Sunday, May 31, 2020

Unreal Tournament: Ultimate Console Map Pack (WIP)

20th Anniversary Ultimate Console Map Pack

As a celebration of the 20th Anniversary of Unreal Tournament, I've been quite busy working on this for the last couple of months: the "Ultimate Console Map Pack".

The original Unreal Tournament has been released for PC, PlayStation 2 and Sega Dreamcast back in the day, where each version had its share of exclusive maps. Epic Games, the creators of the game, made a bunch of exclusive levels for the PS2 version, 14 in total. And later Secret Level was tasked with making Dreamcast port, where they've added 23 Deathmatch maps.

My dream always was to have all the maps playable in the PC version as one grand collection. But while there have been attempts of this in the past, there never has been a complete and accurate collection of all these console maps. So, it's like they say: if you want something done right, you have to do it yourself...

Luckily, it's not like I had to recreate these levels from scratch. There has been a leak of the beta versions of Epic's PS2 levels, at least most of them. And the Dreamcast exclusive maps all got made by modifying levels that Epic employees made for the "Rocket Arena" mod.

For the Dreamcast maps I basically had to recreate their creation process. I had to extract the arena from the Rocket Arena map and then add level screenshots, music, player spawns, weapons and items as they are in the Dreamcast versions. I also had to modify some of the environments here and there, but only in rare cases. Making all of this took the longest, but mostly because of the sheer number of maps.

Some of the PS2 maps also needed some heavy editing, where one of the maps, DM-Sorayama, still remains in its beta version, which is missing one entire half of the map. I'm not sure I'll ever do this... Luckily, the only missing map, CTF-Sundial, was remade faithfully for the PC by Jeroen Van Sweeveldt, so I could use that.
Without further ado, here is the complete list of all maps, which is a hell of a lot... Let's start with the maps that got made for the PS2 version (14/16 in total):
  • CTF-PS2-Phalanx
  • CTF-PS2-Sepulchre
  • CTF-PS2-Spirito
  • CTF-PS2-Stormfront
  • CTF-PS2-Sundial
  • DM-PS2-Brickyard
  • DM-PS2-CanyonFear
  • DM-PS2-Coagulate
  • DM-PS2-Core
  • DM-PS2-Flux
  • DM-PS2-Hood
  • DM-PS2-Loathing
  • DM-PS2-SorayamaBeta
  • DOM-PS2-Coagulate
  • DOM-PS2-Hood
  • DOM-PS2-Osiris

The DOM (Domination) versions of Coagulate and Hood were actually only playable on the Dreamcast, but their PS2 counterparts already had the necessary control points in them, so this was easy to change.

The Dreamcast exclusive maps then were the following (23 in total):

  • DM-DC-Babylon
  • DM-DC-BlockParty
  • DM-DC-ColdSteel
  • DM-DC-Damnation
  • DM-DC-Depot
  • DM-DC-Dust
  • DM-DC-Gearbox
  • DM-DC-Girder
  • DM-DC-Google
  • DM-DC-Halberd
  • DM-DC-Industrial
  • DM-DC-Infernal
  • DM-DC-Instinct
  • DM-DC-Megaplex
  • DM-DC-Nebula
  • DM-DC-NeoTokyo
  • DM-DC-Outskirts
  • DM-DC-Paladin
  • DM-DC-Pantheon
  • DM-DC-Sector9
  • DM-DC-Singularity
  • DM-DC-StationControl
  • DM-DC-Underlord

As already mentioned, all of these were originally "Rocket Arenas" and got items, weapons and so on added to them for their Dreamcast appearance.

Now, I've also been working on a couple of bonus maps:

  • CTF-PS2-Fortress
  • DM-PS2-Gutter
  • DM-PS2-Osiris
  • DOM-PS2-Brickyard
  • DOM-PS2-Loathing
  • TDK-DC-Nebula

Fortress and Gutter are maps that were made for the PS2 versions, but got cut in the end. Osiris was originally a Deathmatch map, where I had to add the control points for Domination. But I thought it would be nice to keep the DM version as well.

Also, I've discovered that both the beta version of Brickyard (which took a lot of editing to turn it into its final DM version), as well as DM-Loathing had control points in them, which I've used for some bonus Domination maps.

