A pretty, entertaining shooter that requires little investment
It goes without saying that, just as with the original, the graphics are the most standout component of this game. Weapon effects, monster animations, lush landscapes and creepy flora and fauna all come to vivid life with the latest incarnation of the Unreal engine.
The gameplay is enjoyably straightforward with virtually no learning curve. You play as the captain of patrol ship in a Star Trek-esque universe, answering distress calls and fetching artifacts while uncovering an intriguing if trite sci-fi plot.
The supporting cast, including a feisty buxom first mate; a cigar-chomping, jaded weapons expert; and a lovably inept amorphous alien pilot make add immensely to the sense of story and consistency. The away-mission-based structure makes the game feel more open-ended than it actually is, which is good given how linear it actually is.
The arsenal, while outrageous, is eclectic and entertaining, and the bad guys range from humanoid to tremendously scary. Helpfully expendable NPCs littered throughout each level provide hints on how to solve the level in just the nick of time, as well as occasional radio transmissions with your crew.
Movable turrets, portable forcefields, and commandable troops add a level of strategy and a lot of fun to certain portions of the game. I only wish there were more of these moments.
The game is very limited in depth and scope. While levels are fully explorable and beautiful to look at, there is little interactivity or ability to stray from the main path.
The difficulty balance is perplexing. Most enemies are appallingly easy, compensated for with sheer quantity. Not since Serious Sam have I been so annoyed by an unwarranted polygonal invasion of my screen. Even optimal systems can get bogged down by the game's massive environments and reptilian hordes.
Although the player encounters a pretty varied arsenal of weapons (each with an alternate fire mode), including an awesome fire-and-forget weapon that unleashes a black hole on your opponents, I found that I ended up using my basic assault rifle for a good 80% of the game.
The story itself is a pretty weak premise, and the characters outside of your crew are pretty forgettable. Even your crew's personalities and back stories are under-developed, despite a valiant attempt in the game's relatively short span.
While certain missions show promise, there is virtually no deviation in gameplay. Almost every level consists of starting outside of a complex; blasting your way through the complex; grabbing a secured item; and backtracking your way back to your ship. The all-too-brief strategic moments are few and far between, and usually end the same regardless of how you approach them.
And, although it's a relatively minor gripe, I found it pretty disappointing that Unreal 2 had pretty much nothing to do with the original other than the title and an overlapping bad guy (the iconic Skaarj).
The Bottom Line
Just like it's forebear, Unreal 2 is a visual treat, worth a playthrough for the eye candy alone. Just don't expect too much depth and you'll be pleasantly surprised. The game had some great ideas, but if you're looking for a game that accomplishes its design goals more thoroughly, check out Elite Force or Red Faction.