Blog 475: Ultimate Unreal Binge 1: Unreal

I like the Unreal universe, and all of the Unreal games (yes, even the oft-lambasted UT3). I’ve reviewed some of the Unreal games multiple times, and some none at all — but since I haven’t played any one of them all the way through for a little while now, I thought it would be a nice exercise to play all of them all the way through. Back to back.

  • Unreal and Return to Na Pali
  • Unreal Tournament
  • Unreal II: the Awakening
  • Unreal Tournament 2004
  • Unreal Tournament 3

Unreal

My first encounter with the Unreal franchise was not with the first game in the series; in 1998, we didn’t even have a computer, let alone would my parents have been willing to let me play violent shooters.

But, with my adventures in Unreal Tournaments of all descriptions (after they stopped caring what I played), I knew I had to get the original eventually — and the gaming industry eventually obliged by re-releasing it as part of the Unreal Anthology. I already had UT and UT2k4, but for Unreal, its mission pack and Unreal II alone this pack was well worth the price.

Luckily, after years of waiting, I was not disappointed.

After smashing all his barrels, I jumped up onto the corpse of the man the poor Nali was mourning to read his diary. Star Princess my ass.

What Unreal has over all else is its ability to create atmosphere. It’s not afraid to stop throwing enemies at you and just give you some wonderful scenery to take in.

Though I suppose playing the game with modern eyes, the low-poly bodies smeared across the floors and walls of the crashed Vortex Rikers prison ship of the beginning have a little less impact than they might have done back in the day. Regardless, it’s still an eerie place to crawl out of (especially with the guy at the controls who twitches when you walk up to him). The darkness, the eerie music, the occasional explosions and collapses, the echoing screams…

Luckily Unreal isn’t an endless train of the same, unlike, say, Quake II. From ruined spaceships to lush grasslands and ancient temples and all the variations of those, there’s a lot of the delightfully bizarre floating around. Take the early Temple of Chizra, where the Nali venerate the Stick of Six Fires and punish the impure with a Sky Demon (Skaarj) — there is (to use a phrase that will amuse Gregg) an “interesting fusion” of futuristic technology and medieval mysticism that leaves you a little unsure of whether or not the magic is real. I like that; it’s the same vein that Sonic 3 & Knuckles taps.

Bloody Cliffracers don't make this dance of death with a Skaarj assassin any easier.

Of course, it’s not all ruins and mysticism. The other half of the game is spent tromping through industrial facilities of varying purpose and design. Mines, waste processing plants, repurposed castles… Variety remains the spice of life, and Unreal has a big pile of memorable levels.

Though I do find the pacing a little odd in places. The grounded Mercenary starship Terraniux, for example, has a massively pounding fast-paced soundtrack which matches your rocket-powered movement speed; but the level demands a bit of exploration and reading of translator messages and isn’t all action all the time. I always get lost on the hydroponic gardens part, and the music just makes me run around in circles instead of finding that switch I miss every damn time. Maybe that’s intentional, of course.

The rest of the game is much better set. Atmospheric music and ancient ruins, swapping to action music parts for actual fights and settling back to something a little more relaxed for everything else (though it has to be said that music segment swaps are pure location/event scripted and not part of a natural combat music system).

And then there’s the health that doesn’t regenerate. While working through the crashed ISV Kran, I moved on to Deck 1 without realising that I only had five hit points left — and two huge Skaarj between me and the next med-kits. It took a few tries, and I did manage it, but it lent a certain manic tension to the situation that regenerating health would have blunted. Thought for the day.

Unreal's food-mixer minigun remains one of my favourite weapon designs of all time.

Return to Na Pali

So if you like Unreal itself, chances are you’ll enjoy the mission pack — which is more of the same. Except, well, it added a few fine extras, like an introduction cinematic. Unreal‘s opening is a bit jarring because you just switch on; even Quake II had a proper intro cinematic that set up the action (a pre-rendered one, no less). Return to Na Pali has a cute in-game cinematic which has actual dialogue.

Nali coos are so kawaii.

I suppose that’s the real thing that distinguishes the mission pack from its parent — dialogue. From the intro cinematic to the post-level comments (which dry up for a while after the “plot twist”), we actually hear our character speak. Suddenly the game hasĀ  moved on from telling sporadic little stories within the levels to actually playing out a coherent over-arching plot. Which is nice. We get the same sprawling linear FPS, not bogged down by incessant cinematics, but with additional character and context and an explicit story.

We also get some of the game’s best tunes in the expansion; the little fly-by second intro whose tune gets cut off well before its prime, the stunning Neve’s Crossing, the music of the finale cinematic…

Gala's Peak may be bad-ass but it's no Bluff Eversmoking and the slippery ground doesn't help endear it to the player.

But I have complaints. The mission pack was out-sourced from Epic (who were focusing on the Botpack expansion, or rather, Unreal Tournament, at this point) and it’s blatantly obvious as soon as you look at any one of the new weapon or enemy models. The textures are gratingly sharp, which in itself is not a problem — but line up the gritty Combat Assault Rifle next to the low-res mush of the Flak Cannon and the difference is painful.

The new weapons are also a bit unimaginative. While Unreal had a massive slew of weird and wonderful weapons (let alone each one having two firing modes for extra fun), those added by Return to Na Pali are boringly military. Machine gun, grenade launcher, rocket launcher… Where are my razor-blades and sludge-launchers?

And then there’s that heinous battle against a pile of hit-scan insta-kill space marines on top of the Prometheus. Might work when you’ve got lives and cover in UT, but in a death-is-the-end with no corners to duck round…

TO BE CONTINUED...

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