Walk by a couple of young kids debating their favorite sci-fi shows and youll likely find yourself dumbfounded. One kid, a zealot Trekker (Star Trek fanatic), will praise how the whole universe created in that series takes on a life of its own. Hell talk about the wondrous technology and great characters, but, much to your amazement, the next kid, a devout Babylon 5 fan (a relatively new franchise that has been consistently stealing Star Treks thunder and fans), will say the same thing about his favorite show. Their loyalty to one show over another can be puzzling to the layman because they sound as if theyre talking about the same show and few of their differing reasons are about anything substantial. Lets be honest, most of this comes down to far more simple rationale that range from personal preference to having found one show first and sticking with it. This year, the videogame industry will be seeing more of these such exchanges and, in all likelihood, will do so for some time to come. The exchange will be centered on two games: Unreal Tournament and Quake III: Arena (Q3A). Theyre both online multiplayers, both first-person shooters (FPSs) and both can quench a players thirst for deathmatching, But ask the owner of either piece of software which is better and youll be bombarded by a detailed dissertation of all the features and intricacies that make their choice superior. Admittedly, I dont have the time or room on this page for a dissertation of my own, but I do have an opinion and in it, I find Unreal Tournament the real deal of the two.

Programming guru, John Carmack, made a bold announcement when he told the media that he was going to create a game that focused solely on the multiplayer aspect of his mega-hit Quake series. It would be called Q3A and it would not only offer stages specifically designed for online play, but would offer something for online veterans as well as for those merely looking for a way into this growing craze. Epic Games (Epic), thankfully, was listening at the time and later made a similar announcement regarding their groundbreaking Unreal engine. They were determined to be the ones offering the best experience to gamers. From the very beginning, it seems that Epic got it right. Unreal Tournament comes with a very solid single-player mode that truly does what the developer set out for it to do. All manners of story and plot are tossed in favor of tutorials and training levels that provide ample practice for all (from those too green to handle the hectic Deathmatches to the veteran looking to sharpen his skills on new levels). As a gaming first, the Bots (computer-controlled competitors) in Unreal Tournament actually do a believable job of mimicking human opponents rather than being predictable, walking scripts. When going through battles, the Bots often did what normal players would do, from going after certain weapons and power-ups to hunting and retreating based on their advantage or disadvantage. And when the difficulty setting is turned up, the Bots 'intelligence' progresses much more naturally than they do in most games out there. Granted, they also become dead-aim shots but thats unavoidable at this point in time. All a veteran gamer needs to do is crank up the difficulty setting a couple of notches and Unreal Tournament proves to be a true test of your skill (a good warm up for playing online).

Navigating through Unreal Tournament's menus are easier than its ever been in these kinds of games thanks to a streamlined interface and sturdy software. Epic opted to mimic the Windows menu so that anyone with even minimal PC experience would feel comfortable navigating through the games options and menus. Changing basic to advanced game settings are possible with a click of the mouse and the settings themselves are relatively easy to comprehend. Whether to a relative newbie like myself or an online veteran, getting into the game is a quick and painless process. With a few clicks of the mouse, I was online and ready to go. Once the action started up, I really began to appreciate what was packed into the game and could clearly see what has always been lacking in the games that came before it. The Unreal Tournament engine is not the hardware-intensive benchmark that Q3A is, but it scores points with me for its silky smooth framerates (that are possible even on a medium-powered game machine like the one we tested on). The graphics are impressive, but there arent excessive amounts of hardware effects slowing things to a crawl as there are in other games. Playing on a 56K modem with up to eight guys onscreen meant the framerates took a hit here and there, but the game was never unplayable. It was only when I took the resolution up a couple of notches or when Net-lagging reared its ugly head that the gameplay would be severely interrupted. Id have to chalk that up to fate because if you have a bad connection or a relatively weak gaming machine, this is simply unavoidable.

One of my biggest gripes with online gaming has been the lack of an ability to taunt and show-up a friend or whomever I was playing against. With multiplayers on console videogames, I could turn to my left or right and unleash on the loser. But online, no one can hear you boast and lets face it, who has time to type? Hence, Epics supply of one-liners and zingers were very much appreciated and, best of all, they were all pre-recorded with attitude and bite. It never gets old hearing "Eat That!" and "Die, bitch!" after a good kill or a long standoff. Once I got on a roll, the thunderous announcer would further voice my success with ruthless sound bites like "Killing Spree!" and "Multi-Kill!" These all give an oddly visceral reaction once the action got intense. Nice little touches like having to watch an opponent (or bunch of opponents) do the wave while standing over me was sort of a motivator to get in there and get revenge. I just couldnt stand for any of that from a damn Bot.

