Right game, wrong time.
Unreal is not a simple game to review. There comes a time in the development of every artistic genre (yes, the first-person 3D shooter is a form of art) when the audience who most closely follows its progression can't help but feel the whole thing is about to come crashing in on itself. Ironically, it is at that precise moment of implosive doom that marketing pundits usually decide the genre is ready to flourish commercially. But my job isn't to tell you whether Unreal will be a big seller. My job is much harder: my job is to tell you why Unreal - without a doubt, one of the best first-person 3D shooters ever made - bores me to tears.
It's reasonably safe to assume that everyone and their mother knows the basic facts about this mega-hyped game. After almost four years in development, with countless delays of the release date, Unreal is unarguably the most technologically advanced first-person shooter now available. You've never seen graphics like you'll see in Unreal; the monster AI is unparalleled, the sounds are great, the music leaves Quake II's cheese-metal in the dust, and the frame-rate is acceptable with a 3D accelerator and a 200 MMX Pentium.
In addition to a very long single-player experience, the game ships with a host of multiplayer maps, a level editor, and the truly cool "Botmatch." Botmatch pits you against four computer controlled opponents in a traditional death-match style free-for-all. All the elements are in place, so why does Unreal fail to excite? It's all about context.
Depending on your game-playing life over the past five years, you may exist in a different context than I do. But see if this sounds familiar: Castle Wolfenstein 3D was interesting, DOOM was a revelation, and Dark Forces was bliss. Duke Nukem 3D was good fun and Quake was just unbelievable, but everything since. . . well, it just kinda left a bad taste in your first-person 3D shooter saturated mouth. Now I'm not saying that Hexen II, Quake II and Dark Forces II: Jedi Knight are bad games, but each, for different reasons, left me asking: "what's next?" And more importantly, they left me asking: "what is going to revivify this now ho-hum genre?"
Certainly not Unreal. But don't think that is because Unreal has any obvious major flaws. Sure, the story could have been more detailed and advanced through cut-scenes (a la Jedi Knight). Sure, the multi-player code could have been less buggy right out of the box (don't worry, they are already patching it). Sure, some people are likely to find the weapons a bit unwieldy (that's what everyone says about every new 3D shooter). I'm fairly certain, however, that none of these things detract significantly from the experience.
The biggest problem with Unreal - and the problem that will only plague long-time fans of the genre as a whole - is its stunning un-originality. At times I began to think that the designers at Epic-Megagames were literally tipping their hats to all their competitors. Everything from the sound of your footsteps (lifted from Jedi Knight) to the look of monsters (the Unreal "Brute" looks just like DOOM II's Mancubus) can be found in some other shooter of yesteryear. And even if none of this were true, the bottom line is that if you've been playing computer games at all for the last five years, then you've probably played this sort of game ad nauseum. Unreal is the only computer game I have ever played that made me want to pick up a baseball and head for a real-life park with dirt, grass and singing birds. On the other hand, if for some reason you've never played a first-person shooter like Unreal, then it may just be the game that will make you forget you have a front door (I hope this is making sense.).
In a recent .plan file exchange between T. Elliot Cannon (Epic-Megagames) and Paul Steed (id), the Unreal level designer wrote,
"Quake 2 is a kick ass game and I play it online often. Unreal is completely different."
Unfortunately for fans of the first-person 3D shooter, this earnest and heartfelt statement probably doesn't jibe with their own sense of Unreal's originality. It's a classic problem of perspective: when two people look at one object from different angles, they will see two different things - and, of course, no one is wrong or right. For Cannon and the other designers at Epic-Megagames who have devoted an intense four years to the design of their new baby, it's certainly easy to rattle off a list of the technical differences between Unreal and its competitors. But for most fans of the genre, and certainly for the casual gamer, Unreal can be summed up quite simply: "been there, done that."