Unreal II: The Awakening
It’s official - after we were the first to break the news to the world on our website last December, and the news spread around the net like VD on a scout camp shortly thereafter, Infogrames has come clean about Unreal Tournament 2. Not only does the game exist, it’s been in secret development at Digital Extremes for over a year now and is scarcely six months from completion.
As gobsmacked as we were at this revelation, there’s actually very little to get surprised about. Not only was the announcement inevitable given the imminent release of Unreal II, but the sequel to the world’s second favourite online shooter (at last count) picks up very much where its forerunner left off. The range of ten weapons has altered a little, the 30 new levels are bigger, the bots are smarter and the character models more outlandish, but essentially it’s business as usual. Except of course that the whole thing looks absolutely gorgeous courtesy of Epic’s latest cutting-edge engine technology, essentially the same as that being used in Unreal II, which is nice.
In fact, the biggest changes to gameplay are in the single-player bot battles, where team management and strategy have been introduced to add depth to proceedings. You’ll create a team from the 50-odd new characters in the game, each possessing varying abilities and characteristics, and build it into an invincible fighting unit by upping the abilities of your fellows or hiring better players. You’ll also be able to specify positions and fighting styles for your team members.
The idea of this is to give the game more of the flavour of a sport (in the spirit of Speedball 2), where you’re vying to improve your ranking and perfect your tactics rather than simply progressing through levels. This logic has also been applied to the multiplayer side, where five game modes have been chosen according to their sporting potential. So you’ve got vanilla and team-based Deathmatch and Capture The Flag, but also Domination, Survivor and 'Bombing Run’, in which a bomb must be dropped in the enemy base, but can also be passed around like a rugby ball.
Other significant changes are the inclusion of small driveable vehicles and new special moves expanding on the dodge feature from the first UT, such as double jumps, super-speed and berserker. You’ll also spawn with a full complement of weapons, bar certain 'super-weapons’ including an Ion Cannon (which fires down from a satellite) and a guided nuclear device. In addition, ammo, armour and health pick-ups have been replaced by recharge stations.
Whether these ideas can put the UT name back atop the FPS podium remains to be seen; the only certainty is that graphical splendour will not be the source of any disappointment.
Download Unreal II: The Awakening
We've been waiting a long time for the next evolutionary step in first-person shooters. I don't care what anyone says, nothing released in the last two years has done more than take small steps towards real progress.
Deus Ex was truly revolutionary, and in many respects the way I would hope first-person games will go, but not strictly a thunderous action romp. I'm talking about the intense anxiety of those first few Doom games or the sheer joy of bulldozing through a Duke Nukem level. I'm talking pure action. And I'm talking single-player.
There's little that can equal the full, in-your-face thrill of an evenly matched bout of Quake III or Counter-Strike but, even without problems of lag, cheating and the difficulty of finding opponents that don't practice 24 hours a day, these are just short-term kicks. It's very different to immerse yourself in a single-player story, where everything has been designed just for you. Multiplayer is a sport, single-player an artform. In contrast with most developers, Legend Entertainment has done the smart thing and has ignored online modes completely, avoiding the danger of spreading themselves too thinly. Instead they have concentrated on creating the ultimate solo shooter. The question is not only "have they succeeded?" but also "is it enough?"
There's certainly something evolutionary about Unreal II. It takes elements from games like Doom, Half-Life, and AvP2 and wraps them up in the most splendid-looking package imaginable, with a dose of intergalactic plotting for good measure. Those looking for something truly groundbreaking though will be disappointed.
Because while Unreal II does many new things and is certainly no clone, neither is it trying to revolutionise gaming and shatter all your preconceptions. After all, this is an Unreal game. It has an image and a reputation to maintain and a fanbase to please. You don't get Radioheads in the game industry: if the fans want angsty rock, you don't serve them experimental electronica.
But Unreal II does have some aces up its sleeve: its breathtaking beauty, a startling variety ot gameplay, some well-developed characters and a plot that does more than serve as a trivial excuse for the shooting.
