Unreal Tournament 2007
When We arrive in Raleigh, North Carolina, the Epic Games team is out celebrating the release of its latest title. Unreal Championship 2 on Xbox. It's the seventh game in the Unreal canon, not counting add-ons and special editions, and there's an air of satisfaction and some relief that it's finally out the door. "We finished this son of a bitch," bawls one ponytailed developer, raising a bottle in shaky salute.
They're all sons of bitches by the time you've done with them," explains Mark Rein, Epic's preposterously enthusiastic vice-president and chief evangelist. To host the festivities. Epic has booked out a modish local bar and filled the place with ponytails, designer sandals and goatee beards - gang colours of the games developer. Two huge 1Oft-tall screens project the new game from the far corner of the bar. casting a bluish glow across the revelling crowd.
The team is clearly in high spirits; but you get the feeling it's not just because they've shipped a game, nor indeed the ill-advised slugs of Jagermeister sunk earlier in the night. Beyond all this, there's simply a pervading sense of excitement here - perhaps tinged with disbelief - at their incredible good fortune.
My Evil Plan Worked!
You see, Epic Games is taking over the world. From being just one player in the engine licensing business a couple of years ago. Unreal Engine 3 all of a sudden appears to stand uncontested as the clear choice for next-gen games development. Doom 3 and Source have made few inroads, LithTech has all but vanished and the only other real contender, RenderWare, has fallen into the jealous hands of EA.
"We're really excited about showing off the Unreal Engine 3 stuff at E3 this year," says producer Jeff Morris matter-of-factly. "We've got the best technology, the best graphics, the best tools. It's very cool to be working on."
Like few other developers, Epic has the luxury of making games under its own terms and with almost no external pressures - unless you count a legion of baying, diehard fans. The next project for the veteran outfit is a new Unreal Tournament. It's the first PC game to harness the dazzling power of the third Unreal Engine, and if it's in any way reflective of the company's fortunes right now, we're going to have to pinch ourselves to believe it's real.
A combination of sore heads and jetlag means a late start the next day. That's pretty much a typical Monday night for us," laughs Steve Polge, lead designer and lead programmer on UT2007. We sit in the boardroom of the Epic offices, in a typical American officeblock in a leafy Raleigh suburb.
"The game's still pretty early. We've only been working on it full-time for three months. We figure it'll be out some time in 2006, so at the moment we're calling it UT2007, but that could change. We might not do numbers."
Our first aim was to get all the UT2004 stuff up and runnir in Unreal Engine 3, which we pretty much done," continues Morris. "Right now, we've got Deathmatch, Team Deathmatch, CTF, Onslaught and Survival, which is sort of a 1 on-1 Deathmatch. It's pretty amazing that we've got every game type from UT2004 running in such a short time." Polge boots up the projector and brings up the new Malcolm' character model seen on these pages. We've seen it before, but the effect is still stunning. We're already starting to have some beautiful assets come online. It's starting to come together and show what the game's going to look like."
You can see for yourself what that means. We could quote poly counts and tech specs all day, but the simple fact is it looks amazing. In two years time such mind-boggling imagery may well be the norm, but right now every UE3 game we see - Gears Of War, UT2007 - we get a nosebleed just thinking about what's to come. Like Morris says, right now no-one else can come close. As for gameplay of course, this is, and it seems Epic very much wants to continue where it left off.
"We're focusing a lot of our development on what we call the classic game types and really trying to refine those," says Steve Polge. We're spending a lot of time tweaking the tiniest details. We have these esoteric arguments about whether or not jump height should be four units higher and things like that. We're tweaking movement, weapons, just making sure everything feels really solid for DM and CTF. They'll be the modes we most focus on, but we're going to add a lot of new kinds of supporting features too, like automatic matchmaking based on skill rating - similar to Battle.net." This emphasis on proven game types may sound pedestrian, but the philosophy very much seems to start with established ideas and rely on the power of the new engine to transform them. With CTF for example, there will now be maps with vehicles, using streaming level technology to make environments ten times bigger than previously possible. With Deathmatch, there will be levels littered with physics objects, where it becomes more about knocking things over on a player's head than shooting him with a rocket launcher.
