I've never been big on first-person shooter (FPS) games, although I've played a few, like Star Wars: Battlefront 2, that I've found entertaining. So, getting this game was taking a chance, since I'm partial to real-time strategy games and roleplaying games. Overall, I must say that I've really had a good time with UT 2004. It hasn't made me more of a fan of the FPS genre, but I am definitely looking forward to UT 2007.
Gameplay: The controls are the typical mouse, WASD keys, and hotkeys associated with FPS games, so anyone familiar with the FPS genre ought to be able to jump right in. You have a number of options for your in-game character, including race, gender, name, etc. You can also choose your AI teammates and the number on each team. Additionally, there are ten game modes, including deathmatch, capture the flag (CTF), domination (requires you to hold two points), assault (objective based), bombing run (a deadly version of soccer), and onslaught (securing nodes and destroying the enemy base). There's fun to be had with each mode, but I suspect that most people will find the greatest replayabiity in the onsault, assault, CTF, and team deathmatch modes. The maps are large enough for some strategic thinking (especially on assault and onslaught), and the game comes with about 100 maps--with many more that can be downloaded from the internet.
AI opponents ("bots") are very good in this game. They have strong attack scripts, good pathfinding, will follow orders, and generally work well as teams. I detected some of the typical AI cheating found in FPS games (i.e., extra health, amazing accuracy, accelerated movement) toward the end of the tournament and in some of the tougher matches, but generally the AI here is just plain challenging and well programmed. Although many will buy this game for the multiplayer side, the single-player content (which is all that I play) is quite strong. The game does not have a compelling story to tell, but the tournament mode lasted me 25-30 hours on "experienced" difficulty level. I don't feel a need to replay the tournament anytime soon, but there are a lot of individual maps and modes that are greatly replayable.
A few things that add a lot to the game are the variety of weapons available and the vehicles. Overall, none of the weapons are very overpowered, though some are better and more versatile than others. Some weapons are best suited for one situation, while others can be useful in some fashion under a number of conditions. A second element that adds variety to the game is the vehicles. I can't overemphasize how fun these can be. Not only do they break up the monotony of having to sprint on foot across the map, but they also add a new strategic and tactical layer to a game. Vehicles can be game winners, but they are not invincible. Some can carry multiple passengers, who can man various weapons or simply go along for the ride. However, to maintain balance, characters on foot have a few very strong anti-vehicle weapons, and many objectives cannot be completed by vehicles. Still, there's nothing like decapitating a fleeing opponent with the blades of a Scorpion buggy or hearing the thundering cannon of a Goliath tank.
The gameplay is frantic, exciting, and straightforward enough to appeal to a range of gamers. You never feel lost on the maps, since there is a good in-game mini-map and the objectives are always clear. Also, you never get the sense that you are babysitting your computer allies, since they act as intelligently--more so on many occasions--as the average human player. The game's flaws are mostly minor, but worth mentioning. First, there are a few rather frustrating missions in the tournament that the average player will have to repeat several times (at least on experienced difficulty and higher). And there is no way to adjust the difficulty level of the tournament once it starts. Also, the game-save system is automatic; the game saves after every match, win or loss. Thus, you can find yourself broke if you lose enough matches, and you'll have to play a series of qualifying matches to earn enough money to continue the tournament. It's a system that gets old quick and really adds a layer of repetition to the game that serves little purpose. Finally, some people will be put off by the amount of acrobatics that the game includes. On some of the more advanced levels and difficulty settings, AI opponents are hopping, flipping, and cartwheeling in ways that make them nearly impossible to hit, though they will seem to hit you just fine. I think that the game plays just a tad bit too fast and requires too much jumping around. But you'll get used to it.
Graphics: Great-looking game. The maps are very impressive in detail and size. Be sure to take a lot of screenshots! The models are all rendered well, from the characters to the vehicles. Weapon fire and particle effects look good, as does the natural environment, especially skies. Have no doubt about it, this is a very violent game. Dying animations are graphic, and people tend to end up in pieces or as skeletal remains. Overall, the art direction is rock solid.
Sound: Although decent, the audio is not as good as the visuals. Weapons such as miniguns and tank cannon sound like they should, along with footsteps, flowing water, and other ambiant effects. In-game AI characters tend to use the same list of taunts such as "Ownage!" or "You suck!" or "You be dead!"--along with a few choice obscenities--but none of the characters really stand out with individual personalities. The music is the typical techno fare found in many video games, nothing special.
Documentation/Stability: The manual that comes with the game is informative and makes up for a rather bland in-game tutorial. The game was pretty stable on my computer, though I experienced one freeze and one crash during the tournament. Overall, the game seemed well polished and optimized.
Replayability: Given the number of maps that come with the game, the developer's Bonus Pack that can be downloaded for free from the internet, the large number of player-made maps available, and the editor tools that you can use to make your own maps, this game has had a long shelf life. If you get tired of playing against the AI, you can go online and play against a human opponent. For me, about half of the 10 gameplay modes are not appealing after a few rounds, but the other 5 (especially assault, onslaught, and CTF) are always good fun.
If you are a fan of FPS games, UT 2004 seems to be a must-buy (I'd be surprised if you don't already have it!). From what I have read, it is the best of the Unreal series and still has an active online community. For those of us who only have a passing interest in FPS games, this is a good one to blow some time with.
Overall rating: 4.25 stars