Wednesday, 3 December 2014

Unreal (PC)

Unreal 1998 logo
Today on Super Adventures I've finally ran out of excuses to put off replaying Epic and Digital Extremes's 1998 megagame Unreal. Not that I don't want to play it again, I was just trying to save it until I could give it some proper attention. I actually love this game, or at least I loved it back when I first finished it (I admit it's been a while since then).

I usually try to avoid user mods, bug fixes, source ports etc. because I'm after the most authentic experience I can get short of plugging a CRT screen in and digging out my old rubber ball mouse, but I'm going to be running this with the unofficial OldUnreal 227 patch, found on this site. I had to make an exception this time to get rid of the evil mouse smoothing/acceleration/whatever, because I can't find any better way of disabling it. I can live with dated controls, tiny resolutions and game bugs, but that's where I draw the line, I ain't putting up with that shit.

(Click the images to view them in resolutions unheard of in 1998.)

This may seem like a strange concept in today's enlightened future of late 2014, but back in the 90s games were sold on how awesome their graphics looked, and Unreal in particular was all about the visuals. A lot of first person shooters liked to show off gameplay behind the title screen menu, but Unreal basically starts with a PC benchmark demo, with the camera flying around this castle to show off all the graphical trickery the engine is capable of. In fact I have to press Escape before it'll even allow me to obscure it with the menu text.

Also this music couldn't sound more like Deus Ex, (which coincidentally has the same game engine... and composers).

Huh, I get to pick my character? I'd totally forgotten about this!

The default is Gina on the left, but there's three male and two female meshes and a whole lot of skins for each (including zombie boy there on the right). These are pretty good character models for the time, though when they turn around things start looking a little... pointier:

Plus they've all got a nose like Lois Griffin from Family Guy.

Well Gina's the default Unreal hero so I'll just stick with her. Not that I expect it'll change anything but the pitch of the grunts when she takes damage. I bet I can't even see her feet.

Alright I've started off in a cell in an empty trashed-up sci-fi prison, and as predicted I do not have any visible legs. Or even arms at this point.

I have spotted a dirty filthy blood stained roll of bandages over in the cell opposite though, so I'll grab that to recover some health (because 12HP is a bit less than ideal). Is this the first FPS to ever start with the protagonist already wounded for story reasons? Who knows.

Well the exits are locked, but there's an open air vent here as big as the door next to it, so I can just walk out of here anyway.

Well the good news is that I'm on a wrecked spaceship stranded on an alien planet after it was caught in its gravitational field and brought down... and all the guards seem to have died in the crash! So it's my ship now!

The bad news is that every time I walk next to a book or computer screen I get a beeping noise pleading with me to whip out my translator and read what it says. It's reminds me of that irritating 'computer updated' sound clip in Quake II, except worse because I can't just open it up once to shut it up for the rest of the level. Plus I feel like I have to actually read these tiny messages, as they might reveal something important... like the next bit of the story. I'm suddenly so much more appreciative of the audio diaries in later games like System Shock 2 and Doom 3, which you can listen to in the background while you play.

Ooooh, nice reflective floors. I'm not sure that box down the hallway is meant to be floating like that, but it's a 16 year old game running on a modern OS with an unofficial patch so who even knows what's causing that. Also there's a microwave meal with a red cross on the top just lying here next to me, so I'll grab that for health. To be fair, I haven't seen any cupboards or shelves around on the ship (must cost more fuel to carry all those extra polygons around space), so I can't really blame them for being untidy.

Ah, so the thing at the end is a forcefield protecting the crew from... body armour. Man it's a good thing the power wasn't shut off in the crash as I don't even want to imagine what could've happened if the body armour got loose.

Of course it could always be inside the forcefield to keep it out of the hands of escaped prisoners (like me), but all I need to do to disable the barrier is Mario that blue switch over there with my head, so it kind of sucks as a security system really.


Okay it may just be paranoia, but the way that other survivor just got turned into red mist in front of me is starting to give me the feeling that it wasn't just the unscheduled collision with an alien planet that left me all alone in here. Also, I don't think I'm all alone in here (the screams from down the hallway were also a bit of a giveaway).

You know, this may be the first game in FPS history that does the thing where it puts the player behind a door watching/listening to the bad things going on behind it and helpless to do anything about it. This could be the point where ingame scripted story sequences started interrupting gameplay.

Of course I may be wrong, but I can't think of any earlier examples right now. Half-Life jumps to mind as a game that loves using this trick, but that came along 6 months after this.


