With the success of 'UT2003', there was never any doubt whether UT2004 would be a hit when released. The demo alone recorded an astonishing 1.5 million downloads in the first week. Initially scheduled to be released during the end of 2003, the game finally went gold on March 4th and hit the shelves worldwide on March 15th.
The test system for the review was an Athlon XP 2600+, with 512mb Ram, Geforce FX 5200 graphics card, running windows XP pro, DX9b, with the latest 56.64 drivers from Nvidia.
Graphics wise, UT2004 isn't much different to what we found in UT2003. There are no new technologies to wow us, the predecessor having succeeded in that admirably well. What is new however, are the game types which have been added. Assault mode has been borrowed from the original Unreal Tournament, a mode greatly missed in UT2003. Thankfully that has been corrected this time around. The basic idea is that you have to infiltrate the opposing team's base within a specified time. Once you complete it, you will have to defend that base while they try to take it back in a shorter time than you did. It was one of the most difficult stages to complete in the original Tournament, and the most gratifying once done.
There is also a new Onslaught mode, reminiscent of Tribes, which pits two teams against each other in massive outdoor maps. Each map has strategic points which you must control and hold whilst taking out your enemies' control points. What is uniquely special to this game mode is the large amount of vehicles that players get to control. With 9 different ones, from space fighters to tanks, UT2004 really shines in this department. Onslaught Mode is definitely a killer integration. Once players get accustomed to this mode, we should begin to see some excellent maps from the modding community.
Bombing Run is one of the favourite mode additions in UT2004. Essentially it's a FPS football (or soccer, if you prefer) game; two goals, one ball. Whoever has possession of the ball cannot fire, but can release the ball, or even better - throw it at an enemy thereby preventing them from firing.
Double domination consists of two control points. Your team scores by touching each control point, and controlling both for 10 seconds. Once you score, the control points reset and you begin again.
Mutant, Last Man Standing, and Invasion are essentially modes for team based play, whilst Deathmatch, Team Deathmatch and Capture the Flag modes need no introductions.
UT2004 is a team oriented game, but boasts a single player mode which introduces you to the game modes slowly before kicking off the frag fest. I found my skill severly tested as the AI is pretty good, on par with all the great FPS's out there. Annoyingly however, I had a big feeling of deja vu playing the single player mode. It seems that much of the maps from UT2003 have been ported to UT2004. Atari does offer a £7.50 ($10) rebate for those who already own a copy of UT2003, but still, I felt a little disappointed. With more than a year in development, surely they could have come up with some new maps.
The multiplayer/internet game play and LAN matches are, however, where the real strength of this game lie. Joining online matches is relatively easy, the interface being based on that offered by UT2003.
Playability wise, running on my test system produced a few minor glitches. There were distinct times during each level of play when the game froze for a split second, and when you regained control, most of the time you found a bullet in your head. Dissatisfied with this I tested it on another machine, this time running an Athlon XP +2400, slower than my test system, but more crucially - powered by an ATI Radeon 9500. The errors completely disappeared, getting a frame rate over 50.
Clearly this was a driver issue, however, it is ironic that the game does not fully support an Nvidia based card out of the box when the Nvidia splash screen is so prominent when you first boot into UT2004. Turning down the graphics settings to 800 * 600 in 16bit mode didn't help, nor did turning off trilinear filtering mode. According to the Atari support forums, these short freezes are very common. More detailed info from the user community can be found here.
What is interesting is that these issues did not appear in the demo version of the game, even with playing the same maps which are common to both the full and demo releases. Another way to deal with this issue I found was to control the Direct3D settings from the driver control applet. The default setting is maximum visual effects, but turning this down to 'Blend performance and visual effects' reduced these issues immensely.
Undoubtedly Atari / Infogrames will release a patch very soon to correct these issues.
Overall, if you don’t have a copy of UT2003, this is an excellent game, worthy of price. Graphics are excellent, gameplay second to none, and with the addition of the Onslaught and welcome return of the Assault modes, this game will be a firm favourite for the time being. As a multiplayer game, it reigns supreme.
We wonder however, if Atari's choice of borrowing large chunks of UT2003, especially since Doom 3 and Half Life 2 are near completion, was a good one.