"We're only planning on doing that in a couple of maps, just to see if it's fun, says Jeff Morris. When you start to give the player the ability to block doorways and change pathways it becomes a completely different game. But we like to have a real variety of gameplay in our maps in UT, so we'll definitely try that.''
The New Assault
Of course we're bringing Onslaught back as well," picks up Polge. "And again we're making refinements to that. Probably the biggest new addition is the second vehicle team. On top of the nine vehicles that shipped between UT2004 and the bonus pack, we'll have another set of nine vehicles that are kind of analogous but different in functionality.
What shape these will take is still very much up in the air, but Steve Polge makes some vague noises about a robotic walker, not in the mech tradition, but more insectoid". The vision is perhaps to create a more alien counterpoint to the very earthly designs of the existing set.
The biggest thing however,'' he continues, the thing we're most excited about in terms of cool new stuff is the new game type. Internally, we've been calling it Conquest'. I'd say it's the successor to Assault, but it's kind of Assault-meets-Onslaught. The idea is to have a big battlefield, with shifting front lines and zones of control - we want to channel the action into certain areas so you don't have people spread out all over the place. We'll have all the vehicles from Onslaught, and in addition to that we're adding some RTS concepts like resources to give it a little more depth."
We've Got The Power
For veterans of games like Savage, this will come as no revelation. However, Epic is being very careful to avoid the frankly dull aspects of that game, making sure to retain the instant action' feel that very much defines UT - you spawn and straight away you're shooting people, not tottering off to mine resources. Instead, you'll simply capture some sort of station that, once powered up, automatically deploys little harvesting robots.
We have just one resource -tarydium, says Polge. "The idea is that it powers your bunkers. The rate at which vehicles rebuild is based on the amount of tarydium divided by the number of bunkers - so the more bunkers you control, the more resources you need."
"We want it so you don't have to play with resources, but a team that does play the resource game will have certain advantages," says Jeff Morris. "Either way, it introduces two new verbs into the game, which are protect my resource gatherers' and attack the enemy's resource gatherers'.
On top of that, Conquest will also have objectives, again mimicking the old Assault blueprint. As you push forward and take control of certain bunkers, missions will pop up both for your team and your opponents. "They're sort of mirrored," says Morris, "so it might be defend this bridge' for one team and attack it' for the other. The missions will focus the battle on these hot-spots, though if you just want to try and capture bunkers and push your front line, you can do that too."
Another part of the strategy involves the introduction of deployable items, such as spy robots and automated turrets. The idea is to give you a greater range of roles to play, like spy, commando and engineer, without going as far as creating specific character classes.
Another aspect is the commander role," continues Morris, which any sort of RTS-meets-first-person-shooter game flirts with. It's not as elaborate as Savage, where you have to have a commander, a research tree and all that. We want a sort of mid-level commander role, who has some overview of the battle and who's able to facilitate collaboration."
Interestingly, the aim is not to pull the commander out of the world and give him a top-down view as in BF2. but to keep him very much within the game. It would be a role you could step into and out of as easily as, say, picking up a scoped rifle and deciding to be a sniper.
We're still figuring out exactly how we'll do it," admits Steve Polge, but maybe there's some bunkers that are command bunkers, where there are screens displaying various information about the battle. Being a commander just means you choose to go there and monitor these screens, then convey the information to your team."
Like the other game modes, Conquest will take advantage of the power of UE3 to produce some unprecedented effects. Not only will the battlefield be vast, with streaming levels and no loading times, but the appearance of the terrain will alter as the battle rages back and forth. For example, as territory moves from human control into the hands of the evil Necris (alien baddie replacements for the Skaarj), the ground will blacken, grass will wither and trees will corrupt out of shape. Hopefully it will be a stunning transformation," says Morris, "but it also means you'll be able to eyeball the map to see who controls what. It's an elegant and visually interesting way of doing that."
At this point we're very much ready to see the game in action, so without further chat, lead level designer Jim Brown fires up one of the new maps. Sitting back, I grip the sides of my chair and prepare to be blown away. Unfortunately, there's not a lot to see. The level is uniformly grey and boxlike, with no textures, minimal detail and not an enemy in sight.
