Unreal as a franchise is now better known for its engine than its games, and even the games that are popular are themselves offshoots. Most players find the name 'Unreal' to be synonymous with 'Unreal Tournament'. However, before all of these, Unreal was just a single game, and throughout much of the year 1998 it was considered to be a high watermark of its genre.
In retrospect, it's not surprising that the original Unreal itself has been largely forgotten; it wasn't the first on the scene with its true 3D graphics like Quake, it wasn't massively revolutionary in gameplay and pacing like Half-Life has come to be known, and even at the time it received a few notes in various reviews that much of its appeal came primarily from its audiovisual lustre, which, in this industry that's constantly leapfrogging itself in graphical power, wasn't going to stay noteworthy for long. State of the Industry
Unreal was released in 1998 but had actually been in development since the early nineties, with a tech demo surfacing from 1995 when the game was still in its embryonic stages. While games like Doom have largely cottoned the mainstream world onto the appeal of 3D first person action games, gaming was still on its trainers for the third dimension and was growing exponentially in quality and popularity with every year.
I remember reading articles in magazines like PC Powerplay from 1996 with shots of a very Quake-like first person shooter with unbelievably good graphics and a neat gothic-come-cyberpunk theme, along with quotes from Tim Sweeney saying the game was going to be out that year. It was really looking like Quake was going to be outdone by this game - of course, 1996 came and went though, and so did 1997, and Epic was beaten to the punch for their Quake killer by id Software themselves with Quake 2.
For quite a while, it looked like Unreal might not even make it out the door. But then in May 1998 it finally arrived and instantly blew away quite a few entrenched expectations about what we should expect from the genre and 3D games in general. While we were used to enclosed spaces and gritty sci-fi settings, and Unreal admittedly does features these staples extensively, frequently it was also placing us in a rich tropical paradise, full of sweeping vistas and some novel visual effects that hadn't been widely seen in games before.
I'm sure it would take a great deal more patience and introspection for one who has been raised on the Halo and Modern Warfare generation of games to appreciate Unreal than it would for the rest of us, but I remember a time when myself, and all of my friends, took a peek over the edge of the cliff at Nyleve's Falls for the first time. To this day just that first look remains one of my favourite moments in gaming. Mind you, this was on our Pentium 100 with 16MB of RAM, running at 320x240 pixels and lucky to scrape the bottom end of 10 frames per second. It wasn't until I saw the game running on a friend's computer at 640x480 on a Pentium II and a 3DFX Voodoo card that I truly got lost in it.
It's hard to overstate just what intense impact this game's visuals had on people at the time. After being cramped in dank corridors in most FPS games, being out in Unreal's living, breathing world felt liberating and utterly, utterly immersive.
In 1998 this blew my fucking MIND
Sometime in the near-ish future, we awake through the eyes of Prisoner 849, to find ourselves aboard the interstellar prisoner transport vessel Vortex Rikers, with our last memory being utter panic and terror as the ship spiralled out of control and gave way to the gravitational pull of a mysterious and unexplored planet. The ship has slammed hard into the surface of the planet, killing most of the crew and very nearly killing you.
After scavenging medical supplies to stitch your wounds shut and stepping over the mangled bodies of guards and your fellow prisoners, you emerge to the surface of a beautiful hostile planet.
As you explore and fight your way through the wilderness, you discover that the planet is under occupation from a hostile force known as the Skaarj, a sophisticated race of brutal, militaristic reptilian creatures, who have largely decimated and enslaved the Nali, the native crowd consisting of a four-armed, highly religious and largely benign race.
While your primary objective begins and ends as escape from the planet, your exploits unwittingly begin to inspire reverence and hope from the native population. Later texts found in the game begin to allude to the player being seen as some kind of messiah sent by the Nali's gods to liberate them from their slavery.
Along your travels, you also begin to stumble across other stories, including the relationship of the Krall with their Skaarj superiors, a race of alien mercenaries, genetically engineered soldiers called Brutes, an attempted rescue from another human vessel, and the struggle of a band of human survivors.
While there's obviously a lot of thought put into the universe and some rather interesting backstories intertwined through the game, Unreal's form of storytelling is done passively, to a degree that people who don't have a lot of patience in videogames will find it pretty much impenetrable.
Most of the narrative takes place either visually via the locations the player visits and the sights they see, and from blobs of text that are communicated via the player's "Universal Translator", a device that is somehow able to instantly decipher and accurately paraphrase all language written by a race that has ostensibly only just been encountered for the first time by humanity right now. (for a device with a display no more advanced than a Nokia 3310's monochrome screen that's pretty damn impressive). At no point in the game do you ever meet or converse with another living human being.
