A few nights ago, while browsing on gog.com (an excellent site to find and purchase older games, for cheap, drm-free), I remembered that I still had the original retail copy of Unreal Tournament 2004 lying around on a shelf somewhere.† One quick reinstall later (luckily, everything works just fine under Vista), and I quickly started to remember why this game, despite its age, is still one of the most enjoyable shooters out there. †

By itself, UT2k4 has quite a lot to offer: a huge array of gameplay modes, a half-decent selection of weapons, and on top of that, itís one of the first shooters to incorporate vehicles into gameplay in a way that doesnít completely suck.† Onslaught mode, a vehicle free-for-all, opened up a whole new type of multiplayer gameplay, and is still quite enjoyable today (arguably even more than its successorís Warfare mode).† Additionally, UT2k4 brought back the Assault mode, an enjoyable objective-based mode with offense and defense modes (similar to some map types in TF2, for instance), yet another mode sadly missing from its successor, UT3.† Also, notably for a multiplayer game, UT2k4 also features offline play and botmatches, allowing you to get in a quick game any time, without having to deal with the connection and scheduling issues inherent in online play.

However, UT2k4 stands apart from most other games in the sheer amount of mods, extensions, maps, and other user-created content available for it.† A normal game install is about 5GB, and I have at least that in archived user content, featuring countless additional gameplay types (including Invasion mode, where you get to fight scores of baddies from the single-player Unreal games), weapon sets, maps, and mutators.† And, while looking to see if there was anything new available since I last installed it, I found one of the best mods yet: the ballistic weapons pack.

Basically, this weapons pack swaps out the usual science-fiction-deathmatch arsenal, filled with various lame things like the shock rifle (yeah, right) and lightning gun, and swaps in a full complement of modern weaponry – everything from basic pistols (including one very nice on thatís almost reminiscent of the original UT enforcer) all the way up to heavy machineguns, RPGs, and the most crazily ďrealisticĒ minigun of just about any game Iíve played.† The weapons are all well-modeled, with realistic animations, and useful alt-fire modes (you can even pin the minigun and machineguns to the ground to make them into in-place turrets, with much greater accuracy).† All in all, itís a whole lot of great fun, and it brings together something thatís hard to find anywhere else: fun, forgiving casual deathmatch play with forceful modern weapons that are a joy to fire.

Honestly, Iím still not entirely sure why this is.† It does seem, though, that multiplayer shooters end up divided into two types: casual shooters with a rather bizarre set of weapons, and ďrealisticĒ shooters which have all the cool toys, but are absolutely no fun to play, because theyíre realistic, and you go down after a few shots, and usually then get to wait around until the next match (as respawning simply isnít realistic enough).† And so, youíre forced to choose – fire a bunch of cool, modern weapons for a few seconds before some teenager with way too much time on their hands puts a round through your characterís skull, or run around blowing stuff up with a bunch of random, crazy, and sadly not all that enjoyable fantasy guns. †

As much as I like the Unreal series, it suffers from this quite a bit – while thereís a good overall array of weapons, most of them arenít that fun to fire.† Of the actual guns, in the latest iteration, you get the enforcer, which sounds weak, doesnít do much, and has a three-shot alternate fire that can only be used every few seconds, which makes it feel weaker still.† Beyond that, the sniper rifle does make a comeback, and itís quite a bit of fun – but itís just one gun.† Otherwise, youíre left chucking green goop like the contestant on a Nickelodeon game show of decades past, using a bizarre laser-esque rifle that seems to do next to nothing unless you line up a firing combo, a bizarre hybrid between a shotgun and a grenade launcher thatís not ever accurate at close range, a super-generic ďfires bolts of energyĒ gun, and the staple of all deathmatch-style games, the rocket launcher.

Iím not sure why, but playing with those sorts of guns just doesnít feel all that… satisfying, I guess. Thereís just something about modern weapons, the flash and the bang, casings flying everywhere, the undeniable whump of a powerful gunshot that simply canít be equaled by some electronic raygun squeal.† Itís the kind of heavy-hitting, explosive weaponry that ricochets, blows holes in walls, and really tears shit up.† And as you step up the ladder, it just gets more impressive – miniguns?† RPGs?† Frag mines?† Big bada boom, indeed.† With modern weapons, you really feel like youíre firing something meaningful (and even more so, in my case, since I refuse to play shooters with anything other than the Pistolmouse FPS, a niche controller in the shape of a pistol, with a mouse button set as an actual trigger, making things that much more realistic). †

So, a game with modern weapons can have quite a lot going for it in terms of a shooter.† The Call of Duty series does a god job with this, although it could use a tad more variety, and Call of Duty 4 especially lets you create quite a bit of mayhem with a full suite of modern weaponry.† Other games detour from this, and then things get problematic – F.E.A.R. has an assortment of ďmodernĒ weapons, but they feel and sound weak, and while they get the job done, only a couple of weapons really feel substantial and enjoyable to shoot.† An even better example of weak weapons putting a damper on things is Doom 3, where you can discover, quite disappointingly, that most of the ďsuspenseĒ in the game comes from the fact that all of the weapons fire incredibly slowly, and have al the oomph of a cap gun.† The assault rifle chugs along, the pistol is like molasses, and the game manages to feature a minigun – an freakiní minigun – with a rate of fire slower that a modern assault rifle.† Pretty pathetic.† (Admittedly, the UT2k4 minigun also suffers a bit from this, and the Ballistic minigun is one of the few Iíve seen in a game approaching the actual rate of fire† – and sheer uncontrollability – of the real deal.)† Simply put, a game with underwhelming weapons just doesnít translate to the same level of sheer, cathartic joy that can be found while simply shooting everything in sight with a bunch of awesome weapons. †

What can I say?† When it comes to shooting things one a computer, I have fairly simple tastes.† I donít need realism and realistic combat, I donít need some overwhelming plot or storyline.† What gets me going are a bunch of well-done, hard-hitting weapons, plenty of things to use them on, and a nice, graphically rich, hopefully deformable environment in which to roam, blasting anything and everything.† The problem is, though, that such a scenario is very hard to find, and almost impossible in most commercially-released games today.† So, until someone hits on the notion, once again, that sometimes itís just fun to shoot stuff – and that not all games have to be cinematic masterpieces, just fun to play – I guess Iíll stick with my ballistics mods, and keep hoping that, eventually, a game will appear on the scene with the goal of bringing together the best of both gaming worlds.