Unreal Tournament III

The greatest shooter ever to have a hero called Malcolm is back

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While Morris assured me that there was still balancing to do on the bots, the first match resulted in an artificial intelligence 10-kill win in under two minutes, with me languishing in fourth place.

Programming legend Steve Polge, he of the Quake "Reaperbot" back in the mid-90s, is again the man behind the bot tech in UT3 and it really shows - these are some of the best, most realistic AI opponents I've fought.

In one memorable encounter, I was about to gain a point from a sneaky "from behind" frag of a weak opponent, when a rival bot came from a side corridor and blatantly stole my kill.

In team games, you can also issue voice commands to bots using a microphone headset, which means that the more socially-inept can still enjoy pure multiplayer deathmatches without having to interact with other humans.

Other levels I briefly skirmished included an ice level called Biohazard, a classic UT indoor techno level named Sentinel packed with industrial pipes and enclosed spaces screaming for the Flak Cannon, and a level set on the Necris home planet of Absalom, with ominous religious buildings and nanoblack pumping through the outskirts.

On the larger levels, the newly-added hoverboard (yes that's right - bits of UT3 have been inspired by Back to the Future II!) becomes essential to zip about when there are no vehicles to commandeer, although it's worth remembering that you can't fire weapons while riding, and you take considerable damage if hit.

"Things like the hoverboard and the Necris Darkwalker really shook up our vehicle-focused gametypes," chips in Morris, as I hitch my hoverboard onto a fast-moving Manta hover-vehicle, "which is precisely what we wanted to do."

The huge variety of vehicles in UT3 is staggering - every time I get hands-on with a new build of the game, I manage to get behind the wheel of something new, alien and very, very dangerous.

This time I managed to have a blast with the Scavenger - a spider vehicle that can roll itself into a ball, or spin its razor-sharp legs around dicing any nearby enemies into thin moussaka-style slices - and the Nightshade, a cloaking mini-tank with a link beam weapon.

You'll have heard about the Necris Dark Walker before - a terrifying War of the Worlds tripod that fires a devastating death ray that incinerates all in its path - but another equally awesome vehicle is the Axon Leviathan, a monster tank that can actually hold up to five players, with each on a different weapon, or when deployed, launch a very powerful cannon blast that can destroy other vehicles with one hit.

Suddenly, a gaggle of games testers (or is that a geek of games testers?) pours into the Epic games room and I'm joined for an Unreal Tournament III multiplayer session with the new Warfare mode on the Market District map, made up of tight urban areas, multi-leveled walkways and wide-open areas ideal for sniping.

Warfare involves two teams battling for the domination of a number of nodes on a map, by either destroying them or by grabbing and delivering a glowing orb into their shimmering faces. Link a few nodes together and you can then destroy the enemy's core, winning the match.

With two nodes active at any time, the result is a fast and incredibly frantic team game, with action concentrated around certain areas, and blood, gibs, plasma and body parts scattering in every direction.

As a new multiplayer mode, Warfare works incredibly well - the balancing of the weapons and vehicles makes for some tight matches, and there are tons of useful tips that you discover as you play, such as the fact you can heal your team's nodes with the Link Gun's alternate fire.

If the timer ticks down to zero and no-one has destroyed the other team's core, the game goes into Overtime, and it becomes a tense fight to the death - with much angry smashing of a mouse into the desk if you're eliminated (or maybe that's just me...)

We can't be more excited about Unreal Tournament III - there really isn't any other shooter on the radar that has the game's breadth and depth of weapons, vehicles and level design, all enveloped in truly mesmerizing 60fps graphics that ache to be displayed on a giant monitor.

If Epic's long-awaited new formula Unreal Tournament continues to fizz and delight the tastebuds (unlike the new Dr Pepper) as much as this playtest, we're all in for a rather satisfying and loud gaming burp.

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