What takes 4 years and a billion words of hype to make? Unreal. This is the supposed Quake 2 killer. It would have been the Quake killer but it took so damn long to make that Quake 2 was already out. As for the game, its a first-person-shooter. Guide your humanoid character through 40 odd levels vanquishing your foes. Promises for Unreal abound. Everything from dynamic lighting to roaming monster AI (artificial intelligence). How much of them made it into the game? Let us find out.
Sometimes the graphics will blow you away. Sometimes you get jerked back to reality when a bug (design element as some would call it) appears. Sky graphics have been laughable up til now in all the Doom, Quake, Duke Nukem games. In unreal we finally get something realistic. In fact the skies look startlingly real at times. The opening intro scene shows the "Bluffs" level which has a starry sky with clouds. You could literally stare at the sky for 10 minutes in awe of what Epic has created. Photo-realistic would be the only way to describe it. It's whispy yet voluminous - kinda like real clouds! However, on some levels the "sky" isn't high enough and you can actually fire your blaster and HIT the sky. OOPS. I can't recall the last time something bumped into the sky. Obviously Epic is using an elaborate texture map on the top of the level but they needed to code this another way. Having that illusion shattered by a simple laser blast was kinda lame.
Texturing is a showcase here. No other game can touch Unreal at this point for the quantity and quality of textures used. These textures are so well done that they almost look bump mapped (dynamically lit). Even when you walk right up to a wall, the texture maintains detail. Usually textures just get blurry at close distances in other games but they have managed to avoid that. Weapon effects are good and bad. The primary blaster weapon looks a little tame even with its trail and sparkly effect. Other weapons like the Eight-Ball gun lack punch and have wimpy explosives. There is a railgun type of weapon but it too looks a little bland. The flak gun, and razor gun too, seem wimpy. Game developers only need look at Forsaken or Turok to see how weapons should be properly done. To this day, nothing has compared to the earth shaking effects of Turoks' weapons. Its nuke gun and scepter totally vaporized the screen. Overall Unreal beats Quake 2 for weapon effects, but only by a small margin and not in an impressive way. Quake 2 just had really boring effects so Unreal wins almost by default.
Level effects however, are really impressive. A new idea known as "portals" makes an appearance in Unreal and its quite good. It creates a sort of "window" into another area. It usually shows as a doorway where you can look into another room but if you look behind the doorframe there's nothing really there. Walking through causes you to step into this new dimension upon where you can look back through the portal and see the room where you came from. In the doorway itself the game uses a shimmering, translucent effect which can be really breathtaking at times. Another huge effect is dynamic lighting. Certain areas have light that actually changes according to the source and objects which block the rays. For example, there is light shining through a vent with a fan in it. As the fan spins the light rays change and the pattern on the floor below follows with it. This shatters the old way of lighting a level which is to pre-render the lighting. Pre-rendering of course looks fake as soon as you have movement. You expect the light to change but since your basically "walking through a picture" it doesn't. Hopefully, all future games will use dynamic lighting to some degree as it truly looks amazing. It lends a realism to levels that was previously impossible. Lava and water are another innovative area in Unreal. Instead of the cheesy water texture that you see in Quake 2, you see a fully flowing mass of liquid. It bubbles and ripples just like the real stuff. This is another feature that you'll end up just staring at every time you see it. One level had a box with some water on the top of it, and you'd swear it was wet. Volumetric lighting is another biggie in Unreal. You'll first notice it on the very first level. As you proceed through the airshaft to escape the spacecraft there is a smoky portion. This is done with volumetric lighting which treats only a certain space with the effect to create a foglike or smoke appearance. It shows in many more places later on, but this is the first obvious example. Colored lighting is another big feature in Unreal. Instead of the sickenly saturated colors that id used in Quake 2, Unreal uses a varied and usually subtle choice of shades. The light also blends together. A red light and a blue light actually make a purple light where they cross. Quake 2 was supposed to do this but that got canned in the final release. Outside levels use white light instead of the disgusting yellow light in Q2. Good call Epic. Lights themselves have an effect not seen up til now. They have a variable halo around them depending on the distance away and it goes away when you get up close. It looks good, but it feels like its backwards to reality. I would think that the halo would be greater when closer to the source instead of further away. It's impressive the first time you see it but not the hundreth. Screen tinting made it into Unreal, but I have always hated that effect. It shows primarily underwater but also when your hit with lasers. It's somewhat realistic but usually it just ruins your vision. To disable it, just go into Advanced options > rendering > 3dfx > corona and choose disable.
