With everyone going into panic mode around here with the virus scare I’ve been working most of the time. It’s essential to retail and we’ve been short-staffed so I’ve had a couple of weeks with overtime. I’ve managed to get in a stream in or two but not a lot of time to write. Last weekend though I somehow managed to get the weekend free so I decided to stream one of my favorite series: Unreal Tournament.
I wrote a lengthy retrospective a few years ago so I won’t be going deep into the games themselves here. Rather I’ll talk a bit about the things going on in my life at the time these came out and what they really meant to me. Also replaying these games this weekend brought up a bigger question that I’ll get to a little bit later.
The original Unreal Tournament came out in November of 1999. It’s hard to believe but the series is going to be 21 years old this November. By October of 2000, the Game Of The Year Edition was released which had the extra content that had been added later included. Around this time I had left a now-defunct footwear retailer to work at a now-defunct OEM. I needed that change. I was taken advantage of by the new boss I had at the time. Was constantly called in anytime anyone else called out. I was cursed by my own work ethic. And yet I knew if I had called out or slacked the way some of my coworkers had, I’d have been dropped like a bad habit. And working with and selling computers was far more interesting to me than a self-serve shoe store. And of course, at the OEM we often had demos of games. It was the second of two games I bought where I knew I was going to have to replace my computer at the time. (The first game was SiN.) My CD ROM drive was too slow to load the audio during SiN, and my Pentium 200 was barely handling it. Plus my Packard Bell had integrated video and no expansion slot for a graphics card. I had played UT in software mode on it, and it did run. But the grainy Game Boy Advance level visuals made seeing people with shock rifles in the distance impossible. When my brother and I played the game over a crossover cable, I had zero chance against his new 900mhz Athlon and TNT 2 combination.
Fast forward and I had gotten a deal through work. My 1.2Ghz Athlon with 256MB RAM and a GeForce 2 were prepped to play it. That game consumed us after work. Sometimes we would stay after closing the showroom and repair center to play that on LAN through the server we had. I’ll never forget the one night a coworker got up from his station to look at my monitor to tell everyone where I was sniping them from. I had been on a sizeable killing spree as I picked them off. “Double Kill!” “Triple Kill!” “Mega Kill!” “M-M-M-MONSTER KILL!”. That came to a quick end when the staff collectively jumped me with miniguns, rippers, and rockets.
It (along with Quake III Arena) was great because it took the secondary mode we’d played in DOOM over the modem, and made it into its own game. It also went in a different direction than Quake III Arena. It implemented a dodge system and a feigning death feature. Whereas Quake focused on speeding up momentum with advanced strategies like strafe jumping and rocket jumping. Both were excellent. Taking the same basic concepts and doing entirely different executions on them. Thus the Arena shooter was cemented as a subgenre.
A few years later Epic would partner with Infogrames (Who had just bought Atari and rebranded itself as such) as a publisher and announce UT would be a yearly release. This was because they looked at the game’s story of futuristic blood sport and figured it could mirror what Sports games had done as a genre. So when UT2003 came out it started with an almost pro wrestling level introduction. It had its share of bugs and balancing issues. Plus not everyone was sold on the higher system requirements. Still, I remember the game demo being useful as it was on three of our stations at the time and I could show people that the cheap system wouldn’t run it (Or other games) well, due to the cost-cutting measures. (Low-end processor. integrated video. No card slot expansion due to the use of a flex case) but the midrange and high end would run it rather fantastically. Plus I enjoyed the demo so much when we got it available I picked it up. As I’ve said elsewhere before, it was here that I started to get into the higher-level stuff. I had decided I wanted to “Git Gud” as the kids say these days and that meant playing and researching a lot. And I still went back to the older game too as coworkers played it a lot, and even my friends and relatives enjoyed it.
I started out (and maybe this will help some of you out in a more modern game you enjoy) small. First, I decided that I would get 5 frags per round. I knew I had no hope of coming out on top consistently. There were just too many great players out there. But I was going to get that five kills. Middle. Bottom. I didn’t care. All that mattered was that I would get five kills. It was a small, achievable, reasonable goal. It took a good couple of weeks of playing to do that consistently. But once I got there, I moved the goal post. TEN frags per round.
