Authors Note: After installing UT2004, I had all kinds of problems: blue screens, reboots, lock ups, dump outs; you name it, I crashed it. I found forums filled with people cursing about unstable gameplay and rotten frame rates, and even went so far as to write the first couple of paragraphs of a review slamming Atari et al for sloppy, buggy work. Then, though I was all but certain that I had upgraded my Nvidia drivers just a couple of months ago, I went and checked the website and found a new set (56.44 or some such), pessimistically downloaded and installed it, and found that all my problems magically went away. How graphics drivers are related to rebooting the computer is beyond me, but there you have it. Make sure your drivers are up to date - just a small public service announcement from the venerable GO network.
Anyhoo, you can’t tell from where you’re standing, but this is something like the fifth rewrite of this review for me. Not that there was anything particularly egregiously wrong with the last four versions, but they were very dull, and I really try and write something more entertaining than that (though I’m sure many of you would suggest that I’m a talentless hack just wasting my time). Writing game reviews where blah, blah, blah graphics, blah, blah, blah plotline is easy - doing what I do, whatever the hell that is, is quite frankly killing me. Whatever this fifth version becomes, we’re all going to have to live with it, because we all have to get on with our lives eventually. You can console yourself with the thought that, iffy game review aside, UT2004 is an outstanding game, advancing the UT series in all kinds of directions, all of them good.
Picking up UT2004 in the store is something of a surreal experience, because the box is almost supernaturally HEAVY. In a world where spacious game boxes often contain a couple of CDs and a pamphlet-style manual, UT2004 contains 6 CDs, a veritable block of high-density plastic. Why they didn’t burn a DVD is beyond me, but they didn’t (though I understand one is in the making). Impressive weight aside, the installation is something of a disk-swapping pain in the ass, and harkens back to days when games came on a giant stack of floppies (I remember Borland C++ coming on 28 of the coasters). Just what did they stick on 6 CDs? Maps, tons and tons of maps - somewhere in the neighborhood of a hundred of them. In fact, having played an excess of 30 hours of UT2004, I haven’t played more than probably 60% of them so far. UT2004 is a truly vast game with loads of weapons, vehicles, maps, and 10 multiplayer variants. Couple that together with the variability of a typical online gaming crowd and some game adjustments like weapons damage and gravity, and you’ve got a game that will almost never get stale.
For those of you who have been living under a rock for the past 3 years, the UT series is all about multiplayer (the single player game is more or less just the multiplayer game using bots); deathmatch, team deathmatch, CTF, last man standing, assault, and others. Each year the UT franchise has come out with a new version, new variants, new bells and whistles, and the big addition for 2004 is vehicles, all kinds of vehicles. Many of them are more or less direct from Halo - a jeep, a hovercraft, a tank, a flyer - but there are other vehicles that are all new including a hummer (which, in a nice touch, puts the driver’s name on the license plate when you get in), and a truly awesome assault tank which has gunner positions for five characters and thousands of armor points. That’s right, the vehicles have hit points and can be destroyed (unlike in Halo where you can kick a jeep around with grenades and rockets for awhile, and then flip it back onto its wheels and drive it off). Frankly that’s pretty cool. I think this year’s best new multiplayer variant is called Onslaught. In Onslaught, a map contains a number of control points that are linked in some pattern, and a team can only capture a control point linked to a control point they already control, the object being to capture the control point adjacent to the other team’s base, and then destroy the base. It’s a really well thought-out game, the maps are well designed, and by randomizing the control point linkages the game has essentially infinite replayability. Another good variant is called Mutant, in which one player is the Mutant, and is possessed of superhuman powers (infinite ammo, super speed, etc), all other players trying to kill the Mutant. The player who actually manages to kill the Mutant then becomes Mutant, and play continues. And, oh yeah, one more thing - the person with the least kills is the Bottom feeder, and only the Bottom feeder can kill other players. It’s just as crazy as it sounds, in a good way.
As a multiplayer game, UT2004 is absolutely the best out there. As a single player game, the bots are kind of a mixed bag. They’re great killers, especially at the higher difficulty levels, but for games that have more complicated goals, they fall apart to some extent, primarily because they don’t function well as a team, either with themselves or you. For vehicles that require a gunner and driver, they never seem to load up right, and in Onslaught, when you’re trying to storm one node, lord only knows where the rest of your team is, because they’re frequently not with you. The single player game is sort of interesting in itself in that you play through the matches as a competitor in a contest, earning cash for winning. The cash is used eventually to hire a bot team to fight with you, better bots costing more, and it brings in elements of team management, albeit in a sort of rudimentary fashion. The cash can also be used for bets, and as payment in grudge and challenge matches. While not comparing favorably to the multiplayer experience, and while I can’t really recommend this game to someone without a broadband connection, the single player game does add something.
The graphics are among the best I’ve ever seen. Shading, lighting, particle effects - the levels are rich with caves and buildings and lava and forest. There’s nowhere that UT2004 isn’t visually stunning. The levels, at least the ones that I’ve played so far, are modern and ancient, city and wilderness, tundra, desert, jungle. They’ve done good work on the sound effects as well - weapons, engines, and voices. The weapons, by the way, are by and large the same as UT2003, the most noteworthy exception being a guided rocket launcher called an Avril that is perfect for demolishing vehicles.
After kind of letting the series slide in 2003, it’s evident that there has been a great deal of work and thought put into UT2004. I’m impressed by a lot of things in this game. The physics of the vehicles, the balance of the weapons, and the sheer magnitude of choices available are all great. Most impressive of all is the obvious care and planning put into the maps, which are large without being cavernous, and intricate without being overly confusing (though I’ve got to say that it’s a good thing that they’ve included vehicles, because some maps would involve a lot of long walks if you couldn’t steal a vehicle somewhere). UT2004 is well balanced, beautifully rendered, and cleverly arranged. I’m sure that after the review, people will still be seeing a lot of me on UT2004 servers. I often play under the name ‘Backstabber,’ and you probably couldn’t spend your gaming dollar more entertainingly than to join me there.