I played the new Unreal Tournament at Epic Games, and it was awesome.
My experience with the upcoming shooter happened over the weekend during a special event held at Epic Games. There were other members of the press in attendance, as well as pro gamers and contributors from the Unreal Tournament community. Epic held Capture the Flag matches for most of the event, pitting members of the development team against the event attendees. Prizes included graphics cards, mechanical keyboards and more.
I didn't dare participate, but instead played against the built-in bots.
Why? Because my twitch skills are rusty. Yes, I'm an Unreal Tournament fanboy. I've been a big fan of the Unreal series since the very beginning. I even loaded up Unreal Tournament 3 last week to warm up, but after watching the pros in action, I quickly decided that I would just be an embarrassment.
Most of what I played during my stay at Epic was Capture the Flag. Honestly, the game seemed no different than previous Unreal Tournament installments: it was fast, frantic, loads of fun and bloody. The core experience seemed unchanged, and that's a good thing in my book. Why? As the saying goes, if it ain't broke, don't fix it.
Many maps I played were missing their high-resolution textures. Team leader Steve Polge explained that the layouts are created and fine-tuned first before the coats of paint are applied to the walls and floors. Still, I couldn't help but be amazed at the way light splashed over the solid surfaces. Only two maps were fully packed with eye candy, and they dazzled me to no end.
However, now that I look back and play the game on my own hardware, this current "naked" pre-alpha build is similar visually to the original Unreal Tournament released in 1999. Frankly, I like the way Unreal Tournament is now, but don't get me wrong; I love the completed maps as well.
For the event, Epic seemed to have various hardware setups. However, the system with the highest specifications included an four-core Intel Core i7-4770K processor clocked at 3.5 GHz, 16 GB of RAM and Nvidia's GeForce GTX 980. The setup also included a Logitech G710+ keyboard, a Logitech G400 mouse, a BenQ XL2720Z (144Hz) monitor and Windows 7 Professional 64-bit. With this hardware set, Unreal Tournament had framerates that were smooth as butter.
With Gears of War now concluded, why make another Unreal Tournament instead of investing in a new IP?
"When our engine team is on the road, they get the same question over and over: 'When are you making a new Unreal Tournament?' With the release of Unreal Engine 4, we thought the time was right," Stacey "Flak" Conley, Epic's Unreal Tournament community manager, told me after the event. "The Unreal Tournament community has always been very collaborative, and Paul Meegan had the idea that we could make the new Unreal Tournament alongside the community. It's been a fun and fascinating process to watch."
I asked if there were any hurdles the team faced in getting the new Unreal Tournament project off the ground. I was told that getting the project up and running was the smallest hurdle, as the team had previous Unreal Tournament games to work from, and an engine (Unreal Engine 4) that's easy to use. The biggest challenge the team faces now is digesting all the feedback and contributions from the community.
The Unreal Tournament team consists of around 10 full-time developers. Like myself, these people love to decorate their desktops with figurines, movie props and other "toys" that promote creativity. In addition to this core team, individuals from other Epic studios will come in and help out as well. The core group primarily works on the game but will lend a helping hand to other teams when needed.
"Our project lead has a pretty typical system for our developers, with 32 GB of RAM, an Intel Xeon E5-2660 2.2 GHz, and an Nvidia GeForce GTX 670," Conley said when I asked what the team uses for development. "Fast for development, but not bleeding edge gaming performance."
I got a chance to see the Unreal Tournament development area as part of a tour of the facilities. The company has every game its made framed on the wall (even 3.5-inch disks), a slide that makes for a quick descent down from the second floor, a rock-climbing wall, and huge statues yanked from Unreal Tournament and Gears of War. There's even an entertainment room with arcade machines and a big screen for watching movies on family night. I couldn't help but feel a sense of "family" throughout my tour.
Of course, there were areas I didn't have access to -- areas that I suspect are where Epic's super secret projects reside. I tried to get someone to spill the beans about the unnamed game, even off the record, but I came out of the building empty-handed. I was even denied when I gave my "I-promise-pretty-please-please" face.
So why host this weekend get-together?