Well I'm finally out of the ship and I've even found myself a gun! Though it's kind of an ugly brick of a ship and the gun is just as bad. This isn't exactly the awesome vista I was hoping for.

I'm liking the ship registry panel though. Most sci-fi ship designers just paint it on the hull and maybe point a spotlight at it if they can be bothered, but the Vortex Rikers proudly displays its name with a flickering monochrome screen!

Ah, this is a better view, plus I've even got myself a better looking pistol. HEY, those aren't the kid of gloves that Gina was wearing in the character select! It's totally ruining my immersion!

Well I could throw myself down into the water, but there's a mine entrance up here next to the wrecked ship and it seems like the safer route somehow.

Okay now that I've run into a pair of grunts armed with two rocket launchers each I'm starting to reconsider the cliff option. Actually the rockets aren't all that difficult to dodge and they're not even that deadly, so these goons are basically redressed Imps from Doom. Well aside from the fact that I have to empty an entire magazine into them before they go down.

Oh I should mention that there isn't a reload weapon button, it happens automatically during combat just when it's least convenient. I do have a secondary fire button though, to flip the pistol sideways and add a little gangsta style to my gunplay.

Oh that's a cool effect. I don't know whether that's an animated texture or some shader magic but there's water rippling in the corner of this crate and that's something you don't generally see in games released two years after Quake. It looks better in game, trust me.

I'm amazed the animation came out this well at all to be honest, considering I can only see the top of this box by jumping. I jumped up, took a screenshot, jumped up, took a screenshot, etc. Then when I had a dozen or so I took the best of them, fixed the perspective, edited out the crosshair, and stitched them together in sequence. And that's the magic behind the gif.

Yeah I know I probably could have used a cheat to just hover up here.


Author: Cliff Bleszinski, huh? This Klingon mine level was made by Cliffy B himself!

So it's going to show the map author on every level then? Well there's something you don't see that in every FPS. In fact the only other game I can remember doing it is the new Rise of the Triad, and it's possibly not a coincidence that both games were constructed (in part) by developers working remotely from their homes.

Everything here in this room is set up to make the player want to take the door on the left, as it's closer, well lit, you can see there's something through it, and it has a big red sign on the top, but I'll check out what's down the mysterious shadowy second door first.

Oh, it's a forcefield blocking the path. So presumably the switch to turn it off is down through the other, more obvious, door. Man there must have been a lot of players who turned the forcefield off before even realising that there was a forcefield.

I'm deducting 100 points here for poor level design (but I'm giving it 200 points for the sound the shell casings make as they hit the floor).

Also I have to give the game vast amount of kudos for the dynamic music. It uses tracker modules instead of midi or recorded audio, and it changes on the fly when I get into combat. It also kind of sounds like an Amiga game, which I guess is a good thing. Here, you can have a youtube link to the battle music if you're curious.

Yeah, there you go, the left hand corridor leads to these two switches. There isn't even a monitor, map or window here to show that they're connected to a forcefield blocking the other door. Though if I use the translator I do get a message saying:

"WARNING: Force Field power source two status is inactive. Security Condition Two reached."

So there's that at least.

Oh hang on, this isn't good. It seems that Security Condition Two might involve blocking off the exits with beams and then turning out the lights one by one.

Great now I have to cycle through my inventory from my translator to my flares to get a bit of light in here while I look for another way out.

Oh that's interesting. It seems that Security Condition Two also involves this creature jumping out of a monster closet and firing photon torpedoes at me.

He was faster than the other enemies, but the projectiles are just as easy to dodge, so this was over fairly fast. Fortunately it's the kind of security system that shuts off when all the guards are dead, so the beams have retracted and I'm free to return back to the start of the mines and take door #2.

Well the second door led deeper into the mines, huge shock, but I've run into someone interesting down here. This guy may look like a cross between Voldemort and Goro, but he actually seems friendly.

In fact he went and led me to a secret panel that he opened in the wall with a new weapon hidden inside of it! And the best thing is, I don't have to escort him anywhere and keep him alive, he's just happy to stay down here and float! Doesn't say much though.

Well there's a corridor down here with a lift halfway down it, so I'll be leaving my new buddy behind now to explore exciting new mine tunnels.

Huh? What the fuck? How did I get back here? I mean seriously, there's three doors to this room and one of them is the level entrance, so did I walk out of a wall or something?

