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Sunday, May 18, 2014

Unreal Retro Review

For this retro review we’re going back to the long-lost days of the late 90’s and the dawn of the true 3D shooter. Id Software’s now venerable Quake, released in 1996, broke the first ground. Quake was a huge technological leap forward, replacing the sprite sheet monsters and 2.5D geometry of the Doom and Build engines with a bestiary and world cut from tactile polygons. 

Level design this open and non-linear is tragically rare today.

The Quake engine didn’t need to trick the eye and mind into believing it was 3D because it was true 3D. For a few years Quake, along with its various sequels and expansions, quite rightfully dominated the field it had founded. Then 1998 rolled around and publisher Epic MegaGames released their own contender: Unreal.

Technological Superiority

For the time Unreal was a graphical and technical tour-de force. The engine boasted some of the best colored lighting seen to date, animated textures, reflective surfaces, and more. It created colorful, lively environments that contrasted sharply with Quake’s muddy, grittier pallet. Though most of the models are laughably low poly by modern standards Unreal’s creatures still move, strike, and gesture with surprising grace even today.

Flags that flap in the breeze? Inconceivable!

Epic set out to produce far more than just an engine demo.  The story (and there was a story to be found) kicks off when a prison transport ship crash lands on the mysterious alien planet of Na-Pali. As the sole surviving prisoner you find yourself stranded on a vivid world of mystic natives, dangerous wildlife, rapacious reptilian invaders, and more.

Stranger in a Strange Land

Unreal builds a cohesive, continuous world. Levels connect to one another in more or less logical fashion, giving the sense of an epic journey across the planet. While there are plenty of switches to hit, enemies to shoot, and pickups to grab the game goes out of its way to make levels feel like living environments. Na-Pali has that most rare and delicate of features, a genuine sense of place.

After escaping the prison ship the next level allows you to explore the exterior.

These are not the abstract spaces of Doom and Quake. Outdoors scavenger birds circle high overhead while harmless rabbit creatures hop about. The indigenous four-armed Nali cower from gunfire and lead you to valuable secrets if kept alive. It’s possible to surprise enemies sleeping, gambling, and working at consoles.

The peaceful Nali are harmless and like to lead you to secrets and powerups.
Try not to shoot them.

The translator, acquired in the opening moments of the game, allows you to decipher human and alien text. As you never encounter living humans and the Nali don’t speak English the translator quickly becomes a valuable tool for learning more about this world and its inhabitants. Careful reading can give hints as to the way forward, how to find hidden items, or just the grisly fate of whatever poor soul you just stumbled across the remains of. The device does a good job of dropping little bits of narrative and world building into a genre that hadn’t had much of those things beforehand.

The long way home

The single player campaign is of formidable length by today’s shooter standards, easily breaking a dozen hours. This isn’t a game you polish off in a short afternoon. The campaign has time to breath and indeed, starts quite slow. The difficulty curve is gentle at first but not shallow. Unreal takes its time building up the world of Na-Pali and the creatures that live there. If anything a few of the locations start to overstay their welcome but there’s always something new on the horizon.

A good skybox is a work of art.

Over the course of the game you explore Nali temples and villages, grounded spaceships both human and alien, and a host of expansive outdoor areas. While modern games often feature far more complex environments it is rare that they approach the sheer scope and scale of the alien vistas of Na-Pali. A sky full of stars and planets hanging overhead and an evocative, top notch soundtrack give Unreal an exotic ambiance all its own.

Deadliest of the Species

Unreal rarely throws more than a handful of foes at you at once.  Most battles are really duels, fought against one or two opponents. Individual enemies are significant threats, especially while you still have low level weaponry, and take time and attention to dispatch.  

You're unlikely to forget the first pitch black Skaarj ambush.

This design philosophy is epitomized by the Skaarj. These alien warriors are gracefully, convincingly mobile in a way I’ve rarely seen matched in a shooter, leaping about the environment to attack while smoothly rolling out of the way of your rockets. While clearly Predator inspired they manage to be a distinctive and iconic foe, tormenting the Nali, plundering the planet, and opposing you at every turn. In battle they’re are fast, tough, and murderously aggressive. Duels with Skaarj warriors are easily the highlight of Unreal’s combat, excellent training for death-matching.

Skaarj AI holds up well even today.

Weaponry is an eclectic mix of cruel Skaarj implements of war, clearly improvised self-defense tools, and a few more conventional human firearms. While the odd secret might grant you a weapon a level or two early your arsenal is doled out at a deliberate pace across the campaign. There’s plenty of time to become comfortable with the strengths, role, and limitations of each.

Massive Titans serve as boss encounters, hurling boulders that gib the player on contact.

Many of your weapons are a touch more exotic than the already established shotgun/machine-gun/rocket-launcher lineup. The vicious Skaarj Razorjack fires rotating shiruken than decapitate foes and ricochet around corners. The unashamedly brutal Flack Cannon reduces creatures to crimson gibs at close range via a mass of jagged, hypervelocity metal that puts standard shotguns to shame. Unreal’s signature weapon, the formidable “Eightball” launcher, offers nothing less than a multi-shot, homing mode, bouncing grenade launcher, and nearly every conceivable combination thereof. These guns have character.

Future Kill

Unreal also delivered an outstanding death-matching experience, easily on par with the Quake series. The multiplayer focused Unreal Tournament, released a few years later, remains a LAN-party favorite to this day. Multiplayer gameplay and the art of the death-match quickly came to dominate the future of the series. 

Most interiors are spartan, but in a few places the designers really got to show off.

Aside from one short expansion pack, Return to Na Pali, and a forgettable sequel the Unreal franchise has gone on to largely ignore the single player experience. This is a shame, but the original game remains well worth playing for any shooter fan. It’s a beautiful example of how to build an absorbing alien world with the most modest of polygon budgets.  

Epic recently revealed that the 2014 incarnation of Unreal Tournament will be both free and largely crowd-sourced. Anyone will be able to download and play the game but those with a subscription to the engine will be able to use it as a development tool, selling their work through Epic’s upcoming marketplace. Embracing the power of the fan community is a sharp decision and should help the franchise thrive long into the twenty-first century. Perhaps someone will even take us back to Na-Pali for another jaunt across that vivid, alien landscape.
Articles copyright James Cousar, games and images copyright their respective owners.