Unreal, PC

Unreal is a pioneering first-person shooter developed by Epic Games and Digital Extremes and first published by GT Interactive in 1998. It is the very first game in the Unreal series and was the first game to use the Unreal Engine, which was a ground-breaking 3D game engine at the time. Of course most gamers know about the Unreal Engine, and how it continues to innovate now, but this game is where Unreal first started.

Unreal features a single-player campaign, plus a multiplayer component that allows for online deathmatching; also utilises bots, and allows for spectators to watch games, which were innovative additions in 1998. Unreal also came packaged with a map editor, and its own scripting language, which helped create a large community modding scene.

In the single-player game you play as Prisoner 849, who is being transported when his ship crashes on the planet Na Pali. The planet is home to a primitive race of four-armed humanoids who you later learn are being subjugated by a race of brutal yet technologically-advanced reptilians called Skaarj. The story is mostly told through a translation device, which you find when you first start the game, and can be accessed by pressing F2 on the keyboard.

At the beginning of the game you escape your cell after the crash and must make your way out of the prison ship, which is mostly empty, except for a few instances of foreshadowing in the form of short in-engine cut scenes that hint at trouble to come. Eventually you acquire two guns: an alien-looking blaster, called the Dispersion Pistol, and a more standard-looking pistol called the AutoMag. It takes a little while longer before you find something to shoot, though, but when it does come it’s a rocket-firing brute of a monster that comes at you out of nowhere and will probably make you jump… From there the game becomes a fairly linear fight through a series of alien installations; a second crashed spaceship (with some dead humans, but no one alive who you can talk to); ancient Nali temples infested with hostiles, and eventually a castle, which leads to a vast Skaarj mothership where you have to destroy the ship’s reactor, then an alien queen.

There’s a lot of pressing of switches (done by simply walking into them, the game doesn’t really have a ‘use’ button to manually press switches), and elevator-riding, and there are a variety of traps to deal with, some of which are preceded by all the lights going out before you’re attacked. Planetary tremors can also sometimes cause the floor to give way and drop you into lava, so you have to be careful where you walk on occasion.

Some weapons, like the Dispersion Pistol, can be enhanced by collecting power-ups. Later weapons include a chain gun, the ASMD (which fires a blue, circular beam), and a sniper rifle. Plus others.

Graphically, Unreal is very basic by today’s standards, and it runs way too fast on modern systems, although thankfully you can throttle the speed of the game in the menu, which does help make it playable now. The game does have good use of light and dark, and there are plenty of coloured lighting effects that were innovative at the time of the game’s original release.

Gameplay-wise, Unreal is a fairly standard early 3D shooter, but is quite challenging at times. Re-loading after death has to be done manually, which is a bit of a pain. Multiplayer bot games seem a bit under-developed too, and are much better in the follow-up (see below).

Unreal led on to the even better Unreal Tournament in 1999, which focused on – and greatly expanded and improved – the deathmatching and bot-related side of the game. Personally, I don’t think that the first Unreal is anywhere near as good as Unreal Tournament. A proper sequel, called Unreal II: The Awakening, was also released in 2003.

Note: currently, at the time of writing, no Unreal games are available to buy legally*, because Epic Games de-listed them (for vague and dubious reasons) from Steam and GOG.com in 2022. Either Epic is holding off until it can offer them exclusively from its own store (which I would disapprove of), or is intent on fuelling piracy by making them unavailable.

*= I did read that Unreal Tournament 3 was playable for free, but it currently doesn’t seem to be available for some reason. The whole ‘removing the Unreal series from retail stores‘ debacle is a complete sh*tshow, to be honest, and Epic has shot itself in the foot by withdrawing the Unreal back catalogue from sale. It’s yet more corporate arrogance from a company that has more money than sense.

More: Unreal on Wikipedia

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