UK PS3 owners have finally got their trigger-fingers on Unreal Tournament 3 just over three months after the game was first released on PC and well over two months after the game was released on the PS3 in the US. The wait has been a long one - some would say too long. But it's here now, and there are big questions that demand to be answered - has it been worth the wait and will UT3 keep PS3-owning FPS fans happy as they wait for Resistance 2 and Killzone 2? The answer is a resounding yes and yes.
The DarkWalker, Warfare and the Stinger. That's why you should buy Unreal Tournament 3, Epic's fourth game in its premier twitch FPS series. It's certainly the best Unreal Tournament game in years, but those expecting a complete revamp will be sorely disappointed. The philosophy, clearly, is on getting back to UT's roots, like a kind of fusion between the original UT and UT 2004. You've still got the Flak Cannon, the Bio Gun and the Shock Rifle, but the Shield gun has been replaced by the Impact Hammer and fan favourite tool of destruction the Stinger mini gun, which sprays light blue crystals at unlucky enemies, triumphantly makes a reappearance.
The number of game types has been reduced and refined. There are now six ways to play UT3 - deathmatch, team deathmatch and duel, as well as capture the flag, vehicle capture the flag and new game mode Warfare, which replaces Onslaught, and instantly rises to the top of my favourite UT3 game mode list. Focusing on capturing nodes, 8-12 player Warfare adds orbs to the mix, which can deal massive damage to enemy nodes as well as repair your own. Unexpected momentum changes are now a grim reality of any Warfare match, and, as a result, are much more fun.
This won't mean much to you if you're new to the series. Quick heads up then - the Unreal Tournament games have been going for near enough a decade now, and have always been hugely popular with FPS fans. They've always been a lot faster than console shooters too, focusing on instinctive eagle-eyed sniping and quick-fingered dodging over the more considered, slower-paced play of, say, the Halo series. Indeed, watching professional Unreal Tournament players show off their mad skills is a bit like watching some crazed gamer cyborg, such is the jaw-dropping nature of what they're doing. But the skill required to compete with most UT players online has perhaps hindered the series' mass market appeal. It has always been somewhat of a hardcore FPS.
Which is something Epic has clearly thought about with the latest iteration. The hoverboard switches you to a third-person view of your character, who will now be speeding about the battlefield like some bastardised steroid-infused Marty McFly. It's pretty useful for capture the flag matches, as it allows you to move about a lot quicker than on foot. But it can often feel like a blessing in disguise. If you're hit while on the hoverboard you're knocked off and vulnerable for a couple of seconds. Sitting duck time.
Back to the DarkWalker then, one of a series of excellent new vehicles belonging to new evil alien race the Necris. When you're not in it, you're in fear of it. It looms 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 when you're in it, you kind of feel like a god, perched as you are high above everything, slowly bringing about death to anyone foolish enough to get close. It's sweet stuff.
This is where Epic has made the greatest strides - with the vehicles. The Fury, another Necris vehicle, brings to mind those squid things from cult sci-fi film The Matrix. The Scavenger is less unique, but very useful for quickly running over infantry, and the Necris tank the Nemesis feels a bit like using a nuclear bomb to crack a nut. The first thing I did was jump straight into a VCTF match and try out as many of the new vehicles as possible. And the old classics, like the Mantra, are still as blood-splatteringly satisfying as before.
One of UT3's most thrilling moments is carving up unsuspecting on-foot enemies with quick moving vehicles - ROAD RAGE FTW! Another imperious vehicle is the aptly named Leviathan, a slow-moving tank with an absolutely devastating cannon. 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. Apart from Xbox 360 behemoth Halo 3 I can't think of another online FPS with better mechanical harbingers of doom.
Epic has employed a very subtle but very important tweak to how UT3 feels to play. It's less floaty than UT 2003 and UT 2004, and plays with a heightened sense of gravity. The double side steps, double jumps and wall dodges are all still there, but it feels a tiny bit slower - especially on PS3. UT has always been known for its super fast twitch gameplay, and it still remains very fast, but UT3 on PlayStation 3 feels noticeably slower than the PC version.
Rather than being a result of any technical shortcomings of the console, this has been done to make the game more accessible to console gamers. A controller still isn't nearly as good for speed and reaction aiming as a mouse, so we're happy the change has been made. Hardcore UT fans may moan, but they'll probably be playing the PC game anyway. If nothing else, Epic is doing all it can from within the confines of the UT series to open its doors to a new audience.
Given the problems the Unreal Engine 3 has had on the PlayStation 3 you'd be forgiven for having a few doubts of the visual quality of this PC to console port, but there's nothing to worry about. UT3 really is a stunning-looking game that's only really equalled on the PS3 by stunning action game Uncharted. Indeed, it's Epic's best-looking game yet, better even than Gears of War, as the developer's head honcho Mark Rein told me.
Although the PS3 version doesn't look quite as superb as the PC game running on high-end machine, it's a remarkably good effort by Epic. The texture detail is outstanding and the frame rate runs beautifully smooth most of the time. On an HD TV the Gothic, war-torn meaty marine art direction really shines and the game as a whole makes a mockery of the sub-par Unreal Engine 3 games the PS3 has suffered over the past year.
The single-player campaign - the most fleshed out the UT series has seen - is simply a series of battles with bots tied together by Gears of War-esque in-game cut-scenes - and won't keep anyone's attention for too long. It does, however, provide a solid training ground for newcomers to the series not brave enough to go straight online. It's the multiplayer that'll keep you coming back though, and thanks to the ability to use PC-made mods in the PS3 game you'll always have new maps to play if people are making them. It's also worth pointing out that this is one area where the PS3 could have a big upper hand over the forthcoming Xbox 360 game - the ability to use mods on the 360 is currently up in the air.
Gamers wondering if they're going to have to sit through a lengthy install before playing can rest easy as UT3 only forces you to install a small amount of data - a process that takes less than a minute. An optional, lengthier install reduces load times even further, but we found the load times to be more than acceptable with the default install. If you want a more PC-like experience you can use a USB keyboard and mouse, and you can choose to not play against those players if you feel they'll going to have an unfair advantage. Lastly, the server list actually shows the ping of the game, meaning you can get a good idea of the lag you're going to experience without having to rely on a vague set of Network strength bars.
Unreal Tournament 3 for the PlayStation 3 is a stunning looking, slick and polished FPS that every competitive PS3 gamer should add to their collection. It's difficult to see how UT can unleash itself from the shackles of its genre though. Should Epic even bother? Should we commend them for sticking to their guns and not pandering completely to a mainstream audience by revamping the game? It's great fun of course, and UT3 has done nothing that will put off fans of the genre. Question is: is it going to keep you captivated until the likes of Killzone 2 and Resistance 2 arrive? We think so.