Welcome to another installment of Retro Weekend, the weekly feature where I play a classic game and write whatever I want about it! This week, I played Unreal Tournament. Yes, a PC game! Surprisingly, I spent some time with this game in my youth and, going back to it, I realized something. It’s one of the most fun multiplayer experiences in gaming, whether you played it back in ’99 or in 2015 for an Invisible Gamer feature. Why’s it so good? Let me explain…
If you’ve been keeping up with Retro Weekend over the past year you might come across a common thread: my gap in PC gaming knowledge. Sure, we had a computer in our household and got hooked up to the internet right around when it really started to catch on, but the process of setting up a PC game always felt like such a chore to me that I frequently avoided it and stuck with my SNES. Still, there were a few games I actually played around with like Rainbow Six: Rogue Spear, SWAT 3, and one of my all-time favorites, Unreal Tournament.
The funny thing is, back then I only had a demo of the game, and I’m pretty sure I could only run practice sessions on a couple of levels with some scalable bots. But even with this limited amount of game, I was blown away by how fast, frantic, and fun the game was. Unreal Tournament felt exactly like its name entailed: unreal.
Maybe you could chalk it up to my lack of PC knowledge but no shooter ever felt so smooth and so incredibly fast as UT. Back then I didn’t have much to compare it with, but even by today’s standards the only game I can think of that competes on the same level with Unreal Tournament is Quake. Totally not bad company. Of course, I know now that Unreal Tournament was born from the need to improve multiplayer and the netcode for the game before it, Unreal. First-person shooters were pushing the genre forward in every way. The controls and the action felt better than ever before. The speed was unrivaled. And each weapon felt unique in their own way, giving players room to find their favorites and edge out their own personal playstyle.
With so many shooters aiming for dark, gritty gameplay based on realistic source material today, going back to playing UT felt like coming home from a long day of work, taking off the tie, throwing on some pajama pants, and just having plain old simple fun again. That’s because with all of the improvements to the genre, UT still knew it was a game first and foremost. From the level design, to the weapon selection, to the controls, it felt like the developers at Epic created every aspect of the game and then simply asked themselves, “Is this fun?” If it was, it’s in the game. Unreal Tournament is arcadey in the best ways. Physics don’t always make sense and that’s on purpose because hell, you can change them. Want the game to be faster? Crank it up to 200% speed! Want to knock someone’s head off with a ricocheting sawblade? Absolutely possible.
That exciting, edge-of-your-seat, nonstop action is all part of the game’s design, but besides the tight controls and fast-paced gameplay, I think the level design in UT has to be commended. As far as multiplayer maps go, these levels are some of the absolute best in my opinion.
Why? Well one of the best things you can do for a game like UT is highlight the movement and speed of the combat. That means keeping the players from ever standing still. Even with a weapon like a sniper rifle, there just aren’t many places in these maps that ever feel safe. No matter where you are, it’s pretty simple for another player to find you and blast you into a bloody pile of body fragments. With the ability to jump as high as you can, there’s just a feeling I get about being able to go anywhere and leap away from an enemy just in the nick of time. One of my favorite maps, Morpheus, involves three identical towers all facing each other. This is one of those levels on which a rifle can be ideal. But since everyone is separated by these towers, it’s known that you need to work with long distance weapons. So it becomes a game of cat and mouse where anytime you peak your head out you’re in a fire fight. Then there’s always the chance of another player using a launch pad or respawning behind you, so again, you’re never safe. This level is also perfect for modifications and making brand new game types. Jumping across each building with nothing but rockets on the map is a whole lot of fun if I do say so myself.
Then there’s also the art of weapon placement. Without loadouts, everyone in Unreal Tournament starts out on an even playing field. Skill rises to the top but everyone has a chance to run around the map, pick up the perfect weapon for that situation, and demolish the one shooting at them. I’ve always been a fan of this kind of multiplayer deathmatch design. It absolutely is a factor in keeping the players on the move instead of camping in one location. And it’s fun! Even after playing Unreal Tournament for years, there’s still a satisfaction in sprinting for the rockets as someone is trying to gun you down, picking up the launching, spin-jumping around and putting a special delivery right in your opponent’s face. I absolutely love it.
Unreal Tournament is just perfect arcade action to me. There’s something about boxy multiplayer levels filled with weapons, pits, sometimes poison floors that feels so perfect in making a fun, playable experience. This past week, I’ve honestly had more fun playing practice sessions with bots, as well as getting completely destroyed in online matches, than I think I’ve had in the past 10 years of online shooters. I want to keep playing. Who’s up for some Unreal deathmatches?