Shoot to thrill

"Unreal" takes the first-person shooter game to the next graphic level. But is that enough?

By Greg Lindsay
Published July 10, 1998 7:00PM (EDT)

In the software industry, singling out the top dog and gunning for him openly more often than not leads to a messy death. (Unless you're Microsoft.) Keeping this in mind, Epic Megagames deserves credit for doing something no other game company has done since before Doom -- release an id-killer.

Id is the game company co-founded by John Carmack, the technical genius behind Doom and Quake. The software engines that propel his titles were generally regarded to be the most elegant and most powerful in the industry. Then Epic released Unreal.

Unreal is the latest, greatest "first-person shooter," following the well-worn trail that Carmack blazed. The game play is similar to Quake's -- you are looking through the hero's eyes with a gun protruding in front of you -- but the graphics, monsters and sound are souped way up. The game was released just over a month ago to universal praise. The editors of Next Generation magazine, which is regarded as the gamer's bible, were so awed that they decided to launch the magazine's first series of awards -- just so they could hand the first prize to Unreal.

But no box blurb better described the point of Unreal than the one that says "R.I.P. Quake II." For almost everything that Quake II does, Unreal makes it a point to do better. From the opening screen's fly-by of an ominous-looking castle, it's obvious you're witnessing a new peak for graphics. Unlike the Quake knock-offs that used a licensed version of Carmack's engine, the engineers at Epic spent years building their own -- which, when run with enough 3-D acceleration, has richer colors, more fluid movement and more realistic textures. Clouds float by, water ripples, limbs spatter messily and the flies buzzing over corpses look startlingly real.

Gore is the point of Unreal, and there are plenty of monsters to provide it. The story line is simple: Your character (who, in a Tomb Raider-ish twist, is a buxom bad-ass named Gina) was being transported to a prison colony when the ship crashed on an unknown planet. When you come to, everybody on the ship is either already dead or screaming from around the corner. Gradually, you learn you've landed on a planet occupied by the Skaarj -- aliens who look like they might well be the species of malicious hunters from the "Predator" movies. They and their allies are oppressing the natives of the planet, the Nali, and you're just trying to escape that rock.

As backstories go, it's more cogent than Quake's or Duke Nukem's, but it still isn't vital to playing the game. In most ways Unreal plays just like its predecessors: You punch every control button you find in hopes of triggering secret doors, and the floors are littered with random packs of ammo and medicine. At least the monsters are smarter. Unreal's highly touted Monster AI (artificial intelligence) -- designed by Stephen Polge, who wrote the AI for Quake's Reaperbot -- features creatures that run when you hurt them, chase you when you're hurt, call for reinforcements when outnumbered and even lay ambushes for the unwary player.

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With character intelligence like this, I can only guess that somewhere
within Unreal is a role-playing game dying to get out. In later levels, you
actually meet the peaceful Nali, by which time you've killed so many
baddies that they've hailed you as their much-prophesied savior. But
interaction with them is minimal, and the plot keeps pushing the barrel of
your gun onward.

What if Epic had left some of the humans alive so you could plan
strategy together on how to defeat the Skaarj? What if you could play the
game's single-player levels over the Net, so instead of the usual
death-matches, you could work in tandem to blow aliens away? To pitch it
Hollywood style, think Quake meets Ultima Online. Epic probably could have done it -- but
Unreal had already experienced literally years of delays, and in the end I
bet its programmers were just too exhausted to attempt such an ambitious

To be fair to Unreal's creators, this is a great game. But it is not, as
the more enthusiastic fans have claimed, revolutionary. Unreal does not
rebel against its genre so much as it gives it the raspberry. This may be
the pinnacle of the form -- but is the form still worth following? There
are already signs of storytelling stress, as if an actual plot were trying
to escape. A "universal translator device" makes it possible to read
snippets of dead prisoners' diaries, captain's logs and soldiers' journals,
each containing little hints of what's happened to your ship's crew.

Is this the first step toward Myst
with guns? Is this where that game's Catherine ended up? Or would Unreal
really rather be the Ultima of shoot 'em-ups? One of the true revolutionary
features of the new game, which had some journalists drooling almost a year ago, is its ability to
let players move from one Internet-based game to another via linked
"teleport squares." You could hop from server to server, game to game, in a
never-ending gun battle fought around the world -- if the delays from
network latency didn't drive you insane.

Networking problems have plagued Unreal since its debut, although a
series of patches issued by Epic have allegedly fixed most of the problems
we noticed -- such as the server deciding you're supposed to be 20 feet
from where you are and forcibly moving you there. (If you think that's
confusing, try to shoot at someone in the midst of that process. ) Another
series of patches has been issued in response to hardware
incompatibilities. Unreal demands all of the graphic acceleration
capability you can throw at it -- and then it laughs at you. In our
informal testing, we noted that Unreal is not a big fan of Windows NT,
although it liked Win 95 and 98 just fine.

Unfortunately, the buggiest piece of software that shipped with Unreal
promised to be the most interesting -- UnrealEd, a graphical editing tool
that lets players build their own levels easily and without having to write
code. It ships undocumented and unsupported on the Unreal game CD, and on
our machine, it refused to even launch. Epic has posted a patch on its site
to fix some problems with UnrealEd, which is also scheduled to ship in a
fully supported stand-alone version. A Macintosh version of Unreal has been
announced, too, but according to the company there are no plans to make
UnrealEd available for that platform.

With a powerful graphical building tool like UnrealEd available, and
with Epic licensing the Unreal game engine, the game's legacy will most
likely model that of Doom and Quake, the dynasty it's replacing at the top
of the heap. In other words, the game's future lies among the hordes of
amateur designers likely to flourish in its wake.

The next hyper-anticipated first-person shooter after Unreal is Daikatana from Ion Storm,
the game company founded by one of the key forces behind Doom and Quake,
ex-id superstar John Romero. Romero was id's artistic half, the fanatic
level-builder who created the moods and gore to match Carmack's engine. To
build Daikatana, Romero recruited the best amateur designers of Doom levels
and made it their full-time job. The result, based on previews, is a more
baroque version of Quake or Unreal, with a rumored 30 types of weapons and
even more kinds of monsters.

Daikatana isn't necessarily better than Quake, in terms of game play --
it's just an order of magnitude more complex. Still, if this is what's
possible when you give users the relatively hard-to-learn do-it-yourself
tools Doom and Quake provided, who knows what wonders will flow from the
Unreal fan base, using the much easier to use UnrealEd?

Epic certainly mustn't mind the ferment; after all, it needs to start
amassing ideas for Unreal II.

Greg Lindsay

Greg Lindsay is a frequent contributor to Salon.

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