Taken from The Adrenaline Vault
Review by: Emil Pagliarulo & David Laprad
Published: May 25, 1998

Timing is everything.

Over three years ago, Epic MegaGames, a small, successful shareware developer that published cute platform games and pinball titles, made public two test screenshots from a new 3D game engine aimed at outdoing the titans of Mesquite, TX. While id Software busied themselves making another game about a rocket launcher-toting, alien fragging marine, Epic had loftier aspirations. Although most details were kept under wraps, it was known the title would make full use of MMX, a forthcoming technology that promised to unleash incredible computing power. In an era when the term "3D accelerator" was not part of the basic vocabulary for gamers, this news and the screenshots stirred intense interest among the gaming community, and a large, loyal fellowship formed around a first-person shooter no one had seen.

Time passed, and id Software published its game. Not only that, the company developed and published a more advanced sequel. All the while, Epic languished behind a number of false starts, including its technological investment in the over-hyped MMX. Designers joined the team, worked for months, then left, with all their work being discarded. Major release dates were missed, and fevered discontent rose among the online community. To satiate the hungering masses, Epic released an endless parade of screenshots and movies, intent on showing a game was in development and looking great.

Yet no one was convinced. Despite enthusiastic press previews, people were certain the game would loiter behind the times. Epic was making grand promises of mind-bending advances in artificial intelligence, a sharp, unbroken game world filled with purpose, and graphics to die for. They were attempting the impractical, and no one could see it happening. The people at Epic, though, understood the truth in a quote from famed science-fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke, who said, "The only way of discovering the limits of the possible is to venture a little way past them into the impossible." The developers ignored the prophets of doom and pressed forward with profound purpose.

More time passed, and last week, the game was at last completed and released in one fell swoop. The timing could not have been better. Our watering at the mouth over the recent id Software offering had dried up, and we were parched for something new, something forward-looking. Not only was the game worth the wait, each moment of the extended development cycle is on the screen. Epic has created a stunning title, and released the right engine at the right time.

Despite its lengthy development, or perhaps because of it, the game is on the cutting edge of technology. Yet it is more than beautiful visuals; the programmers have created a well-engineered, comprehensive engine that features robust physics, powerful networking abilities, potent artificial intelligence, impressive scripting, and a smooth-as-silk interface. The design team responded in tandem, creating a game world that pierces our imaginations with fresh, invigorating experiences. Clarke also said, "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic," and Epic has proven him right. Beneath the polished veneer of back-breaking computer code is a brilliant game that alters your perception of what is possible with the first-person genre. Unreal points enthusiastically ahead, and there is no looking back.

A powerful and disorienting taste of the new world occurs in the first moments of the game. You awaken, a dazed prisoner aboard a transport starship that has made an unscheduled crash landing on an alien planet. It seems the planet is rich with Tarydium, a valuable electro-magnetic power source that muddles up starship navigational systems. As fate would have it, you are not the only intelligent life form to have collided with this innocuous sphere; rather, a savage and unrelenting race known as the Skaarj has also made it home, enslaving the peaceful native population and stripping the planet of its resources. This clever concept thrusts your scumbag persona from one prison into another and provides a simple purpose -- survive the alien onslaught that follows your arrival and escape the planet. Of course, survival is imminent because you do not have a gun.

In this manner, the game forces you to proceed with care and absorb your unfamiliar surroundings. The attention to detail is stunning: Lights blink and flash with unsettling disorder; screams of the tortured echo down dark, foreboding halls; and busted equipment hisses with malcontent. There is no doubt you are in the bowels of a forsaken starship. The gritty, industrial graphics, somber lighting, and frightening sounds evoke a powerful sense of "atmosfear," a term coined by Adrenaline Vault writer Jordan Thomas. This well-fashioned ambiance permeates the entire game, and is augmented by a powerful scripting system the designers use to control the mood throughout.

You escape the ship, and first level, without a scratch. Along the way, you navigate a detailed, but traditional 3D action game environment -- elevators, doors, blipping consoles, and dark corridors lead to more of the same. You also gather equipment, and soak up some surprising eye candy, including reflective floors. Through this subtle process, you become accustomed to the interface and inventory system, but are also fooled into thinking you know everything there is to know about the game. Unreal eases you into its world, showing off just a little and making you feel as though you have been here many times before in other games. The truth is, it is preparing you for a solid slap in the face.

That slap comes during the opening moments of the second level, when you emerge from the tight confines of the starship to a spacious outdoor scene filled with an incredible feast of real-world detail. It is a defining moment for the genre, when we break free from the tight, claustrophobic passages that have defined the geometry of 3D games since day one and enter a brave, new world. Clouds and birds move with gradual intent under shining suns and distant moons, towering cliffs reach toward a far-off visual summit, and a waterfall descends to a rippling lake. On a smaller scale, insects buzz above swampish water, moss creeps up the sides of cliffs, schools of fish inspect all entrants into their underwater domain, and small, rabbit-like animals bound about in search of food. The starship from which you have escaped, which has burrowed into the surface, provides a striking counterpoint to this organic scene; you are given a convincing sense that this is a real world, filled with function and purpose, and that you do not belong. To be honest, other 3D titles seem stiff in comparison to this striking scene.

Should you experiment with your fresh surroundings, you will be issued additional slaps in the face. Jump from the towering cliff to the rock solid ground beneath and you get more than a mild drop in heath and a droll, painful grunt; you die. Yet self-inflicted death may be preferable to the horrors of your first encounter with the encroaching aliens. There are mining caves to either side of the starship, and entering either brings you face-to-face with the Brute. True to his name, two things will stop this bad-tempered warrior -- your head being separated from your torso by at least a dozen meters, or his death. Unlike the doltish computer-coded sloths of other 3D games, this adept beast is relentless. He navigates obstacles, such as stairs, corners, and elevation changes, with skill and incredible speed, and will not be led down the wrong path. The effect of being rushed and pursued by an artificial opponent is mind-altering.