I've never seen better skins. Monsters are detailed and smoothly textured. This is due to high resolution skins. Quake 2 must use the lowest res possible for skins as the faces become blurred chum when viewed from a close distance. Unreal's skins are fully detailed at even an inch away. The faces don't have that weirdo polygonal look, in fact nothing does. Arms are curved and tails are round. Conversely, a game like Jedi Knight had boxes for legs and square blocks for heads. The contoured graphics of the skins helped a little but the geometric look was laughable at best. The characters look maybe a little rubbery in Unreal but they are definetely better than anything else so far. Spec Ops and Half-Life are the only real competitors here, each with their ups and downs. If anything, the player models have an anime' look to them. I played the botmatch mode and was able to see many of the other humanoid characters. The only thing extra they could do would be to talk. The actual player motion however, is not as good. It looks sort of jumpy and the models don't really take steps like in Tomb Raider. Instead they just slide around while pretending to step. Also, the models don't have a walking backwards pattern. Instead they just step backward using the animation for walking. Try walking backwards and you'll notice that you roll on your heels differently. End result is that the character animation looks...unreal (snicker).
Let's look at sound effects first. Unreal is creepy, creeky and eerie. Wooden walkways have the sound of bending boards and guns echo in the cave levels. Your footsteps sounds quite realistic unlike the queer pitter-patter of feet in Quake 2. The guns sound only decent but the bots screams and yells in BOTMATCH are great. It actually sounds like death. Gibs and splattering bodies really go SPLAT like they should. What I call "sound cues" however, are weak. The noises made by bots or players in deathmatch don't illustrate well the location of the soundsource. This is vital in deathmatch as it helps you do determine where other players are in relation to yourself. A3D is supported though, so maybe the cues are better on a soundcard that supports it. Most people don't have soundcards with A3D support though. Echo effects only occur in certain areas such as caves. At times the echo is too artificial which makes it just sound cheap. The sound effects are good overall but I wasn't blown away by anything I heard.
Music is an oddity in Unreal. A sort of MOD type file is used instead of the more common CD audio tracks or midi files. All 3 formats can work or fail depending on the composer. To me the music sounds corny. It's a techo type of soundtrack but usually it sounds way to cheery or happy considering the setting of the game. It also sounds like mono to me which makes it rather flat sounding. Mainly I didn't notice the music until a cheesy section started and then by it's goofiness I was alerted to it. If anything, put in your own CD with good music, because this stuff just sounds canned.
The beginning of the game has you escaping your jail cell in the spaceship. The ship shakes and you have no weapons. You eavesdrop on an execution and find an escape hatch. In a later level you find yourself in the middle of a trap when bars block you in a long hallway and the lights start to shut off. This is the innovative part of singleplay. This doesn't continue throughout the game though. Later levels fall into a rut of getting weapons and ammo and finding various switches to open doors. Levels are too big for their own good. You literlly get tired of walking around the massive yet mainly empty levels. You occasionally stumble upon the Skaarj but usually your left to your own devices. Levels branch off into different areas but they are usually completely worthless. A hallway that lead somewhere may have nothing in it of value, and ends up being a waste of time and ammo. You find yourself just backtracking to where the level split off and following another path. I guess this is an attempt at open level design but really it turns into a time waster. The gameplay has an odd, disjointed feeling to it as well. The setting is unfamiliar but it also feels phony. Certain areas have an Aztec theme that suddenly turns into Pirate of the Carribean (DisneyWorld), then into medievil. All these strange settings and then a monster-like race to battle with. The monsters do NOT roam as was promised which turns this into another doom game. Many times you will come upon a Skaarj with his back faced to you. Then you get to see him just sit there, waiting for you. To be realistic the monsters would have to be free roaming but this feature obviously got sent to the chopping block. There is the occasional "boss" creature to battle with but they aren't that impressive or smart. The killer AI that we were promised is laughable at best. It consists of monsters who chase you endlessly but dodge left or right when you fire at them. They don't get reinforcements or hide behind boxes for cover. They run away when hurt badly but that just leaves them open for easy shots. Usually it's just one shot as they tend to fight until on the brink of death before hightailing it out. Overall, I'm bored with the singleplay already and have no interest in completing the levels.
