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  • Time to make myself feel old with a retrospective on a PC game from my youth!

  • This is Unreal, developed by Epic MegaGames in collaboration with Digital Extremes and

  • published by GT Interactive on May 22, 1998.

  • Man, 1998 was how long ago? Ugh, that last fact still hasn’t quite sunk in yet.

  • Anyway, when it released decades ago Unreal was an absolutely monumental title for a multitude

  • of reasons, but one of the easiest ones to point out was its graphical prowess.

  • Unreal! Yes, this is an actual PC game screenshot.”

  • Hehe. And dude, that really was mind-boggling for February of 1997

  • when Next Gen Magazine printed this.

  • Keep in mind that at the time of this world reveal magazine article, id Software’s Quake

  • was only eight months old, so going from characters

  • that looked like this to *this* was a notable improvement!

  • Furthermore, as a fan of titles like Epic Pinball and Jazz Jackrabbit, seeing developers

  • I was familiar with like James Schmalz and Cliff Bleszinski putting togetherthe most

  • advanced 3D shooter ever madeonly a few years after developing those 2D DOS games?

  • That was a bit surreal.

  • Or, unreal, if you will. [boooooo]

  • Heck when Unreal finally released, Jazz Jackrabbit 2 had only come out two weeks prior.

  • So seeing both a silky smooth 2D platformer and a silky smooth 3D-accelerated FPS arriving

  • under the same banner within the same month was just like... pschrrt, what, how?!

  • And even with Unreal arriving just five months after Quake II’s release, it still felt

  • like a generational leap in PC gaming graphics, and the box tried to make that abundantly clear.

  • Other first-person shooters often covered their package in logos and artwork providing

  • some abstract representation of the game, but Unreal went balls-out from the start,

  • plastering embossed renders of its 3D models right on the cover and including a square

  • cut-out showing off one of four screenshots.

  • And it was all topped off with quotes likeThe best looking game of all time.”

  • The future of gaming.”

  • And, “Rest in peace Quake II.”

  • The hyperbole continued around back as well, with copious screenshots and descriptions

  • cramming in every bit of self-congratulating marketing copy they could.

  • It seems a bit pompous in hindsight, but at the time they truly had earned the right to

  • brag about their tech so hey, why not.

  • And if you needed any more confirmation of how long ago 1998 actually was, checkout the

  • list of products it’s optimized for.

  • Not a single one of those APIs, instruction sets, or multiplayer networks exist anymore,

  • at least not in the form they did back then. Sad.

  • Inside the box you get a bit of an unusual cardboard insert, one that’s built to hold

  • the jewel case all snug so the cover screenshot is visible on the front of the box.

  • And mine is cover variant number 2 of 4.

  • And inside you get the game on a single CD-ROM, as well as a booklet that contains not the

  • manual, but even more screenshots!

  • As well as a merchandise catalog letting you know all the cool Unreal stuff that I’m

  • one vulnerable late night away from irresponsibly buying on eBay.

  • And yep, there was also a Macintosh version of the game ported by Westlake Interactive,

  • which was set to release in June of ‘98 but didn’t actually show up until a year later.

  • For that matter, there was also going to be a PlayStation and a Nintendo 64 version of

  • Unreal, with none other than DMA Design aka Rockstar North working on porting the latter

  • to the 64DD system, but both were canceled because reasons.

  • Back to the box though, where you also get this little catalog for GT Interactive’s

  • offerings for Spring of 1998, including existing releases like Unreal

  • and upcoming releases like Duke Nukem Forever.

  • Thislong-awaited sequelis coming in Winter of 1998, huh?

  • Mm, ‘dates are subject to changeindeed.

  • Finally, you also get an instruction manual, or prisoner transportation log, with over

  • 30 black and white pages of information covering everything from the story, to the gameplay,

  • to the ins and outs of the options menus and troubleshooting.

  • And then these ads in the back are great as well.

  • You could win a BMW for signing up to AT&T Worldnet apparently.

  • And check out that Falcon Northwest Mach V, wonder

  • if anyone still has one of those beasts lying around?

  • And it seems the infamous Mad Catz Panther XL controller

  • wasofficially endorsed by the creators of Unreal?”

  • [somewhat irksome rubbery creaking noises] Huh.

  • Suffice to say I will be sticking to a mouse and keyboard for the rest of this video.

  • Once youve got Unreal installed and your graphics card properly configured it’s time

  • to dive into the most-anticipated PC gaming--aww. Welp.

  • This is not an uncommon sight when it comes to the launch version of Unreal,

  • bugs and crashes are a fact of life.

  • And Epic knew it, going so far as to include this slip of paper in the box calling for

  • theirhardcoregaming audience to please forgive them in advance because making games

  • is hard and Unreal is full of bugs so please be sure to download

  • the latest updates as soon as possible.”

  • I can think of a few companies who should still be including messages like this but anyway.

