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Review by: David Laprad
Published: December 18, 1999
While online gaming has grown at an exponential rate during the last couple years, there are still those who, for one reason or another, prefer the single-player experience. Perhaps the intimidation of competing against those whose abilities far exceed theirs has caused them to recoil to the safety of a more predictable world, or the frustration involved with competing over a sluggish Internet connection has proven too much to bear. Certainly, the calm assurance of a predetermined set of gameplay mechanics is more comforting than the unpredictability of battling human opponents, and despite the advances made in broadband technology, there are still heaping piles of users with vanilla connections measured in double digits. Yet what incredible experiences these brothers and sisters in gaming are missing! If only someone had the talent and initiative to simulate multiplayer on a single computer, they could experience the tightly wired thrill of deathmatch and cultivate an interest in new things. Their abilities would grow and our online numbers would eventually swell. Want and wish no more, because the creators of Unreal have unleashed such a creature, and believe me, things are going to be different from this point forward.
The innovation that has made this significant leap possible is a clever artifice called the bot, a computer-controlled opponent that simulates a human adversary. Bot technology has evolved so much since its commercial debut in Unreal that it is becoming increasingly difficult to differentiate between these resourceful creations and their human counterparts. Although Unreal Tournament also provides the means to compete online against the living, an Internet connection is not required to play the game, giving users with a less-than-stellar connection the chance to experience lag-free deathmatch. Furthermore, beginners can customize the bots to match their own abilities, allowing novices to learn at their own pace and get a handle on a new style of play. Yet the developers at Epic Games are offering so much more than a simple run-and-gun; inside this shiny bundle is a treasure trove of brilliantly conceived team-based competitions that can also be played by a single person using groups of bots. Online fans can also launch games using all human players or a mix of human and virtual competitors.
Epic has organized these various contests into a tournament ladder that culminates in a battle against the ultimate bot, which is single-player lingo for the “boss character.” A story is loosely attached to these proceedings–something about legalized slaughter being the entertainment of the future and deathmatch offering untold riches–but its sole purpose is to launch people into the Tournament, a one-person game that is played on your computer, not the Internet. The first thing you encounter is the character creation screen, which lets you select a character and modify your gender, appearance and team affiliation; there are more than 300 possible combinations of models and ability levels from which to choose, allowing you to tailor the game to your own preferences. You also select the difficulty level at this point, and as I will reveal on the last page of this review, you must choose wisely since you cannot change it once you start climbing the ladder. The next screen allows you to select a game mode; initially, you will only be able to play deathmatch, but eventually three team-based modes will become available, including Domination, Capture the Flag and Assault. The first rung in each of these modes is a tutorial that teaches the basic mechanics and explains the interface, though people wanting to ease into things a little slower can test their metal using the practice mode, which allows instant access to all of the game types and most of the maps. The action is fully configurable in the practice mode, meaning you can play against 15 of the most evil creations ever to inhabit your computer or slap some sense into a single simpleton–the choice is yours.
The featured variations on deathmatch mentioned above should prove extremely popular. The first time I played the classic Capture the Flag was in UT, and while it was a bit foreign at first operating as a member of a team and spending less time watching out for Number One, I have never felt such an incredible rush since deathmatching for the first time against a human opponent. Epic has stirred in all the dynamics inherent to this style of play so that team games are just that: You can issue orders to your teammates, telling them to guard your base or capture the enemy’s flag. You can also order them to cover you while you valiantly dash for the flag. The bots will assign themselves to these duties if you choose a less imperious approach and avoid giving direct commands. No matter which method you use, the results can be spectacular. In one memorable CTF moment, a teammate was carrying the enemy’s flag toward our base for the winning point. Instead of turning around and fighting our pursuers and possibly letting them get past me and to her, I acted as a virtual shield and followed directly behind her. As I crumbled to the ground under the impact of a sniper’s bullet, she successfully returned their flag to our base. Death made possible a sweet victory.
The other team games are even more thrilling. In Domination, players score points by occupying specific locations on a map. When you or a teammate steps into an uncontested area, you get a point for every five seconds it remains under your control. The fighting can reach a fevered pitch as the two teams battle for “domination” of these areas, and the strategy gets quite interesting. Do you concentrate on one or two areas and let your teammates handle the rest? Or do you spread yourself thin and attempt to run a circular pattern that covers all the bases? In Assault, the idea is to infiltrate an enemy’s base and complete a series of objectives, such as breaching the entrance, activating the primary access to a reactor room and then destroying the crystal powering the reactor. You have a limited amount of time to pass seemingly impenetrable defenses such as automatic turrets and snipers positioned in towers. If you succeed, the opposing team has to infiltrate the same base in less time. It is amazing watching the bots scramble about defending the different objective points, and the match dynamics are constantly changing from one moment to the next as the invading team completes the goals, creating a beathless experience. Assault is where Epic turns in its finest performance due to terrific map design that forces a tactical approach. Who was it that said 3D action games are innately brainless?
After a match, users can view detailed statistics in their web browser using the ngStats software included on the CD. This application, created at NetGames USA, organizes statistical information from local and online games into a detailed running career totals database. The powerful software, which is also used to run Cyberathlete Professional League (CPL) tournaments, enables a user to see how he or she did against individual opponents, establish which are their most efficient weapons and much more. These statistics can even be uploaded to the Internet here with a single tap of the mouse for comparison against others from around the world, though I was never able to connect.
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