Friday, November 22, 2019

20th Anniversary of Unreal Tournament

Unreal Tournament icon in black

If there's another gaming series that I love as much as Zelda and Metroid, then it's certainly Unreal, where the original Unreal Tournament was my first PC game and is still today one of my absolute favorite first person shooters. By now it has been 20 years that it was released in North America and this was a nice occasion to play the game again and dwell in old memories.

Released in 1999 it's from an era, where 3D gaming was just evolving from sprite-based into polygon-based graphics. It's from an era that also produced timeless classics like The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, The Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask, Half-Life, Quake III Arena and of course the first Unreal.

What most 3D games from that time have in common is that the 3D graphics were pretty solid and still can look very nice today with some modifications, but they were still basic and a lot of it was compensated with sound. Sound effects and music are what made these games truly memorable and created a thrilling atmosphere like no other. And the better the graphics became over the last 20 years, the more the importance of sound has faded, which is true for the Zelda and Unreal series alike. Don't get me wrong, I still think that Unreal Tournament III and Breath of the Wild have good music and some nice sound effects, but around 1999 it was on a whole other level. Sounds used to be a lot more intense and atmospheric.

And it hits me every time, when I start up Unreal Tournament again. The powerful weapon sounds, the respawn pulse, water effects, the pickup sounds, the hilarious one liners and especially the soundtrack. It's all so good and it still looks quite nice, too.

screenshot of Unreal Tournament on the map DM-Turbine holding a Shock Rifle in a Team Deathmatch

The weapons are especially iconic and you rarely see new shooters with innovative, yet simple weapons like this. The Shock Rifle shoots a hitscan beam and an energy ball projectile, where hitting the latter with the former creates a powerful explosion. And besting your opponents like that is just super satisfying. The shrapnel shotgun idea of the Flak Cannon is also extremely fun and gets copied to this day.

At the same time the game had amazing maps, where the primary use of simple, BSP-based shapes for the environment really put the focus on level geometry and design, on gameplay and clear visuals. It's something the new Unreal Tournament even embraced, before its levels got prettied up. But Unreal Tournament is known for some of the best and most creative multiplayer levels of all times, where maps like "Deck", "Morbias" and "Facing Worlds" instantly come to mind, which have been present in many of the Unreal games.

It's also amazing how modifiable the game was with hundreds and probably thousands of custom maps available for download, easily installable by just putting one file into your maps folder. There were also gameplay mutators and even full on conversions like Tactical Ops. I didn't really make use of the latter, but I've downloaded countless maps for this game and even made some of my own. But that's something you don't really get from Nintendo or console games in general, not counting something like Super Mario Maker, which was explicitly made for user generated contents. We're talking about real add-ons here, which were made by the community and were often on par with the overall quality of the game, sometimes even exceeding it. And Epic Games embraced this, where they've even added development tools on the disc with the Unreal Editor.

I had been following the series for quite some time, where I've intensively played all games except for the new Unreal Tournament, where my motivation to get a new PC wasn't big enough yet and the game seems to be stuck forever in its pre-alpha state, because Epic Games decided to put all its efforts into Fortnite. But maybe some day both Epic and me will return.

Otherwise I've played most Unreal games after the originals at their release and enjoyed them quite a lot, where I've put hundreds of hours into Unreal Tournament 2003, Unreal II - The Awakening, Unreal Tournament 2004, Unreal Tournament III and Unreal Championship 2 - The Liandri Conflict. The latter even got me to buy an Xbox, my only non-Nintendo gaming console, and combined the First Person Arena Shooter gameplay of UT with the third person melee action of a Zelda game, where you have different characters with individual melee weapons and abilities. I really loved that game.

But with the new Unreal Tournament stagnating there hasn't been much to talk about the series in the past ten years, even since the release of the Titan Pack for Unreal Tournament III, which is why it's rarely ever a topic on this blog, despite my affinity for the series. Given, it's not exactly a great match for a Zelda-focused blog, but still it's one of my absolute favorite games and there are certain design parallels as to why this is.

In any case I just wanted to say: Happy Birthday, Unreal Tournament!

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