Wednesday, February 03, 2010

Unreality Check

Unreal.  It's a game, it's a franchise, it's an engine that's always being "heavily modified".  These days, the latter is what you're most likely to hear about, even though an Unreal Tournament game was released a mere two years ago.  And according to the latest interviews, we're not going to see another Unreal game for at least a few years.  So what happened?

Back in the pre-Half-Life era, post-Doom, it was all about Unreal vs. Quake.  (Or Quake 2, to be more precise.)  They were really the only fully 3D first-person shooters around at the time.  Whereas Quake played basically like a high-tech Doom (not that that's a bad thing), Unreal was one of the first forays into truly "narrative" FPS gameplay, an attempt to break from the anthologic episode/level format that was sort of accidentally popularized by Doom.  Level breaks were signified only by loading screens that would pop up during the player's otherwise uninterrupted exploration of the game world, and scripted events spiced up the run-and-gun gameplay with some memorable moments.

Then, as we all know, Half-Life came along a few months later and refined this game style to an art.  Almost as if in fear, both the Unreal and Quake franchises opted for multiplayer-only installments: Quake 3 Arena and Unreal Tournament.  It wasn't until later that we'd see more story-based installments: Unreal 2 in 2003 and Quake 4 in 2005.  Unreal 2 wasn't received too well, although I haven't played it myself, so I can't comment.  Unreal Tournament, however, has had 3 sequels (2 of which are actually acknowledged), and those are what I'll be talking about.

With the exception of Unreal Tournament 2004, each installment of the UT franchise has showcased a different version of the Unreal engine.  But wait, why the anomaly?  Because Unreal Tournament 2003 was, by most accounts, a disappointment.  It introduced some very impressive graphical enhancements and terrain support, but there were no radically new modes, the map selection was underwhelming, the lightning gun was way less cool than the sniper rifle, and above all, it just didn't "feel" right.  (More on that later.)  Epic quickly rectified this by releasing Unreal Tournament 2004, which literally included everything in UT2003 plus almost an entire game's worth of additional maps, vehicular combat, and the return of the real sniper rifle.  It was received very well.

The tail end of 2007 brought us another installment of the franchise: Unreal Tournament 3.  (Note the implicit erasure of UT2003 from history.)  To date, it's the only Unreal game to use the Unreal 3 Engine.  And despite the game being generally well-received by most critics and fans of the franchise, the online community is dwindling at best.  Judging from Epic's comments, it looks like it's going to be the last Unreal game for quite some time.  So what went wrong?

Facing Worlds: UT version Facing Worlds: UT3 version
Facing Worlds: before and after. I dunno man, isn't outer space cooler than China?

On the whole, people seemed to be satisfied with UT3.  The gameplay style felt closer to that of the original, but with the added benefits of UT2004's vehicular combat, various refinements to the weapons, and obviously better graphics.  But somehow, as great as everything appeared to be on the surface, the game just didn't completely... feel right.  Yes, I know I already said the gameplay style was closer to that of the original; but still, something was amiss.  I know, in my head, that the game is extremely fun.  But despite my best efforts to support the game and help its community to thrive, I am stricken by a strange lack of desire to play it.  It could be any number of things, but I can't help but wonder if the key factor here is actually the art direction.

Most people underestimate the impact of art direction on a game's enjoyability.  There are two extremes that usually dominate the discussion: those who are mainly concerned with high-tech graphics that look "realistic" and the "serious gamers" who try to counteract that by saying "It doesn't matter what it looks like, as long as it plays well."  Well, you know how it is with extremes: neither one is completely right.  It's easy to thumb our noses at those "uncultured plebians" who only care about awesome graphics, pointing out games like Tetris that are still loads of fun despite their primitive rendering capabilities.  But let's not confuse graphics with art direction.  Both impact what a game "looks like", in different ways.  There's no way you can claim that the original Unreal Tournament has better graphics than UT3, obviously.  But I'm quite free to claim that it has better art direction, and I will do so now.  It does.

There are lots of little things I prefer about UT's design compared to UT3's: the taller, slimmer characters, the more vibrant color pallette, the dominance of sci-fi elements in the architecture (how much cooler is the original "asteroid" version of Facing Worlds than UT3's pseudo-Chinese thingamabob?), and the more upbeat, memorable music.  But that's all very subjective.  A more objective way of putting it would be: simplicity.  Unreal Engine 3 is obviously capable of looking every bit as good as the original Unreal engine, and then some.  But as crazy as this sounds, the maps almost seem to have too much work put into them.  The deluxe edition of UT3 came with an artbook.  Think about that; an artbook.  It has beautiful sketches of the various alien worlds the maps are based on.  This sounds like a positive thing, but think about what kind of game we're talking about here.  Unreal Tournament is all about high-speed, turbo-charged multiplayer brawls, and yet here's Epic trying to create authentic beautiful alien worlds with detailed rock formations and stuff.  It's like building a room for your baby to play in and then filling it with fine china.  The main problem with Unreal Tournament 3's art direction isn't that it's particularly unappealing, but that it's ill-suited to the gameplay.  It isn't conducive to pure, action-packed fun.

Unreal Tournament character Unreal Tournament 3 character
Steroids build muscles, not character.

Here's what I want to see from Unreal Tournament 4, assuming it's ever made:

  • Simpler character models.  Enough muscles-within-muscles and intricate gold-encrusted ancient carvings on people's shoulder pads.  High-res textures are awesome, but give our eyes a break here.
  • MORE character models and a much greater degree of in-game player customization, without necessarily needing to use mods.  This would be facilitated by the previous one.
  • Ditto for the map designs.  A game like this needs to come with as many maps as possible (with the assumed quality control) and they need to be as recognizable and memorizable as possible, since you'll ideally be playing them many, many times over.  I suppose there's a limit point at which there would be "too many" maps, but I don't think they're even close to it yet.
  • Social networking and persistent stat tracking.  I have a feeling they'll come up with this idea without my intervention, but it's clearly the way things are going these days, and I think "the multiplayer FPS of the future" just plain has to have it.  I don't want them to go "class-based" or anything like that, but simply having an online character profile is nice and encourages play, even if every character is virtually identical.
  • Either abandon story mode entirely or make it like UT2004's sport-style mode, just trying to maintain your career through a bunch of matches.  (A "tournament" you say?!)  The storyline/cutscene framework they built around UT3's single-player mode was quite clearly a waste of resources.  It's just a bunch of maps, and nobody wants it to be anything more.
  • Bring back the upbeat music.  This is more of a personal taste issue, but I think a lot of people would agree.  More low-key, dramatic music might be appropriate for the epic team-based terrain maps, but for Deathmatch we just need awesome music to blow people up to.

Anyway, yeah.  Just a few ideas.  I think it appropriate to close by pointing to two other blogs that just so happened to coincide with this entry, which I mostly wrote a few weeks ago.  Yahtzee's past two Extra Puncutation columns have dealt with overcomplicated character design, and he links to a Jack Monahan blog that actually goes into the whole Unreal Tournament thing.  He points out the rather damning fact that in UT3's team-based modes, the character models actually have a red or blue "glow" superimposed over them to make it more obvious who's who -- despite the fact that, like in the previous UT games, the characters' armor textures are color-coded as well.  It's kind of laughable when you think about it.  It really seems like a tacit admission of design failure.

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