It's been a while since an online first-person shooter has consumed all of my attention. That's probably going to change. There are two reasons for this. One is called Enemy Territory: Quake Wars and the other is called Unreal Tournament 3.
Quake Wars will be the first of these we'll be getting stuck into later this year. No confirmed release date, but the ongoing private beta suggests it can't be too far away. It's also the only one of the two (so far) that I've been fortunate enough to see first hand. There's all kinds of reasons to be excited about this game, not least because the team that are making it are the epitome of excited, obsessed gamers. Splash Damage has hired from the modding community, and was originally born of the modding community, but they've also had Id Software as their technical support and Activision as their sugar-daddy. It's not a recipe to be sniffed at.
As for the game itself, well, the asymmetric factions fighting on asymmetric maps makes for a unusual yet somehow entirely familiar experience. While people talk about how it's like Battlefield in its overall vision and execution, the level of polish and design-insight makes Battlefield look quite clumsy. This is a game made by people who know what they want to see on an FPS screen. The HUD is perfect, and the vehicle controls can flipped instantly between realistic physics and vital newbie-friendly softness. This is a game of options and solidity.
The feature that excites me most is the way in which contextual missions are generated for every character, depending on his or her class. You might have no real idea about the tactics of any given game, but the HUD nevertheless offers you a couple of possible missions that will, ultimately, help the overall team. It might be to rescue a fallen comrade, or to build a turret. The missions are generated by the actions of your comrades (e.g. dying) as well as what the game detects you might need (e.g. more turrets.) You'll get unlocks for these missions too, so even the most selfish of solo players won't be able to help but help their teams.
Quake Wars will, thanks to this system, be an online FPS that is genuinely accessible. Of course you're going to have to have some mouse-and-keyboard control skills to get along at all, but beyond that you can just do what the game tells you and definitely feel like you're a part of the raging battle. It's beautiful, and I expect it will mean that beginners have a much better time a year down the line, when we're all Quake Wars veterans.
The Quake Wars community website has recently gone up (as if to counter the publisher's content-free Flash-crap sites) and it contains all kinds of deeply obsessive analyses of the ways in which fighting will occur in the game.
Meanwhile Unreal Tournament will be offer very different, very special reasons to be excited. Look at this:
If that preview image is even a fraction of what you can actually do in the assault missions I'll be a happy rocketeer. I really don't expect this to be a great leap on from the recent UT2003/2004 games, but then they were so perfectly engineered, so solid and slick, and so utterly drenched in features, that I can't see taking it further really being all that necessary.
Nevertheless the UT3 preview events (none of which I've been able to go to, sadly) are revealing more martial delights, like this from Eurogamer:
Unreal Tournament 3's most eye-catching new feature is a two-metre-square block of pink gelatinous wibble that Epic is currently calling the "slow bubble". Once deployed, it slows the pace of anything that passes through it to a crawl. You can fire a rocket into one end and then run round the side and watch it slowly carve through the centre, before resuming its breakneck pace as it exits. More usefully, you can also dump it in a corridor that chokes your enemy's progress and use it like a flytrap, snaring the opposition and then blasting them at will. And, brilliantly, anybody stuck inside also gets to watch your bullets seep towards them at the same gradual pace that prevents them getting out of the way.
The Unreal Tournament series has become Epic's playground for experimentation and clever shooter design. You'd never have guessed that this would be the winner when Quake 3 and Unreal Tournament arrived within in just a few months of each other, but I don't think we can doubt that UT3 is going to seize the crown. Whatever Id's other as-yet-unannounced new project is, I doubt it'll be competing with Epic's bloated baby. I suppose it's just a stroke of luck that Id now have a young, dynamic British studio doing the multiplayer work for them.
The nature of both Enemy Territory and UT3 suggest the minimal, arena-based, pure deathmatch multiplayer of the era prior to and contemporary with Quake 3 is dead. I suspect there's still a market for that kind of play, but the majority are going to be get carried away with the ludicrous weapons, the absurd environments, the thundering vehicles, and the preposterous sci-fi possibility of it all. And, ultimately, I can't say that I blame them.