These days consoles rival PCs in terms of power and are beginning to challenge their versatility, but recent ports have shown that both remain worlds apart when it comes to producing authentic realizations of genres popular on their respective platforms. Still, one genre has managed to make the transition relatively well and that's the first-person shooter (FPS). Names like Turok, GoldenEye 007, Perfect Dark and Medal Of Honor conjure images of excellent FPS experiences that rival those on the PC. With these successes as motivation, developers and publishers have been working hard to get more PC first-person shooters onto consoles to take advantage of the growing fan base. But just as the PC and consoles seem to be on a level playing field, PC developers took their FPSs and their multiplayer modes online. This burgeoned a new phenomenon that until now was out of the reach of console gamers. Not surprisingly, the potential to make a quick buck has persuaded a couple of publishers to take the leap and port these PC specific games to a console near you. One of those publishers is Infogrames, and its game is Unreal Tournament.
It's clear that Infogrames wanted to take advantage of the hype surrounding the PlayStation 2 launch, and it had to strike while the iron was hot. That meant that like every other publisher under the sun, it needed a port or an update to an already popular game—and Unreal Tournament was as good a choice as any. For the uninitiated, Unreal Tournament is a multiplayer online game where hundreds of gamers can take on one another in different arenas in a violent tournament for supremacy. Popularized by online modes in Doom, Quake and Half-Life to name a few, Unreal Tournament was one of the games (the other being Quake III Arena) to present a solely online multiplayer experience. Unreal Tournament lets individual players duke it out on their own as practice before taking their skills online to participate in community fragging. Its excellent controls, versatile weapons and wonderfully designed stages made it a wonderful choice for someone like me who was wet behind the ears in this spin-off of the genre.
Epic Games put the PlayStation 2 power to good use, and as a result Unreal Tournament looks exactly like its PC counterpart running at a 640x480 resolution. The terrain is large and structures are exactly as I remembered them. Slick lighting and texturing help recreate the dark and foreboding atmosphere that was so appealing in the original. But there are some chinks in the armor. The PlayStation 2's notorious aliasing (stair-stepping appearance in the graphics) issue shows its face—of course I should mention that once the game is in motion, you're not like to notice. What are inescapable are the dropped frame rates. Once the action heats up, the frame rates begin to stutter as the CPU tries to keep up with what is going on. Had this been the PC version I could have simply adjusted the resolution or turned off some effects. Here there is no such luxury so you have to live with it. The music, sound effects, background chatter and taunts are back to add the excellent background noise that draws you into Unreal world.
The move from the PC to console meant that Unreal Tournament would undergo some fundamental changes to its control scheme. Some of the compromises are satisfactory if like me you've grown accustomed to console FPS. Weapons are cycled through with the face buttons while the shoulder buttons are assigned to crouch, jump and shoot the primary and secondary weapons. Movement and looking around the terrain has been relegated to the analog sticks. This will no doubt put off the hardcore PC gamers who revere the keyboard/mouse control setup—their only solace might be that Unreal Tournament supports USB keyboards and mice. Regardless, with a little practice, the game pad control scheme can be quite competent, but I can't deny I had some issues with it most of the way through.
I have always found the PlayStation—and now PlayStation 2—controller to be somewhat problematic with this type of game. The analog sticks usually prove to be too flighty to allow for precise controls. Epic Games has taken a couple of steps to correct this. In the options menu, the sensitivity of the right analog stick can be adjusted to for more or less degrees of control when surveying an area. This works well to allow for faster turning to the left or right as well as searching for targets above and below you. But it doesnt help aiming very much, that's why Epic Games added its second—and most controversial—feature to the game: auto-aim. It reduces the need for accuracy by turning you into the best marksman to ever play the game. Given the limitations of the controller, I suppose it is a necessary evil, but after landing my tenth consecutive headshot, it began to feel a little hollow. I had to openly ask whether it was my abilities that were the cause or the computer doing all the work.
On the surface, Unreal Tournament would be the kind of game to give a gamer a decent run for his money. Its levels are fun to explore and wage war in, the weapons are balanced and fit almost any situation—though you will likely stick to a favorite like the frak gun or rocket launcher. The four playing modes (Deathmatch, Domination, Capture the Flag and Assault) offer a lot of variety and the intelligent bots (computer-controlled opponents or teammates) within are competent adversaries or allies. What may do Unreal Tournament in is that once you tire of the later stages or after you have beaten all of them, the replay value is limited. With the PC version, you could always take solace in the fact that once the game was over, the real fun could begin—meaning you could now take it online and take part in a huge online community. There is no such luxury with this game. Once those levels are beaten, you had better have a bunch of friends around to play with or you're sunk.
Unreal Tournament's multiplayer mode is a respectable one that allows up to four players to compete at once. However, the limitations of the PlayStation 2 make it a relatively costly one. It's two lone controller ports mean you need to own a Multi Tap for more than two people to play together. What's more, using iLink cables and a second TV, you can do away with the four-way split-screen and its tiny windows and choppy frame rates. But no matter how much fun this mode may be it still requires that you have people around you to play. And even then with the sheer size of these worlds, it seems a shame to limit them to you and a couple of your friends. That was one of the shining graces of Unreal Tournament on the PC; you didn't need to know anyone in your state to get a decent multiplayer game session going.
All in all, Unreal Tournament is a nice port of a very good game and as a first-generation release, it was a surprisingly good one from Epic Games and Infogrames. Despite Epic Games commendable work, Unreal Tournament just cannot overcome its PC-centric play mechanics. Unreal Tournament is an online game meant to be played online. The addition of a four-player mode helps, but it cannot compare to the chaotic experience of playing with 30 strangers in cyberspace. Perhaps Sony's modem/hard drive package slated for this holiday season will entice Epic Games and Infogrames to provide a fix through some sort of multiplayer patch. Or maybe we'll just have to accept the fact that Unreal Tournament was just a year too early and console gamers will have to wait for Unreal Championship on the Xbox to really see what all the fuss is really about.