As ex-marine turned security marshal John Dalton, you start off on a mission to investigate a facility on a small planet whose communications have been cut off. As you descend in your shuttlecraft it's obvious something isn't quite right. You can tell by the piles of bodies, the sprayed blood and the impaled heads that greet you. To say nothing of some rather unsettling alien noises. But it's daylight, the sky is blue and the world is awash with colour. So there's nothing to be scared of, right? Wrong. The first movement in this symphony of violence is straight out of the Aliens vs Predator songbook, and it's not long before you're pushing your chair away from the screen as some nasty creatures fill the screen with bolts of lightning. And that's before you meet the Skaarj.
Wake Up, Boo!
The powerful, ugly aliens from the first Unreal are back. And they look so good it takes a while before you can fight them properly. On the one hand you'd really like to turn tail and run when they first come charging at you, but on the other you'd desperately like to get a closer look. Their towering frames, covered in sinewy muscle and leathery skin, is just one of the many sights that will have you staring in astonishment at your screen. As a result, your first few attempts will end up with you spraying a distant mountain with bullets as your body is tom to shreds like a ragdoll. The thing is, the close-up glimpse you get just before your innards are pulled out of your eye-sockets is actually worth it.
The next level is a taster of better things to come (because this is a game which keeps improving as you progress), as you find a crashed space craft and have to help the soldiers to fend off hordes of aliens while you wait for a dropship to pick you all up. Despite the dusk, which keeps a lot of the battle tantalisingly unclear, you once again have the urge to just sit back and watch, as your comrades run, scream and waste as many enemies as they can. Not that you can stay neutral for long, as ever more powerful Skaarj hurl their hulking masses at you while you fumble through your weaponry for something effective. This is the kind of game where you need to hit the pause button on a regular basis just to catch your breath.
Soon after, some may think the game dips a bit in quality. The rest of us know better and just strap in for a relentless bout of nostalgia, as the primitive thrills of Doom are served up with a coating of visual and technical wonder. It's leave-your-brains-at-the-door stuff, with dozens of arachnid creatures scuttling towards you like a hideous living carpet while some larger msectoids hurl their formidable bulks through the air in an attempt to squash your head. It's like Eight Legged Freaks meets Starship Troopers by way of old-school shooting. But even if this isn't your type of thing, you'll be having too much fun with the flamethrower (perfect for setting the swarming critters ablaze) and marvelling at the effects to care.
But it's not until later that you realise that it isn't just the graphics that are a bit special and on another level entirely from what we've seen before. Variety comes in the shape of infiltration missions, where sniping and using the terrain for cover as you break into a fortress-like building give the feel of a sci-fi version of Project IGI. But it's the levels where you have to defend an area or structure that really impress. If you're anything like me, you'll be keeping the save games taken at these points to replay over and over. And I can guarantee that each time you play them it will be different.
The first such mission takes place after a cute alien animal has messed up your ship's engines and you're forced to land for repairs. You're given some field generators - which create force fields where you want them - and some rocket turrets, and have to set up a line of defence before an enemy ship drops a load of its soldiers near your grounded vessel. Your job is to stop any of them getting to the door and hacking the entry code. After the first wave has decimated your turrets and left you with hardly a force field to speak of, you get another wave. And another one. Even with a health and shield regenerator nearby it takes plenty of tactical guile as well as swift mouse targeting to dispose of them. The fantastic terrain, full of dips, rises and rocky outcrops makes for a perfect battlefield. The fight is made all the more difficult by the fact that these enemies are even more visually impressive than the Skaarj. They are genetically engineered female warriors who hide their bald heads behind some incredible armoured suits that look so colourful and alive with energy it seems a shame to pummel them with rockets.
