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Summary22 years later, I am still under Unreal's spell.
The GoodThanks to the wonderful contributors to archive.org who've uploaded scans of some of the PC gaming rags I used to love reading as a kid, we can review the state of the gaming press circa 1998 and draw from it some useful insights.
Having been in development for a very long time, Unreal was touted as being a Quake killer. Then it slipped past 1997 and Quake 2 had come out, then it was hyped as the Quake 2 killer. Then Unreal finally did come out and there was much rejoicing. Then, Half Life came out and then Quake 3 and Unreal Tournament came out and Unreal started its journey to becoming what it's known as now: a series of game engines, rather than an actual game.
I remember when the game came out. I was ten years old. My friend and I were hardcore Quake goons. He had a friend who was lucky enough to have a PC that was capable of actually running the game well, equipped with a much-coveted 3DFX Voodoo2 and it gave him a chance to play the game. When I quizzed him about his experience with Unreal, he told me he didn't like it. "You just run around these big open spaces half the time," he told me. "There's nothing to do. It's boring. The graphics are good though."
You see, the idea of Unreal being the Quake 2 killer was never anything more than a narrative conjured up by the gaming media. At a glance you could see why. They both had coloured lighting and a gun on the screen and you run around and shoot stuff. The gaming magazines went on about the interesting and unusual guns and the enemy AI, and the graphics too of course. Did you know that the guy that made the Reaper bot for Quake worked on Unreal's AI? There was deathmatch too, with bots. Gee whiz, how cool. Well, honestly, I'm not being too sarcastic there. All that stuff is genuinely very good and competent for the time, best in class in some aspects, but that's not the meat of what made Unreal special. Indeed, if it had only succeeded on the usual PC games magazine review criteria alone, it certainly would be a very forgettable game today.
It was several years later that I finally had the opportunity to sit down and experience the game myself from beginning to end, and the second I started playing, Unreal ensnared me and it never let me go again.
Taking a look at the readme file included with one of Unreal's leaked betas gives away the design goals of the game, describing the experience as "100% action and exploration." Epic games did not set out to make an id Software-styled adrenalin rush of an FPS. The experience of playing the game is often more akin to an Elder Scrolls game than Quake. No, you're not traipsing around from town to town to get quests from NPCs or clicking on Cliff Racers until your index finger falls off, but rather it slows the pace down and lets you take a nice, long breath.
Put simply, it's Unreal's ability to provoke awe in the player that is unmatched by any title that came before it, and no other title in the FPS genre would come close to matching it, arguably until perhaps Halo, released three years later.
As Prisoner 849, you awake battered and broken in the bowels of your crashed prison transport ship. You slowly creep out of your abandoned cell block, the halls echoing with the distant screams of the dead and dying. You emerge from an air vent and arrive at the bridge, cloaked in gloom but for a few dim flickering lights that cast their glow on the corpses of your former captors. Down below, you see a hallway leading into the darkness, where untold potential for horror, or freedom, beckon. The first note of music thrums through your chest with a single kick of a drum, and it should be immediately obvious right with that note that Unreal is going for something very different to every other FPS before or since.
As you finally find your first gun and make your way to the escape hatch, you arrive on the planet's surface and the lush vista of Nyleve's Falls greets you.
While Unreal has core FPS mechanics that are solid and carry it through without significant worries, it's these moments that leave the lasting impression on you. Unreal is permeated with moments that wash over you with a sense of wonder, fear and mystery.
As described in Kaitlin Tremblay and Alan Williamson's excellent in-depth analysis 'Escape to Na Pali', it's not just that you see a very big chasm rendered accurately in the game's engine that is worthy of note, it's the sense of the sublime. You walk up to the edge of the cliff and see at the base of the titanic waterfall, its cacophonous roar of rushing water filling the canyon, a small hut perched on the ground way below you. You want to find a way to go there, but the drop is enormous and will surely reduce you to a red smear if you dare to jump. The birds circle overhead. The strange fauna scamper around at your feet. Fish swim in the water.
This world is MASSIVE. It's so much bigger than you and it doesn't care if you live or die. As you move from one location to another, reading the stories left by others, Unreal conveys the sense that you are nothing more than a speck in this gargantuan universe, and that's where so much of the moment-to-moment drama comes from. Unreal continually reinforces the notion that you are an alien, that you do not belong here, as you travel across the planet's surface through valleys, canyons, villages, mines, tech bases, towers, floating islands, crashed ships, temples and many other varied locales.
