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SummaryDrawn into exotic mystery of emptiness
The GoodUnreal occupies a somewhat strange position among first-person shooters. People marveled at its graphics when it was released, only to quickly forget it once Half-Life took over with its dramaticism and variety. The series it spawned remained for the most part multiplayer-only. Today many people view Unreal as an example of a "tech demo", a game with little gameplay value but with advanced technology, capable of creating a sensation upon release but ultimately doomed to oblivion.
There is certainly some truth in this reasoning, and yet I think it would be misleading to dismiss the game as a mere graphical showcase. To me, Unreal is above all an exotic journey. When I play a first-person shooter, I expect to be immersed in a different world, identify myself with the lone protagonist, feel the raw emotions of danger. FPSs are to me "mood pieces", games that would affect my disposition with their surroundings, envelop me in cozy virtual worlds. Unreal is a prime example of such a moody, purely emotional work, that reminded me of Doom with its intense depiction of a world so unlike our own.
Unreal goes further than previous FPSs in focusing on such environments; in fact, I find its title very fitting, since there is indeed something unreal in its setting. In my eyes it was the first truly alien FPS, one that fully eschewed anything recognizable, anything familiar and domestic, concentrating on mysterious, heavily atmospheric locations that managed to draw me in so deeply that I was thinking about them even when I wasn't playing the game.
The levels of Unreal are varied and include high-tech installations, ominous caves, mysterious temples, etc. It was probably the first FPS with sensually beautiful, mesmerizing outdoor locations. That is where I felt most that the game was more than just a demonstration of a new engine. True, the pure technical effects are astounding: detailed textures, reflections, lighting are way beyond anything a computer monitor has seen at that time. Unreal is undeniably one of the most gorgeous games ever created, regardless of the time. But the beauty is not just a cold collection of bits and bytes: the graphics are artistic, helping to create an unforgettable atmosphere and immerse the player. The attention to detail is instantly noticeable: superb animation, small representatives of local fauna, insects swarming around alien corpses - all this helps to bring the game's world to life.
To complement the alien world, the weapons in the game are also alien. These weapons are, in my opinion, among the game's strongest assets; I can't quite understand why it was criticized for not having the same old pistol-shotgun-machine gun combination as most other FPSs. Of course, functionally the weapons still follow these prototypes, but they feel differently, and I think it's a very good thing. It's much more satisfying to shoot those aliens with ice shards or carry around a strange tube with a blob inside instead of dealing with them using conventional earthly means.
The enemies are much smarter than anything I have encountered in FPSs before; I feel Unreal doesn't get enough credit for that. Aliens would strife, roll, flawlessly switch to melee weapons, and even activate shields. Their good AI makes Unreal one of the hardest first-person shooters around; even on Easy, the game is anything but a cakewalk.
There isn't much story in the game, but I found the premise quite interesting. Taking a queue from System Shock, the game includes various messages from deceased people that give you somewhat more insight into what has happened. Also, the presence of completely helpless aliens that are cruelly exterminated by another race helped establish another level of emotional connection. I honestly felt bad every time I accidentally shot a Nali, and always reloaded afterwards.
The BadThe structure and the gameplay of Unreal are fairly archaic. Mid-nineties were a time of rapid development for first-person shooters: building upon the basic formula of Doom, they began adding cinematic cutscenes, mission objectives, RPG elements, interactivity, etc. Unreal pretty much ignores those different trends and gives us bare-bones FPS gameplay almost reminiscent of Quake, only without its fast-paced action. The omission of a "use" key has sadly made its way into the game, so you'll be once again bumping into giant buttons to solve nearly non-existent puzzles.
While playing the game I couldn't quite shake off the feeling that it wanted to be something else. The majestic setting, the vast environments, and above all the attempts at a large-scale story indicate a possible free-roaming, perhaps RPG-like game. But in reality what we get is a shooter that is in many ways more primitive than its modest predecessors. The story is absolutely static and ultimately goes nowhere; there is no NPC interaction, not nearly enough exploration to cover up for the lack of plot, no scripted events or anything else that would expand the gameplay beyond its simplistic FPS frames.
Perhaps the game tried to cater to two different types of players at the same time - fans of adrenaline-raising action and those interested in exploring exotic worlds and unraveling a mysterious story. However, the result is hardly satisfying for any of the two: the action is too slow-paced to fulfill its goal, while exploration and plot are too limited to enjoy to the full. In many ways Unreal is a wasted opportunity.