The "Tournament Darkmatch" version of Nebula was more or less an accidental product, but it was fun, which is why I've added this as well. Before this project I didn't even know that Unreal Tournament had this hidden game mode, where you fight in the dark with flashlights, which is probably a remain from Unreal.

Finally, some of the PC maps got altered for the console counterparts, where this pack aims at including these edited maps as well:

  • AS-HiSpeed-PS2
  • CTF-Command-DC
  • CTF-Coret-DC
  • CTF-Dreary-DC
  • CTF-LavaGiant-DC
  • CTF-Niven-DC
  • DM-Agony-DC
  • DM-Barricade-DC
  • DM-KGalleon-PS2
  • DM-Malevolence-DC
  • DM-Phobos-DC

This list is still missing a couple of maps, most notable the PS2 versions of CTF-Dreary, CTF-November and CTF-Niven, which is one of the reasons, why this is still work in progress.

But I'll be taking a break from this project from now on, where I just wanted to share the current status with this post. Once I'm ready to release this to the public, I'll provide an update.

Thursday, May 21, 2020

Arena Arsenal: Arena Shooter Special

screenshot of the futuristic Dekk map from the sniper area

This blog is normally all about Nintendo, with a focus on the Zelda and Metroid series, but if you take a look at the post history you'll find bits and pieces about games that seem far away from Nintendo: Arena Shooters. And this special will be all about them.

Arena Shooters were the pioneer of multiplayer-focused first person shooters twenty years ago, with games like Unreal Tournament and Quake III Arena at the forefront, but today this can be seen as a forgotten genre, where Arena Shooters simply aren't popular any longer and haven't been for quite some time. People these days prefer playing games like Counter-Strike: Global Offensive, Overwatch, Valorant, or the newest iteration of Call of Duty, but not something like Quake Champions, which comes with a much higher skill ceiling and also some issues of its own.

Most Arena Shooters these days either have a very small population or are dead entirely. And while there are new games in the works, it doesn't seem like this genre will see a big resurgence any time soon. Despite this – or maybe even because of this, this blog will take a look at the genre, its history, and what Arena Shooters there are to play in 2020.

What's an Arena Shooter?

Simply put, Arena Shooters are games like Unreal Tournament or Quake III Arena, which where build around Deathmatch and focus on fast-paced gunplay in environments that were specifically designed to be combat arenas. Well, there is no real textbook definition for this genre and the specifics will vary depending on who you ask, but overall there are two key characteristics for Arena Shooters.

1) Arena Shooters were build around the classic multiplayer Deathmatch experience that first came with Doom.

  • Every Arena Shooter offers a free-for-all Deathmatch mode at its core and was build around it. While Arena Shooters usually also come with a couple of team-based modes, like Team Deathmatch or Capture the Flag, these games always offer matches where everyone fights everyone, as well as competitive 1on1 fights / duels. Such modes usually wouldn't work well in team- and class-based shooters, but they are the core of Arena Shooters.
  • The focus of Arena Shooters is on the multiplayer part and singleplayer modes normally only offer a series of "botmatches", where you're playing the multiplayer maps against AI bots.

2) Arena Shooters put skill over realism. This manifests itself in weapons, movement and of course the arenas themselves.

  • Weapons rarely aim to simulate real-life guns, instead they work on a more abstract level and try to offer a large variety of different firing rates, projectile speeds (from slow to instant / "hitscan") and trajectories, while keeping the weapons mostly balanced. There is usually no manual reloading, instead you will collect ammo on the map to refill your weapons or they have infinite ammo available. In Arena Shooters you will find fast-firing Rocket Launchers, plasma guns, energy beams, high-precision sniper rifles, and alike.
  • Movement focuses on speed and mobility, where different techniques like strafe jumps, wall jumps, or double jumps are often utilized. Moving is your primary way of dodging enemy fire and does not reduce your precision while aiming. A sniper rifle will hit the exact center of your crosshair, even if you're flying all over the map.
  • Maps are not meant to be places like you would find them in real life and instead are designed to be enclosed combat arenas, hence the term "Arena Shooter". These arenas can be completely crazy, like castles flying in space. For the most part they were designed around a pick-up system, but also often provide elements like teleporters or bounce pads for additional paths that wouldn't be possible with normal movement.