Much of the text in the game is used to provide clues to puzzles, however much more of it is fluff and almost none of these sidestories ever directly involve the player. Almost every single story encountered is one that has already occurred and concluded by the time of your arrival, and ultimately this ends up meaning that your emotional investment in the narrative is pretty much left up to you.
That said, many in-universe elements the Unreal series such as the Liandri Corporation, the relationship between the human race and the Skaarj, Krall and others, all live on in heavily revised forms to this day and trace their roots back to the original game from 1998.
"ISV-KRAN Chief Medical Officer Log:- Tatiana Zimna: We have come to this beautiful canyon lake monastery in our search for Kira's abductors. We'll make camp by this crucifix tonight and start early tomorrow."
"Science Officer Kira Argmanov: Separated from my crewmates from ISV-KRAN, I've only been able to stay alive by holding up in this bell tower. A native Nali helped me escape the prison cell the Skaarj put me in. Hopefully the Skaarj won't find me here."
...aaaand she's dead by the time you find her, how surprising
There are also two novels, entitled Prophet's Power and Hard Crash, which apparently expand on the universe of the original Unreal, although regrettably I've been unable to track down a copy of either to give my opinion on them. Myst With Guns
I imagine if you've made it this far through this video, that you might be a bit like me. I'm big into FPS games, but while I love blowing shit up with big guns and seeing lots of blood and gibs and explosions and muscular men shouting things at each other as the next red-blooded male, I also have a side that enjoys simple, meditative audiovisual experiences, contemplation, reflection, relaxation, and many other things that I often observe being referred to in the highly understanding and inclusive FPS community as "gay".
Most of the game's detractors in its heyday had two main complaints: One, that the multiplayer upon release sucked, and two, that the single player campaign was, well, boring.
Indeed, if you're used to most FPS titles you'll probably find it a little eye-raising to discover that Unreal, even on its hardest difficulty settings, features long and frequent stretches where the player doesn't encounter a single enemy. In many of these stretches there is also very little in the way of resistance offered by the game in an environmental or any other kind of capacity. A few levels simply exist for you to walk from one end of the level to the other and that's it.
This also, was a design aspect that I myself never really understood until I read the readme file for the leaked Unreal Beta - which described the gameplay as "100% action and exploration". (check here
for the readme - scroll down to post #6)
Once I got used to the idea that the game was intended to play like two parts Quake and one part Dear Esther, I began to find a more profound appreciation for the game's design philosophy than I did before. This isn't about puzzles to complement the shooting either - there's the odd little test of observational skills here and there, but there's nothing really cerebral going on. Instead, it's about emotion, escapism and reverie.
Sometimes during the summer months I like to go for a stroll through the park when the moon is out and the night is warm enough. When I'm out there, I'll stand under the trees, close my eyes and listen to the leaves rustling in the wind, and smell the nectar on the breeze. In my opinion, I think that's a large part of the kind of emotional response this game is trying to elicit from the player.
Even so, this odd mish-mash of diametrically opposed styles of gameplay comes with some casualties on both sides. For the slow-paced gamer, you may find your immersion in the game hurt by the fact that you're hurtling through these beautiful, serene environments at 20 kilometres an hour, while twitch veterans will find themselves frustrated when they're forced to go through what amounts to being a very long corridor with a big gun full of ammo in their face and nothing to shoot at.
For what it's worth, I find that games like the Elder Scrolls series have come closer to matching the feelings I experienced while playing Unreal for the first time than any bona-fide first person shooter that I've seen in recent years. A great degree of the effort in Unreal has been channeled into this idea that you are to be immersed in this beautiful, immersive world - to see the birds flying over, the purple-tinged clouds rolling through, the flowing water as you row your way through Serpent Canyon.
Another big part of this appeal is in the music - the majority of Unreal's music is composed by Alexander Brandon, the guy who also went on to do the music for the first two Deus Ex games. Supporting him is Michiel van den Bos, and together the two of them have produced a soundtrack that really helps to define the feel of Unreal and to a lesser extent, its pseudo-sequel Unreal Tournament.
Unreal's score flitters between quiet and romantic moods, to rave-like cacophonies that for the most part suit the feel of what's going on. A few tracks, like the BGM for the floating Na Pali Haven and the opening level Vortex Rikers are absolutely sublime in their subtlety. Others like Bluff Eversmoking and Noork's Elbow convey a sense of lush foreshadowing and mystery, while the music in Harobed Village is full of quiet sentiment and mourning.
Getting back to the negatives - further detracting from the idea of Unreal as a really fully functional FPS game is the weaponry, which while original, only features a few conventional guns and struggles to offer effective shooting mechanics. You have the dispersion pistol as your typical sci-fi pew pew gun, the automag as your typical sci-fi hand cannon, the flak cannon as your shotgun equivalent the sniper rifle as your... sniper rifle.