Your next defending assignment presents another surprise: the resources you have to arrange tactically are marines you can give orders to. It's not a Ghost Recon type of command (you simply tell them which entrance you want them to cover) but neither does it need to be. Once the enemy waves arrive (as tiny specks in the distance of a sublime desert planet) it's another case of colourful, stunning bedlam.
But it's another defensive mission later on that really takes the cookie. Here you have marines (who you can now order to cover you and follow you around) and turrets and field generators. The resulting clash is about as intense, manic and enjoyable as any I've ever encountered in a shooter.
However, these Ha/o-like touches and all the talk of hectic battles shouldn't mislead you. Unreal // paces itself throughout so that there are enough lulls to compose yourself and truly appreciate the action when it comes. You might even find that the speed at which you run feels a little slow in places, but you have to remember that you're wearing some serious armour and carrying some heavy weaponry.
Down The Hatch
The tempo is kept just as varied as the gameplay by having you return to your ship, the Atlantis, in between missions. It's similar in this way to Elite Force, where you got to hang around Voyager now and again. But because the Atlantis is a small vessel, it has much more detail than the Star Trek cruiser, and you don't have the annoying feeling that you are being denied access to large parts of your own ship. Here you can visit every room (including your own sleeping quarters), open hatches and crawl Alien-styte through the floor ducts that lead to vital engine panels, and talk to the members of your crew.
You'll find more information on each of them in the Crew Cut panel, but it's sufficient to say that their presence adds a touch of depth you might not expect from this type of game. Each one of them has a complex back-story that explains their personality and they all evolve throughout the course of the game. The least complex character is reserved for yourself. Good, substantial characters are hard to come by in any game, but first-person shooters always seem to star muscly, obtuse meatheads. At least John is a rounded person, with a sense of humour and decent personality rather than a typical Duke Nukem-inspired hooligan.
Legend is convinced that what will set Unreal II apart from all other shooters is the story. But, while it's great to have a proper overarching plot (in this case, the discovery of a series of ancient artefacts which several races are chasing in the hope of creating an ultimate weapon), it still feels at times like little more than an excuse for the action set pieces. The character development I've already mentioned does do more to set it apart from other titles, but you get the feeling there too that Legend was scared of adding too much depth for the hardcore FPS fans.
The addition of dialogue choices in the midst of your conversations does create the illusion of a greater involvement with the story and does help to immerse you in the crew, making you feel like you're interacting in an evolving story rather than sitting back and eating it up. But it's very simplistic, with only a few choices available. Which I suppose is just as it needs to be to satisfy the trigger-happy fans the title is so clearly aimed at. But just in case such shooting aficionados get bored with even this amount of storytelling. Legend has made sure it only really takes place during the mid-mission breaks aboard your ship. And if you don't want to get the full backstories of each character, you can just avoid your crew and run directly to the shuttle bay. It's almost as if they expect the game to be played mostly by inbred hicks who have difficulty reading and need to shave their knuckles every morning. And who's to say they're wrong?
The Best Graphics In The World. Ever
Graphics aren't everything. Especially in a chess simulation or a cutesy puzzle game. But in a first-person shooter where you wander through grand alien landscapes, meet all manner of strange creatures and are generally sucked into a whole different world, they're pretty darned important. It's all very well clamounng for deeper stones and more onginal ideas, but the better the graphics the better the immersion. And you won't get any more immersed in the physical reality of a game than this. The screenshots speak for themselves. But wait until you've seen it moving. You could sit and watch flames all day, and almost feel the warmth radiating from them. But there are plenty of other incredible effects too. Take the smoke for example. Not only does it have a real corporeal look to it, it behaves like real smoke too. I spent ages using a smoke grenade just before a concussion one and staring in awe as the shock wave made the smoke disperse in different directions.
And it's not just the visuals that are top notch, so is the sound. From the noises of different creatures, to the ambient sounds and weapon effects, right up to the excellent voice acting, the quality doesn't diminish for a single moment. Even the in-game soundtrack complements the action so well you hardly notice it. Except when you find yourself tapping along to it of course.
