One fringe benefit of having a hardcore gaming laptop for a few months is that I’ve been able to dig deeply into the new generation of multiplayer action games with all the settings cranked up to the max and enjoy some truly spectacular hours of online homicide. And do it without being tied to my desktop. There’s something about playing Quake Wars in bed that’s just so wrong, yet so right. Four CPUs, one man, a bed: It’s like some kind of über-geek fetish fantasy.
The real pleasure, however, comes from just how solid this generation of multiplayer action is. With Enemy Territory: Quake Wars, Team Fortress 2, and Unreal Tournament 3 forming the core of dedicated multiplayer action, and Call of Duty 4 and Crysis holding the flanks, we are positively swimming in top-flight game design for the online frag crowd.
To an outside observer, these games might all seem like more of the same in different wrappings. But to gamers who truly love online action, you couldn’t have asked for three more radically different approaches than Quake Wars, TF2, and UT3. Each is like a musical composition in a different key.
In terms of pure personal appeal, Quake Wars is at the top of my list, since its use of classes and multiple fluid objectives manages to capture some of the feel of an ever-shifting battlefield. If the old Strogg/GDF matchup has grown a little tired, it’s a minor complaint within a system that handles classes and their functions so well. What Team Fortress 2 lacks in objectives and complexity it more than makes up for with its fresh style, focused team play, and outstanding unit balance. And though I haven’t logged time with the final version of Unreal Tournament 3, the material Epic has been showing certainly takes its work on Gears of War to the next level and places UT3 at the fast-and-frenzied instaspawn end of the spectrum.
It’s simply wonderful, this late in the life span of the multiplayer action game, to see three teams wind up with such radically different approaches to the same concept. Only people who don’t know the genre would see these titles as mere interchangeable carnage. That’s like saying Mozart, Beethoven, and Brahms all sound the same because they wrote symphonies.
Thomas L. McDonald has been covering games for 17 years. He is Editor-at-Large of Games Magazine.