When Epic was the good guy: 20 years of Unreal Tournament 2004

When Epic was the good guy: 20 years of Unreal Tournament 2004

I was 11 years old when Unreal Tournament dropped; a snappy, pulse-pounding, skill-based arena shooter that snatched the frenetic crown from id and wore it with pride.

Everything about Unreal Tournament was a marked improvement over Quake—regardless of what version of Quake we’re even talking about. From the art direction to the lighting, the sound effects, the weapons… and even the music (sorry Trent).

Up to that point I enjoyed playing Jazz Jackrabbit and Epic Pinball, but the moment I enabled the fly cheat, collected the Redeemer, and guided a thermonuclear warhead to achieve a Monster Kill on Morpheus? Unreal Tournament ‘99 became my favorite game of all time, and the little Epic badge on the box? It catapulted Epic Games to hero status in my young eyes.

You can understand why I was so hyped just a few years later when I was 14 or so and I left my PC on all night to download the UT2003 demo. My cousin and I were over the moon for the latest release of Unreal Tournament.

Yet, when we actually played the demo? Well, there was just something off about it. It was uncanny. Like the “Doom clones” before it, UT2003 felt like an “Unreal Tournament clone” rather than a proper franchise installment. And, frankly, I passed on the retail experience because of the demo.

The very next year, though, Epic made good on the promise of a sequel: Unreal Tournament 2004.

I hadn’t been following the media surrounding the game… so when I was at the local Circuit City and happened across this box? I bought it sight-unseen. Err… I guess maybe “demo unplayed”? Sure. We’ll go with that.

I got it home and loaded it up on my old PC with an AMD GPU and played it all night until about 3AM.

It was everything I wanted from a follow-up to UT 99. The maps were expertly designed, the weapons just felt good to use and the music. I mean, the music had me sold from the Main Menu.

And then there was the atmosphere. I mean… there were so many maps that never really gelled into a coherent aesthetic. But that was part of the charm. And Tokara Forest. Guys. Have you ever stopped to just awe over this map?

It wasn’t just the maps, though. The Unreal Tournament just had that over-the-top machismo vibe borrowed from Warhammer that just screams “adolescent power fantasy.” And it was kinda Epic’s whole thing for a while. Cliffy.

The feel of the game, though. This absolute precision. The positive feedback look leads to a zen-like flowstate every time I boot the game up. Meaty gibs, the unconscious decision making, the headshots, the gravity of the announcer’s voice, the adrenaline release of capturing a flag or getting a headshot or scoring a goal in bombing run.

I mean, come on… the game modes? FPS staples like Death Match, Capture the Flag, and the King of the Hill-style Double Domination are excellent. But Assault, Bombing Run, and particularly the fan-favorite Onslaught—UT04 got so much right.

I still remember sleepless summer nights playing Assault with my brothers and our friends at our massive, lawless LAN parties. Dozens of PCs and bodies building up an oppressive heat, the cheers of victory, the panicked miscoordination of the losing team as offense made their way into the base, and the scathing war-gries after every gib.

Onslaught had Node control, loadout management, choice of respawn point, team coordination, and these vehicles. Many of the vehicles felt just as good to control as Halo’s vehicles. And that was important, because Halo had supplanted UT99 as my “favorite game” for a few years.

UT04 swung the pendulum back in Epic’s favor. For a very long time after that, too. I thought of Epic as the good guy. And even when they made decisions that I found contemptable—like Gears of War’s Xbox 360 exclusivity and eventual use of Games for Windows Live for the PC release.

Why did I give them such a wide berth back then? Perhaps it was naievty. Maybe I was just too young to know better. But it’s probably because UT2004 had such a vibrant mod scene.

I mean, UT2004 shipped with a copy of Maya for god’s sakes which got me into 3D modeling. 04 wasn’t just a game; it was a creative outlet, it was a community of enthusiastic and talented folks, an ad-hoc competitive scene like no other built around a shared passion for a game that put fun ahead of everything else. A purity you’re hard to find today.

And this was back in the web 1.0 era. When most people were on dial-up. And SSL-protected websites were so uncommon that browsers would pester you with dialog boxes about it. Games back then—in this primitive technological era—were an open air market. They weren’t locked down, they weren’t the fleeting products that became unplayable after the devs took their official servers offline. They didn’t need kernel-level anti-cheat to address the cheaters. And they were actually cross-platform—supporting Linux on day one.

In many ways, they were generations ahead of the online games we have today.

Epic used to be the good guy. Now? Not so much. They’re in bed with fascist regimes like Disney and the Chinese Communist Party. They profit from unethical business practices: distributing malware posing as anticheat solutions, enabling the sale of always-online software, vendor lock-in, and worst of all, the Epic Store.

As our technology has progressed and Internet speeds have steadily increased, so many companies have exploited this for private profit rather than to fulfill the mandate of improving the lives of their customers.

Why? Because they don’t think of us as customers, we’re merely “Consumers” to them. Epic is chief among the corpocrats, commoditizing their consumers, de-listing their legacy titles to erase the era of freedom that an entire generation of gamers once knew, and forging a brave new world where you’ll own nothing and be happy. You won’t be a creative, contributing member of an online community. No, you’ll a serf in Epic’s metaverse lordship, subject to the taxes of microtransactions that will evaporate when they retire Fortnite or their license expires and the Darth Vader skin they “sold” you is stolen from you with the flip of a boolean value.

Maybe I’m just sentimental and looking at the past with rose-tinted glasses… but I remember when Epic used to be the good guy. But whether it’s nostalgia, or rose-tinted glasses, or what have you, I think it’s pretty clear: the key phrase is “used to be the good guy.”

I just hope that the kids playing Fortnite today will get to enjoy the game 20 years from now.

-- Chapters --
00:00 Introduction
00:27 How Epic became the good guy
01:26 Unreal Tournament 2004
03:28 The Feel of UT2004
04:06 Game Modes
05:03 I used to think of Epic Games as the "Good Guys"
05:57 Games used to be about fun
06:33 Epic's leading the way in regressing the industry
07:06 Know your place, peasant