With all the fuss and furore that surrounds the launch of any Halo game, it is easy to forget that there is another vastly popular first-person-shooter due for a welcome return, in the form of Unreal Tournament 3.
While many would have you believe Halo is the only shooter worth playing, it's worth remembering that it only caters for one of many tastes the ever-expanding FPS genre now harbours. If you prefer things a little more fast and ferocious, and your pennies can't stretch to two full-price games, it might be worth seriously considering Unreal Tournament 3, a frantic action title that's currently looking very good indeed.
There's no denying the third incarnation of this rampaging frag fest retreads familiar territory, but it does so with an acute understanding of both the bare bones that have made its predecessors so popular and the areas that had room for improvement.
For those unfamiliar with Unreal Tournament, it is a gory, intense shooter that, whilst serious in tone and substantial in depth, has an endearing awareness of the rather familiar stereotypes it relies on. It may be masculine, violent and rather brash, but its tongue-in-cheek attitude to its own lack of highbrow credibility makes it a pleasure to play. Now, as always, its chief concern is with perfecting multiplayer deathmatch variations, though a substantial one-player campaign is included this time around.
Epic Games may now be famous for the near infallible Gears of War, but before they took over the third-person shooter market Unreal Tournament was their killer IP, and the soon to be released version has plenty new to boast about, largely thanks to the series' leap to the next generation.
Visually Unreal Tournament 3 has stood by its forefathers' established aesthetic, but an impressive increase in the level of detail of both the characters and scenery has taken away some of the boldness and replaced it with a more gritty depth. There's no doubting the technical merits of the PS3 and PC versions already shown to the press, and the closely guarded Xbox 360 version I played at Games Convention was equally impressive, but the credit for the game's look should go to the style over the circuit flexing programming power.
Each level shown, all of which were large rather than enormous, was filled with gloriously lavish buildings and backdrops that while far from picturesque were certainly beautiful. The vehicles, characters and weapons all look great too, but it's not too surprisingly given the power of the Unreal Engine 3 that Epic is working with.
The weapons themselves are also much more than pretty tools of death, as their functions have been greatly reworked since the last Unreal Tournament; a game that already had some excellent firepower to brag about. The new rocket launcher for example has 5 modes, from a simple homing shot to a devastating spread of shots. The similarly powerful Redeemer allows for after-touch using Sixaxis on the PS3, and the Avril anti-vehicle gun includes a laser pointer that can be used to guide mechanical Spider-mines toward hapless enemies.
The vehicles on offer are similarly cunning, from a hover bike with foldout wings that allow it to soar briefly upwards, to the insect looking Nightshade tank that can release a cube shaped slow-motion field that can be used to defend your base, block a corridor, or bewilder enemies with its ability to decelerate both ammunition and combatants.
Perhaps the most controversial inclusion comes in the form of the hoverboard; a generally throwaway gaming device that rears its ugly head all too often in irrelevant places, and regularly feels tacked on. Here, however, it seems like a genuine solution to the expanding size of FPS levels, and modestly functions as a quick way of returning to the action after being dumped in a desolate respawn point. Some tricks and Sixaxis control are thrown in, but mostly the hoverboard's impact in negligible.
Of course, the plethora of multiplayer modes that define the genre have been expanded somewhat significantly, but the biggest change is to the series' previously lacking single-player elements. The campaign mode now includes far more cutscenes and voice acting, and a forking progression model that does something to move Unreal Tournament 3 towards a non-linear experience for the lone gamer.
What might prove to be more time consuming is in the new Warfare mode; essentially a co-op battle that sits somewhere between a mission-based single-player game and traditional deathmatches. An unconfirmed number of levels have been designed that feature two rival bases and several nodes between the two. Occupying the bases and nodes links them like points on a circuit board, and taking over the entire network wins the game. This could be interpreted as a vaguely re-worked version of the base capturing games featured in many shooters, but there really does seem to be a substantial set of rules and number of features, from the secret weapons and vehicles spawned at particular nodes through to the option to filter spam from the in-game announcements dependent on your role. For example, a defending player, or one focussed on securing nodes, would only see onscreen information relevant to them.
Of course this is little more than an evolution of something we have seen before in a reasonably similar form plenty of times before, but the refining of a brilliant game is nothing to be sniffed at, and it does seem some of the persistent problems Unreal Tournament has faced have been ironed flat. At this stage it certainly looks like Unreal Tournament 3 will be well worth your time later in the year. Xbox 360 owners who have to wait until next year have a real reason to be disappointed.