Some definitions might go even further, where Arena Shooters must have pick-ups and especially weapon pick-ups, where every player starts with the exact same gear and stats at spawn. But there are various exceptions of game modes and even entire Arena Shooters, where this isn't really the case. For example in the popular "Instagib" variant, where everyone fights with a "one hit, one kill" weapon, there are usually no pick-ups. It's the same with "Clan Arena" or similar survival / elimination modes.

In Turok: Rage Wars or Unreal Championship 2 - The Liandri Conflict you choose your weapons before the match, based on generic ammunition types like "explosive rounds", where you can go into the match wielding a Rocket Launcher, a Grenade Launcher, or maybe some weapon with mines.

And some Arena Shooters, like Unreal Championship (both titles) or the latest game in the Quake series, Quake Champions, offer a roster of different playable character, each with their own stats and exclusive power-up abilities. The difference to something like Overwatch is, however, that they still try to balance these characters for duels and that every character works the same at the core. Another example of this would be Metroid Prime Hunters, which is the only Arena Shooter ever published by Nintendo.

Other Arena Shooters, like Unreal Tournament 2004, Unreal Tournament 3, or Toxikk, also offer a variety of vehicles on large, open maps, but this is always just an addition to the classic Deathmatch experience and not the focus.

Teeworlds is actually an example of an Arena Shooter that doesn't utilize a first person perspective and instead is played from a side-scrolling view, where it feels a little bit like a fast and frantic version of Worms.

So, there are various exceptions to what you usually would expect from an Arena Shooter. It's a little bit similar to what defines a Zelda game, where there's always the one game that doesn't have this or that like all the others do, but it's still a Zelda title...

In any case, these games can be seen as more "hardcore" or "arcade" than other first person shooter games, because they are usually faster and offer a very high skill ceiling. Combined with the fact that Arena Shooters today are mostly played by people who have been fans of the genre for over 20 years now, they can be somewhat off-putting to beginners.


Arena Shooter History

Here's a list of various Arena Shooters that have been made since their dawn in 1999, ordered chronologically. This list includes commercial products and open source community projects alike, but it doesn't aim to be complete and comprehensive, it's just a list of examples.

  • Turok: Rage Wars (1999, Nintendo 64)
  • Unreal Tournament (1999)
  • Quake III Arena (1999)
  • Quake III: Team Arena (2000)
  • Unreal Tournament 2003 (2002)
  • Unreal Championship (2002, Xbox)
  • Unreal Tournament 2004 (2004)
  • Unreal Championship 2 — The Liandri Conflict (2005, Xbox)
  • Metroid Prime Hunters (2006, Nintendo DS)
  • Teeworlds (2007)
  • Unreal Tournament 3 (2007)
  • Quake Live (2010)
  • Red Eclipse (2011)
  • Xonotic (2011)
  • Open Arena (2012)
  • Nexuiz (2012)
  • Warsow (2012)
  • Unreal Tournament (2014, cancelled)
  • Toxikk (2016)
  • Reflex Arena (2017)
  • Quake Champions (2017, still in Beta)
  • Master Arena (2018, still in Beta)
  • Diabotical (2020, still in Beta)

In this list we're only looking at games where the multiplayer was the focus. There are also various singleplayer shooters that come with a multiplayer mode that plays like an Arena Shooter, where an exotic example would be Metroid Prime 2: Echoes. In some cases the multiplayer might even feel very different from the singleplayer, e.g. Painkiller, Doom 3, or Quake 4. But since these games weren't developed around the multiplayer part, they didn't get listed here.

But most of the early Arena Shooters stemmed from a series that was previously a singleplayer-focused experience, where the multiplayer was only an addition. Both Quake and Quake II had a multiplayer mode, before Quake III Arena made it the core of the game. Unreal Tournament was originally planned as an expansion for the multiplayer mode of Unreal, but then became its own game. And with Turok: Rage Wars, which can be seen as the first occurrence of an Arena Shooter, the developers wanted to make more out of the multiplayer in Turok 2: The Seeds of Evil.

In the early 2000s the field of Arena Shooters was heavily represented by the Unreal series with five multiplayer-focused titles in total, made by Epic Games and Digital Extremes. But with the rise in popularity of more slow-paced and tactical first and third person shooters on consoles, such as Halo, Call of Duty, and Gears of War, the genre has seen a decline in the later 2000s, where Unreal Tournament 3 marks the last, big retail release of an Arena Shooter.