Oh, I've worked it out. It turns out that the lift I took to get here was the exact same lift I used to get down to switch the security force field off. They'd dropped the wall behind it so it looked like a different place, but if I'd carried on past the lift just a little further I'd have ended up back in the corridor where the lights turned off.

Well that's awesome, not only did they lead me to that lift with the sole purpose of fucking with my mind, but now I know that I go back down there I've got nowhere else to go but dead end with the forcefield switches in it. I'm kinda stuck now.


Okay I gave up. I gave up and checked a walkthrough because I couldn't figure out this puzzle on my own. I am a failure at first person shooters.

Alright, are you ready to hear what the solution is? I had to hit this tiny blinking light, and that raises the crooked girder. Seriously, the mine has a thin bent girder installed as a bridge that has to be pulled up from the lava using a gun activated switch.

To be honest I'd be absolutely fine with this if it led to some hidden area off the path. People who've just collected an awesome gun from a secret sliding panel in a brick wall cannot be too choosy about what bullshit architecture they complain about. But it's NOT a secret; this is the route that players need to find to get out of the mines, and that's just dumb.

Whoa, this smart ass is dodging my secondary fire shotgun shard attack with a combat roll! I could do the same thing by double tapping in a direction, but I turned that off in the menu. It's a nice idea in theory, but this keyboard's a digital input device, so I need to be able to tap the buttons to make small, precise movements.

I'm definitely noticing a pattern to the encounters in this. I'm always against just one or two enemies and they're usually bullet sponges: they soak up ammo and barely acknowledge the fact that they're hit. It seems that they're designed to be a threat on their own, rather than being dangerous in numbers. The developers have gone with quality over quantity, at least when it comes to the enemy models.


Here's another puzzle I need to solve to open the next door. At least that's what I'm guessing, I haven't bothered to go check if there's a locked door over there yet.

Unlike the girder puzzle though this one I reckon is fine, as it's obvious there's something to be solved here and there's some logic to it. There's a switch sticking down from the mechanism on the roof, there's a wooden platform underneath held below the water by chains, what do you do about it? Technically the chains are harder to see than the flashing red switch earlier and there's four I need to shoot, but it MAKES SENSE so there was no need for a walkthrough this time!

I kinda feel like I've accidentally wandered into one of the Tomb Raiders though.

Don't bother clicking this one, the zoomed in section is at a high enough resolution as it is.
Here's something you won't see in your classic Tomb Raiders though: detail textures!

I haven't installed any high-res texture packs here, this is what Unreal comes with right off the disc and they were reasonably revolutionary at the time; they're a repeating tiled pattern applied onto the low res texture to make it look more detailed than it is. We're still a way off from bump mapping here, but it's nice at least to play a game where the walls don't become a blurry mess up close. It's enough to make the poor N64 cry.


STAY BACK YOU ASSHOLE FLIES! I mean it, I have in my hands here an ASMD shock rifle, capable of a devastating combo shockwave effect if I detonate the secondary projectile with the railgun-like primary shot, and I'm not afraid of collateral damage!

They got me, man. They came out of nowhere and took my health to nothing in seconds and I'm just not used to losing a fight in this. Giant wrist-blade wielding aliens I can handle, but flies are... awkward. Plus enemies have a way of appearing from behind you in this temple and it's putting me on edge.

Mostly though I'm just sick of wandering in circles through this bloody place due to the awkward level design and locked doors everywhere. It doesn't help that I haven't even got a map. We've entered the post-map era of first person shooting.


FUCKING FUCKING DOOR JUST FUCKING AGHHHHHHH! I'll kill you, I'll shoot you dead with my six-shot Eightball rocket launcher! Even the name of the fucking rocket launcher makes no sense in this game!

I'm sorry, I'm sorry, it's just that I've finally made it out of a real frustrating maze of a level only to come up against a locked door that will not budge. This is pretty much the start of this map, so aside from a couple of empty rooms behind me there's nowhere else to go to look for switches.

I thought I was on to something when I managed to push the statues off their pedestals, but that was a red herring. Then I tried activating every object on every wall by running into them. Then I ran into every wall. Then I shot everything with everything, and then I finally gave in and just checked a walkthrough.

Watching the walkthrough video I learned that the face tile on the right has to be pushed in to open the door, which is a little annoying because it's not like I would've deliberately missed any of them out when I was systematically hitting everything earlier. Oh well, never mind, I'll blame this one on my own frustration making me careless, as the solution doesn't seem all that unreasonable.