You'll find the game tends to alternate between romps across the countryside and through denser areas, which are often indoors or underground. While Unreal's technical qualities may age like milk (as any game engine will), the artistry throughout has aged like a fine wine. The maps are distinctive and vibrant, full of colour, mood and variety.
It sounds strange to say, but if there was a single word I'd use to describe the general mood of your journey through Unreal, it would 'majestic'. Were it not for the mantas trying to clip your head off or the Skaarj who are all too happy to fillet you with their enormous retractable blades, Na Pali would be a beautiful place for a holiday.
This is to mention nothing of the music. Unreal's soundtrack, composed by Alexander Brandon with help from Michel van den Bos, is, in my very humble estimation, the best musical score ever composed for a game. It is one of the earliest examples of where the music can switch between moods dynamically depending upon where you are in the map or what is happening, but it's the lush, almost mournful, ambient stretches that stick with me. The music utterly completes the mood, conveying the sense of the mystery, romance and solitude.
On that note, this seems like a good time to mention that, broadly speaking, Unreal's campaign is not something that you should experience for the first time while streaming on Twitch or listening to podcasts, and while cooperative play is fully supported, the game's mystique can only be fully appreciated when you play the game alone, allowing yourself to be totally immersed in the world of Na Pali.
Alright, have I made my point that Unreal has good atmosphere? Okay, let's get down to brass tacks.
Level design is generally solid. It's clear that there are some levels that were very meticulously planned on paper before being built, and then there are levels that have been designed by the seat of the pants, but these levels act as breathers and are usually wide open and quite straightforward. Conversely the interior maps, such as Terraniux, the mines, the ISV-KRAN and the game's closing levels tend to be dense and interconnected.
The Universal Translator, found at the beginning of the game, is usually used to communicate to you an idea of what you are trying to accomplish and where you should be going next, without outright telling you straight up. In addition, it does some wonderful storytelling via the personal logs of the folks who came before you. There are several characters whose trails you will follow and even come to know to a certain extent, in particular the fate of Kira Argmanov, an officer on another ship that crash landed on the same planet, and her comrades who set out to rescue her.
You need to keep note of the translator messages, because you will likely find yourself lost if you neglect or miss an important message.
It can be easy miss these vital hints when you're being chased across the map by enemies powered by AI which is, on the whole, extremely impressive. While some foes like the basic Brute will happily charge at you head-on, other monsters are keenly interested in their own self-preservation and will dodge, flank, snipe, ambush and retreat if they are taking too much damage from you. The pathing is also very good for a game of this era, with enemies and the occasional friendly Nali being able to navigate around large portions of complex levels without issue. Compared to other games of its ilk, Unreal's monster counts generally are not too high. Instead, combat with your foes is more of a dogfight than a slaughter, with the thrill of the fight being in the acrobatics as much as the gunplay...
The Bad...which is fortunate, because the gunplay sucks.
Okay, maybe that's a bit extreme. It's not that the guns are poorly balanced or ineffective, they just don't feel very destructive in your hands. In particular, the initial release of the game in 1998 came with very weak weapon and explosion sound effects. A later patch to the game came with a whole new set, courtesy of Digital Extremes, that improved the sounds considerably, but in general, the guns just feel weak.
Some fare better than others. The hitscan weapons like the automag, rifle and minigun feel solid enough, and we cannot forget that Unreal introduced us to the legendary flak cannon, a gun that would be revised to near perfection in Unreal Tournament but already makes a strong initial showing here. The thunk of a flak shell slamming into a foreign body is present, and its primary fire mode, a shotgun-esque spray of jagged metal that strips flesh from bone and reduces strong Skaarj to looking more like something thrown up by my cat, is well-known in gaming folklore.
But really, you would think that it should be pretty fun to use a gun that can fire six rockets at a time, right? But it's not. For one, the gun plays a firing sound for each rocket launched, so firing six rockets plays the same sound effect six times at once (argh, my ears!), and the resulting flurry of explosions tends to simply bounce enemies around more often than it kills them. You've also got grenades that almost never find their target, have a small damage radius and are generally not very effective.
How about other series mainstays like the shock rifle (still referred to as the 'ASMD' in this game)? It's a gun that shoots a moderately powerful burst of energy in a hitscan beam or projectile ball (the latter of which you can shoot with the former to create a powerful boom), and its sizzling arc of electrical death looks like... a series of little blue ripples. Seriously, what is it with games in the 90s and their obsession with ripples? Again, while powerful, when you hit a bad guy with it, he'll bounce about the joint like you're smacking him with a gym ball rather than something designed to maim and kill.
