On Unreal

Unreal was one of more unique games I loved to play, as according to PC Gamer‘s article, “Reinstall: Unreal – we go native in Epic Games’ forgotten masterpiece“:

Epic Games, now purveyors of grunting masculinity, offal and chainsaws, once had a line of family-friendly shareware platformers and pinball titles. The reason we no longer think of them as the guys who made Jazz Jackrabbit is solely due to Unreal.

It’s an overlooked great. A journey through an alien landscape with a sense of wonder, grandeur and mystery that almost no shooter has since achieved. BioShock, surprisingly, is its most comparable successor. Both games maroon the player in a lurid and unfamiliar world – which, through pursuing their own selfish aims, they unwittingly save. In Unreal’s case it’s the planet of Na Pali. It’s here that the Vortex Rikers prison ship crashes, spilling its convict cargo out into a dangerous and primitive land, where the Nali tribespeople toil under the jackboot of their technologically superior alien oppressors – the Skaarj.

Few enemies are as much of a delight to battle. Towering, dreadlocked xeno-bastards cut from the same cloth as Predator, each Skaarj is a formidable foe. Part of their brilliance comes from their relationship to Unreal’s armoury: almost none of the powerful weapons will hit their target instantly. Even the Stinger, Unreal’s answer to the chaingun, fires crystal projectiles that move at a finite – and thus dodgeable – speed. Several of the weapons are at their most lethal when charged up: the GES Bio Rifle produces a glob of corrosive goo that can kill in a hit, while the Eightball rocket launcher loads up to eight rounds into its chambers for a simultaneous release. But the Skaarj are extremely nimble – they effortlessly roll away from your charged blasts, pouncing to gut you with wristblades if you try and whittle them down with the AutoMag, and retreating when you unleash volleys of slow moving missiles. Rather than the stop-and-pop gunplay that is almost ubiquitous in shooters of late, firefights here are elaborate dances conducted below a constellation of arcing flak shells.

This isn’t Rapture. Na Pali is not riddled with sophisticated political parables, nor does it make a postmodern critique of the limits of your freedom within the game, but its vast mountainous terrain does create a powerful sense of drama. Its volcanic enclaves conceal a geographical panoply of tropical oases, temples of pseudo-Mayan and Himalayan derivation, medieval castles, mines and monstrous alien overlords.

Inevitably, that terrain does seem crude now. A polygon went along way back then – perhaps even across an entire mountain range in Unreal’s case. What’s remarkable is that, though far from the cutting edge of graphical fidelity, the blocky world of Na Pali is still beautiful in composition and colour. Particularly colour in fact – Unreal’s happy use of neon lighting gives the game a refreshing saturation that is only now coming back into fashion after years and years of glum brown and gunmetal-grey shooters. It’s a natty use of lighting too, that gives Unreal’s skies their voluminous quality as they pass overhead, the clouds receding behind pixely mountains tinted with the sallow rays of a lowering sun. Although boxed into canyons, the skies always manage to evoke the sense of a much larger world spanning beyond the sheer planes of rock texture that surround you.

Then there’s the way the world sounds: the creak of timber in an ancient stairwell, or the whistle of the wind through a deserted mountain temple. Alien birds caw and wind chimes, well, chime. For all the limitations of its technology, few environments are crafted with such care for the feelings they evoke.

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Additionally, according to EuroGamer‘s article, “Why Unreal deserves to be remembered alongside Half-Life“:

You may know of Unreal from the Unreal Engine, which has fuelled a surprisingly diverse set of games over the years. But before there was the Unreal Engine, there was simply Unreal, a humble first-person shooter released in 1998. You are Prisoner 849, incarcerated on the space vessel Vortex Rikers when it crash-lands on the planet Na Pali. You emerge from your cell, the only prisoner left alive in a strange and hostile world. Your objective isn’t to defeat the forces of hell, the Nazis or any other antagonistic bogeymen. Your only goal is survival.

16 years after Unreal’s release, Prisoner 849’s exit from the Rikers and into the wilderness of Na Pali is no less impressive: that juxtaposition of the ship’s metallic carcass teetering on the edge of a waterfall evokes the feeling of a spoiled paradise, a world corrupted. As you explore this strange place – haunted mines, temples, monasteries and increasingly convoluted alien installations – you start to question who the real alien is around here.

Na Pali is the home planet of the Nali, a placid and spiritual race of space farmers, who are being subjugated by the brutal Skaarj (it’s pronounced ‘scar’, but the game never actually tells you that), who are basically the Predator’s lizard cousins. The Skaarj aren’t a traditional shooter nemesis in the vein of the Strogg, Combine or Helghast: they’re inarguably evil, but you’re not actually there to thwart that evil. Rather than being a heroic space marine sent to save the Nali, the player is a mere intruder, an interloper. The Nali diaries you find often mention a messiah coming down from the heavens to rescue them, but that’s not you. The Skaarj are really just another obstacle in the way of your escape.

