Unreal

Co-developed by Epic Games (then Epic MegaGames) and Digital Extremes
Published by GT Interactive
Released in 1998 for the Personal Computer

So, here’s our setup: At a time when companies are re-evaluating the genre in order to distance themselves from the masters at id Software, Epic Games drops their brass balls on the table and not only builds a game that will appeal to the fans of Doom and Quake, but outclasses those games on a wide number of fronts. Unreal becomes yet another technical landmark in a pioneering computer videogame market where tiny Manhattan Projects had become utterly routine.

While Unreal wasn’t the first FPS game to connect its discrete levels through consistent aesthetics—creating the illusion of a contiguous world—it would be disingenuous to compare the game with Strife or Hexen II, as Unreal was the first game in the genre to demonstrate anything bordering on a realistic scope or scale in its design.  But whether you think of Unreal was one piece in an inevitable march towards open-world singleplayer FPS games or the game that showed they could be done, what matters at this point is whether it still delivers the goods and is more than a novelty footnote ala Wolfenstein 3-D or Duke Nukem 3D.

Well, once you get past the technical hubbub, once you get past the little touches that Epic is eager to demonstrate in the Unreal Engine, you’re left with something that’s not really far removed from the Doom philosophy, a relatively no-nonsense, blast-everything, pull-switches singleplayer campaign with a more complex narrative.  But in the pursuit of getting large 3D environments to work on the home computers of the time, Unreal opts for combat that’s a little more personalized.  And while there will be battles against the kinds of enemies you commonly expect from the Doom snuff, the focus of Unreal is on small skirmishes against capable opponents.

The game opts for something akin to fighting human-controlled opponents in a world-building singleplayer format, and the AI that would be held to high praise in the Unreal Tournament games is on prototype display here.  As played on the higher difficulty levels, your opponents are aggressive, they take as much punishment as you, they’re faster than you, will constantly pressure you, and can lead into and dodge shots just as other human opponents would.  Your enemies are portrayed as equals and you’re expected to play like a superior, leading to tense and entertaining encounters where your ability to carry more than one weapon is the critical difference that makes it possible to overcome the odds.

Yes, those weapons are a lot of fun to use, and most of what you’ll recognize from Unreal Tournament—the creative, diverse, and otherwise technical weapons that would be the biggest separation from the Quake series—is on full display.  And in the process, Unreal builds on the best ideas of Descent II and Blood, in which your weapons are collectively capable and suitable for nearly every situation that can be thrown at you, and half the fun coming from figuring out how each of those toys should be used as you become the one-man army of early FPS fame.

So even as Unreal remains committed to the things that made its predecessors so entertaining in the first place, it follows in the vein of many of today’s open-world shooters, where the old routes to complexity—the higher body counts and obstacle course level design that was intended to hide the weaknesses of the AI routines—can be dropped in favor of open, spacious venues and locales that are aesthetically interesting.  Sure, Unreal lacks the visual detail that has come to define 3D games and is largely consistent with 3D graphics in the nineties, where very little has held up well.  But most of the venues remain memorable because they don’t collectively fit into any niche that the genre has offered, a hybrid of high fantasy and science fiction that is varied enough to hold the player’s attention.

And why is that? Where most games tend to value mechanical and aesthetic consistency in their designs, Unreal takes the brilliant step of relegating different level designers to different portions of the game…a fact which the game is proud to highlight, announcing the author of each level upon loading.  So it’s not just that levels merely look and feel different, with ancient environs emphasizing platforming and hazards against the open space and corridor combat of the spaceship levels, but they’re being built by different people with distinctly different ideas on what makes compelling levels and worlds, just as the game’s contrasting cultures would be building environments that suit their own goals and needs. The inconsistency, fittingly enough, leads to a consistently creative experience.

As a sum of all parts, Unreal has the wonderful consequence of making you feel like a prisoner turned survivor, an individual who finds themself on an unfamiliar planet and is simply moving through a tiny slice of it, one hazard and one combatant at a time.  Or, to put it in simpler terms, a world worth exploring and blowing up.  So don’t let the Unreal Tournament games fool you into thinking that Unreal was some novelty debut project.  And it’s easy to do this, because most of 1998’s praise and attention was eventually afforded to Half-Life, and doing it with much of the same appeal and intrigue that Unreal did. But for all the acclaim that Half-Life rightfully deserves, the reality is that Unreal beat Half-Life to market by six months and Epic delivered the better game.

★★★★★

Discuss this review on the forums.