Midway ’07 Holiday Event: Unreal Tournament III (PS3)

Let me be frank here — I’m not great at multiplayer first-person shooters. Be it on the PC using a keyboard and mouse, or a console with dual analog sticks, I’m strictly middle of the road when it comes to skills. But that’s never stopped me from trying.

So when I had the opportunity to sit down and get some hands-on time with the PlayStation 3 version of Unreal Tournament III, I squealed with delight before putting on my “hard” game face. And even though I was certain there was no way it would end without someone crying, having the opportunity to sit down and play with Epic’s Vice President Mark Rein and Midway’s Adam Hanson just sweetened the deal.

Really, pity is the only way I can explain how I actually came out on top in a deathmatch against Rein, Hanson, and a handful of clever bots. Although I’m not sure it was necessary, they could have also cut me some slack in the hopes that I’d give the game a good write-up. But I’m too smart for that; their tricks don’t work on me.

So I guess it’s a good thing Epic have built another awesome multiplayer FPS, right? Right.

Let me state the obvious — Unreal Tournament III is a gorgeous game. You’ve seen the screens and you’ve no doubt already played (or at least seen) a game that’s powered by the Unreal Engine 3.0. So consider for a second the awkward silences each time (while in the middle of a fast paced UT-style deathmatch) Mark Rein stops and says, “Doesn’t that look gorgeous? Look at that.”

What do you want me to say, Mark? Your game looks amazing on the PlayStation 3, as expected. Running at 720p, the game looks sharp and crisp — the details in the environment pop, and the backgrounds and architecture are distractingly jaw dropping. Each of the game’s 14 plus weapons are intricately detailed in ways that most gamers won’t even begin to wrap their heads around without detailed blueprints. We get it — the Unreal Engine and the PlayStation 3 are like peanut butter and bananas.

But when I ask about why the game wouldn’t run at the “true HD” resolution of 1080p, Rein seems justifiably annoyed at even having to talk about it, and it’s hard not to see where he’s coming from. When a game looks this good, who cares? He points out that Gears of War didn’t run at true 1080p and is still, to this day, thought of as one of the best looking games of this generation.

Besides, as powerful as the PlayStation 3 is, there’s going to be a trade-off somewhere: Do you want a higher resolution or smoother frame rates? As developers get more comfortable with the PS3 hardware and start really unlocking its full potential, Rein has no doubt we’ll be able to have our cake and eat it, too. But right now, we’ll just have to settle for a gorgeous game running at 720p. Oh, schucks.

While it’s easy to look at UT III and write it off as looking like Epic’s other Unreal Engine 3.0 title, there’s much more going on here than what you’ve seen in Gears of War. The claustrophobic, dark, and mostly barren landscapes are replaced with busier, more varied environments. It’s important to point out that while both games share a similar visual feel in many respects, UT III pushes Epic’s engine harder than ever before, and it shows. The amount of on-screen action happening in this title easily doubles or triples the activity seen in Gears of War on the Xbox 360. But even some of the early, unoptimized levels shown were running and looking smooth.
The visual similarities to Gears of War can’t be ignored, but because the team isn’t tied down to the same kind of structured narrative, the multiplayer maps certainly show more variation. One map, “Deimos,” takes place on a space station located on Mars’ smallest moon. Another, “Suspense,” is named for the large suspension bridge that runs across the Earth-like city terrain. Some maps even have environmental triggers that can effect gameplay. The capture the flag map, “Sandstorm,” for instance, has a violent sand tornado that triggers at various points throughout the game, obscuring vision and effectively changing tactics.

The game will ship with a handful of maps, built for different game sizes and types, but the real news is that the PlayStation 3 version of the title will fully support user-created modifications and maps. While I didn’t see the game’s map editor (which will run on the PC only), the promise of full-featured support effectively closes a huge gap between console and PC first-person shooters for the first time. While the specifics of PlayStation Network content delivery hasn’t yet been nailed down, Midway’s Adam Hanson mentioned plans to be able to drop files onto a USB thumb drive for easy content transfer. Maps created on the PC will be playable on both the PC and PS3 versions of the title, but will just have to be rendered differently for each platform — the possibilities for user-generated content are mind-blowing.
So it’s obvious that the game is varied and gorgeous, but without someone like Rein stopping and making you look at a cascading waterfall, it might not even matter. The action in UT III is so frantic and mind numbingly fast, if you’re taking a moment to marvel at the scenery, you’re three seconds away from being on the business end of Flak Cannon shells … and four seconds away from being a pile of highly detailed meat. And while the PS3 version of the title will have keyboard and mouse support to help keep up with the action, the game feels surprisingly tight when played with the SIXAXIS.

There’s nothing necessarily special about how the controls are mapped out on the controller; this is typical console first-person shooter fare, with the triggers firing weapons, the analog sticks controlling movement, etc. Weapon are selected by real-time switching through the use of a “weapons wheel,” where holding down the L2 button brings up a wheel that displays your arsenal. The right analog stick is used to select the weapon of your choice; the system is not unlike that seen in Insomniac’s Resistance: Fall of Man, and quickly becomes second nature after a few rounds of play. Absent, but not missed, is any use of the SIXAXIS’ motion control. [Editor’s note: I stand corrected — one of the game’s new mechanics/vehicles, the hoverboard, will take advantage of SIXAXIS motion controls; I didn’t have a chance to use this is my time with the game, nor was it mentioned while playing, but it is included.]

There’s a lot riding on the PlayStation 3 version UT III, and Epic knows it. Since the Unreal Engine 3.0 veiling at Sony’s E3 press conference two years ago, expectations have only grown. The team is working feverishly to optimize the experience before shipping; a single screw-up on any front — online, frame-rate, promised user-generated freedom — could put both Epic and Sony right between the crosshairs. While there are a handful of solid PS3 titles set to ship this year, UT III is certainly one timed-exclusive that could sway both shoppers and gamers this Holiday season.

Unfortunately, we’ll have to wait until the “target” November ship date to see. But based on what I’ve seen, there’s no doubt in my mind that Epic are set to pull out another winner.

“Look at how beautiful that is … don’t you love that?”
Yes, Mark, I do.

Nick Chester