The other thing I noticed early on even in the first game was that people often ignored the Bio Rifle unless it was the only gun other than the starting weapon they had any ammo for. (In the first game you started with a pistol. In 2003 they started you off with an assault rifle.) Much like in the Fighting game community, competitive shooters often have tier lists. (Now Maximillian Dood did a wonderful rant about how they’re often misused in fighters today.) But the same logic can apply to shooters. And while they’re not taken as gospel the way they can be in a fighting game community, they do sometimes have people treating some of the less popular weapons as ignorable and the more popular ones as coveted. Like the Energy sword in the original Halo for example. I remember people being called cheap for using it because people on the receiving end often couldn’t find a counter. In Unreal Tournament people often said that about the Flak Cannon and the Shock Rifle. Namely, because the Flak Cannon’s primary shot could ricochet shrapnel around corners and the Shock Rifle could shoot its secondary ammo with its primary shot after the secondary ammo had been fired. Causing a massive blast that could often kill more than 3 people at once if they were in close proximity.
By contrast, nobody wanted to touch the Bio Rifle. So I decided since I wasn’t very good anyway, why not use the weapon nobody liked? So over time, I learned that the secondary fire could be held to charge up the slime almost like a spring on a pinball cabinet. And that a full charge would often one-shot someone unless they had full armor, and extra health. Even if they survived, they would be a mere two bullets or a laser or an explosion away from death. So I began practicing that weapon a lot.
Unreal Tournament 2003 also had a couple of extra game types the first one didn’t have which made the game stand out even more. The big one was Bombing Run which was like Football crossed with Team Deathmatch. It wasn’t my favorite mode, but it was interesting nevertheless. UT2k3 was also a crash course in video card upgrades for me along with Serious Sam The Second Encounter. Around this time Nvidia had released their GeForce 4 line of cards, and they didn’t have the most forthcoming naming convention. They had an MX line and a TI (Titanium) line of cards. And unfortunately, they didn’t do the best job of explaining what each was. I bought a GeForce 4400 MX from EB Games when I bought Serious Sam The Second Encounter. Only to find that it wasn’t a big leap in performance over my GeForce 2. It wasn’t until after this I did more research to find out it was basically a GeForce 2 with some more features thrown in. Nice for a buyer moving up from the onboard video. Not so much for someone who already had a card. Fortunately, a coworker needed a card for a slightly older rig so he was willing to buy it from me for a little less than I’d paid. I then ordered a GeForce 4 TI 4600 which was vastly superior. I had also upgraded the RAM to 512MB at one point.
Still, a year and a half later Unreal Tournament 2004 was to be out. By this time in 2003 things at my job at the OEM weren’t so great. The dot com bust had hurt a bunch of stuff in tech. There was a price war, Things were on the downslope. It was also a time when I was tweaking any possible thing I could to get the best performance in games on my hardware. When I couldn’t crack 60FPS on my computer I had to take drastic action to ensure UT2k3 had as much memory freed up as possible. So I went into Windows ME and turned off all the visual flair making it look like a Windows 98 desktop. Still not content, I turned off animated windows, I tweaked all of the power settings. I even went into the services and disabled so many features I didn’t think I would ever need. Sure things looked pretty plain, but it held me over until I had my next upgrade. I was running the game at 70 FPS on medium to high settings. Pretty cool. Our showroom was scuttled later that year and I ended up taking a transfer to another showroom an hour or so away. And things were pretty tense. We were given impossible metrics to hit and they eventually expected us to get business in the door by telemarketing out to small businesses in the town. Which obviously failed spectacularly. And our boss at the time just barked at us all the time about all of it even when we had great weeks.
