It can be difficult to write a review of a game like this, that packs so very much into a miniscule 209MB download. Where to start? Should I lead off with the rehashed UT2003 sounds and underwhelming graphics, qualify these impressions with a "It's not done yet and the 2003 demo was similarly unimpressive but the final kicked ass" and then move on to the new bits? Maybe I should talk about the engine, which seems largely unchanged from UT2003, or mention the integrated speech and text-to-speech support.
How about none of the above? Screw it, if you wanted a detailed point-by-point you'd be reading Blue's News. Instead, here's what I found interesting. First off, the disclaimer: I didn't play any Unreal game before UT2003, my FPS progression is spotty. A lengthy love affair with Doom, fun-filled nights with Quake 2, and then after a brief fling with Half Life, it was full-on adoration for Unreal Tournament 2003. I like my first person shooters fast, with quick respawn and flat learning curve. Get in, have fun, get out. Realistic games like Battlefield 1942 or squad games like Counter Strike leave me totally cold, due in no small part to not having enough friends to play it regularly with. These trans-Pacific pingtimes are murder.
When the 2003 demo came out the graphics were smooth and the levels well done. Four levels, one for each game mode, were available, and while they weren't visually impressive they were very fun to play. When the final game was released the world was astounded. It looked amazing, and ran fast without needing all new hardware. 2004 seems to be following the same tack, so while it remains to be seen if the retail version will be as pretty the demo levels are kind of bland, but intensely playable.
The standard game modes are in effect, CTF, DM, Team-DM, and Bombing Run. There are two new modes over the original 2003 assortment: Onslaught and Assault.
Apparently Assault is returning from the original Unreal Tournament, but having never played it I can't compare. It's kind of an attackers/defenders situation, with a series of checkpoints one team tries to reach while the other, naturally, tries to prevent from happening. In this case the checkpoints are on enormous, multi-storey trucks rolling through a desert canyon. Each checkpoint must be reached by running on and through these gigantic vehicles while avoiding gunfire, and trying not to fall to your death between trucks, or being ground under the massive wheels.
Onslaught is, to my mind, an engaging mix of Halo and Herzog Zwei. Each team has a main base, and the map has five smaller bases which start out neutral. Each base, which is little more than a pad on the ground, can be claimed by touching the pad, though it takes a minute to be converted to your team's colour. You can only capture a base that's connected to your main base or another base you control, so you can't skip any, and you can't convert a base belonging to the other team unless it's next in line from a base you already own. A captured base delivers a battlefield advance of sorts, and it activates two vehicle spawning points. The huge square valley map suddenly becomes smaller when you've got access to vehicles.
The vehicles do remind me of Halo a bit. There's a three man truck (the driver cannot shoot), the Goliath two-man tank, a Warthog-like Scorpion 4-wheeler, a ground-skimming flyer which is all about speed, and the flying and hovering but thin-skinned flier. Dunno if there'll be more in the final, but this is already plenty.
As far as I'm concerned this game is a must-buy for PC gamers, and is alongside Far Cry at the top of my list of things to pick up. My system is a gracefully aging AMD 1900+ with a GF4 4400 and it plays UT2004 at 50+ FPS at all times, running at 800x600, with all the goodies maxed. It's easy on the hardware, though apparently it'll clock in at six CDs for those of us without DVD drives, so you might consider a HD upgrade. For Onslaught alone it's worth a purchase. Hell, I'd pay for the single level included in the demo.
My only concern at this point is the sheer number of maps that will be included. I've heard it said they'll be including some 95 maps from the UT2003, and I worry that this will discourage play on the new maps, and worse, that it will fracture the userbase. If these words sound familiar to you it's because you read something similar on Penny Arcade. heirs are thoughts that echoed my own, and I worry for 2004. But I won't let that prevent a purchase. =)