Influential FPS Games #13: Unreal Tournament 1999

Updated: Sep 21




In the last episode, we investigated Unreal ’98, Epic’s first major FPS and the debut of the Unreal Engine. Now we will take a deep dive into Unreal’s successor, Unreal Tournament, the first dedicated arena shooter.


Multiplayer Focused


Unreal Tournament ’99 differed from Unreal ‘98 in one very significant way - it lacked a true single-player campaign. Unreal Tournament 99 was based entirely around multi-player and bot-matches. This was potentially a massive gamble for Epic since no standalone full retail release had done this before.


However, the gamble paid off. Unreal Tournament ‘99 (henceforth UT99) was a huge commercial success. According to PC Data, by the end of 1999 UT99 had sold 100,998 copies in the United States alone. Note that it was released in the US on November 22nd. By early 2000, sales had reached 128,766 copies, earning some $5.42 million in revenue.


Unreal Tournament saw several missions and expansion packs, which were then consolidated in the spectacular Unreal Tournament: Game of The Year (GOTY) edition (Which is the version that you will find on Steam and GoG.com.)

This commercial success was mirrored by its critical, with most publications at the time awarding it 90% and above. UT99 is regarded by some as one of the finest games ever made.


Core to its mass appeal was its accessibility. Multiplayer gaming at the time was viewed as a ‘hardcore activity’, with servers populated by experienced players. This could be intimidating for new players and may have put them off trying to go on-line.

The inexperienced players who did get on-line may have found it a frustrating experience. They may have found themselves outclassed when pitted against experienced players, as this would usually result in them being fragged with rage-quit inducing regularity.


Bots

The inclusion of bots went a long way to solve this. Players could now practice off-line against bots and thus get to grips with the controls, map layouts, and gameplay mechanics at their own pace. The bots were designed by Steven Polge the creator of the ‘Reaper bots’, mod for Quake. This enabled the bots to behave in an uncannily human-like fashion.


Unreal Tournament 99 Deathmatch Against Bots

“We gonna frag like it's 1999”


Custom Characters, Configurable Teams

Unreal Tournament was limitlessly malleable. The player had total freedom of control over the off-line games they played. The number, difficulty, behaviour, names, aesthetics, and sounds of the bots could all be altered. Which maps to play and in what order, which power-ups and weapons were available, the time and frag limits, mutators, etc. could all be tailored to the player’s liking.


In the team-based modes, such as Team Deathmatch, Capture the Flag, Domination and Assault the player can also dictate the size and composition of the teams and whether friendly fire hurts teammates.


Speed


A very useful feature was the ability to alter the game speed to run both faster and slower than the default speed setting. Raising the speed can dramatically increase difficulty, whilst lowering it can make it easier, especially for beginners or those with coordination difficulties, sensory processing delays, etc. The ability to alter game speed is something we will see in the multiplayer component of some future FPS games, including Halo Reach.

User Interface


This ease of access was aided greatly by UT99’s User Interface (UI) which was heavily inspired by Windows. If a player could use windows, they should be able to navigate UT99’s UI with ease. It started life as a mod for Unreal by Jack Porter named UBrowser. Epic was so impressed with it that they hired Porter to re-work UT99’s UI.


Matchmaking


This customizability applied to on-line play as well, with some dedicated servers having rules about what settings and mutators could and could not be used in their matches. This allowed players to choose the style of match they wished to participate in. Sites such as GameTracker made finding the right server easy. The video below shows how to get on-line as recently as January 2019. Yep, twenty years on and people are still playing.


How to get on Multiplayer & Servers in UT99 Explained

(I even briefly went online myself whilst researching this and I can confirm that as of the 17th of March 2020 there are plenty of servers running and matches to join. Of course now I need antihistamines – see Bio 😉 )


Bot A.I.


Although the game was easy to get into, and starting an offline bot match was simplicity itself, defeating said bots could be anything but. On the hardest ‘Godlike’ difficulty level the bots present a legitimate challenge. Their ‘Achilles heel’ however was their apparent inability to capitalize on Non-LoS (Non-Line-of-Sight) weapons. The rather ‘cheap’ tactic of spamming weapons around corners and down shafts remained the preserve of human opponents.



Unreal Tournament Assault Mode on Hardest (Godlike) Difficulty Setting


The popular Assault mode was the next best thing to a Single-Player campaign.

Weapons


Speaking of weapons, this was another of Unreal’s innovations. All of UT99’s weapons have a primary and secondary fire mode which provides the player with a great deal of versatility. Many of these weapons were carryovers from Unreal, some of which were repurposed mining equipment. This ‘tools-as-weapons’ concept would be expanded upon in some later games, in particular the Dead Space series.


This arsenal of weapons expanded with the release of Unreal Tournament: Game of The Year edition in 2000.


