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Unreal (PC) artwork

Unreal (PC) review

"The best of both worlds"

Unreal (PC) image

The FPS games released during the four years following the earth-shattering Quake were interesting specimens. They finally had the technological means to perfect the ideas showcased in Doom, but as soon as Quake's release in 1996 consumers were feeling fatigued by all the Doom-style games and mods. No longer satisfied with iteration and refinement, people wanted innovation. The period around Quake's release was a fascinating time of experimentation.

Years after the very literary storytelling approach of Snatcher, video gaming found its storytelling spokesman and its new action standard in the form of Half-Life. Uncompromising in its raw grittiness, it was a perfect blend of the richly grim aesthetic of the 90s FPS with a cinematic approach that allowed for discovery without resorting to robbing the player of control. By recognizing what cinematic aspects worked in games instead of trying to emulate cinema in every possible fashion, Half-Life's genius in presentation set the groundwork for countless games to follow. However, sandwiched between Quake's own sequel and Half-Life was another game that met a balance between the two eras, between the brutal and the cinematic.

That game was Unreal, one of the best games ever made.

Unreal (PC) imageUnreal (PC) image

It's the future. You're a human. A prisoner. Your prison ship has crashed on a hostile alien planet. Screams are filling the air, lights are flickering, and the hull is trembling. Get out. Survive. Unreal's setting and premise are conveyed not by exposition but by visual means. It isn't truly cinematic, though; upon starting the game, the player is never robbed of control until the very end. Unreal is a story of interaction and discovery, not forced observation. You are a participant, not a spectator. As far as the story itself is concerned, it is neither a tale of dynamic characters nor a study of themes. You're just trying to survive. And you're in a world in which survival isn't easy, for the jungles, caverns, and ice caps of the planet of Na-Pali are as lethal as they are atmospheric.

Visually, Unreal has aged as well as a game from 1998 can, but it holds up due to good presentation. Who can forget the notes of "Dusk Horizon" rising as the jungles of Na Pali lie before him upon exiting the prison ship? Unreal boasts one of the best soundtracks of all of video games, and the wondrous sound design demonstrated in the crumbling ship continues to amaze as fauna screech and sing in the distance, bringing the game's world to life. The game's textures may be muddy (though there are mods for that), yet a liberating sense of direction make this seem minor. Will you climb down the mine shaft, head towards that house in the distance, or jump off the cliff into the water? Unreal's ultimately linear levels may have only one exit, but they have unmatched variety and scope that impresses even today.

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Aside from being an example of Unreal's visual and sonic prowess, the triumphant exit from the prison ship is an example of the chief strength of the medium of video gaming; interactivity. You weren't told about circumstances in the ship; you chose to learn so at your own pace by discovering audio-logs. You didn't watch someone climb out of a wreckage that claimed the lives of dozens of others; you accomplished that. You aren't going to watch the protagonist journey across a wondrous planet, seeing majestic sights and overcoming vicious foes along the way; you're going to do that. Now get to it.

As for doing that surviving bit, you're going to have to make good use of the tools at your disposal in order to do so. Unlike the constricted movement of the console shooter, Unreal's superior controls are speedy and responsive, even allowing the player to alter the game's speed from the options menu. Gunplay is sublime, with each weapon being wonderfully unique and viable in combat. Most vitally, almost the entirety of your arsenal is projectile-based, meaning that you can dodge enemy fire, introducing a layer of skill that makes for gameplay much more fun than the unfulfilling hit-scan gunfights so common today. This system unobtrusively communicates the trajectory of fire from you and your foes while demanding more strategy than just "point at the guy and click" or figuring out the invisible trajectories of fire spreads.

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It's amazing how this gameplay is liberating for the player weary of forced constraints in other games. Many shooters force a cover-based approach by forcing the player to wear concrete shoes and die from just a few stray bullets. A similar epidemic is the forced necessity to get close to opponents just so you can hit them with your inaccurate weapons. Taking cover and maneuvering close to opponents are often viable strategies in Unreal, but the mechanics never force you into a certain role. Rather, you'll be doing a little bit of everything to survive, combinations of weakening enemy hordes from a distance, taking cover, managing ammunition and medical kits, and closing in for the kill as you and your foes frenetically dance your ways through projectiles zipping about. Blissful perfection.

Speaking of blissful perfection, the arsenal of Unreal cannot be overlooked. It's unique in that some weapons embody archetypal roles set by older shooters -- the pistol, the shotgun, the sniper rifle -- but no tool is inherently superior to another; you can overcome challenges using any weapon. Your playstyle, not level design, determines how you play. For instance, a pulse rifle use its primary fire to pick off enemies at range, its slower secondary fire to hit enemies up close, or the splash damage caused by hitting the secondary projectile with the primary projectile to hit enemies behind a corner. Of course, being armed with spectacular weapons and true understanding of their capabilities means Unreal must do more than lazily give enemies aimbot accuracy in order to challenge you, but the game is up to the task.

