Saturday, July 28, 2018

Retro Review: Unreal

"Will I try out Unreal or Quake II on a modern system?" I contemplated recently. These two games dominated 1998 and required serious hardware at the time. I constructed Magnus, a Pentium 333MHz PC with a Voodoo2 accelerator just to be able to play them. Their rivalry was legendary; Quake II pipped Unreal to the finish line releasing at Xmas 1997 while Unreal ended up releasing 4 months later and was really the only competitor to Quake II at the time. Quake II went the sci-fi military route after Doom's sci-fi horror (and the original Quake's Gothic horror). I certainly enjoyed the Quake II premise more than Unreal's setting, which was an alien planet, with medieval architecture(?) with eh... sci-fi weapons and you were a prisoner on a ship that crashed there and had to survive oh.. and liberate the friendly locals from an evil empire... or something... hey if you're looking for Shakespeare, go and play KOTOR or Mass Effect!

I've always considered Quake II to be a demo of the second iteration of ID's ID Tech engine which showcased neat graphics over substance. Unreal on the other hand was technically superior with more graphics options, greater atmosphere, superior AI behaviour and fantastic music fidelity. The legacy of both games is still felt today; ID Tech powers Doom, Wolfenstein and a few other big shooters but the Unreal engine technology has gone on to power hundreds of games in the past 20 years and the latest iterations of both engines are still in use today.

The fact that Quake II demands €4.99 on Steam or the GOG version Quake II: Quad Damage forces you to get the extra mission packs as well for €8.09 put me off buying Quake II and Unreal still demands just under €10 on both platforms - but is often given a significant discount to drop it under the €2 mark. I'm fine with spending €2 or 3 especially on a game I already own, to just not faff about with CD's. In May, GOG gave everyone (who was quick enough to grab it) a free download of Unreal Gold - which bundles Unreal with it's official add-on Return to Na-Pali - in celebration of the game's 20th anniversary which made the decision which of the two games to play much easier.

Support for Unreal officially ended in 2000 with patching to version 2.26f by Epic MegaGames. Sadly this in not enough to maintain the game to work satisfactorily 18 years later but thankfully Unreal has enterprising fans who have enjoyed modding and enhancing the game's capabilities in the intervening years. Among the necessary downloads today are Patch 2.26i the latest community patch which had the blessing of Epic games - this is found at and one should also visit to grab high end textures for the game.

With some tweaking, one can get the game running fine in 4K quickly enough and I was soon once again on escaping from the Vortex Rikers as memories came flooding back. The ship is crashed and you're the only survivor a former prisoner, now free to explore and kill - yay.

One memory that was tainted by time however quickly became apparent. Quake II's weapons were solid and varied enough to have the proper tool for each job but sadly I found the weapons and combat inferior in Unreal by comparison. One should expect an enemy to drop from two or three shots from the second (as in not the shitty default) weapon you pick up. They don't, it was something like 10 - and this is the issue with Unreal, the combat is significantly inferior to Quake II. In my opinion this was corrected when the first Unreal Tournament came online simultaneously with Quake III: Arena - this time the combat in Unreal was better than Quake's - but that's another story.

I was hoping for a quick play-through of Unreal but even though the game was now being presented to me in a far superior fashion than ever conceived even by the developers at time or release I knew I wouldn't have had the patience for the dull combat for too long. I decided to play "permadeath" which is to play as if you only have one life. I did my best to stay alive for a few hours until a well placed tentacle monster riveted me with it's stingers and the camera panned slowly away from my fresh corps after which I uninstalled.

I may give it another go at some point in the future, with some mod that increases the power of your weapons to reduce the tedium of the combat.

Pros: The game that gave us the Unreal Engine used in many hundreds of games since.
Cons: In game HUD not good at scaling in 4K. Time has not been kind to the combat mechanics. Story is very meh, but it shouldn't just be considered as the 'Unreal Tech demo'.

Unreal Gold is available for €9.99 on Steam or €8.09 on GOG but appears frequently in sales for under €2.


Daniel said...

General Sir,
What is your criteria for "retro" when speaking about PC gaming? By my reckoning Dark Forces is indeed retro as it's a native MS-DOS game requiring DOS emulation to play on Windows, but Deus Ex and Unreal are native Windows and post "3D revolution" games.
Just curious, I mean no disrespect.
Thank you

Lieutenant General Creedon said...

That's an interesting question Dan. As you may know, there's not an overarching one-fits-all definition for what's retro and what isn't. There's no defined date cut off like there is for say, comic book 'ages' like silver and bronze age. For me there is a period from about 1999 to 2005 where some games released are either retro or not. I think it's certainly worth writing about. Stay tuned.