Then there are the guns that clearly have use cases in mind, that are almost never the best tactic. Enjoy trying to hit an enemy with the slow-moving projectiles of the razor jack, or running around lobbing big toxic boogers at them with the GES Biorifle. There is a reason that the Navy Seals in real life do not use guns that fire toxic boogers, just putting that out there.
And then there's the dispersion pistol, your pew pew energy gun that fires slow moving bolts that you'll be falling back on when your other guns run dry. Especially if you're playing on higher difficulties, expect to find yourself running out of ammo more often than you might assume, because enemy health scales up with the skill level you choose.
On the hardest difficulties, enemies turn into absolute tanks, and whatever shots a Skaarj doesn't dodge, he'll just soak up instead. The dispersion pistol doesn't have unlimited ammo, but rather a finite supply that slowly recharges, so when you hit zero, you'll have entered a war of attrition as you wait for your ammo count for this extremely wimpy gun to recharge from 0 to 1, fire it, then repeat until your enemy is dead. Fun! It's clear that the item placement in the game's levels wasn't balanced around the higher difficulties and you'll just have to deal with it.
Ammo problems aside, despite their very impressive AI, there are some minor quibbles that pervade most encounters. Mercenaries have shields that render them immune to all damage for a time, which they deploy at random. Until the shield comes down again, there's nothing you can do but wait, so this mechanic ends up only leaning on your patience rather than your wits or reflexes to come out victorious.
Likewise, the extremely nimble Skaarj can dodge your projectiles, which is very cool until you notice that the dodge is based on a dice roll rather than reaction time. Either they won't dodge at all, or, more likely, they will dodge the very millisecond you fire, meaning you're stuck with either using hitscan guns or exploiting their total inability to dodge grenades or flak shells (due to programming oversight) to avoid wasting copious amounts of ammo for your other weapons.
And of course there's our shy native friends, the Nali. These guys can often open secret doors for you, as long as you keep them out of harm's way, by which I mean, you let no ounce of harm come to any single one of them in any shape or form. As soon as one receives so much as a nick, every Nali on the map will become afraid of you and refuse to help, so get ready to pass up that secret stash of much-needed ammo due to the Nali who could have opened it having a freak-out because his mate on the other side of the map ran in the way of your eightball launcher 45 minutes ago.
And for all the harping on I did about Unreal's wonderful sense of pace, that only applies to the levels, not so much the overall plot. Around midway through the game, it will dawn on you that you are just kind of ambling from one mesmerizing locale to the next, with no idea of why you are there. "Thank you for completing this level, but the next plot beat is in another castle."
Plot threads are set in the opening levels and then remain untouched till near the end, and while it is always interesting to finish a level and wonder where you'll end up next, the lack of context to your journey can rob it of some significance and there are a few things that get alluded to but never resolved. The game could have used a story editor.
The Bottom LineAfter finishing the game, you'll also have the expansion pack Return to Na Pali to play through, and there is of course the multiplayer which you will likely never touch. After all, if you're looking for Unreal multiplayer action, there is Unreal Tournament, which is predictably superior to Unreal's multiplayer experience in every way.
But when that's done, we'll probably never know what ever became of Prisoner 849. Unreal 2 came along next, very much removed from the original in story, setting, characters and spirit, and its lukewarm reception more or less killed the prospect of Unreal as a single player franchise. And that really bums me, because even though Unreal has some rough edges in its mechanics and narrative, it's just such an intensely special experience for me.
It's probably a subjective thing too, because it was something significant that I experienced in my formative childhood years, so if you weren't around to get caught up in the hype of 1998, then you might not see what I see when you play this game. But I'm not the only one - check out the OldUnreal.com and UnrealSP.org communities for a bunch of people who share that feeling and some incredibly well put together original campaigns that easily rival and sometimes even surpass the polish of the base game (I recommend Xidia, 7 Bullets, Operation Na Pali and The Tower of Shrakith'a for a start).
While it's not the number one game of its era for mechanical polish, not every one of its off-the-wall weapon ideas panned out, and its multiplayer was overshadowed by its own spin-offs, the Unreal engine is alive and well, as we all know. As I write this, Epic is demonstrating its fifth major iteration of that engine, which looks as thoroughly amazing as the original did to me back in 1998.
And if there's one thing that I wish they'd do with that engine, above all else, it would be to send us back to Na Pali, one more time.