PS3 owners are starved of high-quality FPS games at the moment. Apart from launch game Resistance: Fall of Man, which we thoroughly enjoyed, and the recently released Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare, which we enjoyed even more, there's not much to write home about. But developer Epic is aiming to change all that with its PS3 port of classic sci-fi FPS Unreal Tournament 3, which will, for a time at least, be a console exclusive.
While Epic's launch event at Birmingham's Omega Sektor concentrated on promoting the PC version, and you can read our preview of the game here, behind a closely guarded grey door lay eight test PS3s hooked up to eight gorgeous HD televisions, all running a "100% gameplay complete" PS3 version of UT3 that was just begging to be played by the assembled horde. We slipped in to bring you a hands-on of a game that might just turn out to be the console's premier online shooter when it's released some time early next year.
For the uninitiated, UT is famous for being played online at break-neck speed with a mouse and keyboard. Devastating weapons, superb vehicular combat, massive maps and generous dollops of gore are its trademark, with the emphasis on unnerving accuracy and "twitch" reflexes. As a mainly online multiplayer game it doesn't provide much of a single-player experience, but that doesn't matter. Those looking for a Halo 3 clone move on - this is super fast sniping at its best.
UT3 has been simplified somewhat from previous iterations. There are less game modes, the maps have been optimised and the bots improved. Indeed Epic's vice president Mark Rein told us at Omega Sektor that the team "is just trying to recapture the great feel people had about the game". It's certainly less floaty than UT 2003 and 2004 and plays with an added sense of gravity. You've got your typical FPS deathmatch and capture the flag game types, as well as the new Warfare mode, which involves controlling nodes in order to make destroyable enemy power cores. UT is known for its beefy weapons and UT3 doesn't disappoint. The rocket launcher proved to be my most used tool of destruction in the multiplayer games I played - its primary fire great for one on one skirmishes, and its secondary fire, which charges up three rockets, is perfect for taking out vehicles. The Link Gun returns, which again is great for one on ones, but also useful for speeding up node conquest and repairing vehicles. The sniper rifle is great fun too and hugely satisfying, especially when you score a headshot. Returning from the original Unreal game is the Stinger, a fan favourite. Epic's decision here is a perfect example of what the team is trying to do here with UT3 - get back to the series' roots.
'Your character moves about the maps slower, vehicle movement has been toned down, and weapon fire has been given a slap on the wrist. But it's still the fastest console shooter out there...'
So how has Epic, also responsible for the mega-hit third person shooter Gears of War, changed the game to suit console gaming with a joypad? For a start it's slowed the game right down, by about 20% in fact. You can really tell too, especially when you jump from the PC version to the PS3 game, which we did. Your character moves about the maps slower, vehicle movement has been toned down, and weapon fire has been given a slap on the wrist. But it's still the fastest console shooter out there, and certainly faster than Resistance and CoD4.
There's a reason for all of this. Mark Rein says the team had to take into account that most gamers will be playing UT3 on PS3 with a controller, and as a result there are "differences in some of the parameters", including the weapon and turning speed. That doesn't stop him from saying "there's something special about playing the game on PS3", though.
The question is, does the change in pace soil the essence of what makes UT great? We played a four vs four game of vehicle capture the flag on the Sandstorm map - a huge, sprawling desert-like environment with numerous bases and fortified positions. Specific to the map is an annoying sand storm, as the title suggests, which considerably reduces visibility in some areas. The size of the map didn't suit a four VS four game, to be honest - it made finding other players a bit of a chore and probably made the game's slower pace even more pronounced. But I did have loads of fun in the Darkwalker, a towering alien vehicle clearly inspired by the Tripods from The War of the Worlds. Its sweeping particle beam is absolutely devastating against on foot enemies. I also had plenty of opportunity to get some time on the new Hoverboard which switches the camera to a third-person view and gives you a massive speed boost. This is great for when you snatch the opposition's flag, but it hampers you somewhat - you can't shoot weapons while surfing on the board and you're extremely vulnerable - any hit will stun you for a couple of seconds while you hit the deck.
