The new Unreal Tournament is free and fun, but still primitive

Unreal Tournament 9

I spawn into chaos. I’m immediately blessed by the wrathful deathmatch gods: at my feet lies an Enforcer pistol, its former owner reduced to a few gory streaks of blood beside it. I pick it up and it fills my left hand—a nostalgic display of akimbo pistoleering. On a raised platform nearby, a pickup timer signals an impending reappearance of the mighty shield belt. I use the platform’s elevator as a jump boost for a quick aerial survey of the area. I spot someone get cooked alive by a Link Gun’s crackling neon-green beam.

I land and nab the belt, but before I can blink, a pair of smoking pieces of molten metal arc over my head. I spin around and meet the business end of a Flak Cannon, the golden-colored reaper of close quarters. Reflexes kick in; I’m double-tap dodging backwards before I realize it to escape the cannon’s deadly killzone. My back hits a curved wall, and I mash a strafe key, sending me into a lateral wall dodge. My twin Enforcers roar to life, and for an instant, I’m a John Woo stuntman. Riddled, my opponent crumples. I’m about to fistpump over the flashy frag when I instantly turn into a greasy crater from a tri-rocket annihilation.

Unreal Tournament is playable. The extent of its current functionality sits somewhere between primordial and primitive. I point my crosshairs at someone, I click, bullets/rockets/shrapnel/laser beams/green goo fires out of my weapon, and someone hopefully dies. Recycle, repeat, respawn. This is the quintessential definition of an arena FPS, a bedrock blueprint of the genre with a name representing one of the foundational pillars of influential shooters on the PC.

Far be it for me to call UT’s latest incarnation simple, though. Its developer, Epic, has far-reaching plans to collaborate with its community on an unprecedented level. Anyone with programming or level design smarts can load up the Unreal Engine editor and contribute. New weapons, maps, and mutators are proposed almost daily. Epic wants competitive tournaments later this year. A Steam Marketplace-esque cosmetic system is in the works.

But that’s all pins on a corkboard at the moment. Downloading the free pre-alpha brings a gut-level glimpse into the new UT with deathmatch, team deathmatch, capture the flag, and duel modes. That’s it. Finding a match is a single click or a quick browse through the dedicated server list. Alternatively, there’s 'hubs': clusters of player-hosted matches grouped by location for optimal response time. The client comes with a rudimentary set of audio and visual options—texture, shadow, and effects quality for instance, but nothing specific yet like fine-tuning anti-aliasing multipliers—which thankfully includes a working FOV slider.

By far the best demonstration of Epic and the community’s efforts is jumping into a deathmatch round on Outpost 23, UT’s first fully textured and properly lit map. The level of detail and visual clarity is phenomenal. Pipes, wires, cables, steel bulkheads, and even a thrumming reactor core push the limits of expressing artistic design in small-scale arenas. The Unreal Engine’s expertise at drawing gentle curves lends a soft-looking appearance which, in some brightly lit sections, skirt dangerously close to annoying filter territory but doesn’t feel too smothering so far. Though gorgeous, some effects wind up a touch distracting after a while. Stepping into the outside area sends the map’s HDR into overdrive, darkening interiors seen through doorways and causing difficulty eyeballing movements and player models.

Unreal Tournament 4

The rest of the pre-alpha’s map set sits squarely in barebones status. Outside of Outpost 23, the remaining 20 included battlegrounds look quite naked without proper textures to the point where the placeholder graphics appear almost cartoonish by comparison. Their layouts are luckily further along in progress, so they’re good playgrounds for mastering movement. Chaining pinball-like wall dodges across the rocky canyon of the low-gravity Bigrock Asteroid Mining CTF map is dumb fun. Classic stomping grounds such as Facing Worlds and Deck 16 are in a semi-constructed state, as well. Strangely enough, their unfinished surfaces fits as an appropriately vintage look.

Plenty implements of destruction pepper each map. They’re fun, but they’re nothing innovative, a mixed arsenal from UT99 and its sequels. The guns’ granular characteristics are pretty fluid right now—each build update includes slews of weapon adjustments—but some properties are an enjoyable marriage between the original and its successors.

Unreal Tournament 3

The Flak Cannon is a surefire showstopper up close, and the Minigun’s secondary fire lays small spike traps that can help propel jumps. The new Impact Hammer is the evolution of a humiliating melee kill into a skillful tool with its alt-fire, a knockback blast that can swat down projectiles and beams and control chokepoints (think the airblast from TF2’s Pyro). The Link Gun, already a mid-range menace, can lock an enemy at the end of its beam to prevent him or her from fleeing. I’m slightly disappointed at the absence of entirely new guns to try out, but the community is stepping up to eventually furnish the game with all sorts of armaments. (Ripper, anyone?)

For now, Unreal Tournament covers the basics. I’m reminded of Toxikk’s equally elementary starting content, a gargantuan difference lying in Epic’s wise utilization of its fanbase for direct input. So much is left up to the community to decide—a recent huge debate discusses the pros and cons of no dodge- or double-jumps—that the game’s current build feels almost husk-like in content. Is it fun? Yes. Just don’t expect to see the groundbreaking stuff for many months to come.

Omri Petitte

Omri Petitte is a former PC Gamer associate editor and long-time freelance writer covering news and reviews. If you spot his name, it probably means you're reading about some kind of first-person shooter. Why yes, he would like to talk to you about Battlefield. Do you have a few days?