Anyway this level's called the Dark Arena, so I'm hoping for more shooting, less mazes. Hopefully I'm through the worst of that now.


Whoa, it's a boss fight! The boss is a totally different challenge from the regular enemies, because although he's a solitary slow moving bullet sponge who fires off easily-dodged projectiles in my direction while I strafe back and forth with the mouse button held down... he has more health. Also he likes to stomp the ground, which throws me up into the air for a bit.

Alright I think I've seen enough of this game now to make some kind of judgement on it and honestly I'm kinda disappointed. I already knew coming in that the levels would be a bit of a maze and than the enemies could soak up some damage, but this is way more of a pain in the ass than I remember it being. Maybe I'll give it one more level.


Hey I'm back out on the surface and there's another spaceship parked over here! Suddenly I find that I give a shit again! Yeah I'm definitely getting the feeling that the game's turned a corner here and I'll be done with flying bugs and temple puzzles for a long while.


Oooh, coloured lights and shiny floors... man it's shameful how easy it is to impress me. Alright there's a door on the right with no interest in opening for me and a walkway to the left leading over some some glowing green biohazard stuff. Seems fairly straightforward what my next move is here.

Well I went left and it led to some more enemies and a dead end that looks a whole lot like this room I started in (except without the door). There's no switch though, so I'm a little confused. Unless... the game wants me to go for a swim?

Aha, I can dive into this stuff without the flesh getting dissolved from my bones! Excellent, I was hoping that'd be the case. So now I'm looking for a switch or an exit. Either would be good.

Nope, nothing down here. Another waste of time. Get it? Waste of time? Y'know, because I'm swimming in sewage here for absolutely no reason.

I climbed out again and with nothing else left to try I walked back to the locked door. It opened. I dunno, maybe I just wished hard enough this time.


It's three screenshots in one!
Great, now it's pulling this crap again. There's three rooms here around a central core area; each has a switch at the end and, as you can see from the screenshots I've edited together, each of them is basically the same place. What the switches do though I have no idea. I never have any idea. This is a game built around hitting mystery switches and then looking around to see if anything's changed, and that isn't made any easier when everywhere looks the same.

At least there are different enemies here. Now they have invulnerability shields they can activate to drag combat out just a little longer!

I was too stubborn to quit here, so I kept on playing until I'd cleared this facility and made it outside again, but that was it for me. Maybe the next level actually is amazing, but I've given the game too many second chances already. This is where I gave up on Unreal.


My replay of Unreal was supposed to be a happy nostalgia trip through one of my favourite first person shooters of yesteryear, but somewhere along the way it all went horribly wrong.

The first few levels were great; I was plinking away with my puny pistol at enemies out of my weight class, dodging rockets as crates exploded into splinters around me. I strayed off the obvious path in search of treasures, explored side passages and secret areas, found badass new weapons, it was all good. But somewhere along the way the side passages and the obvious paths got swapped around, so that I kept stumbling across secrets while looking for the exit. And the more ridiculous each new weapon I collected seemed, the more disappointing it was when it turned out to take just as long to kill anything with it. When I found I needed to fire off an entire pistol magazine or 3+ shots with a rocket launcher dead on target to kill a single regular mook the weapons suddenly lost all sense of power and combat got tiring.

It's a shame because the core gameplay is solid, the dynamic music is fantastic, and the levels are a visually appealing place to be trapped inside and miserable, with each identical room looking just as pretty as the last. Out of the first person shooters I've played this year, I reckon I had more fun with it than with Blood 2, Hexen or Mr. Pibb, but less than with Jedi Knight, Quake 4, Duke Nukem Forever or Deus Ex: Invisible War. Basically, I wouldn't say it's a top tier shooter.

Though I kind of want to try it again just to double check.

Tell me I'm wrong about Unreal, I dare you. Or tell me I'm right, either's good. Opinions are welcome!


  1. It also kind of sounds like an Amiga game, which I guess is a good thing.

    Crikey, you're right. That mine level music sounds a lot like something from Pinball Fantasies. I would not be surprised to discover it was the same composer.

    1. You got me curious so I went investigating on mobygames, and apparently Pinball Fantasies composer Olof Gustafsson... had absolutely nothing to do with Unreal. That we know of. But he really should've been involved in the game, because he's awesome. I still have the level music from Benefactor stuck in my head to this day, and I haven't played the game in a decade.


Semi-Random Game Box