Playing the game on a PS3 pad is a bit of a shock to the system, but you get used to it very quickly, and for gamers coming into the series fresh on Sony's next-gen console it will feel completely natural, especially if you've played FPS games before. You've got classic analogue control for player movement and the camera, as well as shoulder buttons for primary and secondary fire and cycling through your weapons. It's not as quick as using a mouse and keyboard, which is natural of course, but that doesn't prevent the game from being fun. The multiplayer games we played ebbed and flowed as each team fought for dominance, the occasional gore-filled splatter with the Mantra followed by the odd intense shoot out as flag carriers sped around on their Hoverboards. There's nothing here that's going to revolutionise the FPS genre, but it's classic UT gameplay and a complete graphical showcase for the PS3.
Speaking of graphics, our first impression is that the PS3 game doesn't look as good as the PC version. It certainly runs brilliantly, with no evidence of slowdown or drops in frame rate, but it doesn't have the resolution sparkle of the PC game. As Rein explains: "It's a really high end experience that pushes the graphics bar up even higher than Gears of War. There's more polygons, there's more stuff going on, there's more explosions and there's more things happening." From what I've seen so far I'd have to agree. The scenery is classic gothic sci-fi, the environments wonderfully detailed and the explosions, vehicles and character models are absolutely spectacular. There won't be a PS3 owner anywhere who will be disappointed by how UT3 looks or runs, which is great to see given how bad some recent high profile ports have turned out for Sony's console.
What you have to remember about UT3 is that despite there being a campaign mode, a story and gorgeous cut-scenes, it's an online shooter through and through. You can play the campaign, sure, but it's nothing more than a glorified tutorial, designed to show newcomers how the game works. So unless you have your console hooked up to the Internet the game is pretty pointless. With that in mind, it's still worth talking briefly about what you'll see in the single-player portion of the game. The campaign opens with a cinematic showing a violent alien attack on a civilian outpost. It looks like a shinier version of Gears of War - gritty, gore-filled mutant killing, super sized, mega-weapon wielding marines and even a Cole-esque squad member called Othello. The game's lead, Reaper, is seriously injured in the fight and taken by his sister, Jester, to a hospital in a Japanese-like area controlled by the Izanagi faction. After being nursed to health your sister challenges you to a first to 10 frags match that acts as a basic tutorial. You get a feel for the controls and most of the game's weapons in one fell swoop. In return for the Izanagi's aid you and your team need to embark on various missions, the first of which is an investigation into a nearby disturbance. These are not fleshed-out missions but multiplayer matches played out across the game's maps with and against bots. It's more Final Fantasy Tactics than Halo 3.
Epic has included some interesting ways in which PC and PS3 owners of the game can interact with each other. The first is with mods. You'll be able to use the PC game's editor to make a mod, save it out and then go and stick it on your PS3. Or you can download it from the Internet, put it on a memory card and then stick it on your PS3 - there's a community menu option where you can import the mods. The second is setting up your PC to act as a dedicated server for your PS3. You can download dedicated server code, run it and flip a switch in the software to tell it you want your PC to be a PS3 server. Unfortunately there's no cross-platform play though, because, according to Rein, "we just felt that meant too many compromises and potentially changing the style of the game a little bit".
Will UT3 be the PS3's Halo killer? To be fair, UT3 has never been billed as such a thing. Will it be as good as Call of Duty 4 online? We'll reserve judgement for the review. But my first impression is that what makes UT different - the speed and intensity of the action - has been shackled, resulting in an experience that feels like it's deliberately holding something back. Whether this will prove advantageous or disadvantageous to the game's sales remains to be seen. My opinion - while I'm aware that playing speedy FPS games with analogue sticks is extremely difficult, I'd have liked to have seen less of a speed reduction. And the lack of a single-player game might also put off some PS3 owners, which isn't a criticism really, more an observation; UT3 isn't trying to be anything more than it is - an online shooter. Apart from that though, the game looks like being a wonderfully realised port, one that further reinforces the view that the PS3 will have a much better time of it in 2008.
Euro PS3 UT3 is scheduled for early 2008, while the PC version hits retail on November 23.