Even though the gameplay keeps players coming back for more, the graphics are the frontline in any FPS game, and UT 2004's engine reels them in hook, line and sinker. Robust enough to show a link gun repairing a node a mile away, yet subtle enough to show you the creases of leaves on a tree, UT's graphics are among the best ever seen in an FPS. Colors are vivid and really jump out at you, causing your body to physically duck when a rocket whizzes right by your head. Electrical energy surges across a fresh vehicle when it is entered for the first time and the same vehicle decays before your eyes when taking fire: dulling, then flaming and finally rusting when dilapidated.
Polygon counts are high, as are the sheer number of player and vehicle models available. And while some might cringe at the thought of UT 2004 bringing their out-of-date computer to its knees, the engine is great at scaling to the system. UT 2004 does the impossible, and looks impressive not only on a snappy Radeon 9800 Pro but also on a granddaddy GeForce 3 as well. Of course, the engine scaling has its limits, and Epic lists a GeForce 2 or Radeon-based card with 64-MB or more, as the recommended minimum.
Supplementing the outstanding graphics is the phenomenal game audio, with music including everything ambient beats to gallant war music to thumping techno. All weapons and vehicles sounds are distinct, and stand out clearly on the hectic battlefield. There is no mistaking the booming nuclear explosion of a Redeemer connecting with it's target or spider mines squeaking their way towards an oncoming assailant, so even though you don't see what's behind you, the audio clues given will tell you what's happening. And of course there is the ever-present announcer, a staple of UT play, who, with his thunderous bass filled voice, boldly trumpets your successes and smugly ridicules you for defeats. If ever there was a game character who can directly affect your ego, the UT announcer is it.
A game this expansive can't come cheap, and with the full install weighing in at an immense 5.6 gigabyte, UT 2004 can certainly take a sizeable chunk out of your hard drive. Thankfully, Epic released 3 different versions of the game, 1) the standard version which ships across 6 CDs, 2) the newly announced DVD version with the game on a single DVD and supplemental DVD with tutorials of Unreal content creation like Unreal Scripting and map creation, and 3) the Special Edition which includes all of the DVD version extras and throws in a high quality Logitech headset to aid your voicecom with your teammates. The retail price is also a real treat, and at $39.99 (or $29.99 after a $10 rebate for UT 2003 owners), UT 2004 is an incredible value.
All versions of UT 2004 come with a Linux version of the game, so now penguin lovers anywhere can not only host the game on their Linux server but play along too. The only real issue with this lineup is the time it took Epic to release the standard DVD version, as the limited Special Edition sold out right after release. Impatient gamers snapped up the 6-CD version, only to grind their teeth when the standard DVD version started showing up on retail shelves. For those coming a bit late to the party, we highly recommend the DVD version, as swapping 6 CDs is really not the optimum method.
The common adage on the Internet is that Unreal Tournament 2004 is the game that UT 2003 should have been. That's not really true, and when you take a step back, you see that UT 2004 is the culmination of a number of well-executed concepts lifted from other popular games put together by a group of wonderfully talented developers. You can tell that Epic has watched the successful trends, studied the pros and cons of recent titles, and then channeled all this knowledge into their latest version. This design philosophy forged a unique, yet familiar game that is finely tuned and immensely playable. Epic has proven itself as masters of its art, releasing a game that not only redefines the Unreal Tournament series, but raises the bar for all upcoming FPS titles.