First things first, my Wife has her own blog now (oddly enough on Moe’s real estate), so go head over there to see what she has to say – and be nice or I’ll kick yer ass…

Second off, the aforementioned Moe has become engaged to the hopefully-now-more-contnent Adam, much to the chagrin of pathetic male Internet lurkers everywhere. Congrats you two.

Now then, the most impressive game package I’ve seen in years I picked up last week. It’s the DVD Special Edition of Unreal Tournament 2004.

Back when Unreal Tournament came out, I still had this thing/complex about game loyalty. Now to some degree this never goes away – unless id Software passes a real turd I’ll continue to buy their games day one (hardware requirements permitting) – but back then I had this attitude that you had to play one game to exclusion of others. Back then that game was Quake 3: Arena, whch had several novel concepts – for starters it was the first id Software game to require a 3-D accellerator, and it was multiplayer-only, a response to the fact that despite the inclusion of a single-player component in the previous two Quake games, all anyone seemed to care about was the multiplayer component. The only problem was, someone else happened to have the same idea – Digital Extremes and Epic happened across the same idea at more or less the same time. Although Quake 3 was the more popular of the two, most critics favored Unreal Tournament. id Software had come out with Quake and Quake II in the timeframe it took DE to come out with Unreal, but the Unreal engine was considrably more impressive than either of the Quakes. Most people agreed that the Quake 3 engine was more impressive than the newer Unreal Tournament engine, but that Unreal Tournament did more with what it had and, more importantly, Unreal Tournament was released, it had more bang for the buck – more modes, more maps, more innovations in gameplay. Whereas id Software charged for additional content in the form of an expansion pack, Epic/DE released four bonus packs for free online.

id Software moved on to work on DOOM 3 and Epic/DE moved on to a sequel to UT. What was once known as Unreal Tournament 2 became Unreal Tournament 2003. The name change implied that yearly updates were coming, and Epic/DE’s line was that the updates were more akin to a sports game and more aimed at professional play. This got some gamers upset, since the pattern with most sports games is to come out with marginal upgrades and then charge full price – only console hardware breaks cause engine upgrades. When Unreal Tournament 2003 was released, most gamers who loved the original game hated it – the more subtle nuances had been traded in for the more popular mechanics of the Quake series. Me personally I liked it and like its predecessor, it was an impressive package – weighing in at 3 CD’s, it also included the Linux port straight out of the box and the Maya Personal Learning Edition with an UT2003 plugin for modifications.

When UT2004 was formally announced, most gamers scoffed. Despite selling over a million copies, UT2003 for some reason never really took off with gamers. Most servers had bots enable by default for whatever reason and it gave many the impression that the game wasn’t popular since filtering out non-bot servers with server browsers meant few were left. Ergo, releasing a sequel so quickly was seen as some as desparate. The most popular game online was and still is Counter-Strike, but coming in at second or third is Battlefield 1942 with its Desert Combat modification – in more or less the same timeframe as UT2003. Another seemingly desparate move was the inclusion of vehicles – something done well in BF1942 and poorly elsewhere.

But then a few weeks back they released a demo – and the results were quite well recieved. More of the original UT style of gameplay had returned (which had been previously been incorporated in a bonus pack for UT2003) and most liked maps and vehicles. But the biggest surprise was Onslaught mode. Something of a cross between Tribes 2 and BF1942‘s Conquest mode. Couple this with the fact that the game has more than twice the maps of UT2003 (and has all of the maps from UT2003) and only retails for $40 before a $10 mail-in rebate for UT2003 owners, and most cynical gamers became converts.

The game weighs in at six CD’s, but thankfully, Epic/DE released a second version on DVD-ROM. Originally the DVD version was going to retail at $60, but it was brought back down to $40 at some point. This is the version I picked up, since I not only have a DVD-ROM drive, but I support the movement to DVD-ROM. However, not only did they ship the game on a DVD-ROM, but they included a second disc of video tutorials from 3D Buzz covering everything from scripting to level editing to Maya. Some gamers have reported that they have spent more time watching the videos than playing the games.

And as if all that weren’t enough, it came in this neat metal box and it even came with a pair of Logitech headphones with microphone. It’s really overkill – but it’s cool. The installation takes a 5.2GB chunk of your hard drive, but that’s the cost of doing business these days. The second bonus disc even has DVD-Video trailers and designer interviews for your DVD player.

The one thing I was looking forward to that didn’t make it into the final product was network compatibility between UT2003 and UT2004. I’m not sure to what degree the games are compatible, but I know that UT2003 mods are compatible with UT2004, but UT2003 players and UT2004 players using the same mod can’t play against each other. I do believe this actually was for technical reasons, but it does have the convenient side-effect of promoting sales of the new game.

The only thing that concerns me is that, if there is an Unreal Tournament 2005, I don’t know how they’re going to top this. This may sound like I’m kidding, but what I wonder is – what if they can’t come up with a mode better than Onslaught mode? What if there’s not another vehicles-like innovation in the pipes? What if more maps won’t be enough? Most gamers expected an incemental upgrade and instead got over 100% more – what if that’s not enough next time?

We’ll see next year. In the meantime, I’m off to play…