The early 2010s mainly saw various open source projects, like Open Arena, Xonotic or Warsow, often made by a handful of passionate people, who are still fans of the genre. But most of them simply strove to be Quake clones and rarely any of these ever see a finished 1.0 release, where they are eternally stuck in development and where they only can find a small player basis.

But sadly, the same can be said for the latest iterations of the two most successful series in the genre. In 2016 it seemed like the big names would finally return with the new Unreal Tournament and Quake Champions in development, both as free-to-play titles, but the latter is moving only very slowly out of its current early access phase, while the former has been abandoned by Epic Games in favor of Fortnite: Battle Royale.

One Arena Shooter that actually got finished some years ago was Toxikk, which was developed by a small German studio. Unlike the various Quake clones out there, this one actually aimed at copying Unreal Tournament, where it feels very similar to Unreal Tournament 3, just looking more polished. Maybe a little bit too polished, because its weapons, characters and everything feel a lot more generic than what the Unreal universe had to offer. And the game is effectively dead in 2020...


Arena Shooters in 2020

Well, needless to say that things are looking somewhat bleak here. If you want to play a more modern Arena Shooter, the two main contenders are Quake Champions and Diabotical. The latter is currently in closed beta and the former has been in early access for three years now, where it doesn't seem like the game will ever be officially finished...

Quake Champions promo image of Blood Covenant showing the Quad Damage spawn location

Still, Quake Champions offers actually some good ideas with its playable "Champions", which puts an interesting layer on top of the normal Arena Shooter gameplay. Some Arena Shooters like Unreal Championship 2 did this before and even had the same three weight classes, but Quake Champions arguably does this best, where each character gets a unique ability on a cooldown, like a teleport, and one or more special features, like a double jump or a little bit of regeneration. It's simple, but very effective.

And it's amazing what they have derived from the character designs of previous Quake titles. You have a punker with a hoverboard? Give him more air control and let him inject health like some junkie! The Champion system works really well for this game and has some very nice abilities, which all feel quite natural in the realm of Arena Shooters.

It's not something that is to the purist's liking, however, and has been a controversial topic ever since the announcement of the game, even comparing it to Overwatch and other popular "Hero Shooters". But the idea isn't new (as evident by older Arena Shooters doing the same) and the different characters are more of a gimmick, while the core gameplay is vastly the same.

The game gets heavily supported by its publisher Bethesda in terms of competitive play. There is the ongoing "Quake Pro League" with duels of professional player every week, which are very exciting to watch. But this makes things even sadder when considering how little money is actually spend on still developing the game, where there hasn't been a major update in over a year....

Quake Champions is also plagued by bad match-making, where games are often very unbalanced, and a free-to-play monetization model. The dark patterns that want you to invest as much time (and money) as possible are all there and are pretty much the complete opposite of what Arena Shooters used to be, where you had an environment designed around user-made contents and mods. This game doesn't even let the users build their own maps, because it was made on a weird engine hybrid... And that's a massive downside.

All of this is probably why some fans of the genre place all their hope into Diabotical, which seems to be doing somewhat better in terms of development, where it's made by a former Quake pro player, and really wants to address the shortcomings of Quake Champions.

The game, however, has a comical art style with emoticon-like egg characters, which feels quite similar to other over-stylized Quake clones, like for example Warsow. The one thing that makes it stick out is the use of egg-like deployables for smoke shields, healing zones and alike. So, it might not be to everyone's taste either and whether it will do well in terms of an active playerbase remains to be seen. Other than the eggs it stays quite close to the undisputed king of Arena Shooters, Quake III Arena, which can still be played in the form of Quake Live on Steam.

Apropos Quake Live, there is nothing stopping you from playing some older Arena Shooters in 2020, like for example the original Unreal Tournament or Unreal Tournament 2004. These games are still played today by their most hardcore fans and you can also enjoy them against bots at any time if the online play isn't for you...



What once was the birth of modern online gaming as we know it, seems almost forgotten and in a state of complete decay today. But Arena Shooters are still the mother of multiplayer-focused first person shooters and everyone who enjoys fast-paced action should give this genre a try.

