Game Theory: Return of the King

Game Theory: Return of the King

I was seriously hooked on the first generation of Unreal games. From the moment I saw Tim Sweeney’s early work on the engine, it was clear he was doing something special. While id Software had fallen into a creative slump at the time, content to work with a drab and unappealing color pallet and claustrophobic level design, Sweeney’s new vision of 3D graphics was bursting with color, sweeping vistas, and outdoor environments. The design innovations carried into the gameplay as well, with weapons, levels, and pacing that injected new life into the shooter.

Ten years on, I find comments about Unreal Tournament 3 being the “same old, same old” simply baffling. If, like me, you were irritated to see Gears of War going to the Xbox 360, know that we’ve been paid back in full: UT3 displays an eye-popping sense of color, light, space, and speed that is utterly impossible outside of the PC.

The continued small-yet-huge tweaks to the online shooter formula are what fascinate me from a design point. I’ve read of people dismissing the Warfare mode as just a minor variant on control points. Absurd. The addition of power cores, nodes, and orbs radically changes the tactics and pacing of standard control-point play. Stirring in vehicles, rail turrets, hover boards, and link guns to this brew creates the most innovative addition to objective-based online action gaming we’ve seen in the new generation of games, and that’s saying something.

Each small addition and task (breaking down shielding, capturing and defending nodes, running orbs, etc.) gives rise to a complete shift in tactical roles, and does so without ever introducing a character class system. What UT3 and all the other next-gen games show us—and what is so wonderfully surprising this season—is how much growth is still possible while staying true to the FPS formula. They are small changes within an already circumscribed genre, but for fans of that genre they have a huge effect on play.

I used to think that shooter design innovation had reached its limit, and designers would be left simply pushing for better graphics with each new generation. But the 2007-2008 season has shown us something different, and I’ve never been so happy to be wrong.

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