Game Journal: Unreal Tournament Pre-Alpha, Thoughts and First Impressions

I finally got a new graphics card after years of nursing a much-in-need-of-retirement Nvidia 8800 GTX. In a direct comparison the GTX 1050 Ti is obviously much better, with over four times the amount of VRAM and DX12 compatibility, but in terms of what the 8800 was in its own time, nothing less than a Titan would suffice for parity. Alas, I ain’t got thousands lying around to spend on my shit, not to mention I only need 1080p, so this really quite amazingly good budget card will more than suffice. Anyway, with my GPU situation fairly well proportioned to the rest of my system, I reckon now is the time to get in on all the gaming I’ve been missing. To that end I’ll be trying out as many new-ish (and maybe old-ish as well) titles as I can and recording my thoughts here. As usual I make no claim to objectivity and am probably wrong about everything, but thaaaaaaat’s my life!

To begin with, there’s nothing like visiting an old friend to ease yourself back in. Well, maybe ease is the wrong word to use when talking about this series. Unreal Tournament, in its various incarnations, and especially 2004—for my money the best arena shooter ever made—took up a large part of my teenage gaming time. For me there was nothing more satisfying than a round on Face 3 with zoom instagib. For the past few years, Epic has been crowd developing a new addition to the series, the somewhat irritatingly named Unreal Tournament. I would have thought the taint of Sonic ’06, officially titled Sonic the Hedgehog (go ahead and try to guess why they didn’t want that title associated with that game), would keep people away, but no!

Currently Unreal Tournament is in a public pre-alpha, so it’s very rough around the edges. But, as an old hand of the arena shooter, I was impressed with how well the game has already captured the instantly recognisable movement of the older games. Dashes, wall dashes, elevator jumping, shield gun jumping, rocket jumping etc. all feel like they should. Dashing is still triggered by the double-tap gesture (e.g.: tapping W twice will perform a forward dash) but you can also hold shift, which is handy for performing lots of dashes in sequence. On top of the classic movement framework, the devs have added wall running, a Mega Man style slide manoeuvre, and slope dashing, which can be used to get up certain walls at high speed. The only area in which the movement is noticeably lacking right now is the absence of the double jump. Hopefully, this is just a pre-alpha limitation and not a design choice.

A full complement of weaponry (minus the Target Painter superweapon) is in evidence. Basic stuff like the Translocator, Enforcer, Rocket Launcher, Shock Rifle, Shield Gun is all there and feels authentic, plus killing people by translocating into them never gets old. My old favourite the flak cannon is back with hailstorms of shrapnel and explosive shells, and the ubiquitous Redeemer nuke launcher can still lay waste to everyone in the room, including you. It was cool to see both the Sniper Rifle and Lightning Gun available to play. The Lightning Gun still zooms, but now it has a charge shot that makes it more than just a Sniper Rifle with fancier particle effects. Best of all, they look great and feel great to use. One thing I’ve noticed, however, and this may just be a case of me being out of practice, is that the shock combo, triggered by shooting a regular shock beam at the Shock Rifle’s alt-fire projectile, seems a lot more fiddly than it ever used to. In a way, however, that just makes it more satisfying when you do pull it off, especially with the awesome gravity well kills it produces.

Team Deathmatch, my favourite mode of old, feels as crazy and chaotic than ever. Close quarters combat on the Outpost 23 map, new to this instalment, is as intense as the series has ever been. I haven’t really played around with the new modes too much yet, but if they can get the old stuff right, to me that’s what’s really important. Excepting the lack of double jump, it feels right. The levels themselves feel like UT levels, but the look is a little clean for my taste. For me, UT‘s style was exemplified not just by intense combat, but by the variety of its settings, which ranged from grimy, abandoned industrial buildings, to natural beauty spots including alien forests, to literally on top of a spaceship travelling through hyperspace. Above all they felt substantial and appropriate unto themselves, while the current selection of maps for this game seems kind of bland and clinical. However, I love the latest incarnation of Facing Worlds, and lots of maps (including remakes of classics like Deck) are in development right now, so I hope to be eating those words eventually.

Somehow to call this a pre-alpha seems a little disingenuous, the gameplay is there, the maps are coming (at least, I hope they are), if anything it’s just a matter of polishing the presentation. The sound mixing, even with the granular volume controls, can be horrendous. Voices seem to be cranked to the maximum no matter what I do, and the ear-numbingly bassy menu sounds propa did my nut in guv. As I mentioned earlier the art design is a little underwhelming. It’s early days yet, but it definitely looks blander than its predecessors. UT has always been mod friendly, so it’s cool to see that almost all of my issues, should they persist at release, could be taken care of by the community marketplace, where people can upload their own creations like weapon skins and model redesigns to share with other players either for free or as microtransactions. Epic’s free-to-play business model for UT is banking on turning a profit by taking a cut of marketplace sales, which seems extremely risky given the arena shooter’s fall in popularity to bland Call of Duty type shooters. I don’t think the package is currently complete and polished enough to compete at that level, and unfortunately it seems like Epic has shelved it for the time being in favour of developing Fortnite, which currently stands to compete with the insanely popular Playerunknown’s Battlegrounds. It’s a great shame, but one of my favourite series of all time may well be gone for good if this keeps up.

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