Unreal II: The Awakening
Feb. 26, 2003

Given that there's an Orange Alert in effect right now, I decided to forgo my usual weekend trips to largely unsecured public places so I could cower in my home and play video games.

As it turns out, I didn't spend that much time gaming, being rather busy exploring the idea of expatriating to France, but I did get a good look at the sequel to the original "Quake-Killer," Unreal II.

Edit: I confess, the first draft of this review was written after playing on an hour or so of the game -- and the first hour sucks. I finished the game later and, chagrined, came back to finish the review with some glowing comments, because it ends up being pretty good stuff.

You might not remember Unreal. Unreal Tournament, or Unreal Tournament 2003, but Unreal was five years ago; that's almost as old as the Internet, for chrissakes. Hell, five years ago I was still dialing in to BBSes.

Anyway, Unreal was a monster eye-candy showcase back in the day -- the plot was largely incomprehensible, but it included the now-standard for the FPS genre aliens, bent on domination, although I confess, I can't remember what they were aiming to dominate, because the game didn't take place on Earth.

Maybe it was the universe.

Given the general lack of substance in the original, it's not a shock that there's so little story in Unreal II.

Edit: I'm an ass. The game is weak for the first hour or two of play, but it picks up nicely after that and the last one or two hours are awesome, with some clever mixes of gameplay elements foreign to the first-person shooter genre -- more on that later.

The 3-D engine used for Unreal II should be familiar to modern gamers, because it's essentially the same engine used for Unreal Tournament 2003. Like the original, this game looks damn good.

With all the eye candy turned on, nearly every surface you'd expect to appear textured -- tree trunks, or rocks, are bump-mapped. Light sources cast dynamic shadows, and some of the game settings are hard to walk away from, such as the crash site of a spaceship, with a single burning pile of rubble casting a long, flickering shadow pointing at your avatar.

Pretty impressive stuff.

Of course, the downside is that the game really isn't playable with all the eye candy turned on, particularly if you're using a mid-level video card, and most particularly if you'd intended to turn on anti-aliasing or anisotropic filtering.

There's no greater disappointment than seeing this game in all its reflective-surface glory, and then have to dumb down the looks so you can play at decent frame rates.

Also, there were a ton of crashes. Frequent lockups persisted until I disabled EAX, which is kind of a crappy solution to a problem, and is just more proof that developers should really work on releasing software that has less bugs. I also had some major "crash to desktop" issues, and frequent lockups, even with EAX turned off.

Edit: A big part of why I was getting all the crashes is that I'd overclocked my system a little bit incorrectly; I thought I'd set my PCI divider correctly, so that my PCI and AGP Buses were locked at 33Mhz and 66Mhz, respectively -- I later discovered I'd overclocked them to something like 48Mhz and 89Mhz

Fall in love with Aida, fanboy...

Given how impressive the game looks, there are some missing effects which jump out immediately. For instance, there aren't any weapon decals, meaning that no matter what you shoot, there's no evidence of the weapon fire. No blast marks from explosives, no bullet holes from assault rifles or shotguns... nothing.

That really puts a crimp on a man's need to "get his blast on," if you know what I'm saying. It also sucks that there's no location-specific damage.

Edit: This is not 100 percent true -- I found that the shotgun left little black marks on the walls which faded almost immediately. But no other weapon left any mark whatsoever.

At this point, I've caught up with my review and my bitching's at an end -- but here's one more complaint: You can only skip half of the cinematics.

For example, you end up seeing quite a bit of action and visiting a number of planets. Every time you visit a new world, you get a cut scene of your little shuttle leaving the mothership -- you can skip that one.

However, there's typically a cut scene of your shuttle landing... you can't cancel it. What the fuck! How annoying is that?? And some of the fucking things are long!!!

Here's the problem with Unreal II: It starts off poorly. Now, I'm a professional game reviewer -- I've got an obligation to keep playing a game, even if the story is retarded, and the gameplay is dull.

Most gameplayers might get pretty bored after two hours of gameplay which aren't fun. I mean, the first map has you chasing after aliens who -- in what's clearly the best available graphics engine for gaming -- are impossible to see clearly. They're black, upright lizard things with these glowing, blue patches on them -- then after you kill one and go in for a closer look, they look like black, dead lizard things with glowing blue patches on them.

Weak.

I was glad to get out of that world. Unfortunately, the next map has an ominous opening, with the usual "research facility totally gutted and full of corpses, goodness knows what's happened here, et cetera, et cetera." Turns out the problem is genetically modified spiders. Little spiders, big spiders and -- SPOILER ALERT -- a fucking HUGE spider at the end!

Yawn.

Okay, so I'm bitching a lot. Let's not lose sight of this one fact -- Unreal II is a good game.

One of the interesting twists to the gameplay is the introduction of "defensive emplacements." There are some setups where you'll be defending an area -- for example, a clearing in the forest, or an abandoned base in the middle of the desert. You get an inventory of force shields that you have to set up, and gun turrets that track and fire at enemies that come into range.

You'll also frequently have computer-controlled backup, who will follow some basic, predefined orders. ("Defend Me," "Guard the Front Door," "Patrol the Perimeter," that sort of thing.)

About a third of the way into the game, the action hits its stride: The spiders are gone -- now your opponents are typically more humanoid. Even the original game's Skaarj make an appearance.

Enemy AI is fairly versatile, although it's nothing really exciting. Bad guys tend to move in close and then rush and strafe-circle around you -- there isn't ever any variation, although they will seek out cover if it's really convenient.

A big surprise is that Unreal II's story actually gets interesting. The supporting cast of characters at first seem totally generic -- the hard-bitten mechanic/gun caddy, the sexy navigator, the talented but incomprehensible pilot and so on. They grow on you, tho. By the end, you'll have a real fondness for them, and some of the twists that bring the game to a close have some real... pathos.

Now that I think about it, if you spent $40 on Unreal II, you'll probably be motivated to play even after the first hour or so sucked, so, go out and get it. It's good stuff.

Just be aware of one important thing -- there is no multiplayer. Make sure you save the levels that you really enjoyed, because once you finish the game, you'll just have to go back and play those cool levels again, since there's nothing else to do.

Except, you know, play another game.

When you're on Mongo's team...


...you're not!

EDITOR'S NOTE:
Mongo's still crying after he got his supporting characters killed in a suicidal charge against some black, upright lizard things with glowing patches. He's been screaming "AIDA!" all morning.

Unreal II

Infrogrames Entertainment
- Win 98, Me, 2000, XP
- 733 MHz processor
- 256 MB RAM
- 3 GB hard drive space

Send complaints here, preferably with:
"Do you know what happens to a toad when it's
struck by lightning? Same as everything else."
(Worst. Line. Ever.)

King Mongo | Rants | NA!P

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