Many of these standard weapons however, only come much later in the game and so you'll more often than not find yourself flinging slow-moving razor blades at fast-moving enemies or attempting to peg guys with lumps of green goo. The Skaarj in particular move very quickly and can dodge most of your shots extremely easily thanks to having zero reaction time between the shot being fired and the Skaarj taking evasive maneuvers. Often this leads to you getting thoroughly trounced and a lot of the time it'll feel like it was through no fault of your own.
The kinaesthetic appeal of using these guns also suffers in comparison to the competition of its era is also lacking, with games like Sin, Quake and Half-Life all offering an arsenal that feels much more powerful and fun to use. My hat goes off to Epic though for their daring, and weapons like the bio rifle, ASMD and flak cannon remain staples of the Unreal Tournament games.
While there are levels that have obviously survived heavy planning and iterative development like the Temple of Vandora, Na Pali Haven and others, a few more like Noork's elbow are obviously mostly unplanned and feature very open layouts. Generally the level design of the more heavily detailed levels is much more interesting for gameplay and thusly are where I find myself returning to most often, while other open spaces serve as calming intermissions between these dense parts.
I'll warn that the middle to latter parts of the game drag badly, even more so if you haven't been able to penetrate the game's highly opaque and minimalistic method of storytelling. Often you'll find yourself wandering through massive installations with pretty much no idea of why you're there. Generally once I reach the Terraniux sections of the game I often switch off right there as you're suddenly forced back into these tight techbase/sewer type sections that we all abhor so much in videogames these days. Later, the corridor crawl makes a return during the ISV-Kran and mothership levels.
Finally we arrive at the multiplayer, which because of poor net optimisation, coupled with its poor core shooter mechanics, resulted in a game that wasn't really a whole ton of fun for deathmatches. It had its time on some servers and LANs for a bit, but eventually gave way back to Quake again. I'm sure I don't need to say what happened when Epic responded to this by beginning work on their 'bot pack' addon for the game, which mid-development ended up becoming a standalone product.
Summarily I'll just say that Unreal works better as an exploration game than as a shooter, and I'll wager that's why it's less popular than its spinoffs, which eschewed the former in favour of perfecting the latter. In addition to this, a large part of the game's appeal lay in its visuals, thanks in no small part due to its revolutionary engine for the time. Okay, fine, let's talk about the engine for a bit
I'll try to be brief here because there are no doubt plenty of videos around on youtube that are far more capable of explaining the evolution of the Unreal engine than myself, but I'll start with the basics.
While of course Unreal was widely acknowledged as a graphical powerhouse in terms of its fancy effects and lighting, it's also built in a way that's fundamentally quite different from its contemporaries.
For starters, the way that levels are built in the game is basically inverse of other popular engines of the time. The Quake engine built levels by starting off with an empty void and adding building blocks one by one, called brushes. Essentially, a square room was made up of six brushes, each one making one side of the room as well as the floors and ceilings.
Unreal instead starts you off with a giant block of clay and then gives you scalpel to carve blocks out of. The upside to this is that it's impossible to get leaks which cause vis processing to fail or potentially lead to players falling out of levels and into an infinite abyss of nothingness. In comparison to Quake games, the Unreal engine was highly accessible out of the box by way of including UnrealEd, which was basically almost a full-fledged SDK built into the game.
It was also initially written in Visual Basic and was one of the most crash-happy programs I've ever used.
The Unreal engine was also notable for coming with a software renderer that came close to maintaining feature parity with its hardware renderers. Users without 3D cards in the day could still get access to coloured lighting, transparency and procedural textures, resulting in a visual experience which was almost as good as the one you'd get without one, aside from some severe clipping issues on in-game models.
Coloured lighting was something we'd already seen in Quake 2 but procedural texturing allowed for complex animated surfaces such as rippling water, rising steam and forks of lightning, similar to but not as flexible or rich as the pixel shader effects that we see these days. For the time though, it allowed for effects that largely hadn't been seen in games before. Sure, the steam coming out of the pipe in that first air duct was basically nothing more than two cardboard cutouts arranged in an X shape, but it was still enough to make me stop and stare at it for a while.
While the engine was revolutionary, it also came out at a time when the Direct3D rendering API was fast on the rise, and initially came ill-equipped to deal with this development. Early builds of Unreal were highly optimised for the 3DFX Glide API and performance on Direct3D was notoriously bad. This reception led to Epic furiously working on improving their D3D renderer, which was thankfully pretty much ironed out by the time Unreal Tournament arrived.
