Eye Candy (Gameplay Sold Separately)
Sure, looks count. When a game is as pretty as Unreal II, you forgive it a lot. I plodded on to the end merely to see one more beautiful alien planet. Occasionally, this visual splendor almost becomes compelling. When a planet infested by a huge spongy organism erupts in angry green spouts of acid, it's a money-shot moment, even if the effects are all decorative and irrelevant to gameplay. I also liked - *gasp*! - the story. If you persevere until the end, you're in for a satisfying conclusion. Rarely do game narratives rise above the level of idiocy; this one, after plenty of dross, finally does. Nice voice acting, too.
Everything else is terrible.
Let's start with player movement. There are two speeds: creeping and crawling. Seriously cramping the range of available tactics, this hobbled mobility reduces fighting to a series of repetitive pot-shots. Mind, enemies aren't slow. Only you are.
Although level design is pretty, it's also painfully linear. The highly-skilled designers have created the illusion of broad, expansive landscapes. But it's all superficial, as they've squandered the graphics engine's power by making you stick to a narrow path no more divergent than, say, the one in ten-year old Quake. Frustratingly, you even come across features in the landscape that you can climb or jump in some areas, but not in others.
Enemy AI? Forget it. Enemy character design? Pfffft. The tiresome Skaarj are back doing their goofy somersaults, joined by (shock!) spiders, (amazing!) weird aliens, and (omigod!) humans in armor. This colorless, uninspired work is instantly forgettable. You never feel menaced - annoyed, maybe. Partly that's also the fault of the designers having no sense of rhythm, drama, or pacing; long stretches of the game are inexplicably unpopulated. And when they do bump into something successful - for instance, using friendly AI soldiers to protect you - they quickly drop the idea. You can lead a game designer to green alien acid pools, apparently, but you can't make him drink.
While I appreciated the finale, the story is filled with cliches borrowed from more successful games and movies. Expect no originality. Five minutes into the game you're given to understand that celebrated female military heroes in the future will dress like Hooters chicks, and it's mostly downhill (or downbra, you might say) from there.
The Bottom Line
With the commercial and critical failure of Unreal II, this great-looking game can be picked up for a song (I paid $10). Though highly polished, it's about as dull as it is beautiful. This is corporate design in all its safe, cliched, derivative, formulaic glory, with a heavy dosage of hack work substituting for creativity: step right up and be relieved of your imagination.