Unreal II: The Awakening was Mass Effect before the world was ready for Mass Effect. A lone wolf saving the galaxy from an ancient evil, cruising about their own spaceship doing things their way? Saving the galaxy while helping your crew make peace with their pasts? Moderately hard sci-fi? Horrendously long level loading times? It’s all here!
Don’t get me wrong, I adore Unreal II, but there’s no denying a certain level of jankiness that a Mass Effect-level budget could probably have smoothed over. Even so, Unreal II got there first.
Unreal II: The Awakening
Okay, yes, Unreal II is a very linear first-person shooter and has nary a wink towards being an RPG. Protagonist John Dalton may command the Atlantis but it flies where the plot rails dictate, not at your whim like the Normandy; he’s also a washed-up reject with a small crew of misfits, not a rising star like Shepard with his dream team of the alien best and brightest.
Even so, there are a lot of similarities. Unreal II‘s as much a planet-hopping adventure, and does have (limited) conversation trees to offer choice in your character interaction. Plus crewmates Aida and Isaak have serious emotional baggage; you might not get to go on a loyalty mission to put their fears to rest, but you can still work through their Issues in dialogue (though, like the game itself, the paths are linear and a few tiny forks make no actual difference).
Oh sure, you can walk away from all conversations and just play the missions. But that would be missing the point!
Of course, there are other places where further RPG-like elements are conspicuous in their absence. Unreal II might eschew the consistently brilliant standard weapon set for boringly military basics, but it’s still got a big set of weapons and a few comedy outliers. Before each mission, Isaak tells you what kit you’re going to take with you, usually introducing whatever weapon you picked up fresh last time.
Indeed, it often sends you down with far too many weapons. In the heat of a firefight, scrolling through the various categories of junk that’s not-quite-what-you-need-right-now takes precious time and attention away from shooting that super-armoured Skaarj that’s spraying bolts in your face. This is further compounded by the amount of ammunition lying around; perhaps another symptom of the short levels, it’s very rare that you’ll run out of bullets for all your favourite guns and actually need to swap down to something less comfortable.
This, I reckon, could have been alleviated in two ways. First and foremost — yes, allow you to choose what weapons to take for yourself. The Shock Lance, for example, is pretty cack until you get to fighting the robotic Drakk, where its EMP alt-fire downs even the bigger Drakk in a single hit. For most missions, I’d rather just leave it behind. We don’t need inventory tetris here, nor a four-weapon limit (shudder), but there’s definitly room for development.
The second way would feed into the downtrodden bent of the narrative. The Atlantis is kept running by scavenging; you’re under-funded and Isaak has to trade for parts everywhere you go (sadly off screen) to keep it in the air. But when you actually start a mission, you get a fresh pile of ammunition for every weapon — wouldn’t it have been more in keeping with that to maintain global and persistent ammunition between missions? You could choose to take up a precious weapon slot with a weapon that only had a few shells left and hope to find more, or leave behind those special weapons that are now empty or you just don’t think will be useful.
It would certainly allow the spidergun (yes, there is a gun that shoots spiders) to be more interesting. There’s only one mission in the entire game that would concievably let you gather up “araknid biomass” for ammunition, so having a truly finite amount of ammo would let the weapon be much more powerful without imbalancing it too badly. It could then avoid being a useless comedy weapon.
Mass Effect, of course, was a million times the girth and depth of Unreal II. So many things that happened off-screen in U2 would have been cinematics in Mass Effect, so many “he said/she said” conversations would have been full dialogue trees with success and failure conditions and lasting consequences. The seeds, however, are most definitely there.
Alas, they couldn’t pull it off. Seven cut missions and a world of unimplemented systems later, we got a short shooter with a few undernourished bells and whistles. Still excellent, though.