I got along with everyone else though. But UT2003 got me through a number of particularly stressful patches at the time. I could stop worrying about the other shoe potentially falling when I would get home. It wasn’t all bad. And I would also make a few friends which would eventually lead to me being on an actual team! I also became better friends with a couple of the folks I worked with. One of whom was into a lot of the same bands as I was. So we talked about music and went to some of the same New York and New England shows together. The best being getting to see The Mr. T Experience play The Space in February 2004. Unreal Tournament 2004 would drop in March of 2004. Things were getting really untenable at my job at this point, and many of us were considering walking out. A few weeks later we were told we were all losing our jobs by the end of April anyway. So we grit our teeth and bore it in order to get our severance, which was honestly a very good set of release benefits. I still had a little left by the time I landed another job months later.
It was around this time I would discover the Super Witch server, where a number of regulars would play. And some of the better players had noticed my proficiency with the Bio Rifle. I was able to hold my own, often getting near the top of the board until tournament level players would pop in and clown me. But before long I was surprised to find a lot of these guys were impressed enough they wanted to help me learn some of the more advanced movement I hadn’t quite pulled off on my own. How to combine wall dodges with double jumps to get to harder to reach areas. Using an elevator jumps more effectively. Better planning map routes to beat people to power-ups. Eventually, I would be invited to join Maximum Carnage. And after a few months of being unemployed, I ended up getting a tech sales job at a big-box retailer. Probably not the one you’re thinking of. But I don’t look to stir the pot so I never mention names. Anyway, by this time I had resolved to build my first homebrew machine. I went with an Athlon 64 3500+ 1GB RAM and a GeForce 6600GT if my memory serves me right. So playing UT2k4 at maximum settings was very impressive at the time. A few years later I went with an X2 4600+ Processor upgrade
My job wasn’t that impressive, but at least on some level, I was still able to do some of what I liked about the previous job. Yes, I dealt with a lot of undue pressure because everything was in sheer panic mode, especially at the end. But getting to talk about tech, tying hardware to someone’s needs, and making people (hopefully) happy with a purchase was something I honestly liked most of the time. I also learned we actually did some repairs in the big box store but the company never advertised this at the time for whatever reason. We had one devoted technician for it, and he would come in a couple of days a week but went to several stores to do this work. I got to speak with him about it from time to time but in the interim, I mostly had the mundane task of sorting deliveries between my department and the others, then putting it all out in between helping people.
The people there at the time weren’t flogging me or anything (yet) but they seemed mostly cold. Nobody was all that personable. You were only spoken to when you needed to be. “Do this task.” “Mention this promo.” “Answer the phone with this call script.” It was a very clinical environment. There was one personable person in another department who ended up being there around as long as I was. So my early days consisted of work, then go home. Sometimes I would go hang out at the nearby record store I frequented regularly after work but more so as we weren’t that far away from it.
I had also joined a local writing group around then, so on nights that I could make the meetups at the local bookstore, I would go share my poetry, and talk about my writing process. It was definitely an older crowd. Not a lot of people my own age were there but I did enjoy that because a lot of what I wrote about was personal. Some of them fictionalized. Some of it was allegorical. But still very much about the inward feelings of depression, anxiety, hopelessness, and loneliness I dealt with (and still sometimes deal with though I’m much better today). I also had a very scant few people I felt I could confide in at the time. So this was a creative and therapeutic outlet for me. The other had become my love of Unreal Tournament.
When the bookstore closed there were a couple of places the writing group would meet up instead, but eventually that folded. In my time there I got the sense that people thought I had a modicum of talent, but probably didn’t like the ratio leaning so much into the dark themes versus the light themes. There were two people there Leon and Josh who I felt did fantastic commentary in their work. I felt happy when Josh actually managed to get something published, and I got to meet a couple of authors in my time there. Lauren Baratz-Logsted was pretty cool. Not exactly game related, but she has a few great novels you ought to look into if you’re looking for something different.
Anyway, I lost touch with everyone there but the Maximum Carnage clan had been a great group of people too. I was mingling with a great group of players, I was getting much better at all of the UT games up to that point, and we were consistently playing in scrims with tournament level clans. Unfortunately, we never got to the tournament level ourselves but we came pretty damn close. By 2007 though Epic would prepare the third installment in the series which would come out in November.
