One of the more intriguing new features of UT 2004 is the addition of vehicles. These come in many different shapes and sizes, and players can just jump in, and get ready to rock and roll. The vehicles are offensive in nature, having at least two separate means of dispersing foes (aside from running them over which is an instant kill). The Dune Buggy-like Scorpion can fire magnetic plasma cores, which can stick to an enemy or vehicle and do massive damage. But it also features two switch blades that swing out of the sides and can gruesomely separate enemies' torsos from their legs.
The dual nature of the vehicles lends itself to setup some amazingly combinations like taking the Manta hovercraft high to avoid a missile, but then decapitating the enemy with your fans when you land. The announcer will even bellow "Vehicular Manslaughter" in honor of your death-defying feat. And just like the gameplay, certain vehicles require teamplay to use effectively. Hop in the Hummer-like Hellbender solo, and you won't last long but with two cohorts manning the destructive shock and laser turrets it's time to rack up some kills. The addition of vehicles really opens up the gameplay and gets away from the "been there, done that" issues of UT 2003. It is clearly not included as an afterthought, like so many innovations in other game series, and UT 2004's vehicles are definitely part of the core design and an integral part of winning.
Luckily, vehicles are sparse enough to not dominate the entire game. Once destroyed, the respawn time on them is lengthy enough to test the patience of even the most steadfast of campers. And, as if learning a lesson from the Battlefield 1942 cheese strategy, opposing teams cannot steal vehicles that spawn at your node. So rest assured that the only thing that your adversary sprinting for your respawned Goliath tank is going to steal is a cannon round up his keister when you hop in first. But if you abandon your vehicle after that, and it's fair game for anyone.
As powerful as the vehicles sound, players certainly cannot be dismissed as mere cannon fodder, especially with a full arsenal of weapons to combat with. There are a number of anti-vehicle weapons available, such as the heat seeking AVRIL, which hones in on a target as long as you have your crosshairs on it. Another nice weapon is the Mine Layer, which plants numerous spider mines into the ground, and like a good B-movie, actively speeds at anything within a certain radius. Even an Airborne Raptor relentlessly raining fire on you might have to tuck tail between its legs when it sees a "Missile Lock" on its screen. The entire UT 2003 weapon lineup also returns and includes everything from the classic Flak Cannon to the sniper-like Lightning gun.
Players can quickly see how well balanced the game is when they start to understand the underlying concept of counters in the game. While all weapons and vehicles stand strong on their own, there exists a yin to each yang within the basic design of the game. The counter to the nimble Manta is the destructive fire of the Scorpion. The solution to the ground-based Scorpion is to send in destructive cannon of the Goliath tank. Then the circle is complete, as the counter to the slow moving Goliath, is the agile Manta. So when battles between two evenly-matched players erupt, generally what ensues is an exciting and constantly adaptive game of paper, rock scissors, except with colorful explosions.
But all these intricacies of squad-based play would be worthless if Epic stuck with the standard communications of text chat and generic hotkey team commands. Instead, UT 2004 has implemented a highly useful feature for in-game chat. Hitting the F key will mute your speakers and open up a type of virtual walkie-talkie through your microphone so you can easily co-ordinate with allies (or taunt your enemies). This simple inclusion can be the key to success in a UT match, and even those who are microphone-less can still hear your tactics and adjust their own.
The game maps vary in size, ranging from massive to miniscule, but all have diversified terrain to plan your attack around. Rocky cliffs, lush rolling hills, and plenty of foliage are littered throughout the landscape and help to promote varied tactics. You can snipe from hundreds of yards away on a peak summit, or lay a few spider mines in the canyon that a Goliath Tank that's sure to roll through. All the maps are built off the foundation of a surprisingly accurate physics engine, that doesn't just make things explode, but explode and then send the debris bouncing and rolling off the environment (which could have fatal consequences for you if you don't get out of the way). Vehicle and player physics are just as high-end, and allow expert players to perform some very astounding feats.