After what seems like an eternity (although in reality only four months) Xbox 360 gamers have finally got their hands on Unreal Tournament 3. Due to the game receiving an exclusive console debut on the PlayStation 3 the wait has been a long one for Epic's many 360-owning fans - 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? Is it worth owning now that Bad Company is on the market? And will UT3 keep 360-owning shooter fans happy while they wait for Call of Duty: World at War and Epic's own Gears of War 2? The answer is a resounding yes, yes and yes.
The DarkWalker, Warfare and the Stinger. That's why you should buy Unreal Tournament 3. 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 You've still got the Flak Cannon, the Bio Gun and the Shock Rifle, but the Shield gun has been replaced by the Impact Hammer and fan favourite tool of destruction the Stinger mini-gun, which sprays light blue crystals at unlucky enemies, triumphantly makes a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, 2-16 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 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 360, just as it did on PS3. UT has always been known for its super fast twitch gameplay, and it still remains very fast, but UT3 on both consoles 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 how Epic's Unreal Engine 3 has performed on the Xbox 360 already, we expected UT3 to look brilliant and run smoothly, and it doesn't disappoint. UT3 really is a stunning-looking game that's up there with the best the console has produced. 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 Xbox 360 game doesn't look quite as superb as the PC game running on a high-end machine, it's a remarkably good effort by Epic. The texture detail is outstanding and the frame rate is beautifully smooth. On an HD TV the Gothic, war-torn meaty marine art direction really shines and the game as a whole shows what UE3 powered games should look like.
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. Xbox 360 owners hoping to be able to use user created maps as PS3 and PC owners are able to are out of luck, but this 360 release does include five maps not found in the original PS3 release and two new characters. It also includes an impressive split-screen mode across all game modes (except of course online ranked matches - that would be cheating!). It's certainly a nice addition, although we imagine most people would trade it for nigh on unlimited playable maps.
Unreal Tournament 3 for the Xbox 360 is a stunning looking, slick and polished FPS that every competitive 360 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 CoD: World at War and Gears 2 arrive? We think so.
For a more detailed look at how the Xbox 360 game compares to the PS3 version, check back tomorrow for a video comparison.