With the recent release of Unreal Tournament 3 for the Xbox 360 it seems like a good time to take a look back at the history of this popular franchise. The history of the Unreal series is not only interesting to see how the games have evolved over time, but it is also directly tied into one of the greatest success stories of a video game development company.
Read on to see how one series lead Epic Games from a garage to one of the most influential companies in the gaming industry.
Before Epic Games was even known as just Epic Games, they developed and published a number of games during the 90’s that most of us have likely either never played or have completely forgotten about. I’m talking about games like Jill of the Jungle and Jazz Jackrabbit. During the later part of the 90’s Tim Sweeney, founder of the company, set to work developing a game in his garage. 3 years later that game was the first Unreal game released.
id Software’s greatest enemy
Prior to 1998 when it came to PC First Person Shooters, id Software was arguably the best FPS company out there. With several popular games already out there, such as Doom, Wolfenstein 3D, and Quake. The sequel to Quake, Quake II was released in 1997, and was was the first official FPS shooter game to innovate the online Deathmatch.
Now you’ve got to be wonder why I’m babbling on about the early history of id Software when I’m supposed to be babbling about the history of the Unreal series. Don’t worry, it’s all connected.
You see before 1998, id Software was dominating the PC scene. In 1998 Unreal hit the shelves and changed that forever. Unreal, along with the engine named after it, changed the perspectives of what could be done with 3D graphics at that time. Utilizing multiple texturing effects Unreal displayed more detailed environments than Quake II, along with various other improvements such as great outdoor areas, enhanced lighting techniques, and the inclusion of a map editor UnrealEd showed to the world that Epic Games knew how to design an engine and was worth watching.
Prior to the release of Unreal id Software was the champion of FPS games. They were also the innovators of the Deathmatch, and their follow up to Quake 2 came in 1999 as Quake 3 Arenas, a game that ditched the usual single player game and focused primarily on providing a multiplayer experience.
Not to be outdone, while id Software was working on Quake 3 Arenas Epic Games along with Digital Extremes were working on Unreal Tournament, a game using the Unreal Engine used in the original title, only reworked and now focused on also creating a multiplayer experience instead of the usual single player mode.
The first tournament
Unreal Tournament and Quake 3 Arenas were released roughly within a week or two of each other. A series that had only existed for a year was now competing against what was previously the most popular PC FPS game. This time around it was Quake that was known for having slightly better graphics. But when it came to multiplayer modes, and superior bot (computer controlled characters) AI it was Unreal Tournament that was considered to be the better of the two. In addition Unreal Tournament introduced the capability of using alternate fire for weapons, opening up a whole new world of strategy to those that were playing the game.
Because of the adaptability of the game engine and knowing that the survival of Unreal Tournament depended on the community, Epic not only allowed people to make user created modifications, but encouraged it through the use of competitions. Quake 3 Arenas also allowed for people to create their own modifications, and if one had been released without the ability to let the community create their own modifications it’s likely that game would’ve failed.
Because of mod community support, the competition to create the best First Person Shooter wasn’t just about who could create the best game, but which one had the better game engine. These games while great on their own, were ways of demonstrating the power of the engines behind them.
Hate sniper rifles? I got a game for you…
It wasn’t until 2002 that the follow up game to Unreal Tournament would be released as Unreal Tournament 2003. This time however there was no Quake game from id Software to compete with the release. The closest release from id Software was Return to Castle Wolfenstein which had been released much earlier. While Return to Castle Wolfenstein was actually a pretty cool title, its multiplayer features were much different than those found in either the Unreal or Quake series, with focus around objectives and different player classes. Instead of having id Software as a major competitor Unreal Tournament instead faced major competition from, well, everyone else. Halo, Tribes and Battlefield: 1942 were now the major competition, especially Battlefield which included larger scale battle than had previously been seen in FPS game before.
On one hand, the appearance of many more competitors in the FPS field also made gamers more vocal about their complaints on Unreal Tournament 2003, such as the decision to not include a sniper rifle. It was a good change for those who dislike or suck at using the sniper rifle, like myself.
It didn’t help that a single player game was released as a side product to the tournament game, known as Unreal II: The Awakening. Released for the PC, and later to the Xbox, this game was not developed by Epic, but by Legend Entertainment and published by Atari. Also, while this is just my opinion here, it was really, really boring. The game was where excitement went to die.
The video game cure for insomnia
Many of the issues players had with Unreal Tournament 2003 were fixed in the updated Unreal Tournament 2004 which was well received and seemed to set things back on track for the series. Still the amount of competition on the market seem too strong to overcome for the game, and much like how it took players by storm when the first Unreal game was released back in 1998, in 2004 there were developers shaking up the genre in 2004.
It’s like UT2003, only much better
As I mentioned earlier though, the Unreal game, while being good games in their own right, were also ways of demonstrating the Unreal Engine. The 2003 and 2004 Tournament games showed off what was possible with the Unreal 2.0 Engine. While the games might not have been as successful as Epic would have hoped for, the engine they created certainly was. Demonstrating the wide variety of uses that the engine could be adapted to the Unreal 2 engine was licensed to help create games like Magic the Gathering: Battleground, Dues Ex: Invisible War, Star Wars: Republic Commando, Tom Clancy’s Splinter Cell, the Brothers in Arms games and many more.
As part of the Unreal 2.5 engine they created a console only version of their tournament games known as Unreal Championship 2: The Liandri Conflict, the sequel to Unreal Championship and released it for Microsoft’s Xbox console. The first Unreal Championship title was mostly a console port of UT2K3, and the first game that was playable online with Xbox Live. One of the biggest additions to the gameplay was the ability to now use melee weapons, as well as a third person camera view. Personally I loved this game and thought it was one of the best online games the original Xbox had to offer. Unfortunately, much like the PC, Halo 2, Battlefield 2, and Star Wars: Battlefront overshadowed the game. Not only that, but Unreal Tournament: The Liandri Conflict was released towards the end of the original Xbox life cycle, just 6 months before the launch of the Xbox 360.
A great game that few people played
Now we come to the recent release of Unreal Tournament 3. A few years have passed and since then Epic Games released a different title that showed off their Unreal 3 engine; a little title known as Gears of War. Already Epic has capitalized on the success of this engine as it is easily the most popular licensed engine for the current generation of console games and is considered to be widely adaptable and easy to use. So as far as the war of gaming engines is concerned, Epic has won. When you look at the list of software that uses the id TECH engine, you can count most of the titles on your hands.
As far as the competition into the FPS games goes , there’s been even tougher competition than they’ve ever had before. Already released to moderate sales on the PS3 and PC, Unreal Tournament 3 has recently just been released for the Xbox 360 console, only currently without the mod capabilities that helped support their earlier titles. It also is released at around the same time as many of Epic Games competitors also release titles on the 360, most names the recent Enemy Territory: Quake Wars and Battlefield: Bad Company. With the Unreal Engine 3 currently being the engine that’s making waves, will Epic’s Unreal Tournament 3 be able to make those same waves in the FPS market on the 360? Time will tell.
Keep checking Diehard GameFAN for my review of Unreal Tournament 3 for the 360 or take time and check out Mark’s review of UT3 for the PS3