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

Graphics: (5/5 stars) Stunning. Amazing. Breathtaking. Pick an adjective. No matter what words you choose to describe the graphics in Unreal, the end result can only be complete adulation. Unreal looks absolutely fantastic, from the creature animations to the colored lighting. The screenshots on the next two pages really don't even do the game justice. Every room, on every level, is loaded with the minutest of details. There are no "stock" rooms in Unreal. Every location has a function and place in the overall scheme of things, from the largest cargo bay of a starship to the smallest, most decrepit hut. All of this detail, every torch lit corridor, reflective floor, and tribally tattooed Nali, points to that which is the heart of Unreal -- life. While playing the game, the suspension of disbelief is constant simply because all of the environments look as real, albeit alien, as any place on God's green Earth. I don't recall seeing one under-decorated or designed room in Unreal, which is a good indication of what the game's designers have been doing for the past two years. Of course, the one big question that remains is whether or not Unreal's graphics rival those of Quake 2. Detail-wise, Unreal blows Quake 2 away. While the actual building architecture isn't as impressive, the level of detail infused into every level is simply astonishing. The color palette is brighter and more varied, the wall textures look phenomenal, the fire and smoke are translucent, the reflective floors are perfect, the gib effects are more realistic (you've got to love that flying leg!), and the lighting and shadowing are as good as it gets. Remember the flies in Quake 2, the ones spawned when a Strogg lay rotting on the ground? Unreal offers the same effect, but in a much more realistic manner. The small, round, completely black flies have been replaced by tiny, yet fully detailed insects -- complete with wings, color, and realistic flight patterns. Yet there are instances where Quake 2's graphics still come out on top. For some reason, possibly its use of OpenGL rendering, Quake 2 just feels more "solid," more three-dimensional. And while the weapons in Unreal look great, their shots never seem to impact your opponents with much force or flair. Nothing beats the visible damage displayed in Quake 2, and the feeling of ripping into a Tank Commander with the BFG. You just don't get that in Unreal. When you look at the game as a whole, though, what you'll see is the next generation in 3D gaming. With Unreal, the bar has been raised. The standard has been set for all future 3D games. If you can't equal Unreal's incredible visual experience, you have no business being on gamers' hard drives. All you 3D jockeys out there take warning, though: This message also applies to you. Unreal may look spectacular, but you'll need a true gaming rig to experience it in all its glory. On the testbed Pentium 200 MMX, with 48MB RAM and a 3Dfx card, the game ran smoothly at 640x480 resolution...most of the time. Yet there were moments when Unreal slowed to a crawl, and the grim spectre of technological progress whispered in my ear the one horrible, fateful word that has spelled doom for entire generations of games -- "Upppggrraaaadddeeee...."

Interface: (4.5/5 stars) Installing Unreal is a piece of cake, and the setup program allows for anywhere from 100 to 450 MB to be written to the hard drive. Within the game, it gets even better. Not since the Build engine has there been a 3D interface as customizable as the one in Unreal. Every key can be reconfigured, allowing players to use their tried and true keyboard setups. There's even an interesting new movement ability that can be enabled, a "dodge" that is accessed by tapping a directional key twice in rapid succession. The main game screen allows the user to adjust all of the basic control, sound, and video options. The real gem, however, is the game's advanced options menu. A separate "mini-program" that is launched from within the main game screen, this menu grants the player access to just about any option he or she can think of, from the sound's Doppler rate to specific 3Dfx settings, like disabling the volumetric lighting. The one complaint I have with Unreal's interface is something annoying enough to make me dock half a star from this section's rating. The autoplay function is completely idiotic: Inserting the CD into the drive doesn't launch the brings up the setup screen. It's a silly, yet very irritating little oversight.