Don't skip this part. It's probably the most significant part of Unreal. The infamous programmer of the Reaper bot (quake 1), was brought in to create the code for the Unreal bots. A bot is a computer controlled player that you battle in deathmatch. They try to play like a human would to provide you with a deathmatch game without having to find actual people. The AI is pretty amazing in this area. These bots chase and retreat and generally act like human players. In a game with several bots you will find different styles of play for each bot. One may be agressive while another likes to snipe and hide in shadows. These bots also fight each other. Other bots for Quake 1 and 2 fight but usually sign an immediate truce the second they see you. So that supposed free-for-all game turns into bots vs humans until your dead. But in Unreal they continue to fight other bots as well as you, depending on various criteria such as proximity, weapon comparison, etc. It all adds up to a very entertaining game even though none of your opponents are actual humans. These bots also play fairly. They miss shots on you and don't do the super-strafe. They turn like a normal player would and measure their jumps one at a time instead of player perfect leapfrog from ledge to ledge. They also don't jump down to the lowest point in a map. Almost all bots up til now have had this crappy fear of heights and you would rarely see them in the upper areas of a level. The Unreal bots stay high sometimes and even snipe the victims below. The bots themselves can be individually configured so you can tailor them to the type of game you like. I would call this AI programming the most significant part of Unreal even though most people will barely notice it.
Multiplay is really the hot ticket these days in PC games. Unreal however, divebombs completely in this area. Gamespy was supposed to be the way to find servers but presently it is still in PRIVATE BETA (lame), so you'll have to just arrange inpromptu games with friends. The netplay code itself, stinks. Even with a cable modem host and only 2 33.6 modem users, the gameplay was severely jumpy and lagged. It was virtually unplayable and not enjoyable in the slightest. So as is, Unreal is a peice of crap for multiplayer deathmatch. Patches may or may not be forthcoming. LAN play is fine I'm sure, but that is available for about 5% of the gamers these days so it's not even worth discussion. There is co-op play but it's probably even slower than deathmatch so who cares.
Unreal is probably the most demanding game ever made. It appears that nothing less than a Pentium ][, a 3Dfx Voodoo 2 - 12 meg, 128 megs of ram, 500 megs of hdd space and a cable modem are what it requires for truly smooth single and multiplayer action. If you don't have a Pentium ][, you'll experience slowdown in the more complex areas or when battling several Skaarj warriors. If you don't have a 12 meg Voodoo 2, the game will look horrible and run slowly in any resolution above 512x384. If you don't have 128 megs of ram, then the game will swap constantly which also hurts performance. Cable modem also appears to be the only way to play smoothly on the net. I found Unreal chugging badly when fighting several skaarj and the swap file was a ridiculous 96 megs even though I have 64 ram. Add to that the 377 megs needed to install the game and you have a game that needs about 500 megs of hdd space. Can you say, bloated pig?
Unreal sets out some loftly goals. It treads new ground in the graphics department and the setting and theme is fairly original. Important elements of singleplay were not included (roaming monsters) so all in all I didn't like it. Replay value is virtually NIL for me as I can't imagine ever wanting to play the levels again, especially since I know where all the tricks and traps are now. Botmatch is a great way to play though, and this alone makes it worth getting the game. The bots are surprisingly entertaining and should provide lots of gameplay value. Multiplayer as I said earlier, is pretty much useless unless you have a cable modem. On a dial-up connection, it's just too lagged. Hopefully this will be fixed in patches but I'm not too hopeful about this. Finding servers is another problem until a public release of Gamespy 2 comes out. To play smoothly, I think the requirements are just ridiculous. Most people don't even have a P2 let alone also having a voodoo 2 AND 128 megs of ram, so the majority of us are getting choppy play or must use the ugly, lower resolutions. If you have a p166 and no 3Dfx card, I feel sorry for whatever gameplay you get with Unreal. Given the flimsy singleplay and the flakey multiplay, I can't possibly give an ultra high rating for Unreal. Even if multiplayer is improved, the singleplay is still dopey so your left with only half a game at best. The fact that this took 4 years (approx) also makes me wonder just what the hell Epic was doing for part of that time. At the end of this road I still see Quake 1 and 2 as being better games for deathmatch and Half-Life will probably overshadow Unreal's singleplayer design.
graphics are cutting edge
botmatch is great
good sound effects
outrageously high system requirements
trashy multiplayer code
not so great weapons
Well.. this is the the second of the majorly anticipated first-person shooters. This is Epic's contribution to this very popular genre of games. Unreal puts you, a prisoner and a victim of a crashed ship, alone on an unknown planet. Well, like most first-person shooters, it all sums up to, blast the enemies!
