Gaming Retrospective: Unreal Tournament 2004

Gaming Retrospective celebrates the older classics of gaming history while comparing how well they hold up today. You’ll also find links to recommended mods to help you achieve the best possible experience.

No video game weapon has ever been as satisfying as the shock rifle. Like all Unreal Tournament weapons it has two firing modes: the primary fire shoots a single beam that hits the moment the trigger is pulled. Hit the enemy and they take a good chunk of damage and fly backwards, possibly foiling the counterattack. The secondary fire shoots a shock core, a slow moving orb of energy with even greater damage and knockback.  While being able to shoot somebody from across the map is useful, the real power of the shock rifle comes from the shock combo. Shooting a shock core with the primary fire causes the core to explode in a small but extremely powerful explosion. Pulling off a successful shock combo takes some planning, and while many players stay in place in order to target the core, a skilled player can dodge and, with perfect accuracy, blow the core.

Everything the shock rifle can do is useful from moment to moment. It allows for a wealth of strategies no matter the situation, but effective use still depends entirely on effective use of the environment and on outguessing the opponent. Every moment of Unreal Tournament, and especially the fan-favorite Unreal Tournament 2004, is filled with strategic possibilities.

The equivalent of the shotgun can ricochet burning flak around corners and launch shrapnel bombs that can blanket enclosed areas with flak, while another weapon can cover parts of a room with quickly disappearing but powerful piles of green goop. Even the starting weapons, a weak assault rifle that can shoot bouncing grenades and an energy shield with a melee attack that can be charged for an instant kill, are fun to use and have real, practical uses in certain situations. It is far more difficult to get kills in Unreal Tournament 2004 than in the original Unreal Tournament, leading to much more elaborate gunplay: duels are dramatic, explosive fencing matches filled with split-second decisions and absurd acrobatics


Few shooters, even big-name multiplayer focused shooters, even attempt to capture the competitive edge that makes Unreal Tournament 2004 so addictive. The shock rifle is a standout, but every weapon is worth mastering and can lead to useful, exciting to options in every situation. Loading screens explain advanced techniques, like the ability to kick off walls for a major speed boost, but core shooter skill, whether that means aiming, reflexes or quick thinking, is always the most important factor. The controls never get in the way in shooting what’s in front of you, and the only scope or iron sights are on the sniper weapons which reward headshots with an instant kill and a booming voice to announce your achievement. I’ve never played another shooter that feels as good to play as Unreal Tournament 2004.

UT2k4 is the fifth Unreal game, an updated version of the PC Unreal Tournament 2003 and its sister game, the Xbox’s Unreal Championship, meaning it shipped with an enormous amount of content, with a host of new maps and modes released for free in an online patch, or with the disk as the “Editor’s Choice Edition”. Unfortunately, most of the modes are dead online, but the Deathmatch and Battlefield-style Onslaught modes are still active, with a wide variety of maps, both developer and user-created. The Unreal Engine 2 developer’s tools are famously intuitive, and servers run user-made maps, modes and mods as much, if not more, than the included content. The single player has an odd team-building mechanic, but is otherwise a series of dull botmatches – this is a game to be played online.


UT2k4 holds up flawlessly. The mechanics are perfect, and while the visuals are obviously not as stunning as they were 10 years ago, they are still clean and striking. Though the community has dwindled to small groups of veterans, it is still a welcoming one, friendly towards new players and old alike.

Epic has released two more Unreal games since UT2k4, the fascinating melee-focused Xbox shooter Unreal Championship 2: The Liandri Conflict and the multi-console Unreal Tournament 3, but neither has had the lasting appeal of UT2k4 or of the original Unreal Tournament. 

A new Unreal, titled simply Unreal Tournament, has just started development. The new installment will be free and playable starting from the alpha, while the Unreal Engine 4 development tools are already on sale, meaning that Unreal Tournament will launch with a substantial amount of content for it already created. Amateur developers can sell content through an in-game marketplace, with Epic taking micro-cuts from each transaction to support the new game. While the content distribution system is exciting, the new Unreal will live or die on whether it can capture the older games’ wonderful weapon balance and intuitive mechanics.

Recommended mods: Most of Unreal Tournament 2004‘s mods and maps are readily available online, and are used on some popular servers. Though UT2k4 downloads the files automatically, these are kept in a cache and are periodically deleted. For greater control over the cache, try UT Cache Manager (also compatible with Unreal Tournament 2003 and the original Unreal Tournament).

Total conversions are also common, and are accessible directly through the main menu. Several mods, such as Tactical Ops, Red Orchestra and Alien Swarm have inspired commercial releases, while fans have also created new game modes and ported older games’ maps. Unfortunately, most of the total conversion mods’ multiplayer are dead. For a good single player mod, try Out of Hell.