Remember, the programming is significantly ahead of the art," laughs producer Jeff Morris. It's not pretty right now - we do this first to get the gameplay right. We've always had a rule with UT - it has to be playable every day, and when it's just basic cubes and basic shapes like this, it's really easy to change on-the-fly and then test again.
This map is a good example," adds Brown. This is Deckl 6, a map that's appeared in every iteration of UT. It's a very familiar space and it helps us gauge how the game actually feels." This dedication to playtesting is clearly a sound policy, and one that pays huge dividends in the final product; but I'm nonetheless relieved when Brown loads up a slightly more advanced map. Still a work in progress, it does at least display some of the detail and intricacy we expect from a new UT. Once we're happy with the gameplay, we start building up detail in a map and working with the art team to create a theme. Just as an example of how things are going, this hallway has... Well... Considerably more polygons than an entire map used to. I'd venture to say two to three times more than an entire map in UT2004."
Brown hands over the controls and I run around for a while, admiring the elaborate architecture and cycling through the weapons to see what's changed. Already, most of the original weapons are in place, but meticulously remodelled to match the complexity of their surroundings. Nothing wholeheartedly new just yet though.
"We haven't spent a lot of time thinking about what we re going to do for new weapons yet, confesses Brown, but we'll definitely have a lot of new stuff. Right now the question is whether it's going to be in the form of new weapons or things like deployables. One thing that has been done to expand the weapon repertoire is enhancing the functionality of the target painter, originally used to bring down an ion cannon blast. Now, thanks to the new Kismet scripting system, Epic is encouraging its level designers to create a range of level-specific super-weapon' effects for the target painter. In one level, for instance, you'll be able to set off an earthquake, sending hundreds of boulders crashing down from the hills around you. In another, it may cause a roof to collapse, a dam to break or the earth to split asunder. All of which are better than a new rocket launcher any day.
Rise Of The Machines
The other big thing we're focusing on is really enhancing the Al," continues Polge, dropping a couple of generic bots into the level as he does so. Our bots are already smarter and play better than in UT2004, but we're going to take them much further, both from the point of view of making them better players, but also giving them more personality."
"The main reason is we want to have a much richer and more interesting single-player," adds Morris. It's a big focus for us, because although everyone thinks of UT as a multiplayer game, there's a hugp percentage of people who buy our games who never go online. It's surprising, but a lot of people are buying the game just to play against bots."
This is clearly a tricky dilemma for the designers. They want to make the single-player game better for people playing offline, but at the same time they want to encourage as many as possible to go online, where the real action is. Commendably, their answer seems to be to make both experiences as attractive as possible. Even in UT2004, the solo game was perhaps the best facsimile of the online experience available, and it's only going to get better in UT2007.
"We've spent a lot of time on very good, competitive, human-seeming Al, boasts Morris. You look at most multiplayer games, their Al is atrocious. You look at recent FPS games, they cloak their bad Al in zombies. Basically, nobody really seems to be taking Al seriously for offline.
The way Epic proposes to improve things is to endow its bots with personalities and characters that you learn over time. The aim is to make the interaction with bots much more like you're playing with a bunch of guys in the same room. As Morris explains: Instead of - just throwing out random taunts, they'll be telling you 'there's a sniper on the tower' and some other bot will say OK, I'll take him out'. They'll talk to each other and give each other info that you can pick up on. Or you can yell out orders yourself. We ll have a voice menu like always, but we ll also make really heavy use of voice command.
Voice control was of course supported in UT2004, but it was a slightly tacked-on element and not particularly well documented. Morris insists this is about to change. We think voice control is the coolest feature for controlling Al to come around in a long time. And what we re hoping to do is take that technology and add an almost text-adventure-style conversational structure, where you can really talk to your bot and have your bot talk back to you. You're not going to be able to use a full sentence and have it understand it, but we're going to take it to the point where you'll have some sort of conversational vibe with it.
It may sound far-fetched, but this remarkable innovation is apparently not a technical challenge at all. Most of the info required to negotiate a simple conversation is already being processed by the Al, and it's just a matter of presenting it better in an interface where you can take advantage of it. The thought of being able to converse with bots, even in a limited capacity, is pretty amazing, and could have serious implications for the way we play games.
