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Title: Unreal II: The Awakening
Developer: Legend Entertainment (for Epic Games)
Publisher: Infogrames (on the Atari label)
Date Published: February 2003
Platforms: PC CD-ROM
ESRB Rating: Mature

Unreal II is a single player first person shooter set in the universe created for Epic's 1997 breakthrough first person title, Unreal. It has very pretty graphics. It's difficult to find much else to say about the game, as the developers seem to have put their trust in the belief that good graphics and the same warmed-over formulaic FPS elements are all that they need to ring up sales. Perhaps the protracted development cycle meant that gamers' expectations have advanced faster than their game design could adapt, or perhaps they ploughed such a large percentage of their budget and manpower into the graphics engine and art assets that the actual gameplay was neglected. Whatever the reason, Unreal II is a somewhat disappointing and clichéd game.

The game is set in an absolutely generic science fiction universe. The player takes the role of John Dalton, an ex-space marine who has been stripped of his rank and billeted to the security forces. The security forces are effectively a neutral body that has been set up to police the activities of the large corporations who are competing to colonise the galaxy, using secret weapons programs and armies of mercenaries to expand their empires. One of the corporations has obtained some information about seven ancient artifacts that have been buried on different planets. These artifacts presumably can be combined to make some kind of super weapon or infinite energy source or something. The other corporations have gotten wind of this, and an almighty ruckus ensues. Because this is a computer game, YOU and your crew have been entrusted with finding all the artifacts before anyone else can collect them all. It's not much of a plot (after playing Mafia it's like tuning into an Ed Wood marathon after watching a good Scorcese flick), but then it's never been a requirement for a shooter to have a good plot, has it...?

After a brief training mission, you return to your ship, an ugly green cruiser called Atlantis. Between each mission (at least, for the first few after which the developers seem to get sick of the idea) you can wander around your ship and talk to the crew, get briefed for your next mission and then fly your dropship down to the planet. The idea of being able to wander around your own spaceship is quite a cool one, but these interludes serve little purpose and suggest that they were originally intended to provide you with some functionality (a choice of missions and weapons perhaps?) which was cut before it could be implemented.

There are three people on the ship's crew. The pilot (Ne'Ban) is a luminous blue jelly alien inside a robotic suit, and seems to have been included to inject some light relief into the proceedings, with his erratic grasp of the English language and human customs. The ship's weapons officer (Isaac) is a Doctor Smith-esque cowardly rogue, who provides you with weapons and gadgets and explains their functions. The ship's first officer (Aida) handles most of the mission briefings, and demonstrates how Legend's artists must be testosterone-poisoned adolescents (she is presumably supposed to be a 'foxy chick', but seems to be modelled after one of those haggard, low-rent 'booth babes' that populate trade shows). But then they were responsible, in previous lives, for Spellcasting 101...

So once you've had your fill of unskippable conversations, you can jump in your dropship, land on a planet and carry out your mission. Each level takes you to a different planet, and to be fair Legend have made these environments as varied as possible, taking in Tatooine-like deserts, swamps, a frozen moon, and even the insides of a planet-sized organism. Likewise the mission objectives try to get away from the same old run-and-gun formula: one section has you escorting some marines to their ship during a storm (which seems like a nod to Halo), another has you defending a base from waves of attackers by placing forcefields and gun turrets. Unfortunately it becomes apparent that these different styles of mission have something in common: reducing the need for a large, interactive and well-paced level and simplifying the gameplay. Nearly all of the levels are extremely linear, with objectives cribbed from the Quake II school of level design (Blow up the planetary gun! Find an escape pod! Deactivate the generator! Two switches down, one to go..!). You frequently find yourself in unbelievably huge and incredibly detailed environments, with little more to do than kill a few grunts and flip a switch.

I need to go on a tangent here about something that really bugs me about this game: Generators! There is hardly a room in the entire game that doesn't have a huge turbine-style-rotating-thing in the middle of it, in the style of the Death Star core or the Chamber in Half-Life. The only solace that can be drawn from this marathon of clichéd, non-interactive level design is that it surely represents all the old well-worn standbys reaching their ultimate form, and perhaps designers will give up trying to top each other with the most impressive implementation of each one, and instead try to think of something new. No longer will gamers be impressed by exotic, multi-part sliding doorways. Goodbye huge, cantilevered access hatches, rooms full of scattered crates, and scientists awaiting rescue.

Something that does represent an improvement over the previous Unreal and Unreal Tournament games is the weapons. Although none of the weapons do anything particularly new, the majority are now at least decently powerful and have satifying feedback, something that was definitely lacking in previous games in the franchise. The flamethrower is particularly good, benefiting from the engine's stunningly realistic flame effects. It even has an alternate fire mode that allows fuel to be sprayed on the ground and then ignited to torch unwary enemies. Weapon selection via the mousewheel is somewhat fiddly however, but this is a minor point.

The enemies are quite varied, taking in several flavours of human marines (most of which are visually quite boring, with the exception of the bizarre Liandri Angel heavy armour) as well as a menagerie of hostile aliens. The stars of the show are the Skaarj warriors, returning from the first game. If you imagine the Predator crossed with the Incredible Hulk and capable of leaping around like a gazelle, you can get some idea of how imposing these guys are. Enemy A.I. is less than stellar, with surprise and sheer numbers being most enemies' only chance of effectively getting an advantage over the player.

But the main reason for the game's existence is the graphics, so I suppose I should mention them. Unreal II's visuals are probably the best yet seen on the PC. But that is from a purely technical standpoint. Object models can now sport as many polygons as those used in prerendered scenes. There are fantastic particle effects allowing for the most realistic smoke, steam and flames yet. Huge amounts of detail can be fit into frame without slowing things down, which is used to best effect in outdoor areas, where valleys, lakes, mountains and buildings are visible all the way to the horizon. The only technical flaw I have noticed is that there is some occasional pop-up. Apart from technical acheivement however, Unreal II's graphics are distinctly lacklustre. Most character, building, ship and weapon designs are incredibly bland and generic. Colour schemes are garish and character animation is a little stilted. There is also the issue of inconsistency, with different characters and environments seeming to have been created with little adherence to an agreed art style. As a result, even the most detailed areas of the game fail to fully convince.

The game's audio portion feels like something of an afterthought in many places. The voice acting is on the bad side of mediocre (not helped by a hopeless script) and sound effects and music are completely by-the-numbers. Annoyingly the implementation of EAX (Creative's positional audio API) is severely bugged, forcing the player to resort to software emulation for 3D sound until the problem is fixed.

Even though Unreal II will probably provide a few hours of entertainment, it's so unimaginative and so unambitious that I can't really recommend it outright. There are plenty of other first person games available now or in the coming months that would be much more deserving of your time. If there was ever a game that showcased the engine and did nothing else, then this is it.

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