If memory serves, I've only played Unreal Tournament on the PlayStation 2 - hardly the best of setups to see what the series has to offer. According to the 1001 list, we ought to skip a few sequels on from that and play Unreal Tournament 2004, the pinnacle of the multiplayer FPS series.
Described as a refined entry to the series, capable of running and delivering great gameplay on systems at the lower end of the performance spectrum, UT2004 stands as the only entry point into the Unreal universe that you should ever consider.
So, let's consider it.
With keyboard under fingers and mouse in the right hand, I was ready to play UT2004 as it was meant to be played, except for using an AMD system, rather than Nvidia. A small smirk lay across my face as the AMD Radeon whatever it's called game settings helper pop up chose the Nvidia logo animation to appear and remind me of its presence. I still don't know what it does.
It is meant to be played as a multiplayer game, too, but I'm going to start in the single-player campaign while I get my eye in and my fingers working. It has been quite some time since I played Quake III Arena, the closest entry on the 1001 list to this, and I remarked that - perhaps as expected - the single-player offering was little more than a string of multiplayer matches scaling in difficulty. Who needs a story in a multiplayer game?
I'd like a bit of a story, if possible. I understand Unreal Tournament 2004 seems to sell itself as something like FIFA 20, but even that has a story mode now. Just because the sport of football is an obvious multiplayer experience, that doesn't mean you can't tell a story.
Opening montages of aliens, dudes and robots all killing each other across numerous battlefields seems to promise something to at least get your attention. In fact, this movie looks absolutely fantastic. I hope the in-game stuff is rendered just as well.
With a movie like that to entice us into a single-player campaign, this is looking like something you could have a good time with if ever you're bored of bots, or beaten to a pulp by the pros.
What the hell is that? Is that the story? Is this guy meant to get my hyped? That video worked so well, why did you feel the need to dump the story on me in a few lines of text right at the bottom of the screen?
"Oh, yeah, there's a tournament for killing folks, but, like, you've got to prove yourself, and get a team together, and stuff."
Cool, UT2004. Let's get to it.
Skipping all the basic introductory deathmatches, we rejoin the campaign at a pivotal moment. I've proven myself as a competent shooter (on the Average difficulty, so nothing to write home about), and a mysterious benefactor has given me a bunch of credits to get a team together and compete in the big leagues. Are there leagues? Not sure. I, and this team, need to qualify for the tournament proper. However...
We need to prove ourselves to our prospective teammates by killing them all in a deathmatch. Yup. That's the only way I can think of proving my worth. Let's hire some teammates and get shooting.
Unreal Tournament 2004 plays as you would expect it to. WASD your way around multi-levelled multiplayer maps hoovering up floating guns and comically large adrenaline pills, launching bullets, bolts and rockets downrange - preferably into a fleshy target, at which point they explode into a red fountain and score you a point.
You know the drill.
The levels and weaponry scattered throughout them are futuristic interpretations of an industrial age of old. Like Quake, there's a mix of styles, resulting in metal castles or, more so in Unreal, industrial ones. Castles turned into factories. Factories styled on castles? Grimy killing fields, in any case.
It's easy to prove your worth to the team with a low difficulty setting. Right, let's actually describe Unreal Tournament 2004 with some team deathmatch.
So you've spawned into an Unreal Tournament qualifying round. It's you and your buddy against two other chumps intent on fragging anything and everything that moves. The first team to record thirty kills wins the round.
You've got a basic assault rifle, with bullets and a grenade launcher, and a melee gun with a basic shield. I'm not sure how best to use the melee gun if I'm honest. The assault rifle seems manageable, but we can do better.
Running around the levels, you'll see all kinds of weapon pickups. You can't miss them. Even if the weapon isn't your favourite, you'll have it in your hands in seconds, and make use of it shortly after that. Here's a sci-fi gun on some description, and here's what it does:
Each weapon has a primary and secondary fire mode. You'll find your favourites. You might even learn which one is better for any given situation, be it fighting at range or in tight corridors. More than likely, if you're of average skill, you'll just click the mouse buttons until the problem solves itself.
To help your situation, alongside health and armour pickups are adrenaline pills. Collecting enough of them will allow you to input a series of keyboard inputs and get rewarded with a temporary power-up, like invisibility, or speed. I only found the speed inputs - WWWW - and only because the tutorial told me...
In a team-based game, it's crucial to function as a team. My opponents, whoever they were, were diligent in sticking together. If one got shot at, the other could immediately return fire, now knowing where the attack was coming from, thanks to glowing laser beams or trails of rocket smoke.
My automatically assigned space-filler (who I later found out did terribly in our 'Prove you're worth it' deathmatch) did his best to follow me, I gather. I haven't given him any instructions - I assume you could, though don't know for sure. He's just there, as I say, helping me meet the two-man entry requirement.
While you're not supposed to marvel at the scenery in the middle of a match, sometimes you can. The lighting, especially, seems to want to show itself off, both in terms of elements of the levels themselves, and all the fancy weapon effects travelling through them. I haven't pushed the settings up, and technology has come on quite a bit since UT2004's release, but I was still impressed by how smoothly everything looked and played.
So smoothly that I got motion sick a while back, and swapped over to playing it in windowed mode. I could have turned the weapon sway off, or swapped my characters hands, or tweaked any number of fine-detail user preference options. The customizability - and ease of modding - of UT2004 is one of the primary reasons for its inclusion on the 1001 list.
But I haven't touched the vast amount of user-generated Unreal content. I've not touched any multiplayer mode outside of deathmatch, and that's technically in the single-player campaign. Maybe the multiplayer bots act much differently.
And that, of course, is no comparison to human players desperate to kill or be killed, or to capture the flag, or to run their foes over in vehicles.
Vehicles? In Unreal Tournament 2004? Yeah. I bet you want to finish the 'story' now, don't you?
Unreal Tournament 2004 plays really well. I don't necessarily play it really well, but I could tweak any number of settings to my liking and find the balance of fun and challenging that'll keep me occupied for hours. I could, but I likely won't.
There was a time when I played team-based multiplayer games. I enjoyed them as much as I was frustrated by them, and if you ask the right people, you'll know that I got frustrated by them a lot. But that time has gone by. Tastes haven't changed, per se, but I don't find myself thinking "I'm going to play a multiplayer FPS". And if I ever do, it has to be a really accessible one, one that I don't care about doing well at, one that's more fun than frustrating, because I'm getting old, damnit, and I just can't do what I used to do.
Could I fire up a golden oldie and play against bots? I sure can, thankfully. Heck, I'm sure there are still plenty of servers up and running to replace those bots with humans, should I fall over and hit my head suitably hard enough to want to do that.
Unreal Tournament 2004 is a solid game. I've seen such an incredibly small amount of it, though, that I really can't comment. Do I like it? Yes. Would I play it again? Yes. Should you play it? Yes. Should you play it now? Yeeaas? If you want?
Although, these days, maybe you do just want an old-school shooter where players zip around the maps and frag each other around corners, not because of some nonsense power-up, or killstreak reward, or broken weapon, but because that's how old-school multiplayer FPS games played.
At least, that's how Unreal and Quake did things. May we never forget.
10 different game modes, from classic deathmatches and flag capture contests to vehicle-centric onslaughts and some kind of futuristic take on basketball (with bombs!), should keep players entertained long into the night, assuming a stable internet connection.
Unreal Tournament 2004, developed by Epic Games, Digital Extremes, first released in 2004.
Version played: Unreal Tournament 2004 Editors Choice Edition, PC, 2008.