Lastly I'll mention the music, which also differs from most games of the time in that it didn't use Redbook CD audio or MIDI, which are the two routes most games of the time were taking. Instead it made use of module music, which kind of sits in the middle between the two - essentially with music files being comprised of CD-quality wave samples, arranged to play in a programmed pattern a la MIDI. This resulted in a musical format that was less robust than a CD, but certainly a lot less hungry on space and a lot richer than MIDI tracks would be. I believe that with version 2 of the Unreal Engine, Epic switched from module music to Ogg vorbis, which isn't much different from MP3 as far as its basic principle of being a compressed wave sound.
Of course, as we all know, subsequent generations of the Unreal Engine exploded in popularity and licensing of the engine has now become one of Epic's primary revenue streams, as well as a bit of a de facto industry standard. Return to Na Pali and Unreal 2
RTNP is the official expansion to the original Unreal - in this, after Prisoner 849's escape from the planet, she is apparently captured by Earth's forces and blackmailed into going back down on a recovery mission. Along the way we get a few additional plot thickening elements thrown in including the obligatory betrayal.
Interestingly this is the first time we actually hear of 'Na Pali' as the name of the planet that Unreal is set upon. In the original game, Na Pali was only the name of the sky town floating above the clouds, while the planet itself went unnamed, and apparently this little change has ended up being canonised.
It's easy to dismiss the expansion as simply more of the same but overall it becomes obvious that the expansion is developed by a different team of people for the most part. For a start, the main plotline is told in a much more overt fashion, which I was thankful for. This includes voiced dialogue for the first time, which is heard from the player in a journal-like fashion between maps. It's all pretty dry, but at least it gives some context for each stage, which is something the original game often lacked at points. Complaints about Unreal's original-but-not-very-fun arsenal have also been addressed by providing the player a number of FPS staples like an assault rifle right out of the starting gate.
Legend Entertainment have clearly taken the classic FPS approach to RTNP - it's nice to see this means that many of my complaints about the base game are now fixed, but by the same token, correcting Unreal's design direction that often seemed unsure of itself has resulted in a more stock FPS game than the spiritual journey that Unreal often would try and succeed in taking you on. I'll also note that many of the levels are actually leftovers from the original game's development, which I'll count as a positive rather than a negative.
Speaking of Legend, I'll take this opportunity to talk about Unreal 2 for a moment - a game that doesn't really seem to find fans in anyone. Unreal die-hards gave it shit because it didn't feel like it was a true Unreal game, and the apathetic and jaded games press gave it shit because it played like a lackluster sci-fi shooter with a slow pace and a lack of originality.
Of course, that's not to say that Unreal 2 didn't have some amazingly awesome ideas and a passionate team behind it. Check out Matthias Worch's blog
for details on the kind of vision behind the game and the problems that ended up leading to it turning out the way it did. Overall, while Unreal 2 is disappointing, I'll still applaud Legend's efforts for trying to take the series in an original direction and do their own thing. That said, I've only managed to play through the game once, subsequent attempts burned me out almost immediately and I will probably never touch it again. The Legacy
Really, the Unreal franchise as a whole is a strange thing - the Tournament offshoot has easily overtaken its progenitor in popularity, resulting in a rather lopsided looking tree. While the original game was one that struggled to decide on a design direction that suited it, the current landscape of the first person genre could lend itself incredibly well to supporting this idea of '100% action and exploration'.
Slower-paced, more deliberate gunplay, weaving in with heavier puzzle, open world and survival elements a la Far Cry 2, complemented with more fleshed-out story telling with interesting character development could result in an experience that's both exciting and tense, but deeply personal and introspective at the same time. That's something I'd gladly throw my money at and I think most people would if it were done well enough.
But of course, Epic games is a different place now comprised of very different people, catering to a very different audience in a very different era. In the meantime though, the original Unreal maintains not one but two active fan communities - these are UnrealSP.org and OldUnreal.org, who remain dedicated to keeping the original game and its expansion alive via new maps, retexturing projects and fan patches. If you have any inclination towards revisiting the world of Na Pali I highly recommend checking these sites out.
Unreal is a game that's commonly thought of as 'the start' of something. It's the start of a massive franchise of games that only just in the last few years seemed to start running out of steam. It's the start of a rich bloodline of gaming technology that is still running strong (Dishonoured, an Unreal Engine-powered game, was just released a few days ago as I write this).
Unreal Engine around 1996
Unreal Engine in 2013
But what a lot of people forget is that Unreal as a game, on its own, is a flawed gem, that wanted to break boundaries of what we should expect from FPS games, not just what we should expect from a game engine. And, hey Epic, so long as you're willing to leave your steroid-guzzling dudebro super soldiers on planet Sera, it's also a game that's begging for a sequel using modern day technology.
PS: I took a lot more screenshots for this entry than I ended up including in it. Some more shots here: [link]
Running with the Direct3D 10 renderer for Unreal Tournament and with high-res textures applied.