  • Thankfully there are patches for just about every configuration of PC imaginable, so once

  • it’s working youre greeted with the legendary Unreal castle flyby demo.

  • [flyby demo commences triumphantly]

  • [classy Alexander Brandon theme plays]

  • Augh, dude, yes!

  • Every time I start this game up and I hear that MOD music playing, composed by Alexander

  • Brandon and Michiel van den Bos, in combination with those glossy 3D surfaces flying by?

  • Brings me right back to the first time I saw it running.

  • It was just me and my Compaq than ran Windows 98SE,

  • sitting there in awe at what was happening on my screen.

  • I kept thinking, “my computer can do THIS?!”

  • Granted, I mean, I had upgraded it with a 16MB Voodoo3 card

  • in order to make it happen so I knew it technically could.

  • But knowing and seeing were two different things, and seeing this in the late ‘90s

  • running on your computer was practically a religious epiphany to a PC gaming geek.

  • But impressive visuals can only carry a game so far and Unreal is much more than a tech

  • demo, so let’s get to it starting with the main menu.

  • And dang, I had completely forgotten this is what the UI looked like originally, with

  • no mouse cursor and a chunky green typeface.

  • Anyway, let’s begin with the single player campaign and its offerings of four difficulty

  • levels and a variety of character models to choose from.

  • What you pick out here is pretty inconsequential to the campaign since you play a silent protagonist

  • in a first-person perspective, but I appreciate the gesture regardless.

  • And now, it’s time to wake up.

  • [electrical buzzing, alarm blaring]

  • [AI voice: “Prisoner 849 escaping!”]

  • You play an unnamed soul known only as Prisoner 849, who awakes in a prison cell to pure chaos

  • aboard a transport vessel called the Vortex Rikers.

  • You quickly find a universal translator tablet lying on the ground and get to work navigating

  • the crumbling ship, accompanied only by the screams of unseen crew members enduring unseen horrors.

  • [screams, explosions, eerie ambiance]

  • And wow did this introduction make an impact back

  • then, I had never played an FPS with such a focus on environmental storytelling like this before.

  • Youre just thrust into this lonely but chaotic situation, with no idea what went

  • wrong and very little to go on except the written logs of dead crew members and the

  • level design itself to fill in the gaps.

  • Now this kind of storytelling in first-person is has been done to death nowadays, but keep

  • in mind this was before Half-Life had come out, so experiencing this in ‘98 was a treat!

  • In hindsight though, there’s a definite similarity to System Shock here with its dark,

  • dilapidated space station and its focus on picking up story pieces as you go.

  • But I wasn’t aware of that game at the time so this was an entirely fresh experience to me.

  • And, unlike System Shock, Unreal is a first-person shooter above all else and it’s not long

  • before you find a weapon, some ammo, and some beefy alien baddies for target practice.

  • [soothing sounds of alien target practice commence] And while youll be seeing these

  • same dudes repeatedly throughout the game,

  • the way theyre introduced one by one is just awesome.

  • Like, the first time a Skaarj shows up? Fantastic!

  • [more eerie ambiance.]

  • [alarms, shooting]

  • Yeah that’s another thing, Unreal makes heavy use of darkness throughout

  • the campaign, no doubt to show off its dynamic lighting capabilities.

  • So youre frequently having to make use of flares to light your way, at least until

  • you find any of the various flashlights later on.

  • But all of these lighting sources are temporary, with the flares exploding after a short time

  • and flashlights running out of battery life.

  • Ah well, at least you can use a weapon and a light at the same time, so youre not

  • doomed to shuffle between the two.

  • However, as creepy and atmospheric as these darker levels can be, personally, Unreal really

  • feels like *Unreal* to me in the outdoor environments.

  • Say hello to the planet of Na Pali.

  • [critterschirp, wind blows, serene music plays]

  • This moment is perhaps the most memorable one in the game for me, even after all these years/

  • Where you first step off the crashed ship and out into this lush, alien world.

  • The place was not only massive but beautiful, with strange creatures flying around, a village

  • off in the distance, weird rabbit things hopping by begging to be shot, and the sound of a

  • waterfall in the distance while more of that awesome tracker music plays.

  • [Music plays over waterfall sounds. Then, he ded.]

  • Just saying the wordunrealbrings environments like this to mind.

  • Theyre pretty to look at yet isolating to exist within, containing just enough detail

  • and wide open space to entice you to explore further without overwhelming you at the same time.

  • And this kind of lower polygon count geometry?

  • I just find it ridiculously charming at this point.

  • I mean it’s like, “Hey look!

  • These platforms you can walk across?

  • It’s an elongated rectangle, have fun!”

  • A good chunk of your story remains a pretty straightforward, chill experience really,

  • with no objective markers or lists of things to do getting in the way of your wandering

  • and interacting with the world.

  • Most of this interaction takes the form of bumping into doors, switches, machines, and

  • contraptions to make them do their thing.

