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Unreal (PC) artwork

Unreal (PC) review

"As a first-person shooter, itís incredibly competent. Quake 2 might have had the tempo, and Half-Life the suspenseful pacing, but Unreal had the variety and the challenge. Its weapons drew criticism for feeling weak and weedy against the Skaarj oppressors, and itís a fair comment. They often do. But Iím sure thatís partly because the buggers are so tough, right from the start."

Half-Life changed everything. Valveís seminal shooter spearheaded a dramatic shift in the action gaming landscape, eschewing unfocused blasting in favour of slow-burning survival and a twisting storyline. It took the games industry a little while to catch up, but from the moment of its release in November 1998 one thing was certain in everyoneís minds: this was the best first-person shooter in the world.

But there was a short period of time before that - just six months or so, in fact - when that accolade was somewhat more up in the air. Before Half-Life came along and placed a Magnum .357 against each of their heads, there were two games, both with a dedicated following, vying for the prize. One was Quake 2, id Softwareís ultra-brown sequel, which headed firmly into sci-fi territory and dropped almost every element of the original game except for the shooting stuff. Generally speaking, this game was in the lead. But the other game was Unreal, and what most people failed to realise back then was that it was obviously the more interesting of the two.

What most people failed to realise back then was that it was obviously the most interesting of the three...

See, although Half-Life was pivotal and influential, Epicís first entry into the action gaming universe had something all its own. While Valve went down the blockbuster route, and id Software went down the id Software route, Epic achieved something that neither of their rivals managed to match (aside from Half-Lifeís opening moments): they made a game about discovery.

Set at some point in the faraway future, your introduction to the world of Unreal is waking up on a crashed prison ship. Your health is poor and there are screams emanating from all around, lights flickering hauntingly above you, the whole thing feeling as though it may collapse or blow up at any moment. You begin to explore, looking for a means of escape, and then suddenly thereís a hideous reptile thing in the distance. You can barely make it out, it choosing to avoid your direct sight and instead only showing a flash of tale, or its shadow, as it darts away from it.

You follow.

You follow it into the most remarkable world. This is the planet of Na Pali, a place where its native inhabitants have been oppressed by a dreadful reptilian race, mining for resources. The Skaarj, these terrible lizards, are new using the Nali natives as slaves who cower in terror at the sight of another living creature. Itís an absolutely beautiful, but deeply tragic, environment in which to exist.

And that beauty is still apparent, going on 13 years after the gameís release. Obviously the architecture is blocky, and the resolution low, but you can see why Unreal made so many jaws drop back in 1998. From the way rockets illuminate their surroundings as they gracefully fly towards their targets, to the wide open expanses of grassland and waterfalls, itís a game world created with attention to both detail and scale. Your escape from the prison ship at the start, emerging as you do from the darkness and into the staggering beyond, is a feeling that wouldnít be matched until Oblivion, eight years later.

As a first-person shooter, itís incredibly competent. Quake 2 might have had the tempo, and Half-Life the suspenseful pacing, but Unreal had the variety and the challenge. Its weapons drew criticism for feeling weak and weedy against the Skaarj oppressors, and itís a fair comment. They often do. But Iím sure thatís partly because the buggers are so tough, right from the start. Most shooters ease you into the game by throwing a bit of cannon fodder at you for the opening hour or so. Not Unreal. In Unreal, the first enemy you meet has rocket launchers mounted to its arms.

This is an uncommonly, bravely challenging shooter. While the game rarely throws large groups of foes in your direction, each one is an effort to take down. Enemies dive and strafe and somersault out of the way of your bullets, making use of the environment to take cover, and genuinely making as much of a nuisance of themselves as they can manage. Half-Lifeís marines would come along six months later and steal the show, but even then itís a close run thing. In Unreal, even though there are fairly lengthy sections of exploration intermingled with the combat, you never stop worrying about your next encounter.

But among the brutality of its combat is sprinkled an absolutely horrible story - in the most praiseworthy sense of the word - which you explore as you travel around Na Pali. From the gameís ambiguous beginnings, you learn of the plight of the Nali, and how the Skaarj began to control them. This isnít a tale of enormous and unexpected twists. But it is an early example of using the interactive nature of games to tell that story. And thatís what shines so brightly today.

In Unreal, you discover. You come across areas in the world that have their own stories to tell, just little ones, but stories which feel important enough to resonate. Nali trapped inside their own houses, surrounded by the Skaarj, terrified beneath their rudimentary thatched roofs. Fallen comrades whose PDAs detail their final moments. These storytelling techniques may have been done to death now, but there are few games which attempted them before Unreal, and theyíre still exploited to lesser effect today. And it builds up to an ending that, while initially triumphant, leaves you with a quiet sense of melancholy, one which lasts beyond the final scenes. Too few games have ever dared to close on that note.

Itís this feeling of exploring a dreadful world, of seeing a tragic tale play out through alien eyes, that made Unreal my favourite of the late-90s shooters. Itís still fascinating today, and was mature beyond the mediumís years. Quake 2 may have been more straight-up entertaining, and Half-Life would go on to absolutely define the scripted action genre, but itís Unreal which had the most to offer to videogames - and, Iíd say, the most to talk about 13 years down the line.

Lewis's avatar
Freelance review by Lewis Denby (December 30, 2011)

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