World Of Tomorrow
Unfortunately, like a lot of the game, it's too early to see it in action. Playing Unreal Tournament 2007 at the moment is more tantalising than anything - it feels very much like the old UT, and only occasionally looks anything like the graphical tour de force it's set to become. Needless to say, we're not in the least bit concerned. With the best technology, the best graphics and one of the most consistent track records in the industry, it would be a spectacular upset if the next UT was anything other than great. The basic concept may be the same as ever (as one Epic staffer jokes, it's just people jumping around shooting each other"), but even the few small enhancements we've seen in Raleigh are enough to convince us that Epic is leading the way into some incredibly exciting territory for PC gaming.
Warfare Art Thou?
Whatever Happened To Unreal Warfare...?
Unless you're new to PC games or have the memory capacity of a Commodore 64, you'll recognise the name Unreal Warfare as one of the unsolved mysteries of PC gaming. A secret project' that never materialised, the title was meant to be Epic's next big evolution of the Unreal franchise, but talk of it faded with the release of UT2003 and UT2004, and most eventually dismissed it as vapourware.
So what was this mysterious game? Some have speculated that it never existed; others claim Epic programmer Tim Sweeney binned the game in a jealous rage after he got his first look at Doom 3. Clearly there's more to the story, and having snuck the subject into conversation over a few beers with Epic employees, we think we can put the matter to rest.
First, the game definitely existed at one time. It's no longer in development, but there is some continuity, in both concept and technology, between Unreal Warfare and the new Epic games. The Xbox 360 title Gears Of War owes some debt to the project, however small, but the clearest legatees of the original Warfare vision are the UT2004 bonus pack and the Conquest mode planned for UT2007, which apparently takes a lot of its ideas from the abandoned project. So now you know.
Feigned Death Makes A Welcome Return In Ut2007
If you remember the original UT, you'll no doubt recall one its more quirky features -the ability to feign death. It was a nice idea, though it often ended up being more comical than practical, owing to the fact that the animation was exactly the same every time. You'd throw your hands up and collapse in an insincere heap, all too aware that an experienced player could see through your performance in an instant.
In UT2007, however, it will be a different story. The new Novodex physics engine enables bodies to switch to and from a ragdoll state at will, meaning your fainting fits will look exactly like any other genuine ragdoll death.
Ideally, says lead designer and lead programmer Steve Polge, you want to time it right So when a guy hits you with a rocket and almost kills you, you quickly feign death, then wait till he turns around and walks away to jump up again. The sneaky swine. We like his style...
Sting In The Tail
The Scorpion Gets A Retrofit
All the vehicles from UT2004 are set to return in UT2007, and while most will simply be more detailed versions of their original incarnations, one or two are receiving a bit more attention.
So far, the vehicle with the most significant improvements is the Scorpion, the little buggy with the spring-loaded death blades. What we've added is rocket boosters, says lead designer and programmer Steve Polge. You can use them if you're charging somebody down, for example, as well as for doing jumps - and you can get a whole lot of air off these things. The other thing that's cool is that if you leave the vehicle when the rocket boosters are on, it engages a self-destruct and blows up seconds later. You can use this for making a run at enemy power cores and it gives the Scorpion a chance against the tank. Not to mention a great way of turning up to a party.
No More Loading, No More Disconnects
Seamless streaming of levels - it's a term we hear a lot these days, but one that's going to bring the most tangible benefits yet in UT2007. Not only does the streaming function of Unreal Engine 3 allow for much (much!) bigger and more detailed worlds, it's going to make a real difference to the way we play online games.
Lead designer and programmer Steve Polge explains: Right now, when you finish a game of CTF, everyone disconnects and spends a minute looking at a loading screen. That's a real loss of an opportunity to chat about the last match, talk about what you want to do for the next match and so on. Plus, when you get back into the game, you might not be on the same team as the people you were playing with, so there's a real loss of continuity there too. With streaming levels, what we're able to do is seamlessly load the new level while you're still hanging out in the old level discussing scores and tactics. And then when everyone's ready you just hit go, and everyone jumps into the new level.
Download Unreal Tournament 2007
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