"We bring in members of the community who are contributing content and code to the game as well as some of the competitive gaming community to provide suggestions and input to make Unreal Tournament more esport friendly," Conley said. "We give the developers and artists feedback and ideas for their projects, and they let us know what we can do to make their work easier to manage."
Apparently this isn't the first time Epic has opened its doors to the community. Conley said that the studio held two events – one in September and one in November – last year. Epic is now planning another tournament in July 2015.
"For this event, we invited community contributors and pro gamers, as well as people who were at the previous events, and told them they could come if they'd like if they paid their own way," Conley said. "We were surprised that 11 of them did come on their own, and they were from as far away as Portugal!"
That's dedication. What's great about this type of relationship between developer and community is that the final, resulting game won't simply be something that the developer pushes and hopes the community will pitch in with mods. Unreal Tournament will be built from the ground up with the community's involvement. It won't be a developer's game, but a gamer's game.
What helps push Unreal Tournament along is Unreal Engine 4, which recently became free to use. Epic's belief is that the company is not successful unless the developer using the engine is successful. The catch is that developers pay "a 5-percent royalty on gross revenue after the first $3,000 per product, per quarter." Previously, Epic charged $19 per month for the use of the engine.
I asked whether Epic Games was an engine company or a gaming company.
"We've become very evenly distributed between game developers and engine developers, and most are interchangeable. We are very passionate about both games and engine," Conley said.
I tried to convince the company that another Unreal game should be next on the list. We haven't seen a new installment since Legend Entertainment's Unreal II: The Awakening hit the store shelves in 2003. The game wasn't all that well-received, but I'm told it has a kick-ass multiplayer mode. Still, an Epic-developed third installment would be… wait for it… epic.
As for the details of Unreal Tournament, the game is broken down into five modes: Casual, Team Play, Competitive, InstaGib and custom. Casual includes Deathmatch and Capture the Flag, while Team Play provides Team Deathmatch and Capture the Flag modes. The Dual mode is listed under Competitive, and InstaGib provides three types of gameplay: Deathmatch, Team Deathmath and Capture the Flag. Custom is blank as of the publishing of this article.
For the Deathmatch mode, Epic provides the following maps: Outpost 2, DM-Tuba, DM-NickTest1, DM-Chill, DM-ASDF, DM-Focus, DM-Temple and DM-Lea. There are only six Capture the Flag maps: CTF-Blank, CTF-Outside, Facing Worlds, Bigrock Asteroid Mining, CTF-Dam and CTF-Crashsite. Team Play maps include Outpost 23, DM-DeckTest, DM-SidCastle, DM-Cannon, DM-Deadfall and DM-Spacer.
PC gamers wanting to get their hands on the Unreal Tournament pre-alpha can do so by downloading and installing Epic's game launcher from unrealtournament.com. All the weapons we've come to know and love are included, some of which were redesigned by the community; even the initial HUB in Unreal Tournament was created by a community member.
As previously stated, the game in its current state is awesome, and it's only going to get better. Unlike previous installments, players can modify their avatar with hats, eyewear, masks and more. The pre-alpha includes a few items such as a beanie, and players can get more from the Marketplace. Up for sale now is a skull mask for $3.99, an Unreal Helmet for $2.99, a Money Hay for $2.99 and a free map, the Lea Observatory. Custom characters are coming soon.
What also may be coming soon are vehicles. "We are focusing on non-vehicle game types for our initial Unreal Tournament implementation," Conley said. "We love Onslaught as well and hope to be able to introduce vehicle game play again at some point."
The beauty of Unreal Tournament is that it will never be "done." The game will continuously receive updates, new maps and new features throughout its life cycle. The Marketplace will even help fund this game, as I have no doubt that players will flock to the items up for sale. I personally like the cardboard box "hat" that is slated to hit the Marketplace soon.
I walked away from Epic Games knowing that the future is bright for Unreal Tournament. I had my reservations when the project was first announced, but now after having hours of gameplay under my belt, I know those reservations were wrong. As I previously said, this will be a gamer's game, and that's a good thing.
To read more about the weekend event, Epic Games has updated the Unreal Tournament blog with a recap here.
Update, 5/9/15, 1:30pm PT: We corrected the reference to the Intel Core-i7 4770K and the refresh designation on the BenQ display. Tip of the cap to the readers who pointed out these oversights.