It's the death-bringing Darkwalker that does it. You can see them looming ominously in the distance, sweeping particle lasers at any and all who get in the way. Think the horrifying Tripods from H.G. Wells' science fiction classic The War of the Worlds spliced with a tarantula. But just wait till you get into one. As its spindly legs slowly kick into action, raising the cockpit and you high into the air, you can feel the hairs start to rise on the back of your neck. It's up to you then to drive the beast - controlling the reigns of this most lumbering yet destructive nightmare. You see enemy players running about beneath you like ants, and as you bring that particle ray to bear, instantly vaporising anything unfortunate enough to stand in the way, you realise that sci-fi multiplayer FPS Unreal Tournament 3, the latest iteration in the classic twitch shooter series from Epic, has something about it. And it's then that you kind of feel like God.
Hyperbole? Perhaps the hugely enthusiastic Epic vice-president Mark Rein is rubbing off of me. He recently told me that the team had "achieved what we set out to do" after a fan told him it was like the best of UT and UT 2004. But what can't be denied is that UT3 is tonnes of fun, and absolutely gorgeous to boot. And despite what you might think about eye-meltingly fast PC shooters, it's very accessible too. We discovered just how frantic the game can be when we popped down to the launch of the PC version at Birmingham's Omega Sektor for some serious hands-on time with the now completed game.
UT3's main menu is home to campaign, instant action, multiplayer, community, settings and exit links. We jumped straight into the multiplayer portion of the game, since that's what UT is all about. Various LAN-based games were already in progress, allowing us to get fragging without too much fuss (we had to create an account first). The only multiplayer game mode available in the build shown was Warfare (a combination of the previous game's Onslaught and Assault modes), which sees two teams of up to eight players fighting to control nodes with the ultimate aim of destroying the enemy's power core. We entered a game already in progress: Warfare on the Onyx Coast map, a huge, war-torn battlefield divided up into two bases, two nodes and a bridge control. You spawn at your base and are immediately thrust into the action, charged with destroying enemy nodes. Once gone, you need to stand around waiting for it to become controlled by your team, eventually drawing a line from your base, through the nodes (viewable in the HUD mini-map) and into the enemy's base, thus allowing the other team's power core to be susceptible to damage. Destroy that, and you've won the round.
The first thing you'll notice is how smooth the game runs despite the graphics looking about as good as any FPS out there. Fans of Gears of War will immediately recognise the gothic, sci-fi feel, the huge marine type characters and the gore. But what they won't recognise is how quick the game is. UT3 plays at breakneck speed. Despite being a huge, muscle busting behemoth, your character can run at what feels like cheetah speed, jump and double jump like a kangaroo and, with the aid of the mouse, move your point of view as quickly as the signals can travel from your brain to your trigger finger. Actually hitting an enemy is an exercise in staying calm in the face of chaos. It's like trying to shoot fish out of a barrel. You end up constantly firing, hoping you'll hit, while everyone is jumping around like crazy people trying to make life as difficult for your targeting reticule as possible.
'Fans of Gears of War will immediately recognise the gothic, sci-fi feel, the huge marine type characters and the gore. But what they won't recognise is how quick the game is.'
The second thing you'll notice is the weapons. You can pick up most of the game's impressive arsenal very quickly after spawning in your base, so it's not like some other shooters where the best weapons are hard to come by. I found myself using the three-barrelled rocket launcher the most - great for one on one shoot outs and foot-to-vehicle destruction. Its primary fire, initiated with the left mouse button, simply fires a single rocket. But holding down the second mouse button will charge all three barrels and lock on enemies, causing massive, satisfying destruction. The sniper rifle is intuitive and useful too. On a big map like Onyx Coast you usually have time to zoom in and pick your shot, but it's great in close up one on one situations too. And if you're good enough you can even get a headshot with the sniper rifle without zooming in.
Thirdly, you'll notice the incredible vehicles. I've already mentioned the imperious Darkwalker. Add to that the enemy splattering Mantra. I had tonnes of fun flying low across the battlefield, chopping other players into little pieces. Another imperious vehicle is the aptly named Leviathan, a slow-moving tank with an absolutely devastating cannon. Pressing the space bar with cause the tank to transform - the cannon appearing from behind the tank. Firing it means instant death for anyone even remotely close to its area of impact, and the sound effect from the cannon charging and then blasting is something every sci-fi fan needs to hear.
We had the chance to spend some time with UT3's campaign too. It's not a fully fleshed out experience, but it's much more detailed than in previous instalments. As Mark Rein says, "it's not Gears of War style single-player but it's certainly the best we've ever done for a UT game in the past". There's an actual story, some character development and amazing-looking cut-scenes, but it's designed to provide an introduction to how the game works and is really just a series of traditional UT games played out with bots. Veterans will probably skip it altogether and head straight for the online multiplayer, but it's a useful tutorial for newcomers.
Hardened fans will be interested to know that Epic has tried to return to the series' roots with UT3. It has fewer game types than before, and those which remain have been optimised to play better, with bots much improved. Mark Rein says the game "is just trying to recapture the great feel people had about the game". It's less floaty than UT 2003 and 2004, and plays with an added sense of gravity. Classic UT gun the Stinger returns. "The hardcore original fans are really enjoying the game and the new guys are also finding things that they like about it," says Rein.
I have to say I'm warming to Rein's view. I left the PC version thoroughly impressed and am genuinely looking forward to reviewing the game. Despite the fear some gamers have of 100mph PC FPS games, I found UT3 very accessible and, above all, killer fun. While I'll reserve absolute judgement for the review, UT3 looks like it will please fans of the series and anyone else who fancies something faster than your average console shooter.
Unreal Tournament 3 is out for PC on November 23.