Scientists say that Great White sharks are misunderstood. They're not mindless killers who will try to eat anything within sight, it's just that, lacking hands and the ability to speak, their way of communicating with the world is by putting it in its mouth and sinking their teeth into it. Similarly, in a shooter you communicate with the world pnmanly through your weapons. That is why their feel is so important. And in Unreal II you have a truly amazing multilingual arsenal at your disposal. I am not exaggerating when I say that it has the best and most imaginative selection of weapons of any game ever made. For a run down of the most important ones you can take a look at the Top Of The League Arsenal side panel, but all you need to know is that these beauties alone are worth the admission pnce. The moment you receive the spider gun is a true revelation. It works by shooting a spore at your victim which then bursts into dozens of tiny spiders that crawl all over their body, making them run around screaming. It's almost on a par with those moments in Undying where you could induce your enemies to commit suicide.
Just A Number
There is no doubting the greatness of Unreal II, but that's not to say it's perfect. I've already pointed out the shortcomings in the story, and there's a general feeling that Legend have kept it as simple as they could in order to satisfy the target audience.
The problem is this: as games get ever more sophisticated, how can we keep putting up with titles that have you shooting at things 99 per cent of the time? Hasn't this soupod-up fairground Duck Hunt gone as far as it can?
Of course there will always be people who want nothing more than their meat and two veg rations of endless shooting, but it's about time we opened our taste buds to more exotic flavours. This industry has too many Dte Hards and not enough Mulholland Drives. But that's not Unreal Il's fault. Legend has takon the first-person shooter genre as far as it can go before it mutates into something deeper, more interesting and more complex.
The real advances aren't coming in the form of traditional first-person shooters; they're crossover games that merge and disregard genres in an effort to create deeper and more satisfying experiences. They're games like Splinter Cell, Grand Theft Auto III, Deus Ex 2 or Black & White 2.
But judged against the Top Ten Shooters in our A-List, Unreal II tjas little competition. It's all a matter of taste, of course. For example, I found that No One Lives Forever 2 became unfunny, derivative and boring after the first level. And though there is much to be said for the realistic setting of Medal of Honor, there's no denying that it uses up all its aces in a few fantastic levels, leaving the rest to sag.
I wish I could just walk away now without giving Unreal II a score, thus forcing it into direct competition with the likes of the games I've mentioned. A mathematical verdict seems like such an ungracefuf and inadequate way to convey the feel of this game. I would much rather you just took my word for it and went out and bought it. Sadly, boards of directors, marketing and advertising gimps would be completely lost without a number to hang on to. But it's just a number. The real knowledge can only be conveyed in words: Unreal II is in the same class as Doom, Duke Nukem 3D and that Valve game. Except that games koep getting better. And this is the best.
After a year of waiting (you have been waiting, right?), Unreal II finally hits a console. I’ll try to ignore the fact that the PC version, which looks nicer and lets you play with more people online, is also cheaper. The question is, since Xbox is already so lousy with Halo-ish titles, can you be quite so unbiased? The meat of Unreal II lies in its singleplayer game a dozen missions that do little to advance the genre but do look very, very pretty while going through the motions. Ultimately, however, single player suffers from a too-short story and dumb-as-rocks enemies, whod rather bum-rush than exhibit any sort of tactical acumen. But things look up with the XMP multiplayer mode, Unreals take on capture the flag its confusing at first, but get eight or 12 people going at once, and its Halo-class chaotic fun. Unreal II is ideal if you need some Xbox Live sci-fi shooting right now, but if not...not
Heres what Awakening puts on the table: a whole lotta guns and a bunch of dumb, ugly aliens to shoot with em take it or leave it. Sure, theres some mumbled story about a bunch of space bugs fixin to get their misshapen claws on some ancient artifacts, but your role here is nothing more than glorified inter-galactic exterminator. The co-op mode suffers from a bit of slowdown, but the Live modes team-based sci-fi combat should hold you over until Halo 2.