Of course, this initial skirmish is a refreshing walk in the park compared to your next. Not content with expanding our perceptual set during the classic outdoor excursion, the designers take us down a darkened corridor and thrust us into one of the most memorable fights in a 3D action game, an intelligent, dramatic confrontation that outlines a new frontier for combat. Imagine turning a corner and seeing bodies strewn about a blood-covered floor. Something terrible has happened here, and you are grateful for the gun you acquired on the surface. You reach a small room at the end and reset a few switches, feeling pleased with having completed a small portion of the adventure. You turn to retrace your steps when, without warning, the music stops. Feeling a small, gnawing irritation in your stomach, you look at the firm, steel walls and the weapon in your hand to assuage your fear. You proceed further, round the corner, and once again face the dead bodies. Something primal urges you to run past the hideous scene before you become a permanent part of the exhibition, when doors behind and in front of you slam shut, trapping you in the hall. Lights blink off one by one until you are left trembling in a darkness so complete it puts goosebumps on your goosebumps. An ominous growl and a pair of red, blinking eyes confirm your worst fears; the music intensifies, the curtains draw back, and it is show time!

What is so remarkable about this first Skaarj confrontation is how the game uses everything in its power to assault the player. The dead bodies foreshadow the impending battle; the music, and the absence thereof, increases the tension; the clever scripting traps you; the darkness places you alone with the beast; and the red, flashing lights mask the nature of your opponent. It is the ultimate cinematic trick -- show a little of the monster and nothing more to increase tension. After this encounter, for the first time in years, you will genuinely fear what is around each corner of the game. That is the essence of good combat, and it is done to perfection. To once again quote Jordan, "This is what action gaming should be!"

Additional details become apparent as you battle these creatures and explore the strange world. The game contains a vigorous set of physics that will punish unwary gamers. In-game participants, including yourself, are tossed about by explosions and earthquakes, and when you are hit by enemy fire, you are hurled several feet in the direction of the impact. Likewise, planting an explosive at the feet of a creature will send it, or its gibs, reeling into the air. If all the violence gets too intense, you can take a few moments off, push a crate into the water, and be lulled by the bobbing effect. Although the creature animations did not appear to match the damage -- in other words, if you hit their right shoulder, they do not stagger back to the right -- the game's physics more than make up for any little inconsistencies. One thing that will surely throw gamers for a loop is something that first made its debut in Chasm: The Rift. Unreal actually has a location-based damage model in place. Although a Skaarj won't stagger to the right if you blast him in the right arm, that appendage will take accumulated damage. Hit it enough times, and you could knock it clean off. Continually hitting a creature in the head will kill it more quickly than blasting it repeatedly in the chest, and will leave a nice black scorch mark. The location-based damage is really at its best when used with the Assault Rifle. Using the weapon's secondary fire button to zoom in from afar means you can play sniper, and actually take a creature's head off with one well-placed shot.

As you venture farther and farther from the wreck of the Vortex Rikers, slain crewmembers of another downed ship leave valuable clues as to how you may finally escape your hostile prison, and the game's levels lead you naturally in this direction. Where Unreal proves to be really unique is in its approach to levels and episodes. Gone is the standard convention of having clearly defined campaigns, levels and level objectives. In Unreal, you don't complete levels; you simply move through your environment, performing valuable tasks along the way. You'll make your way to a Nali village, the temple of the water god Chizra, a huge biowaste storage facility, and even the wreckage of another starship, the IVS Kran.

Eventually, the "levels" progress, and you begin to realize what has happened on this mysterious, exotic planet. Alien writings, deciphered through the use of your Universal Translator, tell of those who "fell from the stars" -- the Skaarj. They have enslaved the population, though their true motives remain unclear. Eventually, you make a rather unsettling realization: The Nali help you at every turn because they believe you're their savior, whose coming was prophesied in the ancient writings. Wonderful. In this sense, Unreal feels a lot like the classic side-scroller Out of This World; you're stranded on a strange world, surrounded by hostile aliens...and yet you've got someone else on your side.

Unfortunately, the friendly Nali are few and far between. Most of the creatures you meet are either hostile natives of the planet, be they giant dragonflies or killer fish, or the minions of the Skaarj. Unreal's manual lists plenty of nasty beasties, but it doesn't even begin to cover the worst of the lot. The Skaarj themselves come in more varieties than I care to recall. Just when you thought the Scout was a worthy challenge, a Skaarj Warrior comes along and ends your life and your worries. There are also Skaarj Troopers and Gunners, and they just get tougher and tougher. If you thought the Skaarj Scouts' energy blasts were painful, just wait until one of them comes at you with a Stinger. One of the weirdest undocumented monsters in the game is the Gasbag (see screenshot), a floating balloon-like thing that shoots slow-moving yet powerful balls of plasma. There are no real "boss" monsters in Unreal, just the occasional struggle against a humongous Titan, who hurls boulders and stamps the ground so fiercely your character gets thrown in the air like a rag doll. Expect to expend just about all of your ammo trying to bring one of these bad boys down.

At the heart of Unreal rests a small puzzle with large ramifications. How can we be convinced that we are not sitting at a computer, but rather, are forging a path of blood through a living, breathing alien world? Unreal takes this enigma and drops it into a quiet pool of thought. There is a splash -- that is the genius of the game -- then the ripples diffuse out, washing up on graphics, sound, environment, and combat, soaking the player in wonderment. The answer reverberates in a seamless blending of the imagination with the tangible, a mixing of the fantastic with what we see, hear and feel each moment. The answer, for now, is unreal.

Onwards to Part 2 1