(This post is about eight year old deathmatch games, and I expect it’s a little esoteric even for this blog. I’m not saying if you should skip it or read it. Just… You know, fair warning. You might have better things to do with the next ten minutes. Proceed at your own risk.)
In 1999 there were two brands of deathmatch games: Unreal Tournament (Coke) and Quake 3 Arena. (Pepsi.) Few people partook of both flavors, and in fact there was something of a rivalry between the two. Lines were drawn, and people chose sides with partisan zealotry unheard of outside of religious wars. (Such as Mac vs. PC.) People loved their chosen game, loathed the opposition and all it stood for, and insulted one another in long, rambling forum threads where the ratio of uppercase / lowercase letters was about even.
Eventually those two games started to get a little old. It was time for the next generation. 2003 rolled in. The next UT title came out, and players found it had more in common with Q3A than UT. On the other hand, there wasn’t a next-gen sequel to Q3A. So what we have is a situation where Coke came out with a new formula that tasted just like Pepsi, and Pepsi responded by not making any more soda at all. UT fans were sad because their game was gone – it had come to look like the very game they had been denouncing for the last four years. Q3A fans were sad because their game was gone, and they weren’t about to convert and join the hated ranks of UT fans. (Not yet, anyway.) So pretty much everyone was unhappy.
I was one of the UT fans. I still am. I am unrepentant in this, although to be fair it’s not like the people at Epic Games came to my house in 2003 and erased my old copy of the original Unreal Tournament. (Usually referred to as UT99.) It’s eight years old, but I’ve still got it and I’m still playing. I played the subsequent 2003 and 2004 versions, but neither of them scratched my particular itch.
There are two major parts to a deathmatch game. One is dogfighting, deathmatching, dueling, or whatever you want to call it. You know: Shooting each other and so on. Dance around without getting hit, while delivering damage to your momentary foe. There are many different styles of play here. Some people constantly hop around as if they were some sort of gun-wielding maniac on a pogo stick, which looks stupid but is amazingly effective at making them hard to shoot. It’s like fighting Tigger’s murderous, coked-up doppleganger. Some players try to engage you at a distance with their superior aim. Some (me) try to get in close and beat you with their evasion skills. Dogfighting is a major part of the game, and some people even mistake it for the game in its entirety.
The other major aspect of gameplay – and the thing that most people overlook – is the strategy end of it. I’m not talking about picking the best weapon for use in a fight or remembering where the armor is, I’m talking about finding and forcing fights on your own terms.
Despite my long history with this sort of game and the high rankings I enjoyed in the UT99 heyday, I was only average (at best) when dogfighting. (And I’m a lot worse than that now.) I make up for my lack of reflexes and aim with a strong strategy game. The most common thing I hear from other players in a LAN game is “How are you always behind me?!?” Other players feel like I’m cheap-shotting them to death because half the time they never see me. They just suddenly die without warning. I make up for weak dogfighting by making sure I don’t have to do too much of it. I take note of audio clues, missing (taken) items, scortch marks, dead bodies, dropped weapons, and player habits. I gather up all of this data like some sort of high-speed detective and put it to malicious yet practical use.
“You see Watson, the lift on the far side of the room is moving back down to its default position, yet the door at the top is closed. Note also the spread of burn marks on the floor: All in a straight line, evenly spaced. Finally, one cannot miss that there are two medkits in the corner.”
“Yes, it was evidently quite a battle. Very confusing, Holmes!”
“Not so! The descending lift and closed upper door suggest that someone came in through the upper door and jumped down onto the lift, instead of riding the lift up to the door. If he’d been going the other way, the upper door would still be open! This means our quarry cannot be on the upper level. Furthermore, given the other clues in this room we can determine not only what happened here, but we can also discover who was killed and who did the killing!”
“Impossible! The body of the victim is destroyed, and the killer is gone, how can you know who was here?”
“Note the pattern of burn marks, Watson. A even line such as this is only possible with a full volley of rockets, aimed downward. Only our foe xXRoquetManXx is reckless enough to use such a technique, which means he was most likely the victor. We know the victim couldn’t have been Ownz0r, because we just got done ambushing him in the boiler room. Er, again. This means that our third adversary, Sn1pa, must have been the unfortunate victim here. So, here is what happened… xXRoquetManXx entered from the upper level and spied the other player below. Having already queued up the needed rockets, he aimed down and obliterated the unwary Sn1pa with the barrage, producing the burn pattern we observe. He then leapt down, touching off the lift as he landed. And finally, we can deduce that when he fled the scene he was unscathed, or else he would have helped himself to the nearby medpacks.”