All in all... I was very impressed. Most of this article will compared the reigning king, Quake 2, and the challenger to the throne, Unreal. Unreal makes a very strong showing, this is how it breaks down.
Graphics: Well, Unreal's graphics are STUNNING. It uses 3DFX and DirectX and runs at 640*480 with 16-bit color. It is one of the only games to support MMX. I can't comment on the MMX since I dont own one, but they implement Glide extremely well. They use a lot of colored lighting which was really effective. Also, the textures were very impressive and realistic. They really convey the feeling the designers were trying to get across... There was a multiplayer level that involved the cold and such, and the level was so real, I almost felt like shivering. (A hard thing to do when summer is already here!) The only thing I thought was a drawback was the major load times and the amount of times Unreal had to reach into my hard drive. Included in that was if there was a lot of action, and a lot meant only about two sprites, and my system got somewhat bogged up... Last of all, there was no transparent water.. surprisingly. Overall, very impressive, but came at a very high speed price. To fully enjoy graphics, you gotta have a P2!
Sound: The sounds of this game is somewhat a weak point. It really doesn't help the graphics in putting you in that setting. Also, the guns don't make the satisfying sounds that you would want when blowing up your friends. However, all the necessary sounds are there and are at the right time. (Of course this is barring when Unreal bogs up with the graphics) Also, the computer is really annoying. I thought they should of had a character like Duke Nukem. Anyhow, the sound is there, but nothing to be excited about.
Gameplay: The gameplay is really fun! I tried the game in both multiplayer and singleplayer modes. The ambient creatures are a nice touch. These levels remind me of the Turok ones. The levels are very detialed and realistic. The level designs are great. Weapons are so-so. The 2 firing modes of each weapon allows lots of strategy. Also, some weapons have an option where holding the firing button will charged up. The many options will give players lots of different things to do with each weapon. These are nice touchs, but the weapon balance is pathetic. The blaster is so weak compared to a rifle. To add to it, there are too many "one-shot kill" weapons. Even with the many weapons strategies, players will be tempted to grab a one-shot weapons and fluke kills. In the end, I think this will hurt the game. The computer AI is somewhat smarter. However, it is still near the level of Quake 2. It is quite easy to kill these guys. Crouch doesn't seem to be in their game and neither is strafing. The damge system is really wierd. In singleplayer, I was rashed by a rocket and I lost two health points! TWO HEALTH POINTS! It is unrealistic compared to the feeling. When I get hit like that, I expect to lose about 20-30 health... two is just pathetic. The controls and such are quite easy to customize and mouse support is automatic. There were a lot of different HUD options, so most player will find there own favourite. One of the coolest things is the implementation of bots. They'll really help your multiplayer play. Of course, even if Epic didn't put it in, someone was bound to release a bot for it. The deathmatch levels look cool and the many mods already in the game look fun.
Fun Factor: Unreal is a great game. Of course, you need a killer system. Which is why the average gamer who stick with Q2. Even with the occasional bogs and such, Unreal would still be worth playing. However, if you asked me if I had to choose between this and Q2... I'd have to choose Quake 2. Only because the average gamer, after a bit for frustration with the speed, would just go to a game which is just as good, if not better. Unreal has power to capture some player, but, unfortunately, it may fall like Duke 3D did, good potential but in the end, just missing that little bit. The multiplayer player games look to be really fun with gamepspy support coming out. Mods are already announced for it and Epic included an Unreal map editor. This looks to have potential and right now, is really fun. In the future, when P2's get to be very common, Unreal may explode. But until then, many systems just can't run it.
Multiplayer: LOTS OF POTENTIAL... of course, this is with the fact that P2s or higher become mainstream. With mods announced, Gamespy, and lots of sevrer lists, this game will see lots of fragging action.
Overall Impression: I think this game is really good and looks to be the closest competition to id. Unreal's biggest drawback is the huge system requirements. However, this game is quite fun and with a little tweaks or the right mod, many people could find themselves playing this 24/7. But right now, there are too many things holding it back.