This is where the series started to peter out, though it wasn’t instantaneous. There were good things and bad things going on. Unreal Tournament III was a great game. Make no mistake. It was a considerable visual upgrade. It retained a fast pace the series had been known for, and it even kept some of the most popular stuff from the previous game. The thing is the underlying gameplay did make some changes. The fanbase liked UT and UT2k4. With 2k4 they basically had fixed the problems 2k3 had while retaining all of the good stuff. Plus it gave everyone the highly acclaimed Onslaught mode. But UT fans also had their preferences. Some in the community preferred the original 1999 game. They liked the heavier gravity and the armor system. The fans who preferred the 2003/2004 model enjoyed some advanced movement techniques like the dodge jump or the double jump wall dodge. The lighter gravity also meant that maps were built around trick jumping. And there was a wide variety of outlandish characters. The 2003/2004 versions also employed an interesting adrenaline mechanic, where rather than picking up power-up icons like in UT99, collecting 100 pills would let you perform a special movement sequence to get the same effect. For instance, strafing left, left, right, right, would initiate the invisibility power-up.
Unreal Tournament III tried to bridge that gap. It went with a similar weight to the original game and used its shield belts, and jump boots too. But it also lets you do the advanced dodges featured in 2003/2004. But the other thing it did that many in the community didn’t like was using the art style of another popular game Epic had made for the Xbox 360; Gears Of War. Gone were the regular but interesting future soldiers of UT99 and the variety of sci-fi horror characters of 2003/2004. Instead, the characters had the big bulky space armor of the Marcus Fenix variety.
One other thing that set the game back a bit was the high (at the time) requirements for the PC version. While Crytek’s Crysis was even higher, both games had scrutinized releases as a result. That said, I had loved the series so much it was one of the few times I’ve actually bought a collector’s edition. Previously, I had even bought a book on creating content with the Unreal 2 Engine and even made a few crude UT2k4 maps in it. My clan took those maps and made them look pretty cool, adding advanced geometry and original textures. We also had the Zounds mutator on the server which had let us type certain words in chat to hear sound bites. Every time one typed in “Goo” into the chat you would hear Will Smith in Independence Day yelling “Oh you did NOT shoot that green shit at me!”
The UT3 collector’s edition came with some cool stuff. A hardcover art book that you normally would pay a decent amount for if you saw it in a bookstore, as well as a number of videos on the making of the game, and even some interviews with Mark Rein and Mike Capps. It has a similar steelbook to the one Nintendo used for the Metroid Prime Trilogy. Very nice. Despite all of the things going against it, it still did adequately and Epic tried to make up for it with the Titan Black update. While I personally enjoyed UT3 most of the people in Maximum Carnage still played far more UT2k4. Sadly, we disbanded by the middle of 2008 or so. Which wasn’t the best time for me because I had a relationship end. Not a serious one. But it still hurt. Three games got me through it. Unreal Tournament 2004, Unreal Tournament III, on my computer and the copy of No More Heroes my friend had given to me on the Wii for my birthday around then.
But this was also the time Call Of Duty 4 would be so popular it would almost transplant the Arena FPS as a subgenre. There had been popular military shooters before. The earlier entries of Call Of Duty all did well enough, and Battlefield 1942 surely inspired the Onslaught mode that was in Unreal Tournament 2004. But the grounded realism proved very popular and the Arena FPS would take a backseat.
There were flashes here and there. id Software had some success with Quake Live, which (at the time) was Quake III Arena running in a browser. It was popular enough that it even retained a presence in tournaments for a long time. But on the whole, the publishers shifted gears to military shooters. Call Of Duty, of course, was more focused on individual scoring while Battlefield was a little more team-oriented. But Medal Of Honor, Brothers In Arms, Arma, Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon, Day Of Defeat were but a handful of the many names that would become quite popular. Even Tom Clancy’s Rainbow Six had left a lot of its tactical shooting mechanics in the dust by then giving us stuff like Lockdown, Vegas, and Vegas 2 instead.
