Soon, Liandri discovered that the public matches were their most profitable enterprise. The professional league was formed - a cabal of the most violent and skilled warriors in known space, selected to fight in a grand tournament...
The original 1999 Unreal Tournament has been a favourite game of mine since I picked up a copy of its "Game of the Year" edition in Toys 'R' Us for £10 - that is to say, for a very long time. As a kid, I was unaware of the fierce rivalry between fans of UT and Quake III as to which game deserved the deathmatch crown; I'm not sure I've ever played UT online.
For me, it was the single-player that mattered - ironic, given the intense multiplayer focus of the game's design. As with Quake III, the solo portion of UT is not prioritised. A thin plot is used to link together a series of arena battles against AI bots, as one bout of grisly bloodsport follows another.
Suprisingly, the worldbuilding and background detail in UT, a game essentially without a story, is for me one of its best and most fascinating aspects. With only Unreal to build upon, the game summons up an engaging, half-glimpsed world using only one cutscene, flavour text, and the design of its maps. That this world is never explored properly only serves to make it more tantalising. How can this work?
The very memorable opening cutscene, in which the camera looms around a dystopian cityscape, establishes precious few details about the game's fiction, which is set in 2341, "fifty years since the founding of deathmatch." The tournament is established as a joint effort between the Liandri Mining Corporation and the New Earth Government, two apparently malevolent spacefaring institutions. Originally intended to vent the aggression of offworld miners, the tournament becomes a hugely profitable exercise, with its professional league set up for "the most violent and skilled warriors in known space".
While this is much more detailed than the intro to Quake III for example, it's still quite bare-bones. What UT does wonderfully is to use its flavour text for tournament competitors and arenas, as well as the design for those environments, to subtly build upon the intro. Naturally, the flavour text is non-essential - this isn't Baldur's Gate - but it's very rewarding to read.
Only by reading the text can a player learn that the hugely varied arenas in the game are variously custom built, purchased by Liandri, or even retrofitted mining facilities already owned by the corporation. The mysterious Jerl Liandri justifies his purchase of Sesmar, an Egyptian tomb complex, for tournament use by re-affirming his commitment to "cultural events". Members of the competing teams include vengeful alien Skaarj warriors, civilian victims of mind-control experiments, and vicious prototype androids.
The variety and quality of maps for UT rival that of any multiplayer shooter, and it's in part due to the game's specific fiction. Liandri and the NEG want unusual locations for their profitable bloodsport, as the flavour text for each map explains. High Speed is a retrofitted 200mph train, while Ocean Floor is a deep-sea research base saved from bankruptcy - only to become a novelty tournament arena. Other locations include an experimental orbital reactor, a recreation of World War II's Operation Overlord, and Deck 16 of "the largest space-faring vehicle ever built."
Both the design of these maps and their carefully-crafted flavour text create the impression of an intriguing world within which UT is set. The corrupt Liandri and NEG, their various malicious experiments, the Human-Skaarj Wars, and violent incidents on a dozen colonised worlds make for a far better backdrop than the hand-waving of the likes of Quake III.
This half-glimpsed universe is, for me, an enduring draw which brings me back to UT after almost two decades. It's a shame that no subsequent game has drawn more deeply on this rich resource - but then again, that's also a part of the charm.
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