When Unreal came out in 1998, everyone was awe-struck that finally, there was an equal contender to id Software's near monopoly of the first-person shooter genre. Its critical and popular success was so great it became the birthplace of a new franchise. Now, Unreal also graces the multiplayer first-person shooter with the Unreal Tournament series. The question everyone asks after a near five-year hiatus from the single player arena: does it live up to the groundbreaking nature of its predecessor?
Personally, I thought Unreal was terrific from a technical standpoint.
It was great for customizing and the graphics at the time were stellar.
Unreal II: The Awakening carries those trademarks over. The graphical
splendor is definitely something you won't want to miss here.
Unfortunately, I didn't have fond memories of playing Unreal. Compared to other first-person shooters at the time, it did have superior artificial intelligence. The enemies, namely the Skaarj, knew how to sidestep and dodge projectiles. They still do here. However, beyond the first half a dozen levels, which were scripted to give a cinematic tension-filled experience, the rest of the game constituted an elaborate sightseeing tour with a dash of combat mixed in to keep the tour moving along at a peppy pace. You visited castles. You went up cliffs and into subterranean environments. There wasn't any compelling reason as to why you were doing this. However, at the time, no one asked why you must blow things up in Quake and its sequel either.
Legend, the creators of the underrated Wheel of Time, proceeded to instil a story into Unreal II and they turned the pseudo multiplayer and single player romp of Unreal into a star faring story of a law enforcement marshal with the Terran Colonial Authority, an organization that is a notch lower than the military marines. Playing as John
Dalton, you join a motley crew of military rejects consigned to a life of policing some galactic backwater until one day when Dalton is asked to investigate a distress call from a mining operation which leads him to an alien artifact.
The plot in Unreal II is a little predictable. These alien artifacts, which are scattered across the galaxy in corporate, government and extraterrestrial hands, all combine and do something. Let's just say they don't make the cheese better in macaroni and cheese. When you're tasked by the Colonial Authority and later the marines to retrieve all the artifacts to deny anyone from getting their hands on all of them, the direction of the plot becomes quite apparent, much earlier than what Aida, the intelligence officer, and Dalton can come up with.
Unreal II tries to make a few advances in the first-person shooter genre. By instilling a story, there are many changing objectives on any given outing. Failing an objective is not necessarily total failure. Hostage rescues may go awry. Retrieving data or objects may be easy but evacuating the operational area could be a mission unto itself. The designers at Legend even throw in a few defense missions. At one point, your ship, the Atlantis, has to land, and mercenaries, whose artifacts you've been stealing from, will take the opportunity to put a few holes in your ride.
These isolated moments are by far the best for Unreal II. Sadly, they're far and few in between. At certain junctures, you're given marines under your command to carry out your mission. Again, these aren't used enough and more often than not, you'll be going solo. The supporting cast of characters on your ship is just that too. They support you with weapons, intelligence and transport, but they don't ever come frequently with you on missions, which is a pity, considering recent titles like Halo or The Thing, where extensive numbers of friendly allies, scripted or not scripted, are available.
It would have been nice if Unreal II had preceded Halo. It tries hard to build chemistry between Dalton, the protagonist, and the motley crewmembers: Aida, Isaak and Ne'Ban. I particularly liked the pilot, Ne'Ban, who is one of those aliens permanently encased in a life support suit and speaks English using diction akin to the Orz from Star Control 2. He provides the comic relief but remarkably, instead of you being the outsider and asking questions about everything, he will ask you about each of your fellow crewmembers. That's when all the skeletons come out of the closets and Legend uses it as a device to develop a sense of attachment between you and whoever is on the radio headset during the missions. Unfortunately, it doesn't approach the level of intimacy between Cortana and the Master Chief in Halo. Here's another good thing that is done by Unreal II, but it's not done enough.
In a title that has a little more than a dozen hours running time, it's not a good sign when you feel parts of the game sag. The middle portion is rather redundant as you dash from one planet to another looking for the artifacts or something connected to them. You don't ever come across a place where the colonists are milling around normally. Everything is one distress signal to another. While you get to visit a lot of different environments in Unreal II, many of the mission objectives can be unimaginative. Nearly every mission involves being tasked to do something and then having you fly down solo to carry out the objective. There's not enough use of the Atlantis ship you're on. Briefings are carried out in the game itself as Aida briefs you in real-time on the ship. Why some missions cannot take place on the ship is beyond me though. As part of the Colonial Authority, I thought there would be some interdiction missions where you could grapple on another ship and seize their artifacts.
In terms of gameplay mechanics though, the speed for Unreal II has been toned down compared to its Unreal Tournament cousins. Your walking speed is noticeably slower and this forces you to use your weapons judiciously from longer ranges. Weapons are probably the strength of Unreal II. There are so many that you won't get a chance to use them all. Even during the final mission of the campaign, you're introduced to new weapons. Isaak keeps getting busier with every outing. This is one of those places where the developers went wild and they didn't need to at all. Unreal II would have worked just as fine with half the arsenal. More friendly marines, crewmembers and meaningful dialogue should have been the focus.
One of the touted features of Unreal II is its dialogue system. In a first-person shooter, this might be rare indeed, considering most games of this ilk use the Bushism of "shoot first and ask questions later".
In spite of the dialogue tree, there isn't enough depth in the conversations. It's a pale version of what we found in Deus Ex; the best synthesis, par excellence, of character-driven story and the first-person shooter genre. And that game was released years ago.
With that said, those criticisms would portray Unreal II as a bad game.
It's not. The technical prowess here is something that first-person shooters will have a hard time beating in 2003. However, it's content that matters most. Here, Unreal II's developers appear to do a lot in places where they don't need to do a lot. They don't do enough where they need to do more.
There are good ideas presented. The competition between the different corporations, the government and the mercenary groups attached to each corporation is an intriguing backdrop. Some of the best missions involved setting up defenses, manually placing energy barriers and automatic turrets as well as infiltrating or overcoming the same defenses set up by other humans in the game. Again, these instances were fleetingly rare in the game.
Perhaps the most interesting mission was the one entering the Drakk home world. The textures and architecture were eerily preternatural. It was one instance where I thought I was in another world altogether; an awesome sight, in the truest sense of the literal root awe. The artists have truly outdone themselves in coming up with different costumes and designs in the game.
When you put Unreal II on the scale, it weighs quite similar to Unreal Tournament 2003 and its improvements on its predecessor. Legend took whatever worked in Unreal and greatly expanded on it. But because the title is so concerned with preserving some of the old formula, it doesn't go far enough with its innovative advances. The innovation is thus softened and the game doesn't seem groundbreaking or spectacular like before.
Unreal II is by no means a less than stellar product. It is impressive. Since the five-year hiatus, however, there have been others that were more so than it.