Unreal II plays like every first-person shooter pre-Halo. In fact, it begins so poorly, in such spectacularly mediocre fashion, that were I not reviewing it, Id have chucked it in a drawer until someone invented a way to retroactively make the first half interesting. But the threadbare plot begins to make some sense thereafter, and the reliance on sheer firepower gives way to more open-ended game-play. Bringing up the rear, and saving the game from obscurity, is a solid multiplayer Live game and the now de rigueur co-op mode (OK, so maybe it was made after Halo). Its too short, and not exactly gaming genius, but its medium fun while it lasts.
You could package Unreal 2 in a different box and call it 'Alien Shoot 'Em Up'? and there would be no substantial difference ' this is a generic, rest on your laurels title from developer Epic that, while beautiful to look at, is a bloated (3GB mandatory install), largely plotless shooter that is disappointing given the pleasant surprise that the original Unreal was when it was released.
Here's the long and short of the game: alien artifacts have turned up that, when meddled with, unleash a whole host of nasty creepy crawlies that you need to reduce to protoplasm or somehow send back from whence they came.
Your supposed motivation for all this is that you were once a military man who got busted out of the service for some vague transgression and are now working to show 'em they never should have kicked you out in the first place.
See also: virtually every cop / military / secret agent movie or TV show in the last 30 years.
Anyhow, now you're working for some faceless, futuristic military industrial corporation out in the bad neighborhoods of the universe with your buxom, sultry, tattooed first officer whose sole job seems to be walking you from the briefing room to your ship and back in her tight leather pants.
I have to pause here and ask: why even bother with a plot when all it entails is a bunch of maddeningly time consuming cut scenes, pointless conversations, and a storyline that, for the entire game can be summed up as 'fly to the next planet and kick alien butt' Oh yeah, blah, blah artifacts' blah blah, you might get your military rank back' blah, blah you wonder if your first officer might like you.
Why complain about this, when really we all know this is a shooter and that plot is often secondary in these titles? Because even with the aforementioned 3GB install, these memory-hog cut scenes and pointless conversations make for an inexcusable number of CD accesses and delays in gameplay.
Get used to this: loading' stand by' initializing. You'll see this no less than a dozen times before you finish your first minor mission, including three forced cut scenes of nothing more than your ship flying around over some planetscape or other before you even get to unholster your pistol for the first time. Grrr.
Now, there are some good things about Unreal 2 to be sure: it is a beautiful, beautiful game. Played on an ATI Radeon 9700 Pro the details, colors, and lighting effects are a wonder to behold. In fact, some of the best parts of the game are just looking around. Weather, ambient effects (steam, light, fire, water, molten metal, etc.), and texture details are all standard-setting, just as was the original Unreal. Very nicely done.
The audio is also terrific, however I gave it a 3 for this simple reason: if you use the recommended SoundBlaster Audigy and check the EAX option in the setup you will get a general protection fault and lose your place in the game about once every five minutes. Clearly this was not fully tested as it should have been. Like its predecessor, expect a host of patches and updates to correct these 'minor'? problems.
Gameplay is exactly what you'd expect of a shooter these days: some nicely hidden enemies that make you jump (especially if, like me, you really don't like spiders), some moderately tough puzzles, and some creative layouts, traps, and terrain that keep you thinking about where to step, jump, or try to squeeze through to get to your next objective.
What you will immediately notice as missing is any kind of multiplayer. Yes, yes, there's Unreal Tournament in all of its permutations, but it's a shame that even here in 2003 there's still little on the market other than Serious Sam and Ghost Recon that allows any kind of co-op multiplayer' it would be great fun in Unreal 2, to say nothing of a little deathmatch action.
Ultimately, while there is a lot of eye candy here, there's nothing at all new. Your money is much better spent on Medal of Honor or Return to Wolfenstein or saved for Doom 3 or Duke Nukem Returns when and if the latter ever comes out.