Few games were ever so ambitious as EpicMegaGames (now just Epic... a rather modest title) and their attempt with Unreal. A wide open series of expansive levels, gorgeous scenery, various races of enemies, native creatures and a sprawling planet wide enslavement force that you just so happen of which to be caught up in the middle from the peaceful emaciated and pseudo aboriginal/ethinic-minority aliens and the techno advanced oppressors with their larger, faster, deadlier, creatures and weaponised technology.
You play as Captain McNoFace, a generic 100 hit point wonder with a background of pointlessness and has key useful skills in moving and using weapons, crash landing his way on a prison ship into an odd gravitational field of a planet and wake up on your cell floor as the only survivor of the ship. After a rather atmospheric and dark exploratory check around the wreckage, grab yourself a gun, escape from the shadowy INHUMAN thingies and step outside into the bright world of Unreal while your jaw hits the floor at the sheer size and scope of the first outdoor arena being larger than anything most games bothered to even make in their entirety. Yes, Unreal is an epically large game, particularly for its time.
As FuckHead McNoBrain, you will travel here, there and everywhere trying to get back off the planet by scouting mines, enemy ships, other human ships that crashed nearby (read: fucking miles away, as in, half the game away), sky lands, mother ships and final bosses sat right beside the highest point of escape, the pod. On the way you'll encounter a myriad of helpful aliens (try not to shoot them, it makes them less amenable to your cause), guns of all shapes and sizes from a gem-shooter that fires like a machinegun or shotgun depending on your alt-fire. Miniguns (compulsory in 90's shooters) multi-load rockets, explosive grenades, 1-2-combo laser cannons, sniper rifles (pop those heads off) and a bogey gun with explosive bogies. I wish I was making that last one up, though it's called a different name and lets you fire rapid pulses of explosives bogies or charge up to hock a fat sticky mucus ball that slides down a bit on walls before detonating into lots of bogies.
Story/plot is told through a translator GUI that beeps when you walk past the relevant message prompting box to get you look and read the events occurring around you, much like Marathon did with its view screen/terminals. Each one will likely give you helpful information on your objective or some developing lore regarding the game's plot and such.
While it all sounds nice and pretty, get ready. Each enemy within the game acts like a death match bot, perhaps rather fitting and preparing for the later instalments of Unreal Tournament series, but every enemy will try to side-step, dodge, flank, use the level around themselves to hide, take cover, attack from vantage points and such. Most notably the predator-esque creatures that have claws on their wrists and fire energy balls, seen to be diving and dodging like mad-things much in the same way the player can (and should).
From huge fat lumps with rocket launchers, to the Predator guys, to suited and booted alien marines with lasers and grenades to the flying demon monstrosities, every creature is carefully sculpted and crafted to be physically unique and identifiable, yet seems to adhere to the same movement rules as the player, except the titans which act as the games "oooh fuck" element whenever you encounter one. (and as an "ah shit" when you meet two at once).
With such a size and scope, this game seems and feels empty at times. There's the occasional hut and so here and there, castles and outposts, a village at one point, but with so few people and enemies occupying the game (until the bigger battles at least) the sparse landscape and it's pretty appearance, are very devoid of life, perhaps as a limitation on the engine at the time or being traded for the processing power of the large scale maps and carefully intricate details. It just feels empty, even back in the day of playing the game.
Though when I say that the game is huge, you really do get the feel of being on a massive (if a little linear) planet, travelling across wastelands, lush meadows, canyons and caves, climbing towers to find sky-lifts into airborne towns, battling through giant spaceships and destroying power sources to enjoy pitch-black levels that atmospherically incorporate the flashlight into the fray. That said however, sometimes the game is TOO big and level design can leave a player very disorientated and confused, particularly in the more dungeon based levels where backtracking is expected and does occur. It can leave a player rather daunted as to where to go next and whether or not they've hit the right switches to open the levels up and unlock essential doors.
The controls of the game are the much used 8 way direction, mouse look, fire and alt fire, while using inventory spaces and extra navigation for items and extra buttons for using such items or bringing up details like the translator, it can take a little while to get used to where to use things and being in an intense and fast paced battle, mean the difference in winning and reloading with annoyance. Oddly, there's a dodge system in the movements, allowing players to spring in one of 4 directions to avoid attacks, which is great when fighting in an open landscape but a cause of death if trying to navigate narrow walkways and double tapping a direction sends you FLYING off the fucking edge into lava.
Bit of a balls up there.
Graphically the game is gorgeous, there's no doubt on that account, sound-wise the game sports a rich host of fine effects and audio garble from the inhuman creatures, though sounding more like foreign speak than something truly alien in presentation. The musical accompaniment never really gets beyond being a background ambience, the occasional pseudo-techno tracks during high speed/action areas which doesn't stop once you'll killed everything, can kill the atmosphere and plunge it into the shadowy, stinky recesses of dullness.
The unfortunate part of the game, is that you won't meet another character that helpfully explains the plot, or tells you why not to shoot everything, or where to go next, it's done entirely through finding the relevant hieroglyphs and in some cases, deciphering the details to ascertain where upon one might find the next snippet of plot or direction. Further confusion being raised when one is told to power something up (hit a switch) or depower something (hit another switch) with no indication on the location of the button or what it even looks like, which results in some awkward trial and error game play mechanics. Some piss-poor level design allows for you to jump ahead to a button or switch you WILL have to push but not yet, to be told "not yet" in far more descriptive terms with no real guidance on where the switch you NEED to press now is currently located.
But what is Unreal, ultimately? An experience more so than a game, it's an adventure into the alien architecture of unreality (geddit?) and the fruits of labour of some visionary individuals, culminating in a slightly off-centre aim leaving an audience with its breath-taken one moment and frustrated in the next.
I still don't get why the last boss would be so close to the escape pod that it cannot fit inside...