Replaying the Unreal Tournament series not only took me back to those days in my life, but it was also a reminder of what makes the Arena shooter such a great subgenre. Like other multiplayer games, there’s obviously the thrill of competition. But when it comes to the way they play, there is little else like them. First of all, speed. Arena FPS games focus a lot on an arcade experience. So one of the things you need to do is constantly tweak your hand and eye coordination. It isn’t enough to shoot at people. You have to be able to shoot them quickly and efficiently. You also have to make good use of footwork. If you’re a great shot, but horrible at moving, you’re probably getting taken out by different opponent than the one you’re trying to take down. And even if you’re fantastic that might happen anyway.
Arena shooters easy to pick up and play. Anyone can hop in, get a couple of kills and have a good time. But they have a fairly deep meta game in spite of the simplicity. That’s what has made them (along with fighting games) pioneers in the e-sports realm. People like Johnathan “Fatal1ty” Wendel made names for themselves in Quake and Unreal Tournament. They paved the way for the names and genres you see represented today. Even if you don’t have tournaments and endorsements as your video game end goal, learning those advanced techniques can be addicting and very rewarding at the same time. The first time you’re able to find a secret room in a map because you mastered an elevator jump or the first time you survive a shock combo because you timed a dodge jump just right feels very good. When you find you can get around a map with trick jumps faster than you can by walking. These are all examples of the sense of wonder you get when something just clicks.
Of course, since their heyday, we’ve seen Military Shooters, Hero Shooters, and Battle Royale Shooters become the popular FPS multiplayer subgenres. We already talked a bit about the Call Of Duty and Battlefields. But games like Overwatch have proven popular too. Games were rather than grab everything on a map, or begin with a loadout you start with a character. Said character is designed to play a certain role on a team and you try to plan your team composition not only around your own talents but what character is the best at a given task on a certain map.
All of these games take elements from those old school games of course. Military Shooters try to have balanced maps and reward cooperation. Hero Shooters retain some of the fantastical elements. Sometimes in the weapons or utilities of a certain character. Or the otherworldly aesthetic of a certain location. Although it’s a Third-Person Shooter, I find there are many parallels between Nintendo’s Splatoon games and the Unreal Tournament games. Both series, while very different in their goals require a mastery of movement. Where UT has advanced techniques like dodges or wall dodges to quickly cover ground or use them as an unorthodox means of travel, Splatoon requires you to learn how to do swim jumps. Or learn how to swim up walls, or jump between walls to get to a place that was once thought impossible to see. Splatoon’s Bubble Blower Special is eerily close to Unreal Tournament’s Shock Combo.
These days, the Battle Royale subgenre is all of the rages. Games like Playerunknown’s Battlegrounds, Fortnite, and Apex Legends are always talked about, have huge fanbases and even push their share of collectible merchandise like action figures and resin statues. They’re frequently headlining video game tournaments, and are played by a lot of the world’s top players for thousands of dollars in prize money. And while it would be easy to write them off as a lottery where you run from a dome, that wouldn’t be fair. At their core, they’re the Last Man Standing mode featured in many old school deathmatch games. But expanded to 100 players. Also, like the Arena Shooters of old, you have to go explore to find yourself a weapon of note. And to the subgenre’s credit, the dome mechanic keeps everything from devolving into a snore where every player who finds a long-range sniper rifle will just camp for three hours in the hopes that everyone else will get bored and walk out into the line of fire. It basically forces every player to do so.
Still, I personally wish the Arena FPS subgenre would come back to the forefront of popularity. It’s a fantastic one for the reasons I’ve outlined earlier. Many people agree and likely have similar fond memories of firing up Quake or Unreal, staying up until 4am playing against friends over the internet with a few beers. Or hardcore types going to BYOB LAN parties or local tournaments for the fellowship, community, and competition.
