Windows - 1998
Also released on: Mac
Description of Unreal
A work of art?
I've been playing Unreal for a couple of weeks now, and the thing that impresses me most about the game is how, as you battle your way through the 40 or so levels of immersive scenery, neat new features keep cropping up for you to marvel at. While many will see Unreal as "just another Quake ", for me the game has been like a tour around a fine art gallery, only the art isn't two-dimensional brushwork, it's a tour de force in 3D. Each little extra morsel that the developers have thrown into the solo game makes the whole experience that much more rewarding, to the extent that you'll find yourself spending as much time looking at the 3D world around you as you do blasting the all too cunning Skaarj who are after your hide.
Unreal is the most impressive first-person shooter I've played to date, and is worthy of the accolades being thrown at it. The only downsides to the game are the weak Internet play and the high system requirements - should you buy the game despite these? Read on...
Cheap imitation or original masterpiece?
I'd seen Unreal at E3 in Atlanta, and had been suitably goggle-eyed at what I saw. The feature the GT PR rep was pushing there was the way in which each new creature is introduced in a special way, from the early Skaarj who you hear tearing up humans in a distant room through to the huge Titans who you first meet in a huge gladiatorial arena - it'll take half your stored arsenal of weaponry to take one of those rock-hurling behemoths down. What E3 hadn't prepared me for was the meaty requirements on my PC. I should have suspected that from seeing the awesome intro flyby and the quality of the graphical wizardry. My first game here in the UK was on a 233MHz Pentium 2 with Voodoo 2, on a huge widescreen TV with Surround Sound support. The experience was superb. However, on my "mere" 32Mb P166MMX with Voodoo 1 Unreal spluttered like a car on its last few drops of petrol, and that was with the full 450Mb install!
Finding a game which is choppy on a 32Mb P166MMX may be a bit of a shock (to me) but let's get real with Unreal - you can hardly buy a Pentium 1 any more, yet alone a lowly 166, and a 300MHz Pentium 2 is probably not far away from entry level. Unreal is a showpiece game - Epic have pushed the technology envelope, and while the result is stunning on the right system, it's frustrating if you're running behind the pace. I dropped the texture quality from high to low, swapped in my PCI-based Diamond Monster Sound for my aging AWE64, and splashed out a measly 30 quid on another 32Mb of (now obsolete) EDO RAM and, to my great pleasure, the game started to run pretty smoothly. There's one room in about each four or five levels where for some reason the game still chugs, but overall it's very playable.
The Monster Sound card is supported by the game - you get the A3D "splash" as Unreal fires up and the 3D positional sound within the game is excellent - there's a distinct feeling of sounds behind you as well as to your left and right, even with just two speakers (the Monster supports quad speakers). Not as good as my friend's Dolby Surround system, but the best first person shooter sounds I've heard yet. Unreal really makes strong use of aural effects, from distant wailing voices through to huge doors which slam closed very forcibly, to the tinkles of spent automatic pistol shells hitting stone floors. If you listen carefully you'll even notice the cold thud of dead bodies as they drop to the ground. Adding to the effects is a top quality soundtrack, featuring a range of styles - moody when it needs to be, silent at times for extra tension. The game shows that it's just as important to stimulate gamers aurally as it is visually, and the ever-falling prices of PCI-based 3D sound cards makes it very much worth gamers looking to boost the capabilities and performance of their sound cards as their 3D graphics cards.
My Kingdom for a Plot
The game plot is not original - just as in Quake 2 you awaken from a crash on a strange planet with only your wits for weapons. What you soon discover is that a peacful race called the Nali have been enslaved by the lizard-like Skaarj, and it looks like you're the guy (or gal) who has to do the fighting that the Nali don't care for. This twist of a "friendly" race in the game is clever - the first time you run into a Nali you, quite naturally of course, blow the sucker into teeny giblets. A mistake, since these mild-mannered guys will show you where hidden secrets are, weapon stashes, and more, you just have to follow them if they beckon you. I think you can blow them away if you really want, but seeing them strolling around, coughing into their hands and occassionally bowing to you is rather cool.
The game lacks any video cut-scenes, with inter-level jumps being a vanilla "loading" screen, but the progression through the levels is very well done, with each small set of levels having a distinct flavour. The storyline is driven by the level designs, and admittedly it isn't a very strong one. As you progress you learn a little about the world you're on, and the Nali, and how you can take the war to the Skaarj. Each level has a few "puzzles" to be solved, and you get clues through the translator device that you pick up early in the game. Some levels have very little fighting to be done, others have you running around looking for rooms you've missed. Encounters with monsters tend to be small-scale "intimate" scraps, with some notable exceptions! There's no super hard puzzles, the difficulty comes from the monster behaviour (there's 4 difficulty settings, which you apparently can't change once into the game).
The lack of a decent plot might make you think the solo game is weak. Far from it. The length of the solo game is probably three times that of Quake 2, and the quality of the level design combined with the creature AI and the slick presentation all make the experience an order of magnitude more rewarding.
