UPDATED: 31st May 2004. We already looked at Unreal II's single player side at http://www.pocket-lint.co.uk/review.php?reviewId=247. Thanks to the desire to make an Xbox version and internal competition with the Digital Extremes, and Epic Megagames, Legend Entertainment created an eXpanded MultiPlayer add-on for anyone with the original disc, and American and Canadian readers can buy an integrated special edition.
In order to differentiate itself from the Unreal Tournament franchise, XMP uses the Unreal II universe's weapons and physics, bringing the feel of the Tribes range to the game. Artefacts take the place of the flag, and each side starts off with a pair. Stealing all the enemy artefacts and capturing them, or taking all the generators and forcing the other side to run out of energy, wins the level. Since you need to have the maximum level of energy to deposit artefacts, it's soon apparent that capturing power stations (by hacking) is as important as the main objectives otherwise base defences, static emplacements and then vehicles will fail to regenerate.
There are three classes. The Ranger's the medic, restoring health but also packing the sniper rifle (now three shots at a time unlike the SP game), pistol and shock lance. He also runs at the fastest speed. The Tech has the fastest hacking speed and packs the Halo/Aliens-style assault rifle and shotgun. He can also erect machine gun or rocket emplacements and force fields anywhere on the map. He can revive people like the Ranger but only restore armour. Finally the Gunner packs the flamethrower, rocket launcher with homing missiles and the heaviest armour. Correspondingly, he's the slowest on the map. He can re-arm any teammate in the field without needing to visit a charging station, and his emplacement defences are static or laser-trip mines, deadly to anyone, including teammates. Everyone carries a grenade launcher and the six different types of shell are split among the three classes.
This careful balance among the classes means the best games are played with one person performing each role. Not working in a team not only results in lost matches, it means no fun either, resembling Wolfenstein Enemy Territory. This is the strength of XMP, which can support up to 32 players.
The vehicles also prove invaluable, especially to the Gunners. Still encouraging teamwork, a second player must operate the cannons just like Halo. However unlike Halo the vehicles can be destroyed. The Raptor is a desert buggy, fast, capable of stunt-jumps but not able to take much punishment. Its front mounted traction wheels can splatter anyone who fails to jump away in time and its cannon is a mobile version of the static cannons. The Juggernaut is the slow tank, with a flamethrower and powerful single cannon, which can take out force fields with the right aim. The Harbinger is faster than the tank, with the single cannon firing multiple rockets, but it's tail-mounted. This truck-like vehicle can also crash when turning too sharply. Again, a sustained attack with all three makes the best team play. Vehicles have a turbo boost for a few seconds of extra speed when under heavy fire.
Commands and requests are bound to the function keys and numbers to minimize the need for typing, like Tribes 2. Thankfully unlike Tribes 2 there aren't 30 of them to learn. The Use button lets you hack, revive, re-supply and enter/exit vehicles. Teleports take you to different locations of the map or your own base. The routes need to be memorized when either defending or escaping. Hacking a door panel locks it away from the opposing team, another invaluable tactic for escaping with an artefact, and the home team has to check for hacked doors (which from a distance, are deliberately hard to recognise as either red or blue) so that the enemy cannot simply stroll in.
Map design is as excellent as gamers have come expect from the developers of Unreal/Tournament, some let you run to the action, others need vehicles, but it's actually a different discipline to Unreal Tournament 2003 and 2004 arriving next February. More strategy is necessary as well as team dependency. One example would be a Tech stealing an artefact and not running quickly enough to avoid the automated cannons on his way out, or slowing down your own escape by not hacking multiple doors inside a base.
There's also a pretty merciless map set in space, suitably named Freefall. With no gravity and only two energy stations, this is the most challenging map from the original set, with Alcazar coming a close second with its broken bridge only accessible by Ranger, Teleport or precision timing on a turbo jump.
With five more maps on the way from launch, XMP is set for a bright future. Hopefully it will be integrated into a special edition package, although Co-Op mode for the singleplayer game's not guaranteed for the PC version. It's certainly the MP mode Unreal II was made for, and now that we've seen the orginal down to between £6 and £10 it's now cheap enough to qualify for Hot Product Status. At least one website has been selling out of Unreal II when people couldn't buy UT 2004, so we hope that will usher in another wave of players. It's well worth checking out if you want a team based SF multiplayer combat game before Tribes Vengeance is released.
Whenever the Master Server for XMP crashes or is shut down, the easiest way to continue playing and to see the more permanent servers, is with the GameSpy cut-down client. You may have it with some games otherwise download the package from www.gamespy.com . If you play Command And Conquer Generals already, then your Generals Online details should let you log in automatically as it uses GameSpy technology.
In addition, the Community Bonus Pack is now completely finished. Like Enemy Territory, many other maps are in development but most servers are choosing to stick with the launch set and the finished CBP.
Atari folded Legend Entertainment this winter. This marks XMP as a sendoff that didn't drop the developer's exacting standards for the sake of the share price, and kudos to the team for leaving the gaming world with a budget-priced multiplayer game.
http://www.u2xmp.com/ - Official XMP Homepage
http://xmp.beyondunreal.com for the Community Bonus Pack
http://nalicity.beyondunreal.com/ for new XMP Map Submissions
UPDATE 2: In the summer of 2004, this entire mod is due for release as an Unreal Tournament 2004 total conversion. Hopefully this will introduce more people than the European diehards to the game, given UT2K4's six-figure-strong worldwide presence.
http://www.free-monkey.com for news on the conversion.