Since then there have been occasional attempts by smaller developers to bring the subgenre back. Nexius was born out of that desire back in 2012 but didn’t get very far out of the gate despite being pretty respectable. Fast forward to 2014 and Reflex Arena hit Steam in an attempt to give people unsatisfied with the lack of a proper Quake entry something to like. To its credit, it did a fantastic job of bringing back the Quake III Arena feel. But it didn’t hold onto a big group of players for very long. The arguably most successful attempt was Toxikk which brought back the Unreal Tournament 2004 gameplay nearly 1:1 on Unreal Engine 3. It came out four years ago now and held a sizable number of players for almost two years. But eventually, it too petered out.
Epic Games DID have an Unreal Tournament IV in the works. It was going to be a collaborative experiment where they would again align with Digital Extremes, as well as content creators. The original plan was to build the game and ship it for free. Then when the end-users got their hands on the game and tools, they could make their own maps, mods, and total conversions as they had with UT, UT2k3/2k4, and UT3. The difference now being they would sell those on Epic’s digital store and take a cut to cover the cost of production. As well as a profit I’m sure. It actually got pretty far along and you can still download it from their store. The thing is it was canceled when Epic Games realized just how much oil they had struck with Fortnite. The people they had working on Unreal Tournament were moved to Fortnite and the game was put on indefinite hiatus. It’s highly unlikely it will ever see completion at this point.
The other thing, of course, is that games of this ilk can cost millions of dollars to make. Especially if it’s going to have the bleeding edge Hollywood visuals and sound of a AAA blockbuster release. Sadly, that means the Epic Games’, Bethesda’s, EA’s, Activision’s, Ubisoft’s, or Warners of the world probably aren’t going to put the money up to make a go of it. If only the old-timers like me buy it, that probably isn’t enough of a profit to impress their shareholders.
It isn’t only Arena Shooters in this boat mind you. There are other video game genres and subgenres that lie dormant today. Most esoteric these days are probably hex-based strategy games and text adventures. Which still exist and have their rabid fanbases. But they’re not exactly games you’re going to hear about around the watercooler. Be that as it may, it isn’t entirely hopeless either. Things come and go in popularity sometimes. And in the world of gaming, this has happened many times. Back in the age of the Nintendo 64, Sega Saturn, and Sony PlayStation, there were many who thought the 2D platformer would forever have a fork in its back. Super Mario 64, Banjo Kazooie, Crash Bandicoot, were all games that people were about at the time. Nearly everyone was trying to make games where the mascot was made of polygons rather than sprites.
But 2D platformers would eventually come back into vogue and they sit alongside the 2.5D, and 3D platformers today as if nothing had ever happened to them. There was also a time when Square Enix thought their old school JRPGs were done. But just a few years ago Octopath Traveler’s success showed Square Enix that there is still plenty of gas in the tank. It did so well on the Switch that last year they ported the game to PC. Before the release of Street Fighter IV, it was widely thought Capcom may never make another one. The people behind it had to plead their case multiple times before the company would let them make it. Thankfully, they were able to. Not only did it lead the way for other Capcom fighting games, but other companies also brought back their fighting games as well. There was a reemergence of the genre as a whole.
So there’s always the chance a newcomer will make the Arena Shooter that clicks again, or there’s evidence that enough people do want a proper Unreal Tournament or Quake that Epic Games or Bethesda bring one to market again. The good news is that the old UT and Quake games are still around. The indie releases of recent years are still around. All of which support LAN play. So if nothing else, if you can get a few friends to pick up one of them you can still enjoy them. Maybe you won’t see the same level of competition you would have seen 21 years ago. But they don’t have to die with the generation of people who played them in their prime. I hope some of you will be willing to check the genre out. And some of them like Quake Champions and Toxikk can be played for nothing.
Arena Shooters and Unreal Tournament, in particular, helped me cope, helped me connect with people, made me a better player and even gave me the drive to learn something new. I may not have become a professional player. I may not have gotten a better job or fame or fortune. But I did see some positive things come from what was otherwise a silly game meant for fun. So I’ll always fondly remember them, and I’ll likely keep an eye out for the next attempt at spotlighting the subgenre.