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Unreal Tournament: Believe it or not

Unreal Tournament has always been something of a tech demo for Epic. Though it might not approach the series’ development in that way, it’s always been the one to prove the worth of Unreal Engine, bundling its levels and character models with a checklist of new features. Which is what makes this brand new Unreal Tournament all the more significant; just like its engine, the game is completely free. Just like its engine the game is developed alongside the needs and desires of its community. And just like its engine a marketplace bolted onto the game will fund much of its development.


But that’s all business, and while Unreal Tournament has always been a showcase of sorts it’s also always been an exceptional example of arena-focused multiplayer combat with varying degrees of success, admittedly. Though it’s currently in alpha, it is downloadable and playable by anyone who wants to give it a go so there’s already a decent player base available. Currently there’s only one level that’s properly built, the rest resembling blocky, barely-textured husks of maps and in this age of Early Access, it’s easy to forget that’s actually what an alpha should look like. It’s especially important here because in arena multiplayer level design is one of the most important aspects; such a game lives or dies on a player’s ability to navigate smartly and skilfully. In that sense many of the levels here are already offering the familiar mental acuity that comes with a good match of UT, thanks largely to the persistent player testing the game has had since it was first playable late last year. It’s a constant, rigorous sort of development that has led to some finely-honed levels so fluid and compelling that you likely won’t even notice their unfinished visuals.
“ Players will be able to make their voice heard, and participate meaningfully in setting the direction of development”
Of course the level design is only an enabler in games of this ilk; the difference between a great arena shooter and an exceptional one. This new Unreal Tournament’s ‘feel’ of combat is already incredible, a mechanical combination of speed and movement that reminds you why this type of multiplayer used to be so popular. There have been changes, primary among them being the removal of the double-jump, with a heavier emphasis on acrobatics. It’s a contentious point for fans; the jump itself is much lower and heavier, but this is preferable when matched with the acrobatics. Side-hops remain imperative for evading split-second Shock Rifle blasts and have been paired with wall jumps, and it’s here that the new mechanics become wholly enthralling. Some spots in maps are only accessible through wall jumps, but more important is the way they can open up shortcuts. Clutch manoeuvres to outplay your opponents are the key reason that better players will rise to the top of the leaderboards. In fact, it’s this element that could make this new Unreal Tournament the best one yet.

The core arsenal of weapons returns, and as with everything else they’re still open to customisation and tweaks. Believe it or not, the Bio Rifle has become useful, now altered to allow smaller globules of gel to collate and, eventually, hone in on targets. By and large the tools of destruction do remain unchanged, and there’s even an Insta-gib mutator all ready to go. In many ways it feels much like any other Unreal Tournament before it, but that would be underselling those important changes to movement. It’s been a while since an arena multiplayer game has elicited such excitement, and not thanks to those rare keen-eyed-yet-unlikely reactionary shots either. More than anything else, this new Unreal Tournament is about movement, about understanding navigational opportunities and exacting them as much by intuition as anything else; and if it can maintain that thrill as its levels grow into something other than unflattering boxes then this shooter is already a success and just needs to be given to the public at large.

KEEP A LOOKOUT
Outpost23 is the name of the only map to have been completed to a standard Epic is calling finished though it could be altered over time. Visually it’s a treat, with dynamic light reflecting in almost every floor, scratches and marks diffusing the effect dependant on the surface. It’s gorgeous, but it’s also a great example of level design. Ledges that appear inaccessible become shortcuts as you wall jump from a nearby panel. Small gaps from platforms become lifesavers as you’re unexpectedly assaulted by an enemy. Already it’s clear there are several, smart ways of traversing this map.

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