But it's still distinctly UT. It's still ultra-fast, ultra-light, ultra-violent. The only weapons that can't kill you in one hit can kill you in one second - apart from the Fisher-Price Enforcer. And for all this, the bots are great. Not quite as convincing as 2004's, nor quite as proficient on Godlike, but great.
I've had more fun playing alone with them than I have with real people in Quake 3. They only start to fall over themselves when it gets more complicated.
UT2004 added Onslaught mode - a vehicle-dominated war that had more in common with Battlefield 1942 than the previous UT. It was genius. UT3 morphs it into Warfare, which is virtually the same but for one addition: the Orb. Each team has an Orb. You carry it on foot to an enemy control point, and it's instantly converted to your team, foregoing the arduous process of uncapturing and recapturing it. It is genius.
It undermines the slog of trying to turn the tide of an Onslaught game, and adds all the fragility and volatility of Capture The Flag - moments when you nail an enemy Orb-carrier this close to your crucial control point. Even more brilliant, the enemy Orb lingers on the ground for a while in this scenario, haunting you with the possibility that another enemy might rush in and take it that last metre. The final masterful touch to this mechanic: you can throw yourself on the Orb, sacrificing your life to destroy it. That word again: genius.
If only the bots understood it. They were never strategic masters at Onslaught in UT2004, but they were passable. Here they have a shakier grasp of those basics, and almost no understanding of what to do with the Orb. Time and time again they cart it off to some irrelevant, unlinked control point in Uzbekistan while you die holding off overwhelming forces at the important one, or watch with idle curiosity as an enemy bot waltzes into your most critical point and captures it without hindrance.
The thing is, Epic, we don't even need good AI. We're pretty good at this ourselves. If the bots just left the Orb alone, we'd be happy to perform all the heroics. But they always snatch it, sometimes even spawn-camping it to prevent you from getting it first, and then squander the most important piece of the strategic game. There's no way to command them to drop it or give it to you or not take it in the first place - I checked with Epic, and they said "No, but good idea." You think?
It's not a huge problem in custom matches against the AI - what UT calls Instant Action mode. But in the Campaign, when you're always outnumbered, your few allies are exasperatingly incapable of doing anything right. Modesty circuits disengaged: I'm good at UT. Not pro-level or anything, but I can reliably beat Masterful bots, which ranks me somewhere near 'Godlike' in the UT lexicon.
But I'll be damned if I can win some of the Warfare battles in UT3's main campaign on Normal difficulty. In fact, they actually get easier if you dial the difficulty up. Hard bots are still terrible with the Orb, but at least they're better at shooting the enemy carrier.
So if the new mode is great but the bots are idiots, multiplayer should be awesome, right? Right. You thought I was setting you up for a "Wrong!" there, didn't you? It's brilliant. Dramatic, dynamic, ridiculous, brutal and tense. But before we get into that, I should abide by my stupid bad-news-first rule and tell you about the server browser.
For God's sake, Epic, sign up with Games For Windows Live or, better yet, Steam. This cobbled-together GameSpy abomination is simply pathetic.
There's no way to just browse through all UT3 servers, which for a server browser is a pretty staggering oversight. You have to first commit to one game mode from a dropdown list, and then you're permitted to see only the servers running that. And as in Battlefield, completely unresponsive servers show as having a '0' ping rather than a high figure, meaning they rank as the fastest when in fact they're the slowest.