I strongly recommend that anyone who has never played UT2003 or UT to spend some time in offline play before going online. Please don't ruin the game for other people by blundering around learning how to play -- you should be doing that in Instant Action or single-player mode first, then when you know how the game works, go online and have some fun.

The AI

Sidney Harris once joked that if there is artificial intelligence, there is bound to be artificial stupidity. The Epic programmers seem to have ignored that little bit of wisdom in creating the AI for the computer-controlled players. Whereas in UT2003 I played at the Adept skill level, I have to turn it down to Experienced in UT2004 because it's just too frustrating to play at higher levels. The bots single you out, gang up on you and kill you while ignoring the other bots on your team; they always know where you are even if they can't see you; they can hit you with almost any weapon from any distance (even if you're not in sight) and they have reflexes that are impossible to counter (they dodge the instant you hit the fire button). In other words, the computer cheats like hell. And if that isn't enough, the only thing that separates the higher levels of AI from the lower levels are the percentage of impossible shots that they get. In the lower AI levels it's like they miss on purpose a few times just for good measure, then you're suddenly dead because of an impossible shot.

An AI that has to cheat to be more competitive is not good programming -- it's a very poor algorithm. The programmers have totally failed it with the artificial intelligence for Unreal Tournament 2004. It's probably the worst AI I've seen in a game in a long time, and I certainly preferred the UT2003 AI over the one found in UT2004. I'm so frustrated with it that I can't play Single-Player mode anymore, and I won't join any online servers that have bots playing.

The Weapons

There are a few new weapons in Unreal Tournament 2004:

  • Mine layer
  • Grenade launcher
  • AVRiL
  • Dual assault rifles
  • Sniper rifle
  • Target painter

The mine layer throws down spider mines, which are spider-shaped explosives that will sit patiently until an enemy gets too close, whereupon the spider mines will chase after them and detonate when they catch up. They're especially effective for guarding power nodes or taking down the Hellbender in the Junkyard map. The mines are fairly powerful -- one or two will kill a player. You can shoot and destroy spider mines, but some weapons aren't very effective against them. Spider mines will disappear when you die, and you can't lay more than ten of them at a time (you can, but each new one you deploy will replace the oldest one). The alt-fire will shoot a laser target painter where the spiders will converge, so after they're placed you can move them en masse if you need to.

The grenade launcher will lob sticky grenades a few feet in front of you. They aren't too effective against those on foot because it's hard to aim the grenades, but this is an excellent weapon for attacking power nodes and power cores and for destroying stationary or slow-moving vehicles. The only problem is that you need to detonate them after they've attached themselves to a target. So you fire off a bunch of sticky grenades, hope they stick to the right targets and then you hit the alt-fire button to blow them up. Just like with spider mines, grenades will disappear when you die.

The Anti-Vehicle Rocket Launcher (AVRiL) is just what it says it is. Practically useless against pedestrian enemies, the AVRiL is deadly against Mantas and Raptors. It will also take out land-based vehicles better than any other normal weapon, but it takes several shots to kill the more heavily armored vehicles like the Goliath and the Leviathan. The AVRiL fires and reloads slowly, so you really have to aim and plan carefully. AVRiL rockets will home in on their target as long as it remains in sight.

UT and UT2003 veterans will know the standard assault rifle, a.k.a "the pea shooter." In UT2004 if someone throws one to you or if you pick one up that someone dropped when they died, you will carry two assault rifles and wield them both at once. This greatly increases your firepower and actually makes the assault rifle into a halfway decent weapon.

The sniper rifle shoots a single bullet at a very high velocity. It takes off 60 hit points per body shot and can kill instantly if you get a head shot. It reloads slowly and emits a puff of smoke that obscures your vision for a few seconds while making your position known to other enemy snipers. It's not very useful against vehicles, and overall it should only be used as a last resort or as a defensive tool in Assault or Onslaught mode.

The target painter is much like the ion painter -- you have to aim it at the ground and hold down the fire button for a solid second or so. The big difference is in the kind of weapon it calls forth. While the ion painter will bring down the wrath of an ion cannon-armed satellite, the target painter will call in an airstrike from a high-flying Phoenix airplane. The plane is unmanned and drops a series of bombs in a straight line with the target in the middle of the drop. It is possible to shoot down the Phoenix if you know it's coming (there's a voice broadcast warning prior to the airstrike, but unless you see the target painter used, you have no idea where it's going to be), otherwise you'll want to get out of the way of the slow-falling bombs.

Single-Player Mode

Single-Player mode has been ruined in UT2004. Whereas in UT2003 you had a simple ladder tournament that relied on strategy and skill, in UT2004 it's been complicated with player salaries, injuries, and a nonsensical system of personal challenge matches.

Each player costs money to buy, so you have to buy your teammates, then go through the usual preliminary Deathmatch rounds before you can compete in the tournament as a team. After each team match, one or more of your players will be injured and require money to fix their wounds. You'll also get personal challenges from other teams, and it will cost money if you decline their challenges. You can change arenas too, but again that'll cost you some of your earnings. All of this data is recorded in a team stats window.

The team selection and management are overly complex and frustrating, especially when players are injured. In Deathmatches, your team does more harm than good (in some cases your teammates will end up with a negative frag count), which is yet another indication of a poorly-designed and poorly-implemented artificial intelligence algorithm. Single-Player mode is mostly about Deathmatch, a game mode that I find very boring and repetitive compared with the other more exciting and strategy-dependent modes; there should be a way to customize the tournament to cut out the parts that you don't like.

Since I don't like Single-Player mode, I might never be able to choose the locked players -- all the more reason to hate Single-Player Mode. Epic has given the fun of Single-Player mode a headshot.

Conclusions

Unreal Tournament 2004 is a beautifully designed, imaginative and challenging first-person shooter, but it's dogged by sloppy programming and a generally "rushed" feeling. This game was released too soon; it needed a lot more testing to fix major bugs and flaws in the game that are still not fixed at this point.

Do I recommend it? I don't know. Certainly it's fun -- one of the most fun games I've ever played -- but it's also maddening when the game keeps crashing on you at critical moments.

Lots of people want to know how they can improve their UT2004 game. We've started a thread in the message forums to list and discuss some Unreal Torunament 2004 tips to help you become a better player. Please respect the rules of our forum if you wish to participate in the discussion.

Unreal Tournament 2004

UT2004
Game Type First-person shooter
Manufacturer Epic Games
Operating Systems Supported Windows 98/ME/2K/XP, OS X and GNU/Linux
License Proprietary, heavily restrictive
ESRB Rating M (mature)
Price (retail) US $37 (Click here to buy it from Amazon.com)
Demo Click here
Screen Shot Directory of UT2004 screenshots
Recommended System At least: Pentium3 1.2ghz, 256MB RAM, 5.5GB of hard drive space available, 8X CD-ROM, 32MB hardware-accelerated video card (Nvidia GeForce2 Titanium or ATI Radeon 7000, but with any card below a GeForce 4 Ti4600 or Radeon 9600 you will have to turn down detail settings to get an acceptable frame rate), DirectX 9 or OpenGL subsystems, and nearly any standard sound card.
Product website Official Epic/Atari UT2004 Site