Thursday, May 14, 2020

Another Game of the Decade

It feels like yesterday that The Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask has claimed the title "Game of the Decade" on (see here) and now another Zelda game has done it again, beating The Witcher 3 in the finale — The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild.

Link standing on the cliff at the Shrine of Resurrection at the beginning of the game

Of course GameFAQs isn't exactly the most representative site and it's all just in good fun, but it's still nice to see that Breath of the Wild is getting some more praise. I'd even say that it deserves the title "Game of the Decade" more than Majora's Mask did for what it has accomplished. The game truly has been a success to the Zelda franchise and has been the biggest milestone for the series ever since Ocarina of Time, as well as an important milestone for open world games overall.

However, I personally would not say it's the Game of Decade. That title should probably go something that has defined gaming even more in the last ten years...

screenshot of Minecraft showing my village with a pixel art of Link in the background

Minecraft. Rarely ever there has been a game so successful and influential as this one. It sold ten times as much as Breath of the Wild and became the beautiful childhood memories for an entire generation of gamers. Exploration and a great joy of discovery, which have made Breath of the Wild so good, also are a huge part of its experience, on top of the high amount of creativity that this game supports. Minecraft is just pure gaming magic.

Breath of the Wild can keep you playing for hundreds of hours until you've done and explored everything. And it does so really well. Minecraft, however, can be played forever.

Sunday, May 3, 2020

2nd Person Perspective in Zelda (and Metroid)

3D video games are usually known for being played from a first person view or a third person view. Either you interact with the world from the eyes of your playable character or you watch your playable character from an outside camera, which can be still or locked to your character or even controllable.

The Zelda series even uses both methods, where you normally play in third person, but you can also switch into first person view to look around or aim with certain items, like the Hookshot or the Bow. In the Metroid Prime games it's actually the other way around, where you normally play in a first person perspective from Samus' eyes, but go into third person for certain actions, like the Morphball.

But what if I told you that there are instances where both Zelda and Metroid are offering a 2nd person view? And what's even a 2nd person view?

The different perspectives in video games stem from writing, where there can be three different point of views for the narrative:

  • 1st person: "I'm a hero."
  • 2nd person: "You are a hero."
  • 3rd person: "Link is a hero."

In 1st person the story is directly told by the main character or one of the characters in the story, while a 3rd person narrative is talking about all the characters from an outside perspective. But in second person view, which is quite rare, you're basically told by someone else what you're doing...

If we translate this to video games, you would view your playable character from the eyes of someone else. So, a second person view still is like a first person view, just that you're not playing as that person. And after watching a video about the 2nd person view in Driver: San Francisco, I had this little epiphany about how Zelda was using this unique perspective in a very memorable moment:

Toon Link being held by Clayk as seen from the eyes of the boss

It's the boss fight against Crayk in The Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass. In this fight the boss turns invisible, but the second screen lets you watch the action from the perspective of the boss — which is a 2nd person view. You still aim with your bow on the lower screen, but you have to do it in a way that you're pointing directly at Crayk's face on the top screen.

It was truly an out of body experience and is one of the examples where Phantom Hourglass tried some really unique things within the series. The game isn't exactly a fan favorite, but you have to give credit where credit is due.

Of course this use of a 2nd person view is more or less only suitable for gimmicks, like this particular boss fight, so it's probably not something where you would design an entire Zelda game around it. But it's still interesting to see that it can lead to some crazy interactions and maybe this can be used for something more extensive in a future Zelda title.

So, what about Metroid? This is actually a simple one, because basically all classic first person shooters on consoles with a split-screen multiplayer, like for example GoldenEye 007 or Turok 2: The Seeds of Evil on the Nintendo 64, offer multiple 2nd person perspectives. Everyone's screen is a second person view except for your own and you can even use this to spot yourself in the action.

The Metroid series had this with Metroid Prime 2: Echoes, which came with a very traditional multiplayer mode:

In the above screenshot you can see how the two players on the lower screens are watching each other, probably in the middle of a fight. And this is where the 2nd person view comes into play. Part of the fun of these old couch-multiplayer shooters was basically cheating by looking at what your enemy is doing and where he's going.

It's a shame that there wasn't anything like it afterwards, but maybe Metroid Prime 4 will offer an interesting multiplayer mode as well, maybe even something that uses split-screen.