Written by: Stoo

Date posted: April 10, 2009

Hills and lakes, and this is the best picture i took! Idiot.

I quite liked the original Unreal. Granted it was a fairly standard shooter with minimal story. It was easy on the eye though, with colourful alien landscapes. Some found it on the dull side but for me it had a kind of chilled, otherworldly ambience.

It’s also one of a crowd of those 97-to-2000 ish shooters of which we have reviewed quite a selection on this site (hint: Half Life was the top “straight” shooter, the hybridised Deus Ex and slow-and-sneaky Thief are my own personal favourites). However as time marches on, later games start to come onto our radar. After all we’ve never looked so much as a fixed period of time, as anything roughly 5-ish years before the present. So now we can take a look at the sequel, which might not be abandonware-old, but it’s still clearly of an older generation compared to modern shooters.

Unreal 2 is clearly in the same setting as its predecessor, although there’s no real link to the events in that one. It puts you in the shoes of John Dalton, a former marine who dreams of rejoining the service. For now though he’s stuck serving as a kind of provincial marshal. Commanding a small ship with a rag-tag crew, he trundles around the back end of known space, tasked with keeping the peace in the regions where nothing much happens anyway. Except predictably enough one day something more exciting does happen, starting with an alien raid on a mining colony, and it leads into a mission to track down ancient and powerful artifacts.

Right from the start, Unreal lives up to the example of its predecessor with an impressive-looking engine. The game’s environments are lush, detailed and convincing. Outdoor terrain manages to look reasonably natural and organic, improving on the flat and angular look of before. My only minor complaint is that maps are never all that large; maybe that was the cost of the improved detail. There are also some nice water and lighting effects and, er, probably some other advances I should go read about (we’ve never been all that into the tech here). To be fair, generic metal scifi corridors do come up sometimes also, but even those never get too monotonous. So honestly, it’s one of the prettiest sets of alien worlds i’ve so far had the pleasure of toting a laser around.

Nice armour!

One level is a trek through a murky, rainy alien forest where you can almost feel the moss squelch under your boots as strange critters scamper past. It’s moody and gloomy, the sort of place where curiosity sent me exploring off-track, but I felt compelled back to the wanly glowing signal beacons. Another map is a remote outpost in a scorched sulphourous desert, scattered with giant bones. The most bizarre is a trip to a world that’s covered in flesh, which was enough to make my own skin crawl. Perhaps my favourite though comes near the end, on a world ruled by sentient machines. It’s a bit borg-esque but with a feeling of chitin as well as metal, like a hive belonging to something utterly cold and terrible.

The gameplay meanwhile is 80% standard shooter fare. You run, shoot some monsters, progress, flip some switches to open a door. It’s mostly linear stuff – even if you’re allowed to run around a bit outside, there’ll only be one way into the dig site or military base you’re infiltrating. There’s not much interaction with anything in the world; forget smashing windows, using computers or anything like that. Just flipping switches or pulling the trigger. There’s also little in the way of advancing the narrative here, apart from comments from the rag-tag crew. For the most part anyone you meet is a disposable door-opening scientist, with a few limited dialogue options. (although of course, there was no dialogue at all in the first game).

However there are a few features that stand out. One set-piece scenario has you covering a technician from long-range with a sniper-rifle. Most significant though are the defensive missions – you’re given some static defenses, or a few marines to under your comamnd that you can instruct to “guard that door” or “cover me”. Then you have to hold off several waves of enemies. These can get genuinely thrilling; you have to juggle throwing in your own firepower with dashing about repositioning turrets or trying to find a squadmate. Theres’ a sense of desperation as your defenses fall one by one – and relief when you realise it’s all over, standing amidst the bodies with one marine and a smoking turret all that’s left by your side. I only wish there had been more in the way of new features like this.

On the first mission you run into the Skaarj, reptillian villains of the original. Who still do that leaping attack that sends me pedalling backwards and spraying fire randomly whilst cursing a lot. As it happens though, they pretty much disappear from the narrative after that, and you spend most of the game fighting human enemies from a couple of different corporate factions. They look pretty impressive, in various styles of shiny hi-tech powered armour. A neat touch is that they also come in two base forms – “standard” soldiers and heavies, the latter being slow but better armoured and toting rocket launchers. Given that you can’t move as ridiculously fast as some shooters – especially older ones – and the enemies’ knack for deflection shooting (aim where the target will be, not where it is now) dodging their fire can be quite a challenge.

zap

You have a decently satisfying arsenal with which to combat these guys; it’s an improvement on the faintly weedy-feeling selection of glowy-energy-blasters of the predecessor. At the heart of your selection are a good reliable assault rifle and shotgun – a close-range hit from the latter knocks enemies on their asses for a few moments, which is a nice touch. A sniper rifle was obligatory by this point in shooter history, and thanks to the Quakes I guess a grenade launcher was too. For more hi-tech fare a laser alternates between single shots and a kind of short range continuous beam. And if all else fails, there’s a flamethrower for close-range hilarity.

So that’s the action summed up. I mentioned the lack of more than a token story in the original – which to be fair was a deficit still common to shooters in that generation. Now this one does make an attempt at doing something better. Well, the fact that you actually interact with people at all is a step upwards. Unfortunately the core plot is an uninspiring trinket hunt, little more than a bare framework to give you a reason to go drop on exotic worlds and shoot mercenaries in the head. It leads to a conclusion with one moment of real drama but otherwise is underwhelming.

Probably the best – looking game we’ve reviewed so far.

The mst positive feature is your interaction with the three members of your rag-tag crew. In between missions you can walk around the ship and talk to them, kind of like Elite Force. Aida is blatant fanservice, okay, but her history of distrust of the military adds character behind the big boobs. Isaak is a washed-up chainsmoker living in constant shame from past dishonour, but gets into his stride talking about the weapons he puts together for you. Finally little alien Nebann provides comic relief via his imperfect translator device, ranging from a bit stilted to amusing enough. He also longs for adventure, escaping life as an over-protetected royal on his home world.

I do wish they’d been used in missions, letting you fight alongside them. As it happens whenever action is taking place they’re just voices on your radio. Still, they’re reasonably well-written comrades that you can come to care about; flawed but good people. It’s the one aspect to the story that lets you invest emotionally in events. It’s just a shame the rest of the narrative doesn’t provide much to integrate them into – rather their side to the game feels tacked onto a very generic sequence of events.

So anyway not the longest review, as I couldn’t honestly find a huge amount to say in depth. I think Epic deserve recognition for thinking up some improvements to their shooter formula, beyond just the graphics upgrade. They could have done a lot more, for sure and this isn’t up there with the really gripping first-person experiences like Half Life 2 or Deus Ex. Still I don’t really understand why some people seem to find it a disappointment compared to the original – anything it’s weak on, the original was more lacking. It’s a quality shooter, and certainly worth $10.