What makes Unreal unique is that it’s not just a game filled with interesting aliens: the game itself is alien, a world apart from other shooters of the time – and even shooters today. It meddles with the traditions of the genre through an aesthetic that is part science-fiction with the Skaarj and their biomechanical technology, and part high fantasy with the mystical Nali and their thatched cottages.

The weapons are unconventional, taking in a bog-standard laser blaster that is eventually upgraded into an electric death cannon, a gun that launches nuggets of hot metal and a giant blade that shoots smaller razor blades that ricochet off the walls. There is a refreshing lack of conventional shotguns, assault rifles and rocket launchers – Unreal’s rocket launcher can fire a volley of six at a time, but somehow it is called the Eightball. One gun shoots explosive sticky green goo, and it can lay claim to being one of the first weapons to feature alternate firing methods and combo attacks: launching a ball of energy from the ASMD and then detonating it with the beam fire is the first-person shooter equivalent of chaining a fireball into a dragon punch.

Unreal’s artificial intelligence is equally alien: some creatures like the Slith and Kraal are as dumb as it gets and will greedily eat whatever you fire at them, but the Skaarj are ferocious and fiendish, just as capable as any deathmatch bot. They dodge your bullets before you’ve fired them, a cheap if endearing move. When you combine a set of guns packed with strategic possibilities and fierce AI that can still provide serious opposition, it’s easy to see how the Unreal Tournament series became so popular, even with people who didn’t have internet access.

But in spite of the excellent multiplayer potential, Unreal’s single-player story is not just a straight shooting gallery. Instead, it is as much a game about exploration as it is about shooting aliens in the face. For every thrilling firefight, there’s a boat ride to savour or a moment of fleeting tranquillity. The Unreal Engine was perfectly suited to building expansive environments and creating real worlds, rather than the dull, interconnected brown boxes of Quake.

One such place, the Sunspire, is a plinth of rock turned into a Nali refuge, surrounded by a moat of lava. It practically pierces the skybox and hurts your mouse hand to crane your avatar’s neck up at its summit, and you can ascend the whole thing without ever seeing a loading screen, pausing at the top to catch your breath and watch the light reflected off Na Pali’s twin moons. At one point, you approach another crash-landed Terran mining vessel called the ISV-Kran, a ship so overwhelming you feel like an ant crawling towards the monolith from 2001: A Space Odyssey. Rather than just game spaces, these feel like real places.

And real places can tell real stories: before you find your first gun in Unreal, you collect the Universal Translator, an essential tool for deciphering the stories of the Nali. They’ve carved their lore into the walls of their temples, and you take on the role of a spacefaring Indiana Jones as you explore the architecture and solve its riddles. The human corpses you find scattered across Na Pali have their own stories to tell, too: at the monastery of Bluff Eversmoking, you find a tale of daring resistance against the Skaarj oppressors from Kira Argemenov, the ISV-Kran’s science officer. Although we often think of Half-Life as the original shooter with a worthwhile story, Unreal got there first – and is arguably the more compelling of the two.

Ultimately, Unreal’s story is not one of stopping the Skaarj menace and playing the hero. It is a melancholic tale in a world we are powerless to save: every human we meet is already dead, and every Nali we meet is never far away from danger. We’re only ever saving our own skin, destroying an alien base and then fleeing the crime scene in search of another way off this wretched paradise. Tonally, it’s much closer to Fallout 3 or Dark Souls than the “M-M-M-MONSTER KILL” hijinks of Unreal Tournament. Sometimes, as we wander around a deserted cargo bay waiting to be ambushed by an enemy hiding in the dark, it is more reminiscent of a survival-horror game than a shooter. And that’s fitting because you’re only just surviving Unreal, never conquering or mastering it.

Unreal, as the name suggests, remains somewhat enigmatic and otherworldly. Overshadowed by spin-offs, the fruits of its engine and Valve’s genre-defining Half-Life, it never quite got the recognition it deserved. I think that’s part of why I like it so much: you play as someone who doesn’t belong, in a game that doesn’t seem to belong either. But it’s so much more interesting to play as the underdog, to feel outnumbered and alone and come out fighting. We can return to Na Pali any time we want, but Unreal will always be alien to us.