Gameplay: (5/5 stars) Friendless, weaponless, you wander the shattered remains of the Vortex Rikers looking for a way out, all the while trying to ignore the beastly growls and human screams that echo all around you. You round a corner into a darkened corridor, closed off at the opposite end by a solid steel blast door. Suddenly, the door behind you slams shut, trapping you in the confined space. Great, you think to yourself...another cell. But then you realize the blast door is not completely closed; a small gap, maybe five inches, is visible between the door and the grimy metal floor. You crouch, and try in vain to peer into the darkened room. Then, suddenly, human voices cry out in panic and terror. An inhuman, almost animalistic growl meets their screams, and the next thing you hear are the sounds of a brutal life-or-death struggle between man and mystery. You can hear the gunshots and the cursing of the hapless crewmembers as they realize their lives are about to end; you can see the muzzle flashes of weapons being fired. Yet you have no idea what the hell is going on just a few feet away. Then, the door opens, and your eyes catch a shadowy green form -- tail? scales? -- skittering away from the horrific scene before you. Bodies, blood...everywhere. Welcome to your nightmare. Welcome to Unreal. As you may have guessed, this is the first major "encounter" of the game, and occurs shortly after you wake up in your cell. The whole experience is pure cinema; the player is immediately drawn into the story by what he doesn't see. This pacing, this attention to the desperation of your situation, is constant throughout the game. The same is true of combat. Unlike most 3D shooters, (can you say Quake 2?) which pit the player against endless hordes of enemies at every turn, the battles in Unreal are much less frequent, and much more deliberate. Creatures inhabit places for a reason, and are so smart and tough each encounter is a memorable one. It makes for a really different kind of 3D experience, one that could actually be termed "realistic." Your purpose in the game is not to kill every enemy you encounter, or hunt down and destroy one all-powerful boss monster. Your goal is to find a way off the rather inhospitable planet you've been stranded on; everything else, including killing any enemies, is secondary to this primary goal. Unreal has made me realize there's something much more exciting than rounding a corner into a horde of bloodthirsty enemies -- rounding a corner into...nothing. In Unreal, you never quite know what to expect. You may enter a supposedly empty courtyard, only to have a Skaarj Trooper pounce on you from a rooftop. All of this makes for a really sensational single-player experience, as you wander the mysterious planet in search of a way off-world. After putting the game completely through its paces, the only gameplay bug I discovered (and I only experienced this once) was an instance where I got stuck to a wall and had to reload a saved game. Some AVault staffers have complained about the game's jumping model, which doesn't quite allow you to reach higher places. But I never found this to be a problem, since crates could often be moved around, allowing for that extra "boost" needed to reach any out-of-the-way goodies. In multiplayer mode, Unreal seems to lose some of its impact. Gone are the friendly Nali, deliberately placed combat encounters, and RPG elements. Instead, you've got a few people in a few rooms with a lot of weapons. Don't get me wrong; it's fun, but the single-player game is so good, the multiplayer aspect can only pale in comparison. Epic has already identified some bugs in the game's multiplayer mode, and is hoping to have a patch ready when the demo becomes available, shortly after E3. For those players itching to hone their multiplayer skills in the meantime, there is actually a Botmatch option accessible right from the main menu. The multiplayer bots are completely configurable, and they're so good you'll swear they are real players. They shoot at each other, circle strafe, run away to pick up weapons, and even use elevators! Unreal also supports coop, but it doesn't seem to be fully tested yet. Trying to start an Internet coop game was a complete failure (though AV staff writer Jordan Thomas did manage to get a network coop game going, complete with a few stupid bugs, like the virtual uselessness of the Universal Translator).

Sound FX: (5/5 stars) "My God!" That's one of the first things you hear in Unreal, echoing menacingly through the blood-stained corridors of the ISV Vortex Rikers. It's the perfect introduction to the game's incredible aural experience, which is persistent from beginning to end. This weekend, the AVault mail server has been flooded with messages about Unreal. At least five of us have been playing the game non-stop, and opinions are naturally varied. But if there's one thing we all agree on, it's that no other game even comes close to the level of immersion created by the sound effects in Unreal. No matter where you are, or what you're doing, the world around you is teeming with life. Emerging from the wreckage of the Vortex Rikers, you leave behind the blood-curdling screams, crackling of short-circuited electrical wires, and head-pounding alarms. Outside, your ears become filled with the wondrous sounds of a beautiful, yet completely alien environment. Airborne creatures screech and caw overhead, strange insects buzz incessantly all around you, and in the distance a monstrous waterfall roars defiantly against any and all forms of life who dare intrude upon its domain. Encountering one of the game's many hostile creatures only heightens the experience. There's no mistaking the pavestone-rumbling shamble of the Brute, or the sickening "shink" of a Skaarj's wrist blades as he emerges virtually unseen from the darkness. Powering up one of your own weapons illicits the same effect, a subtle "come hither" sound -- whether it be the electrical hum of the ASMD or cocking of the AutoMag -- that indicates you're loaded for Skaarj and ready to rock and roll. There's even a bit of digitized alien speech, courtesy of the friendly Nali who occasionally lead you to hidden goodies. "Hoobidah" seems to be Nali for, "Follow me! There's something really cool over here!" If I had to criticize some aspect of the game's sound effects, I would voice one minor complaint. Personally, I would have preferred all the Universal Translator messages be accompanied by some kind of vocalization, but such is not the case; you'll have to make do with printed text. This would certainly be a great addition, but its omission in no way detracts from the gameplay experience. There is one other element to Unreal's sound effects that must be mentioned. Epic decided to include support for Aureal A3D sound acceleration, and anyone with the appropriate hardware will likely drop to their knees and bow before the gods of three-dimensional sound. Hearing the sounds of a lush alien landscape is one thing, but hearing those same sounds come from all around you, in a true 360 degree sphere, is simply beyond description. Be forewarned, though: There are a few problems with the 3D sound. Enabling the sound acceleration will really suck up your system resources, and could drastically slow down the game if your A3D drivers aren't up to date or your computer is short on RAM. The biggest problem with using the A3D hardware is that certain ambient sounds will get "stuck," and keep repeating endlessly until you exit momentarily to Windows 95. Fortunately, Epic is aware of the problem, and it can be fixed with this small patch. Oddly, as great as the true-3D sound is, using it means you'll lose out on some of the cool little acoustic nuances, like the reverb effect heard within a watery cavern. Eventually, I ended up switching the A3D acceleration off, simply because my framerate increased dramatically when I did, and the game sounded nearly as incredible without it.