  • Taking a cue from Quake, there is no interaction key, you just kinda straddle an object for

  • a second until it does what you want.

  • But there are some physical puzzles as well, like moving a box here and there so you can

  • jump on top to reach a higher ledge, or shooting at objects to activate them or destroy part

  • of them to create a new platform, or blowing up walls

  • and surfaces to reveal a pathway or hidden room.

  • There are also friendly NPCs, known as the Nali, that will help you out if you have enough

  • patience to keep them alive, opening up alternate routes

  • or secret chambers of weaponry and power-ups.

  • Of course, the less amiable aliens around do not want that to happen and will make a

  • bee-line to try and kill them before they can help you so being

  • quick and precise with your guns is a must.

  • Speaking of armaments, there are ten guns in the original Unreal, many of which will

  • be quite familiar to you if youve played the later games in the franchise.

  • The first gun you receive and the most basic of them is the dispersion pistol, a low-power

  • energy gun that recharges over time and is most likely going to be used for shooting

  • open objects like crates and barrels.

  • But also has the unique ability to be upgraded several times

  • by picking up boosters throughout the game.

  • Then you have the Automag, which is a hitscan pistol that’s incredibly accurate but rather

  • slow in terms of firing rate, yet also has a sidewaysgangstamode where you shoot

  • way faster for some reason, at the expense of a loss in accuracy.

  • Then there’s the Stinger which is a rapid-fire chaingun type of thing, except it shoots tarydium

  • shards in either a straight line or a slow but effective spread-shot.

  • Then there’s the GES BioRifle, which is a little bit unusual in that it shoots blobs

  • of toxic waste in various sizes.

  • Next up is the ASMD Shock Rifle, which is a fantastically useful weapon, shooting powerful

  • beams in a straight line from any distance, as well as a secondary fire that shoots out

  • a pulsating energy ball which can then be shot

  • with the other beam to make an even larger explosion.

  • Then there’s the minigun, which works a lot like the Stinger except it uses the same

  • ammo as the Automag and its secondary mode fires at a different rate.

  • Next is the oddly-named Eightball Launcher, which is

  • a rocket launcher with six barrels, not eight.

  • Apparently it’s a vestigial name from earlier in development, but whatever man it’s awesome.

  • You can shoot individual rockets, or you can hold down fire to queue up to six of them

  • in a horizontal pattern.

  • Or use the alt fire to toss rockets in a general direction like grenades and bounce them off

  • surfaces, or hold down both buttons to send a cluster of rockets in a small group.

  • Just a fantastic gun, but even better in my opinion is the Flak Cannon.

  • Somewhat like the Stinger’s alt fire mode, except here you have heated shrapnel that

  • bounces everywhere and shreds enemies to pieces, as well as a shell launcher that’s fantastic

  • for doing lots of longer-range damage if youre skilled enough.

  • After this is the Razorjack, which is quite powerful but often causes more trouble than

  • it’s worth seeing as it shoots spinning blades that bounce all over the place and

  • can easily lop off the heads of anyone in its path, including you.

  • And it also has a rather gangster secondary sideways firing mode

  • because you had to make that weaponcoolsomehow.

  • And then finally there is the sniper rifle, easily one of my

  • favorites in this and every other Unreal title.

  • It’s a powerful, armor-piercing, hitscan weapon that disconnects heads from torsos

  • in spectacular fashion, and is a pleasure to use in Unreal’s

  • massive environments when you zoom in.

  • Although it just kind of decreases the FOV to make zooming happen, there’s no scope

  • overlay or anything, but it works and it’s fun.

  • As memorable and useful as these weapons are though,

  • I found the power-ups to be pretty standard.

  • You pick these up and store them in your inventory to use whenever you need, things like the

  • aforementioned translator, flares, and lights.

  • You also get useful stuff like scuba gear, jump boots, invisibility, and a single-use force field.

  • But probably the most useful one is the amplifier, which has nothing to do with your hi-fi setup

  • and everything to do with making your weapons more powerful when activated.

  • There’s also the Nali Fruit Seed, one of the more creative health items I’ve seen.

  • Most of the time youre just picking up medkits and such off the ground, but every

  • so often youll see a seed which can activated by planting it and waiting for it to grow.

  • Seriously.

  • Youll find these out in the world too, already grown.

  • But when you plant one the longer you wait, the more health youll get from the plant,

  • up to 30 health points.

  • It’s weird and inconvenient, but that’s neat.

  • And you will want all the seeds and health items you can get because Unreal does not

  • always take it easy on you, especially on higher difficulties as you would imagine.

  • I enjoy how almost all of the power-ups and weapons you find aren’t yours alone and

  • will inevitably be used against you.

  • And almost all of the game’s 20-something enemies are quite skilled in dodging and switching

  • up their attacks, so it can often be a serious challenge to get a bead on them depending

  • on what you have at your disposal and what exactly is attacking.