Experienced Points

Experienced Points
The Unbelievable Nature of the Next Unreal Tournament

Shamus Young | 20 May 2014 19:00
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So the news is that Epic Games is making a new Unreal Tournament game. This time around the game will be 100% free. Not "free, but with microtransactions," but "free, actually". It will be built in collaboration with the community and is planned for Windows, Mac, and Linux. (For the rest of the article, when I say "PC" I mean all three of these operating systems.) The game will be a collaboration between the developers at Epic and the community.

These are strange days indeed.

In the official announcement they state that, "The game will be true to its roots as a competitive FPS." I'm really curious what they have in mind for that.

The original Unreal Tournament - along with rival Quake 3 Arena - represented the last gasp of the fast-paced twitchy '90s shooters. It featured PvP gunfights with abrupt, lethal combat. The levels were convoluted and serpentine, with lots of vertical fighting. It was loud, colorful, absurd, and visceral. There wasn't a lot of thematic coherence. On one map you were fighting in a medieval castle. The next was a modern urban ruin. Then a futuristic fortress. Then an alien spaceship. Then a nondescript industrial installation.

The follow-up came in 2003, and its gameplay reflected the industry move towards more console-friendly design. (Although it didn't actually come out on consoles.) Player speed was reduced, while player models were enlarged. Instead of trying to shoot a normal person sprinting at motorcycle speeds, you were now trying to hit a ponderous linebacker. The levels opened up, replacing the blind turns and ambush corridors with broad, brightly-lit arenas. The brutal precision weapons were replaced with ones that had larger projectiles and larger splash radius, but did much less damage overall.

This made for a very different game. Instead of having peek-a-boo duels in dark rooms where victory went to the person with the most precise aim, it was a colorful and spammy brawl where the winner was the person who absorbed the least damage over the course of the exchange. The series stuck with this approach over the next few iterations.

There are a lot of reasons for this shift. Partly it was artistic, as Epic moved toward the man-tank aesthetic that would define Gears of War a couple of years later. Partly it was just following industry trends as everyone moved away from gameplay focused on mouse input and made gameplay that made sense using a typical twin-stick controller. But a lot of it was just a necessity of graphics evolution. As you get further from cartoony '90s graphics and closer to photorealism, you need to change the way characters move. The DOOM guy ran at automobile highways speeds, and that was fine at the time. But if Marcus Fenix ran that fast it would look like a Benny Hill chase scene.

The gameplay was so drastically different that it felt like a completely different title. Unreal Tournament and Unreal Tournament 2003 are as different as Duke Nukem 3D and Deus Ex. And as different as they are, they're both more or less relics of the past. Today the concept of "competitive FPS" has evolved into a completely different beast. Today the big games are built around the Call of Duty model: Tactical combat, quasi-realistic weapons, and RPG-esque leveling up.

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