Musical Score: (4.5/5 stars) Some games feature music; Unreal offers a full movie-quality soundtrack. You won't find any Nine Inch Nails on the Unreal CD, or the lightning-fast riffs of Quake 2. Unreal's score is as perfectly paced as the game itself. The music is much softer, much more subtle...and then builds to a crescendo when the action picks up. What really impresses me is the actual quality of the music. The entire soundtrack is comprised of professionally orchestrated instrumentals, and greatly adds to the game's cinematic feel.

Intelligence & Difficulty: (5/5 stars) All right...there's no other way for me to say it: Unreal has the best enemy AI of any 3D game in existence. The game's intelligence isn't completely apparent until you encounter the first Skaarj Scout, shortly after exiting the Vortex Rikers. Going toe-to-toe with one of these Predator-like aliens is like entering into a multiplayer match with a live human, someone who cut his teeth on QuakeWorld before venturing out to conquer the competition circuit. Yes, they really are that good. Shoot a rocket, and a Skaarj will do a diving roll to avoid the impact. Try peppering him with your AutoMag and the skilled hunter will actually circle-strafe around you and return fire. And that's just for starters. Just about every creature in the game acts and reacts in ways you would expect from real, living, breathing creatures. The amphibious Slith will actually jump out of the water and slither to attack you on dry land, but will retreat to its watery realm at the earliest opportunity. One of the most impressive creatures is the Mercenary, a galaxy-trotting bounty hunter and all-around bad ass. This guy will actually shoot at you with his machine gun in the hope that you will circle strafe away, and then actually lead you with a rocket in the direction you're running. This "box of death" is one of the most intelligent, cunning tactics I've ever seen performed by an AI enemy in a 3D game. But wait, there's more! Did I mention that the Mercenary also comes equipped with a personal shield device? If you do manage to get your crosshairs on him (especially when you've achieved a lock with the stinger), he'll activate the shield, transforming his outer visage into a shimmering silver shell that's all but impervious to any weapon attack (see screenshot). The intelligence of the creatures really does go beyond their combat abilities, though. It's simply amazing to peer up into a castle parapet at a patrolling Skaarj, only to realize that he's seen you and has gone on the offensive. The path he takes to you is determined by his location, the type of architecture, and just how badly he wants to wear your entrails as a necklace. If there's a ramp, he may run down it. If there's an elevator, he could take it. Of course, being the bloodthirsty Skaarj that he is, he might just do one of his jumping forward flip-things and land two feet in front of you, claws slashing. Last but not least, no evaluation of Unreal's AI can really be considered complete without mentioning those lovable Nali. Although innocent "NPC"-type characters have been used in 3D games -- most notably the civilians in Jedi Knight and "innocents" in Blood -- they can't even come close to touching the Nali in terms of intelligence and personality. The Nali just feel...real. The way they wave you on, expecting you to follow, and then wait when you lag behind, really has to be seen to be believed. They protrude a kind of innocence, a naivete to the horrors that have infested their world. Sure, computer games have been known to trigger emotions in their players, most notably fear, rage, shock, and a general excitement. But never before have I experienced sadness, which is the only way I can describe my reaction to the brutal a defenseless Nali by a psychotic Skaarj. The poor guy was just trying to show me a Dispersion Pistol powerup. Did he have to die for it? Whether they're fighting, bowing, dodging, or being slaughtered like lamb, the creatures of Unreal are as real as they come. And to think, I was impressed because a couple of monsters in Quake 2 could duck....

Overall: (5/5 stars) So, now that Unreal has been released, that all-important question can be answered: Is Unreal the Quake killer? Easily. Is it the Quake 2 killer? Yes and no. Unreal's single-player experience is as immersive and moody as it gets, with a great story, perfect pacing, and unparalleled enemy artificial intelligence. Simply put, it blows Quake 2's single-player experience away. Quake 2's multiplayer game still remains on top, though. It's faster, bloodier, and the weapon balance seems better. Now that that's out of the way, let me give it to you straight: I have played through Unreal, and I still can't believe the experience I had. I thought Unreal would be a good-looking, though generic action game. I could not have been more wrong. If you've been wondering why this game took two years to hit the shelves, that question will immediately be answered within your first three minutes of gameplay. This is a monumental acievement in 3D gaming, and you will love it. No, I'm not saying this because Epic MegaGames paid me to, or because I got a free game and my opinion is biased. I went out and spent my cash on Unreal just like the next guy, and it was one of the best gaming purchases I have ever made. If you have a PC and a pulse, you simply must get this game.