Also rewarding was the balance that each weapon had in the game. All the weapons at my disposal had their own strengths and weaknesses (as far as FPSs go) and each had a good kick lighting up the screen with the typical assortment of light-sourcing tricks. I am, however, thankful for the inclusion of a sniper rifle in this game. The nearest thing to it in the genre is the Quake railgun, but anyone who has used it knows that its a slow weapon that requires great precision. With a sniper rifle and a few areas where players could sit back and pick people off, it was a lot of fun. Especially when running through the game and trying to get the always-rewarding head-shot while on the move.

The many modes in Unreal Tournament are a pleasant surprise that I am sure will only help with the games replay value and further separates it from the pack. It comes with the standard Deathmatch, Team Deathmatch, and Capture the Flag (CTF) modes, but it compliments these old stand-bys with a couple of unique ones: Domination and Assault. In Domination, two teams battle for control over certain areas of a map. There are up to three areas in each stage, each containing an icon native to a particular teams affiliation; the more sectors are dominated and the longer they are controlled, the better the final score. Assault, on the other hand, is where one team tries to take over a base and accomplish certain objectives while the other team defends it. These modes, as well as the CTF mode, are accented with an excellent command menu that allows for easy dispatching of orders to my Bot teammates. It added a quick strategy element to what, essentially, are ordered bloodbaths. I must admit some disappointment with the Assault mode because I thought the addition of objectives meant I could expect some Rainbow Six-type gameplay but that was far from the case. Assault quickly became the charge and be destroyed mode where completion of certain objectives, like hitting switches or destroying targets, had to be done while the enemy was actively gunning down and respawning all around me. To say that I died a few times is a serious understatement and I would add that in most games, it is a given that outcomes are biased towards the team that respawns faster or more times to accomplish their respective goal. Needless to say, it got to be pretty mindless whether played online or off.

Unreal Tournament does get knocked down a few notches because it doesnt rise to the occasion in a few areas. What quickly killed some of the game for me was the sound. On our test machine, the sound was not the greatest even with the surround sound set-up, but, in all honesty, it didn't matter too much while playing. Also, the amount of character models available were somewhat lacking. Sure, there is a nice assortment of teams and each have a different look, but after a few hours of playing time, they all seemed to blend into each other. As an aside, being able to choose from so many African American character models is very welcome, but as a whole, the models are not terribly different. And, finally, it seems that the very game itself is a detriment. Doing well online is still essentially determined by your hardware and the connectivity; the better your connection and PC, the easier a time youll have online. Because for all of Unreal Tournament's nifty options and new modes, the game still comes down to the Deathmatches. Weve been doing the same thing in Deathmathes since the days of Doom and the hardware and software is about a millions times more advanced than they were in those dark ages. So why arent these online games sporting true team missions and not just the party-type games that were seeing right now? The strides made in Unreal Tournament are a nice move in this direction but there is quite a ways to go.

The popularity of Star Trek is diminishing (its a bitter pill for loyal Trekkers to swallow) and upstart series like Babylon 5 and its spin-offs have popped up offering disgruntled Trekkers something newer (and in their opinion, better). If they arent careful, Q3A fans will have a something similar to deal with as more people look for alternatives to the tiring Quake universe. Yet, I am afraid that despite Unreal Tournament's many options and ease of use, there are some who will only see it as a newbie game or others who will just point out that it wasnt the first arena game conceived and subjugate it to the vernerable Q3A. I see signs of this already where people are much more willing to look at the surperficial appearances and pass judgement rather than give the newcomer a chance and I believe this is a mistake. Q3A is no doubt from the originator but that, by itself, does not make it the last word on multiplayers. Throughout this tide will come a choosing of sides based often on little more than which particular game a gamer picked up first. But as with Babylon 5, Unreal Tournament is the challenger to an industry giant and because of this goliaths definite weaknesses, Unreal Tournament comes at the right time to offer a solid alternative. Through all the bickering and scoffing, Im sure that many will simply miss it, but Unreal Tournament has already knocked Q3A off the mountain top and, to me, currently shares that prime spot with no one. Rating: 9.0 out of 10

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