I consider myself a pretty sharp guy when it comes to computer games, but but these days it’s starting to feel like old age has kicked me back into the amateur league. Unreal Tournament 2004 is only the most recent and most concrete example. For those who don’t know, UT2004 is the latest iteration of a popular multiplayer first-person shooter. It occupies the “lots of cool stuff” end of the spectrum, with scads of weapons, power-ups, special moves, and a highly configurable physics engine. (The other end of the spectrum, gritty-relastic FPS, is currently dominated by Battlefield 1942.) Recent first-person shooters have rewarded tactics and teamwork a lot more than in the past, and that holds true for UT2004 as well. Nevertheless, reflexes are still king. And I swear, the reflexes required to play this game require some sort of mutant affinity or cybernetic attachment. Everybody’s moving around so quickly that by the time I manage to swing around and aim at a target, I’m either dead or he’s somewhere else. Half the time there’s so many explosions and lights and sounds on the screen that I have no idea what’s even going on.
Being something of a completist when it comes to these things, I started the single player campaign first thing instead of diving into multiplayer mayhem online. UT2004 has surprisingly good single-player functionality—you’re still playing the same levels you would on multiplayer, with a bunch of computer opponents and teammates, but layered over it all is a detailed tournament tree and a system for playing side matches, managing your team, and recruiting new members. (Some or all of this may also have been the case for UT2003, but I never played it.) Anyway, seeing that the default starting difficulty (out of a range of eight) was Experienced, I kicked it up a notch to Skilled, figuring that a cool cat like myself would find the default level too easy.
How wrong I was. I wasn’t even able to qualify for the tournament at Skilled, so I kicked it back down and made a little more headway. But now, maybe a third of the way into the tournament ladder, these dang computer players have brought me up short. Not only am I not able to beat the opponent teams, but my computer teammates always do way better than I do in the matches. Obviously the computer ‘bots can be as tough as they want, but they’d only be this tough if the programmers figured it was a good-but-not-insurmountable challenge for the largest number of their core demographic buyers.
So who are these people? I’m good at computer games, dang it! I have decent reflexes, and hand-eye coordination honed by years and years of gameplay. And yet I am clearly not up to what the designers considered an “average” skill level. I’m not only inferring this from the single-player campaign—I’ve ventured online a few times too, and each time have had my hat handed to me in short order. I’m tempted to blame the hordes of eighth-graders out there, who must have some sort of generational advantage, but it’s more likely that the others playing UT are my age than theirs. I would be delighted if I could chalk it up to hardware deficiencies, because then I could upgrade—but I have an above-average rig for gaming. Connection speed isn’t a problem. It must just be skill, or lack thereof. Maybe—and here’s what I’m hoping—the UT subculture is reserved for really hard-core gamers. I do pretty well in BF1942 and in Halo for the Xbox, after all. Yeah, yeah, that’s it: I’m still a good gamer, but those UT guys are a bunch of freaks.
Now I feel better.
On an unrelated note, Unreal Tournament 2004 wouldn’t play on my computer out of the box. It installed fine, but when I ran the program, the splash screen came up briefly, and then it just fizzled. After an unfruitful trip to the support site, I found the answer on a message board. Hordes of people were having the exact problem I was, and the culprit was Securom, the software that Atari put on the CD in order to copy-protect it. As is often the case with such software, it has a nasty habit of making the disc difficult to run on older CD and DVD drives. The only solution was to use a no-CD crack that someone—probably one of those aforementioned eighth-graders—had whipped up and made available online.
Of course, Atari’s support site mentions nothing whatsoever about Securom, and sends frustrated users on a wild goose chase of updating drivers and tweaking settings. There’s no mention of the limitations of Securom in the Play Requirements label on the box, either. All this, thanks to an anti-piracy effort that also prevents legitimate owners from doing what any sensible person would: make a backup copy of their game. Phooey on Atari, I say. I’d boycott them, but it’s not like the other game publishers are any different. To be fair I’d have to boycott them all, and stop playing computer games altogether. And we can’t have that, can we?