Within the genre of first person shooters there is a sub-genre that are often called arena shooters.
Arena shooters focus on dropping you and a bunch of opponents into enclosed arenas with a bunch weapons with the sole objective of making your opponents less intact than you are. With such a simple premise, the creators of such games are forced to make the basics right, the core shooting and the movement in the world. The expectations on the breadth of the game are lowered in favor of a perfect “feel”. Only when the very basics are perfect, the creators start thinking about adding new gameplay elements on top of the foundation.
The two contenders
When speaking of arena shooters, there are two series that to me stand way above everything else, and they are both featured in the title of the article.
Quake was the game that started it all, a masterpiece from id Software that defined the genre. It’s strengths lie in a very clear cut arsenal of weaponry where close to no overlapping exists, and a very fast unforgiving gameplay. While there are four iterations of the series, the most prominent and well respected is Quake III Arena, which for many is the epitome of FPS gaming.
Unreal Tournament didn’t start a genre, but instead showed what should be
expected of it. Not only did it rival Q3 on the basis of incredible core
gameplay (that didn’t feel like a simple imitation), it offered more game
modes, better maps and more customizability with the inception of mutators. Add
to that an outstanding amount of official content that was/is continually
expanded, and you’ve got something that ends up being “Bigger, Better and more
Badass” (to quote a certain Epic Games employee).
Unreal Tournament has by now had four iterations, with UT2003 not being much more than a solid precursor to UT2004, cutting down the real number to three. There are important differences between the iterations of Unreal Tournament, but since the purpose of the article is comparing what I believe to be the foremost of both series, UT2004 will be seen as the representative game. While I don’t feel it is fair to disqualify the other two without a proper explanation, I’ll leave that to a different article (some of it has been covered in my UT3 review).
The movement is what splits these games apart. Not that the weapons don’t have a contributing factor in differentiating the two, but the movement in the two restricts the designs of the maps in a very tangible way, so therefore it will be dealt with first.
Quake 3 with it’s strafejumping and rocketjumping will take a player long
distances over a short time, both horizontally and vertically. This forces maps
into accommodating rapid, long distance movement. This has left players with
a history of not more than “fairly” entertaining maps that are hampered by the
need for simplicity. While this doesn’t mean that there are no interesting
maps, they are however quite sparse.
And yes, I do use “interesting” and “entertaining” interchangeably in this case because I don’t find a handful of platforms hanging in space (Longest Yard, Q3DM17) or two rooms with corridors between them and a cupboard (House of Pain, Q3DM2) stimulating in any possible way.
Thankfully, with Quake Live the community received a set of maps that are in general vastly superior to the old maps, but they are still only making the best out of the situation, following the old guidelines of what can and can’t be done. Expect large swaths of open area, wide corridors and minimal amounts of vertical obstruction.
If Q3 takes you far in a linear fashion, Unreal Tournament (and especially 2004) takes you a short distance in a more explosive and unpredictable fashion. Dodging is a shorter movement but happens as suddenly as a rocket jump and the double jump takes you fairly high without the use of any weapons. This, along with the absence of the rocket jump is what results in a higher tolerance for map complexity and “right-angle-density”. In Quake 3 if a corner comes your momentum is killed, in Unreal Tournament you’re just doing another dodge in another direction.
The potential for all kinds of wonderful maps is there (as can be seen with everything from DM-Roughinery to UCMP2-Churn), but it seems that players still gravitate towards the large maps, where it can take two, three, sometimes even four full dodge jumps just to get across a corridor, and that’s probably not even a major part of the map (yes DM-Rankin, you’re too spacious for 1v1, no matter how many times you’re played in tournaments).
All it really amounts to is that fight, chase and flight is more interesting if you have to consider multiple angles and directions at all times, considerations that will never arise in unobstructed environments. Apart from the effect movement has on map design, I also think that the short range explosive movement of dodges is more interesting in the heat of battle than that of rocket jumping.
So while I would argue for UT2004 having the superior movement system, the same cannot be said for the weapon arsenal. As mentioned weapons come second after movement when it comes to importance, but it is not be neglected at all. There’s a reason the saying “A shooter is as good as it’s weapons” exists (as you might understand, I don’t agree with it completely).
Quake 3 has undoubtedly the best arsenal of the two and it might, quite possibly, have the best one in any FPS. In no way do I mean to belittle the weapons of Unreal Tournament which are indeed fantastic, but there is simply no arsenal (that I’m aware of) that has so clear roles of application. After one or two shots fired from every weapon in Q3 you have a perfect understanding of their usage, and can subsequently start learning how to apply them in combat. They are few, but they are concise; the Quake 3 arsenal is the KISS principle personified, covering all ground needed, making no weapon obsolete.
Unreal Tournament 2004 has an arsenal that is more or less double the size, considering the multiple firing modes offered. The difference here lies in possibilities offered, and their necessity at all times.
Where Quake 3 stops at the grenade launcher for indirect area denial, UT2004
gives the Assault Rifle grenades for roughly the same result, but also gives
the Flak secondary for instant explosion denial and the Bio carpeting for
delayed but static denial (until the slime explodes).
Same thing goes for the “stream of damage” weapons. Q3 has its Lightning Gun, while UT2004 has two firing modes on the Minigun and the Link Gun shaft. All three are different, but only slightly. The overlap is noticeable but fortunately the differences between the weapons and firing modes are pronounced enough to warrant their inclusion.
Problems with UT2004
I have a couple of gripes with the arsenal of UT2004 however that detract from a game that I otherwise enjoy so much:
First of all, the change from Enforcers to Assault Rifles was a grave mistake considering how worthless the AR is (even when you dual wield them). Only the grenades are worth anything, and even then they’re fired very slow (if you want any kind of range with them) and are fairly hard to hit with. Grave mistake.
Secondly, the Link Gun plasma would need to fly as fast as, and have a rate of fire of, the Plasma Gun to even be remotely useful outside of vehicle and structure bombardment in Assault/Onslaught.
Finally, I feel that the UT3 versions of the Rocket Launcher and Bio Rifle are a bit better than the ones of UT2004. RL is easier to get direct hits with (I don’t care much for the grenade functionality) and the Bio Rifle is also easier to hit with. The fact that the Bio drains instead of insta-kills is also a very nice feature. These changes are minuscule compared to the other points, but they still bug me at times.
The ASMD Shock Rifle
A matter that will most likely make or break the game for many however is the Shock Rifle. This is a Swiss army knife of weapons, and I to this day can’t decide if it detracts from or enhances the game. It has a powerful hitscan attack (45 damage), a spammable secondary (for the same amount of damage), and not an area denial but powerful space denial attack.
The space denial is really the only type of attack that Q3 lacks, however Q3 doesn’t need it; the question I ask myself is whether Unreal Tournament needs it. Space denial is (especially as powerful as the shock combo) the most versatile tool one can get in an arena shooter according to me, and this mechanic was and still is a risky business to implement.
Even after so many years of play with it, I can give no straight answer on whether it is detriment or an benefit to the game.
UT2004 is most definitely the slower game of the two, but what it looses in speed it gains in complexity. Rarely have I found matches in Quake that have provided me with so much joy as the ones I’ve had in UT2004, and in the end I think that’s what it’s all about.
The thought of comparing UT2004 and Q3 (and to an extent the series) came about in the midst of an argument during a LAN party, when the choice of game was to be decided. At the time UT2004 was chosen for it’s more enjoyable 1v1 and 2v2 (according to a majority), additional game types and more content in general helped along the way too.
I respect both games as cornerstones in the FPS realm, but in the end there has to be one you feel you’ll never uninstall.