“Amazing Holmes! But bugger all, it would be even more helpful if we knew where he went! There are three doors down here on the lower level. Which way did he go?”
“Even simpler to deduce! He certainly didn’t head for the boiler room, since that’s the way we just came in, if you remember, and we did not encounter him. It’s unlikely that he headed for the exhaust room, since that leads to some health and a rocket launcher, and we have already determined that he has both.”
“I get it now, he’s headed for the toxic waste pit through the third door. Brilliant! Let’s get after him!”
“Easy Watson. No sense in going that way. He’s had a good head start, and we’ll just end up ten steps behind him. He’ll be gathering up all the weapons and armor ahead of us, becoming stronger while we waste time fruitlessly trying to catch up with him. The toxic waste pit leads ’round into the boiler room eventually. So, if we double back now we should get there a few seconds before him. We have just enough time to reach the upper catwalk. He has us out-gunned with his rocket launcher I’m afraid, but we can insta-kill him with the Shock Rifle if we can take him by surprise. Let’s go!”
Shamus electrified xXRoquetManXx with the Shock Rifle.
xXRoquetManXx says: dammit shams how r u ALWAYS BEHIND ME??????
Everyone else is just cruising around, blasting other players as they come into view. They are moving from one dogfight to the next, while I’m constantly extrapolating where everyone else could be and where they might be headed. When I’m right, I end up behind them in a position to deliver a quick killing blow without needing to engage in too much gunplay. To other players, this sometimes feels like magic. I should add that I do most of this without thinking about it. My thought process isn’t nearly as clear as the conversation between Holmes and Watson above, and when someone demands that I explain how I knew they were coming it often takes me a while to figure out and articulate. Still, I get a deep satisfaction when I get that itch and realize someone is about to come through the door and I blow them up without ever seeing them. I’m sure this is the sort of thing that leads some people to mistakenly believe in psychics.
Major changes between UT99 and later versions:
- UT 2003 introduced a bunch of crazy new moves. You could double jump – like some sort of silly Mario game – and even do special cartwheel moves by jumping off from walls in mid-air. By combining these moves a skilled player could more or less cross a level without ever touching the floor. Aside from looking a little strange, it gave the game a learning curve like the Cliffs of Insanity. This YouTube video is a mild example of what can be done.
- The level design underwent a massive shift, abandoning the UT99 style of close-in, fast-paced maps of cat & mouse gameplay. Instead, the games featured sprawling open areas with little cover and almost no way to get close to your foe without being seen.
- The later games all featured weaker weapons with more kinetic force, so that a couple of guys having a rocket fight will end up bouncing around the room like ping pong balls instead of just exploding
They made all of the weapons much weaker, which made it very hard to insta-kill anyone, even if you had the drop on them. Sure, you could get a good, solid hit in, but then you’d have to dogfight to finish them off. The crazy jumping made dogfighting faster and more complex, giving the edge to quicker players with better aim. The open areas meant that even if you’re a strategist and you know where your foe is headed, that knowledge won’t do you any good because you won’t be able to get ahead of him or sneak up on him. All of this shifted the balance of power away from me, and deprived me of my “hard-won” rewards for my detective work. Between the leaping aerial stunt combat, the open battle areas, and the weaker weapons, the elements of the game that I held dear were eliminated in favor lots of distance fighting and bouncing around. The game became both ridiculous and unrewarding for me.
I realize that hating a game just because it favors other play styles over my own is a bit selfish, but Unreal Tournament is the only game left in the genre. Everyone wants it to suit their particular tastes, because they have nowhere else to go. Some players – the dogfighters – obviously hate getting killed for no discernable reason, and so they like the nerf guns and Mario-jumping. They’re trying to play rugby and I’m trying to play hide-and-seek.
I see over at Augary that the latest incarnation of UT, oddly named “Unreal Tournament 3”, is now in beta. Epic Games has been talking about going back to the UT99 style gameplay, which caught my attention. Their userbase now has a good supply of Q3A exiles. They now have both types of players in line to buy their game, and there doesn’t seem to be any way to make both groups happy. One or other other is going to walk away mad. If the UT99 fans come back and find yet another rehash of the 2003 gameplay, they will feel lied to. If the Q3A types find the game has greatly changed, they will feel betrayed. If Epic tries to split the difference they could end up alienating both groups.
This should be interesting. Cineris, who I believe is a fellow fan of the UT99 gameplay, seems to be enamored of it. I’ll have to try it for myself.
A video Let's Play series I collaborated on from 2009 to 2017.
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