A Gallery of Treats
The first impression of Unreal is that where Quake 2 had dull grey/brown environments Unreal oozes colour and life. The games are a generation apart in style, and while ultimately both are "just" first-person shooters with a vaguely similar array of weapons, the gameplay is streets different. The looks are Unreal 's main asset. With 24-bit colour and some amazing textures and 3D effects, the game world really comes to life before you, and, as I said above, in so many distinct ways as you wade through the levels. There's canyons, lava pits, tunnels, spaceships, open plains, castles, biodomes, villages and much much more. The form of the terrain and rooms is very creative, with plenty of angled shapes and rough ground - each level is crafted to great detail, and you never feel any area is a "filler" area.
Within these themes there are some super objects. I love the holographic displays - projected images you can walk around to see all manner of bright colours. The skies are alive, with smoothly drifting clouds and buzzards that may swoop to attack. There are smooth floors over which you slide and in which you can see your reflection (though this just highlights the one shortcoming in all shooter games - you look down and you have no legs!). There's little bunny-piglet creatures which hop around the outside world, and shoals of fish which dart around in pools. Water itself is done impressively, with a circle of ripples eminanting from anything entering the water, and severed limbs and bloodied chunks that float. One toy I had a lot of fun with is the torch - you pick this up and you can see a beam in front of you in dark rooms - cool in solo, wild in multiplayer. On a similar tack there's a huge dark water well you can drop a flare down - shades of The Abyss...
The list of "touches" could go on for some time, and by comparison the green steam, realistic flames, bright light sources and coloured effects all seem very ordinary, yet they're very much "fresh" features in the game, and features which make Quake 2 now seem so sterile in comparison. Even without a 3D card (which for Unreal is a near-necessity) the game looks good, though it helps to have an MMX if you have no 3D hardware.
While the game has its quiet moments, ultimately it's the action that counts, and herein lies the fun of ten weapons, each of which has two modes of operation. The basic dispersion pistol has unlimited ammo, but takes some time to recharge - with powerups it gets deadlier, but it's not a weapon you'll use too much unless you have the amplifier powerup. The pistol does make a good and readily accessible torch though. The automag is a machine pistol which can be fired in normal or "gangsta" mode for a higher rate of fire but a more wild bullet spray. The workhorse weapon early in the game is the stinger which fires bursts of blue crystal shards - in its secondary mode it fires clusters of shards. The ASMD shoots out a spiral of blue energy, but requires you to be pretty accurate. The rocket launcher of Unreal is the "8-Ball" - this can fire rockets or grenades, and by holding down the fire button you can shoot clusters of rockets (a favoured tactic in multiplayer, unsurprisingly). The 8-Ball can also lock on a target to fire a homing rocket. In solo play this isn't always an advantage as many enemies dodge very well.
The first "upmarket" weapon is the flak cannon which fires shrapnel - very good in confined spaces where rebounds off walls can improve its deadliness. In its alternate mode it fires "cluster bombs" which are also very deadly. This is the best weapon to hit the elusive Skaarj with - two bursts at short range will get a kill. The razorjack fires spinning purple stars which bounce off everything - don't fire this if you're facing a wall square on! The razorjack will often get you a clean decapitation on an enemy, all the more rewarding in network play. The biorifle is innovative in that it shoots green gunk in an arced trajectory. This is very useful if you want to hit an opponent out of view on a high ledge as you can bend the shot over the ledge for a hit. The gunk has a delayed secondary explosion which can also hurt you a lot if you follow up your shots too soon. The assault rifle fires harpoon-like skewers and packs a sniper ability with a zoom mode. And rounding off the selection is the minigun, a chain gun with an awesome and ultra-deadly rate of fire.
Overall, a good range and variety of weapons, and most well-suited for multiplayer play. The intuitively strong weapon is the multi-missile rocket gun, but if used well the other higher-end weapons can be more lethal. There's also a few innovative powerups - in addition to "standard" flares, jump boots and scuba gear there's also a force field generator, a damage amplifier, a torch and searchlight and an alien-distracting voice box which makes a big pile of noise (I dropped one of these by accident and I was the one running from the gunfire!).
The Bad Guys
While the visuals are great, the game won't suck you in if it just turns out to be a turkey shoot. In Unreal, if there's any turkey in the game it's you. The creatures have a pretty impressive "intelligence", with the Skaarj being one of the most cunning. Each type is animated very fluidly, with body form very well and smoothly defined - much less blocky in nature than those in Q2 - the hair and tails on the Skaarj is testament to that. The wily Skaarj will do a rolling dive to evade gunfire, will hide behind cover, and retreat around corners when under fire. Sometimes they'll even come back with more of their friends. One of the best action sequences is on Level 1 of the ISV-KRAN - there you have to defend and fight Alamo-style against a couple of dozen of Skaarj who come at you like a bad scene from Aliens. They'll come through doors after you, sometimes they dive at you, sometimes they try to sidestep, sometimes they step back for long range shots. Cunning and unpredicatable, and damn hard to kill! And when they do ultimately kill you they'll kneel over your body, flip back their hair and then proceed to rip chunks out of your fallen body with their huge razor-sharp talons.