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Finally, according to Old PC Gaming‘s review:

A clever host of scripting also ensured that some of the most important events are memorably highlighted, like the first encounter with the Skaarj. Hostile aliens in Unreal have a lot of fight in them and killing them takes some good reflexes, and this holds especially true for the Skaarj (you know you’re in for a tough fight when you see one). Some enemies even exhibit simple group tactics, like the Mercenaries. One will cover the other as they advance to your location and seeing them in action is pretty cool. The monstrous Titan stands several feet tall and can hurl giant boulders at you. Speaking of AI, I should remember to point you out to another one of Unreal’s lesser known achievements – bots. This was the first instance where computer controlled players could play in multiplayer deathmatch games, a neat feature that went unnoticed back then.

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According to the GameSpot review:

The difficulty in reviewing a game like Unreal is keeping in mind what has come before it while at the same time allowing the game to flesh out its own sense of style and gameplay. Unreal is not Quake. The look is different. The feel is different. And what gives Unreal an edge is how these differences, while not always positive, distinguish it from the legions of other 3D shooters.

In Unreal, you are a prisoner aboard a ship en route to a penal colony. The ship crashes on a mysterious planet where the mystical Nali race is being subjugated by the cruel and technologically advanced Skaarj. As you journey through the many environments on the planet, you must find a means of escape from the planet and help the Nali defeat their oppressors. Unreal intertwines the feel of the medieval Nali architecture and culture with the sci-fi design of the weapons and the Skaarj warriors to create an environment that’s a step above other games of its ilk.

As far as the game itself, the graphics are incredible. Unreal has the best graphics of any first-person shooter – and possibly of any game – to date. The palette is bright and varied, while the textures are intricate and well defined. The quality of textures deserves high praise – they help create environments that really take hold of you. The levels are so detailed and distinct that it’s easy to distinguish one level from all the others, and you won’t confuse the prison spacecraft for the Nali village. In conjunction with the graphics, the level design is advanced and complex. The mix of wide-open spaces and cramped hallways is refreshing. As far as graphics go, you just can’t beat Unreal’s immersion factor.

Combining an alien world with weapons that seem alien themselves has produced some interesting results. As varied as the ten weapons are, there’s also an alternate method of firing each of them (the 8-Ball Launcher, Unreal’s equivalent of a rocket launcher, can also be used as a grenade launcher). This wide range of attack styles will undoubtedly produce higher degrees of strategy in deathmatch play. As for single-player, the weapon placement and location was spaced out evenly, and finding ammunition was not a daunting task.

One of Unreal’s best features is the enemy AI. In other games, the logic of certain creature actions seems to be linear and undefined. In Unreal, each opponent attacks with its own style, using a combination of melee and ranged attacks. One of the most impressive experiences (if not the most aggravating) was seeing a well-placed rocket shot miss because a Skaarj dodged it at the last second. Another eye-catching sight was watching different enemies power up shields to protect themselves in the midst of battle.

As far as problems go, there are some, but they don’t hurt gameplay enough to reduce the overall experience. The first is that there are too few enemy model types. Unreal has only six main enemy models, but the design team has done a pretty good job of using different skins to create a variety of opponents. In addition, there are other models for the random critters that you fight throughout your adventuring.

Another complaint deals with the pace of gameplay. Sometimes the pace of action seems too stretched out, and it feels as if each battle is just the same as the last. However, these gaps were few, and for the most part the game pacing and plot development were enjoyable. On the puzzle-solving side, there isn’t much to be had; most of the game you simply push buttons to open a path leading to the next level. But your actions involving them are well integrated into the plot. There are few complex puzzles to solve; it’s doubtful that Unreal would benefit from more in that area.

Lastly, the weapons are pretty cool, but there’s no simplicity in design. Each gun takes some practice to understand its use and benefits, but in the end, you spend too much time learning. Rather than give you instinctual weapons (like a basic shotgun or machine gun), Unreal’s unusual weaponry forces you to adjust the way you play, without much added benefit of weapon ferocity or visceral gratification.

If you’re looking to hone your deathmatch skills, however, you’re going to find playing online to be next to impossible. The developers have stated in the readme.txt file that the game is still in the tweaking phase as far as Internet play is concerned. But with seemingly boundless game customizability options as well as in-package deathmatch levels, Unreal gives you everything you need to practice for the big time. It even gives you a choice of bots designed by Steve Polge to test your mettle. This was probably one of the most enjoyable features, and after you’ve finished the game you can go in and set up your own games for a single-player deathmatch experience.

Unreal is a truly great single-player game. It’s hard to say whether it will stand the test of the first-person action-shooter wars and become a classic in and of itself. It will definitely have to overcome the lack of a decent Internet experience if it wants to obtain any more accolades, but, apart from that, it offers as much as you could possibly want from a game in this genre.

 

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