Written by: Stoo

Date posted: September 23, 2008

These guys will drive you up the wall with their little rolling move.

I know people out there have mixed feelings about Valve’s online service Steam, but from our perspective one real advantage is making a whole load of older first-person-shooters easily available. There’s Half-Life, Sin and just about the entire iD software back catalogue. So a while ago I eagerly launched into what I saw as being a far-reaching shooter marathon, taking us all the way from Wolfenstein 3d through to the early 2000s. I even had visions of fortnitely updates! Except that all ran out of, er, steam. I partially blame World of Warcrack, and partially a sense of disinterest that the Quakes inspired, slowing the whole project down a lot.

Except, here’s something to get me inspired again. Unreal, from Epic Megagames. Who seem to have dropped the Mega bit at some point. They were the people behind 2d platformers like Jazz Jackrabbit, and didn’t have any entries in the first-person genre from the earlier pseudo-3D days. When they did step into the genre, with their own engine they were up against iD’s Quake 2. Which was very well regarded, even if I found it brown and a bit boring myself (maybe I’m harsh, but i feel we need at least a few controversial opinions on this site). Despite the competition, Unreal did pretty well. Not only was it successful enough to spawn a sequel and the Tournament series of multiplayer-focussed blasting, it also established Epic as engine-builders in their own right. The various versions of the Unreal engine have between them powered a lot of third-party games. From our own perspective, perhaps the most important being the mighty Deus Ex. So, it’s high time we had a review here

Let’s start at the start. It kicks off with you aboard a large prison spacecraft that’s had some sort of accident and crashed on a remote planet. Everyone else is dead or gone, bit of the ship are sparking or on fire, etc. So you step out of your cell and go see what’s what. Despite the disaster-scenario it’s a fairly quiet way to start proceedings. You won’t be bumping into any kind of threat for a while and there’s not much sense of urgency. So you poke around, read some brief text logs left by ship crew, look at all the glowy computer terminals. Then you pick up a standard issue poxy sci-fi pistol and look for a way out.

Stroll around a bit, enjoy the sights.

Then a few minutes later you finally reach an exit and, if you’re anything like me, have a bit of an “oh, wow” moment. See, you find yourself in a huge open valley, with rock walls towering some distance away. Green grass is underfoot, and birds wheel overhead. Best of all, a waterfall plunges into a river in a ravine deep below. It’s really quite scenic. Later levels take you through further impressive sights native villages, mighty temples, and huge spacecraft. So you’ve got some good variety, from greenery to hi-tech. Sometimes you’re back in the old shooter standby of generic stone corridors, but even then it still feels easy on the eye. There’s tricks like coloured lighting (relatively new in the day), reflections and all kind of impressive weapons effects like explosions and, er, glowy plasma blobs or something. Apparently it looked best in Glide, the technology used by now-defunct 3dfx cards, but good old DirectX looks grand too.

Of course it’s kind of basic compared to what we have today with low-poly, angular geometry and low-res textures. It’s still attractive though, a great example of how good aesthetics in a game can survive dated technology. What’s more, it feels so much more appealing than the endless brown and grey corridors of the Quakes. It’s certainly a bit of an incentive to keep going, playing another level just to see what the level designers came up with next. A huge trench carved out of the ground by a crashed ship, or a mighty spire of rock reaching into the sky. Or a dimly lit set of canals and pools beneath the earth. In too many shooters you always know what’s coming next – another set of samey corridors.

That looks worth investigating,

In fact the game is often happy to just let you stroll about for a bit to enjoy the scenery and enjoy the sense of atmosphere. I’ve heard a few criticisms that it seems empty – I wouldn’t go that far myself, but it’s not as relentlessly frantic with the action as some other shooters. It’s maybe just a little slower in pace with more emphasis on ambience, and on discovering the wonders of this strange and exotic alien world.

When the enemies do show up, they’re not as scary as some of the twisted monstrosities iD dreamed up. Actually the lumbering guys you first meet are goofy and cartoonish, and you quickly realise that despite the hail of rockets they fire they’re not much of a threat. Later on though you hit the Skaarj, who look a bit like the Predator and are actually a pretty good challenge. I don’t know if their AI is anything special but they’re fast and agile on their feet, and do an infuriating sideways roll that can make you swear and rage as you waste ammo. It leads to a sense of real satisfaction when you finally nail one, and a dawning recognition that you can do that using a whole lot less ammo if you get some distance and pick shots carfully in the first place. There are also huge rock-throwing things that can kill you in one hit, making for some thrilling battles.

As for your own weapons, they’re sometimes said to be a bit feeble. Some of them do have, as mentioned, impressive-enough visual effects. They just don’t seem to hurt the baddies as much as they should. The game was actually one of the first to implement headshots, but even these aren’t as effective as you’d expect. One gun goes CHOOM with an impressive purple railgun-ish shot, but takes take lots of hits just to drop mid-range enemies. Another flings spinning blades which bounce off walls, and is probably pretty effective if you play enough to get the hang of it. Mostly though I just ended up leaping about trying not to shoot my own head off. Oh well, at least there’s a rocket\grenade launcher that can let off up to six shots at once. Also of the boring looking pistols is surprisingly useful, due to being a hitscan weapon, so the Skaarj can’t dodge it.

There’s a trick to making underground tunnels into atmospheric locations instead of just grey stone corridors.

There’s not a whole lot more to say really. The game makes a token effort at being story-driven, which is better than iD games managed. In the same way that a piece of bread with a small slice of cheese on it is a better aspiration to sandwich-hood than the bread by itself. It’s still not exactly the ultimate lunch, is it? There’s a backplot regarding the peace-loving natives being crushed underfoot by the rampaging Skaarj – in fact you meet these natives sometimes, and if you manage to not get them killed they might show you secret caches of ammo etc. Also you can pick up text records left by the natives and survivors from the original crash. Also the well-designed and convincing-feeling settings help. Really, though, there’s not much more to it than “lone survivor kicks Skaarj off planet”. Oh and I can’t really comment on multiplayer, it’s not something we do a lot of here.

Just to be clear, Rik and I are both of the opinion that the greatest shooter of this period was Half Life. Through use of scripting and plot Valve’s Masterpiece set new standards for an immersive and engaging experience, that really grabbed the player and pulled them into its narrative. Unreal can’t boast that. It’s just a few steps up the ladder from the switch\keycard hunt of earlier generations. Still, it has its charms and I certainly enjoyed it more than Quake 2. It’s a bit vacant, but not the the level of dullness, and it’s pretty and atmospheric. So if you’re after late-90s shooters then make Gordon Freeman’s adventure your first priority, but after that this one is a good bet for a runner-up.