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Unreal, Epic, 1998

The graphics look nice but the gameplay is boring. There, I've said it. This kind of gameplay was old when it was called Doom II. Now I've said that too. It seems to be the misfortune of graphically advanced games under review that I happen to be addicted to games with superior gameplay at the same point in time. The comparison is usually unfavourable to the graphics-intensive game (see Riven and Blade Runner vs. Civilization II). And in the case of Unreal, the nemesis is Caesar III, an excellent city-building strategy-type game that has kept me entranced for insane amounts of time at a stretch. I'm building a big city (Toletum), and to keep all the elements balanced is getting difficult... I need more furniture! And I'm tearing out my hair because the market traders are lazy... argh! Oh yeah, I better finish Unreal so that I can write a proper review. So back to the spaceship of doom, where the dark forces of heretical aliens want to duke it out with me -- I'm quaking in my boots. Unreal was preceded by massive hype, but the game doesn't do much for the genre. To my mind, the only two games of this type that succeeded (and by that, I partly mean succeeded in differentiating themselves from the Doom/Quake crowd) were System Shock and Jedi Knight. And in my mind as I was playing Unreal, I had all the hype (or at least, all the hype that I could obsessively track down) about the features of Looking Glass' upcoming Thief: The Dark Project. And how the Thief engine would be used for System Shock 2, sometime in 1999 (somebody give me a time machine!). Plus, there's Caesar III on my hard drive right now, fighting for my limited time. And so, while Unreal has some impressive strengths, it lacks some key elements that would keep my interest.

Graphically, Unreal is amazing. Everything about the game is gorgeous, from the wall textures to the look of the creatures to the occasional bit of artwork in a Nali temple. Lighting effects are extensive and well-implemented, and very showy. Unreal also has fabulous sound effects, from the spent shells falling to the floor to the noise of the big oaf who throws boulders. All of this goodness comes at a cost, however -- you need a beefy computer to do the job graphically and aurally. Epic has been extremely slow (completely delinquent?) with the promised patch for D3D, and the lack of a compatible 3D card has forced me to run the game on software rendering only. Of course, Unreal is optimized for a Pentium II, so I can't complain too much. But all of the technical jargon as to why there's no support for Direct X doesn't impress me. Jedi Knight had that support, and therefore ran much better on my system -- I don't have a 3Dfx card, so claims that Unreal is the best game of all time with that card do little to excite me. And the graphics were not perfect; my biggest peeve was the complete lack of terrain deformation (especially with the big dude who apparently "scoops" rock out of the floor to throw at you).

Of course, that lack of excitement on my part is due much more to Unreal's gameplay. Run, run, run, shoot, shoot, shoot, blah, blah, blah. Unreal tries to up the ante by providing smarter opponents, but this only goes so far when every other aspect of the game has been done before. The evil Skaarj will duck and roll out of the way, and the huge, gigantic oafs who throw boulders will just keep walking towards you (as the earth shakes at their approach!). But the only moment of the fighting that I will remember was on the level "ISV-Kran, Deck 1" when you read the captain's log that says there were 20 Skaarj rampaging through the ship. A few other scripted moments were also memorable (like the first encounter with each type of bad guy), but the rest of the game was remarkably uninvolving. Epic did its best to make the Skaarj evil and to make the player motivated to run around as a one person killing machine (ho-hum, I'll just go around killing aliens today, carrying 10 hefty guns and half a ton of ammo). And while I do not have multiplayer access myself, I know that there have been many complaints about Unreal with this regard on the newsgroups (and again, Epic has been slow or completely forgetful with patches for those problems). The opponents provided by the Botmatch option on the Main Menu are considerably smarter than the ones in the single player game. But my experience with playing the Botmatches prove to me why I haven't gone through all the time and expense to gain access to multiplayer gaming -- the game is reduced even further towards the uninteresting (ie, frantic killing). Although I will say that the Darkmatch was fun for a while -- this level has almost no lighting except for each player's searchlight, which makes for some different tactics.

As far as the use of science fiction elements goes, Unreal is about as lame as any other computer game. Your character is on a prison ship which crashes on a particular planet. On this planet live the peaceful Nali, who are being enslaved by the evil Skaarj. Thankfully, the Nali worship big guns, like the Six-Pointed Fire Stick, which is a six-barrelled rocket launcher. That sounds plausible, doesn't it? And why don't they just use it themselves? Instead, they submit, and dream of a day when a "superior warrior" will destroy the Skaarj. Hmm, a messiah complex to motivate killing in a computer game... maybe my mother has been right about computer games all these years. Unreal's level design is usually clever, with some nice atmospheric touches. The Nali architecture is suitably medieval and fantasy-like, while the Skaarj have their own advanced style of building. The ISV-Kran was also easily distinguishable as a human spaceship, overrun by Skaarj. But somehow, the game did not particularly make me feel as if I was in a real place, and it's difficult to identify the niggling little details that made it miss that sense of immersion. I liked the inclusion of the Universal Translator, but even that was not used as effectively as it could have been.

I guess we have to look to the next generation of first person games for the new ideas and new features that would truly impress a cynical gamer like me. The Unreal engine has been licensed to several different companies -- the recent release Klingon Honor Guard is the first, but I'm looking forward more keenly to The Wheel of Time or the X-Com game. One of these days somebody is going to get it right. Maybe.

Last modified: November 12, 1998

Copyright © 1998 by James Schellenberg (

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