Unreal (PC) imageUnreal (PC) image

Unreal has perhaps the best enemy variety in any FPS to date, and all of them have the AI and capabilities to challenge you without relying on cheap tricks. The first foe you must overcome is a brute with rocket launchers for arms, setting an appropriate tone for the challenges that lie ahead, with wizards an Predator-lookalikes keeping you on your toes. Enemies are vast and varied, and this diversity fuses with the excellent level design to keep every encounter fresh. Like you, foes can strafe and dodge shots, and some wield the same weapon types you have, subconsciously preparing you for the great multiplayer as you have a fun time in the sublime campaign.

Unreal is almost an oddity when it comes to the delusional nihilism of most modern multiplayer games. Some die forever from the folly of central server-reliance; others when too few players wish to play their multiplayer to keep sustainable matchmaking.. Unlike multiplayers dead and on death row, Unreal wisely blesses us with excellently programmed bots to immortalize the game. The formidable intelligence of the bots serves not only to give the component of the game infinite lasting power but also to prepare one for combat against human players, of which there are many even today. Plus, this is a good PC game with modding tools, so should one tire of the standard maps, there is a titanic number of custom maps, new game-modes, and fan-made campaigns to keep one playing Unreal for years to come. And Unreal is a game that deserves its immortality.

Imagine video gaming today if more heeded the wisdom of Unreal's design. Less robbery of control, less forfeiting of the strengths of the medium. More perfect gameplay in movement and gunplay, more staying power by means of bots and modding compatibility. It's a shame that these superior features are not the standard in today's gaming environment. However, we should be thankful that the genius of Unreal ever came to be in the first place, and that Unreal did demonstrate the strengths of these virtues for those who were listening.

Unreal (PC) image


Follow_Freeman's avatar
Community review by Follow_Freeman (May 23, 2018)

When he isn't in a life-or-death situation, Dr. Freeman enjoys playing a variety of video games. From olden shooters to platformers & action titles: Freeman may be a bit stuck with the games of the past, but he doesn't mind. Some things don't age much.

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If you enjoyed this Unreal review, you're encouraged to discuss it with the author and with other members of the site's community. If you don't already have an HonestGamers account, you can sign up for one in a snap. Thank you for reading!

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Zydrate posted May 26, 2018:

Unreal was my childhood. Pretty much my first game, next to Starcraft.
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Follow_Freeman posted May 26, 2018:

That's a good game to be your childhood. Hope you enjoyed the review! I've an Unreal Modding Guide in the works, which I shall link in the review upon completion.
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Zydrate posted May 27, 2018:

I really did like the review. I was in a hurry and couldn't give you a proper background.

Unreal and Unreal Tournament were my first "real" forays into gaming. I dabbled in Quake 1 and 2 but Unreal was the first to capture my imagination with a haunting soundtrack and challenging gameplay. It may have been the first game I managed to beat on my own as well, though I think my brother did help me with the Queen at the end. And I love the ending music, I have it downloaded. So enchanting.

I played Unreal a LOT growing up. After beating it a couple times I explored cheats and often rigged the Stinger to fire rockets or fully upgraded Dispersion shots, depending on my mood.

I played it recently with the hopes to record it for my Youtube channel. I still might, but I did get stuck at a certain point and even /noclip couldn't help me find my way out due to the game's fairly nonlinear design. Bout four hours in running around in circles, pretty much devoid of enemies, I kind of gave up.

I should get back to that and start recording it.
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Follow_Freeman posted May 29, 2018:

Was it that Sunspire level? You have to jump in the water and through that pillar like a drink straw. Some levels are so huge that one can get lost if he explores everywhere. The level design is another example of the fascinating transition in design Unreal demonstrates in that the levels are massive in scope but sometimes require not keyhunts but ways to open up new paths. Plus lots of goodie stashes and secrets, allowing explorers to obtain many weapons early in the game.
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Zydrate posted May 29, 2018:

I don't remember what it's called. It's some kind of Mercenary facility. Lot of slime and Sliths but I even cleared the underwater assholes.

I came back to it like mid 2015 (when my steam review of it was written) so my memory is fuzzy.

I mean, I managed to beat it when I was a kid. Several times. I guess now if I run into a confusing wall, I have four hundred other games, two MMO's, and a job to take my time where I just won't waste too much time on a single brick wall. Y'know?

Edit: I think it was the mine;
Maybe. Probably.

Edit: Nope, that's literally like the second level. I couldn't find a level list that was... in order.

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