When Unreal Tournament 2003 hit the scene two years ago, the game was difficult for veterans to sink their teeth into. While it was overflowing with style, lighting-fast action, and intense competition, it was sorely lacking in terms of evolution. With the team-based gameplay of titles like Battlefield 1942 dominating the online arena, the vanilla Deathmatch and Capture the Flag modes of UT 2003 had a "been there done that" air surrounding it, and many players quickly became bored.
Epic Games had long range plans that drifted towards releasing a new Unreal title a year, much like E.A. Sports' Madden or NBA Live series, and murmurs of the 2004 iteration of UT's features quickly spread throughout the player community. The simple mention of terms like "vehicles" and "squad based combat" whetted those starved for diverse gameplay, and had them drooling with anticipation over Unreal Tournament 2004. Usually this type of high expectation for a game only sets us up for a free fall of disappointment, but now that it's here, complete with new game modes built off a strong foundation of teamplay, we can safely say that Unreal Tournament 2004 stands alone as the finest in the UT lineage.
The back-story of UT 2004 is simple and has remained consistent with previous releases: the player is in a large arena with weapons scattered throughout, and there are others wanting to take you out. That's it. Epic doesn't attempt to feign some convoluted storyline that takes you through unnecessary character development and plot twists. UT 2004 is all about the multiplayer action, and hectic, unadulterated fragging. This simplicity serves it well, and allows UT 2004 to be a game that you can play for hours on end, or just pick it up for 15 minutes as a quick stress release after a long day at work or school.
The bulk of the changes in UT 2004 lie in the new gameplay modes. These include online versions for high-end fragging, and also offline modes to get practiced up and learn the intricacies of the game. While a number of game types from 2003 make their reappearance, such as Classic Deathmatch, Team Deathmatch, Bombing Run, and Capture the Flag, some intriguing team-based modes enter the fragging arena as well. One is a very popular mode in Unreal Tournament, Assault, which inexplicably was left off the UT 2003 feature list.
The Assault game mode presents a fast-paced match that places you in one of two teams either leading an attack on a base, or defending said base from the invaders. Each team has a series of goals announced to lead them to victory, such as protecting the entrance to a starbase to attacking an outer wall with a tank. These announcements, while often leading to a mad dash rush to complete the goal within the time limit, helps co-ordinate a concentrated efforts which results in organized chaos that's frantic but also heavily team based.
Assault not only makes it return, but has been improved in a few important areas, the most obvious being the onscreen graphical "objectives" that identify the overall goal and point you in the right direction. The original UT Assault mode was quite enjoyable, but you really needed to play through the maps and complete the objectives a few times before you go the hang of it, while UT 2004 Assault is more user-friendly. The action has also been ramped up considerably, and the map/objective diversity has increased as well.
If Assault is the TIE Fighter of fun, then Onslaught is the Death Star. It masterfully mixes the best elements of Halo, Battlefield 1942, and Unreal in one glorious orgy of exhilaration. In Onslaught, two teams start on opposite ends of the map, with each map containing numerous interlinking control points, or nodes, that can be taken over by the a team. For each node that you control, you then have the ability to take over any adjacent node to it, be it occupied or not. The ultimate goal is to connect one of your nodes to the enemies starting point, or "Power Core" at which time you are able to attack it. The Onslaught maps can be huge, rivaling the European battlegrounds of Battlefield 1942 in size, but with another noted addition to the UT 2004 stable, long treks are made homicidally enjoyable.