Updated: Mar 6
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.
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.
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”
Video by exileut
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.
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.
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.
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 😉 )
Video by HayzTee Art
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.
Video by arvutihull
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 😊
Video by 10min Gameplay
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.)