Unreal Tournament (UT99) + ChaosUT mod (PC)

Note the judicious use of the bunny hop 😊


Clans


Unreal Tournament had a very active online community, which generated at least three major demographics. These consisted of those that played as a soloist in every-one-for themselves deathmatches, people who played together as teams and modders who created new content.


(There was a large degree of overlap of course, and some players may have counted themselves among all three.)


Some players would regularly play together. This took several forms. First were the LAN parties which had been a core aspect of multiplayer gaming since the Doom era. A new development, however, was teams from across the globe gaming together, despite never having met ‘in the flesh’. This was the beginning of multiplayer ‘clans’, a phenomenon that would grow increasingly popular as time went on and as internet services improved. Clans would, in turn, play a role in the development of Esports.


Mods


The Unreal Tournament modding community was just as active. This was, in part, due to Epic deliberately making Unreal Tournament very mod-friendly from the start. The game shipped with full developer tools, including the Unreal Script Editor. Epic was generally pro-modding, and many of their employees were former modders.


This lead to the creation of literally hundreds of user-generated maps which could be downloaded for free from various websites such as Game Banana and UT Zone. In addition to maps a huge array of graphics, sound, voice, weapons and gameplay mods were created, sometimes with hilarious results.

Unreal Tournament 99 Massive Bedrooms Deathmatch


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Movement



The characters in UT99 were very agile. Not only could they run at breakneck speeds, they could also ‘dodge.’ Dodging involved short-sharp lateral movements which were very effective at dodging incoming projectile weapons and making the dodger a hard to hit and erratically moving target. Low gravity levels (or use of the low gravity mutator) allowed for larger leaps with a greater degree of air control. The jump boots power up allowed players and NPCs to lead to great heights. This was often used to reach otherwise inaccessible high-value weapons and pickups.


Another method of locomotion was the translocator, a portable teleporter that could warp the player, other humans, and bots to hard to reach places. It could also be used to increase movement speed by ‘teleport hopping’. This method of locomotion may have been the Half-Life Alyx.


Smack-Talk


As you probably heard, even the bots will taunt both each other and human players. This is likely a parody of the smack-talk that was synonymous with online gaming even back then.


The in-game announcer and its killstreak announcements may have been the inspiration for similar announcers in modern multiplayer games, such as the Halo and Call of Duty: Modern Warfare franchises.


Mutators


To add extra variety to the game a large number of ‘mutators’ can be used which alter gameplay mechanics in various ways, such as low gravity. User-generated custom mutators were also available.


Dinosaur and Zombie Mutators

Dinosaurs from the start, zombies from 08:26


Benchmarking


Unreal Tournament 99’s graphics settings were extremely scalable. This allowed it to run smoothly on even low spec ‘potato’ PCs. However, with all its settings maxed out Unreal Tournament was one of the most system-intensive games available at the time. An on-screen FPS counter could be applied simply by clicking a checkbox. These two attributes made Unreal Tournament the go-to game for benchmarking. (“But can it run Crysis”? was still about seven years away at this point 😉)


Later versions of Unreal Tournament were based on more recent iterations of the Unreal Engine; UT2003 and UT2004 used Unreal Engine 2, UT 3 used Unreal Engine 3, same as Gears of War.


These were less successful. Some players felt that these later Unreal Tournaments lacked the simplicity that made UT99 such a great game. The graphics were cited as another problem. Their significantly more detailed environments and level geometry made it more difficult to both spot enemies and to predict how projectiles will bounce and ricochet. This may have been the reason for the omission of the Razor Jack / Ripper in these later games.


Conclusion


The success of Unreal Tournament, and the licensing of its engine to external developers, put Epic firmly on the map and helped pave the way to their current success.


Unreal Tournament was ported to the PS2 and Dreamcast. However, these were somewhat watered-down versions of the PC original. Most notably, they lacked an online multiplayer mode. The console market would have to wait a little while longer before it too could join the ranks of online multiplayer gaming. But that is a story for another time.


First, we must investigate Unreal Tournament’s main rival, a game that would mirror many aspects of Unreal Tournament’s development and gameplay and truly kick-start the Esports phenomenon - Quake III Arena, the topic of the next article. See you all then.



Have you played Unreal Tournament? If so, what did you think of it? What are your thoughts on Unreal Tournament ’99 lacking a true single-player campaign? Were you part of a clan? Did you use mutators? What were your favourite maps and why? Did you create any custom maps, skins or custom mutators yourself? Feel free to share your thoughts in the comments section below.

Iain is a 40+ author and gamer from England, who started his gaming journey on the Atari 2600 36 years ago. His specialities include obscure cult classics, retro games, mods and fan remakes. He hates all sports games and is allergic to on-line multi-player. Since he is British, his body is about 60% tea. He can be reached via Twitter at https://twitter.com/IainBaker17, and contacted via email at the_nomad78@outlook.com


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