In contrast to the lizard-like Skaarj the huge Titans lumber around very slowly, and are easy to hit, but you need a backpack full of ammo to get a kill, or use up an amplifier if you dare. Trouble is, while you pop at the Titan he's throwing huge rocks at you, rocks which bounce off walls and shatter into smaller, yet still dangerous, stones. There's one scene in a trench where a Titan stomping around beneath you can knock you off your high ledge through the tremors of his footsteps! The mercenaries are a bit like the baddie from Terminator 2 - they touch their wrists and are then shielded from damage by a glass-like coating. This means you have to time your attacks for when they're unprotected and learn to evade them while they are. Then there's the snake-like Slith who tend to be found in or around water; their acid attack is predictable but very nasty when it hits. While still of the traditional alien first-person shooter fodder that nearly every shooter features, these particular aliens have real character, and that character and intelligence adds a lot to the game's strong overall solo atmosphere.
Network and Bot Play
If you prefer to maim your friends rather than take on a solo campaign, Unreal offers LAN or Internet play, and the extra incentive of AI-controlled player bots to duel with. The good news is the bots provide a very strong opponent (I gather they're done by the guy who did the Quake reaper bots), the bad news is that Internet play is unduly laggy. Here's what was written on unreal.com on the subject:
If GT admit the flaw, there must be problems. They also say "LAN play is fine" - well, yes, if you're on a decent enough machine. I tried on 32Mb Pentium 2 PC's running NT with no 3D hardware and the performance was a little choppy at times but generally OK. Not as smooth as Quake 2 on the same hardware, which in turn wasn't as smooth as Quake 1 - such is the price of advancing technology. But you have to wonder that if this is the team's first 'Net game just how efficiently it's coded. On a P166 the action was relatively poor, just as with the solo game - how GT can suggest a 16Mb P166 as game minimum spec is beyond me - I can only assume this is in 320x240 in software mode with sound and texture quality set to low. On the plus side there are plenty of dedicated deathmatch maps, and a number of different playing modes too, including king of the hill and co-op team mode. Having the bots included allows players without modems to play deathmatch style games in a "skirmish" mode, but the bots are pretty wily and it'll take you some time to be able to rival them for kills (unless you're an experienced player, in which case you can up the bot skill to suit).
My overall impression of multiplayer was that on a LAN with decent hardware the games are good, but they just feel a little sluggish for frame rate compared to previous big name 'Net shooter games. Being able to mix humans and bots is fun (and novel "out of the box"). On Internet play the servers I tried were both laggy and prone to dying - GT say they're working on this, and it's a known problem (see above). The dual-mode weapons add an extra twist, and mastering each takes time (but you can warm up for a session of killing your mates by toasting some bots). The supplied maps are good, and there's already plenty of new levels you can download from many sites care of the supplied "beta" level editor (which I didn't test, but it looks decent and will soon be sold separately in its final form). I think long-term Unreal will probably be good for Internet play, but right now it's lacking. Of course, in deathmatch games you don't have quite the freedom of the solo game to admire the scenery...
As Brett said in his recent GDR "Rant" column, Unreal is worthy of "an unabashed recommendation", but moreso if you're into playing the refreshingly long and atmospheric solo game. The character of the enemies, the gallery of impressive visual effects, the superb range of sound effects and the rewardingly immersive nature of the gameplay all make Unreal a game which lives up to the hype. If it's Internet play you want you'll have to pray that GT put their house in order, and until then live with the lag or stick to LAN and bot play.
Is it worthy of GD Review's top award? I believe the solo game is, simply because it's the most engaging first-person experience I've ever had the pleasure to play. As a solo game you'll get back way more than the price of admission, it'll take you a lot more playtime to complete than Quake 2, and, most importantly, your expectations for the next shooter will have been raised significantly. What tarnishes the game is the poor Internet performance, but if you're not interested in online play (or live in a country where it's too expensive) then you won't give a hoot about that - instead, you'll marvel at the creative missions, have a blast in bot skirmishes, and get back every penny you spent on this game many times over. All the more so if you have a new Pentium 2. Unreal does for first-person shooters what Total Annihilation did for real-time strategy gaming, and TA won our Readers' Award for Best game last year. Unreal will be a strong contender for the 1998 Award...
Review By GamesDomain
Unreal has an addon available: Unreal Mission Pack 1: Return to Na Pali, don't miss it!
Comments and reviews
LazarheaD 2022-03-15 0 point
Legendary game! So atmospheric, gripping, smart enemies, deadly traps!
pc gamer83 2020-11-18 1 point Windows version
ah I still remember I was thinking of skipping school that day when I first run this game, the graphics were astonishing at that time
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Unreal is available for a small price on the following websites, and is no longer abandonware. GOG.com provides the best release and does not include DRM, please buy from them! You can read our online store guide .
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