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Unreal Forever

January 9, 2023 at 12:21 PM
Category: Games

On December 23rd, 2022, Epic Games decided to pull Unreal and its successors off of Steam and GOG, and as far as I know, they have not even bothered to put it on their own storefront. This is easily one of the most baffling things that Epic has ever done. What was to be gained from this? Supposedly, Unreal Tournament III is getting a bit of a reboot as 3X, which would be free to play and cross compatible with multiple modern platforms. But I really don't see how a company with so many resources would need to ditch these games to make room for a project like that...

Unreal is so often overshadowed by itself, as when most people hear the name these days, they only think of the engine itself or the Unreal Tournament spinoff lineup. But make no mistake, this game is a much bigger deal than it is given credit for, not factoring in how it's laid the groundwork for countless other cutting-edge games over the years.

Beyond Graphics

NyLeve's falls in Unreal

Unreal was extensively hyped up in the press for years before its release due to its graphical fidelity being far ahead of Quake, and even its immediate successor. It seemed destined to be the leader in the 3D polygonal craze of the late 90's. For certain, it demanded very powerful hardware that would've been hard for most consumers to acquire in 1998. Your options back then would've either been the Intel Pentium II, which thrived on 3D games but cost as much as a top-end Ryzen would today, or the AMD K6-2, which was much more affordable but needed additional help with handling such games in the form of specialized 3DNow instructions.

Initially, Unreal only supported either software rendering or 3dfx Voodoo cards, so it's not hard to assume that it really sold the Voodoo2 for a time. As the years went by, though, computers would only get more powerful, and later versions of Unreal would natively support other APIs like DirectX and OpenGL (the latter's implementation here was broken as shit). By 2001, it was easy for most consumers to pick up any sort of new off-the-shelf hardware competent enough to run this game well.

Collectively with the other 3D games released in its time, surely Unreal would begin to show its age. What were once some of the crispiest textures you could get in any game sold at a retailer became these muddy, chunky slabs of filth that would come out of a fever dream. At least, that's how some people would put it. Yeah, I'm talking about you, you snotty bitmap art fans.

Giant castle, giant ramp, just up ahead

Yet when I first played this far past its mainstream life in 2017, it was one of the most mind-blowing games I've ever played. How is that possible? Well... when raw graphics can no longer be the main draw in an age where GPUs are expected to come packed with at least 4GB of texture memory and no one can live without 60 FPS anymore, that leaves a ton of room to look to all the other aspects that really make Unreal something special.

It is true that many 3D games of the late 90's suffered miserably from age, but others have held up extraordinarily well, and it shows in the other side of what graphics are. It's not as simple as pumping as much as one can through a CPU and video chipset; art direction is perhaps more critical. Sure enough, Unreal is vibrant almost everywhere you look. The diversity of scenes ranging from corridor-filled space stations to gigantic, open landscapes are pretty well distinguished from each other, and each often has something new to offer.

Two pillars of lightning in a room

Perhaps these screenshots may not give the best impression; they come from some raw footage I took from my own 3dfx cards back in 2018, when I didn't have the best in what direct VGA capturing had to offer. If you try it for yourself, though, you may notice that it makes much better use of eye-popping colors than much of what I've seen elsewhere. I've found it to be much more impressive than most any of the newer games I've seen despite them objectively having far superior raw graphical fidelity.

Or maybe I just never thought that much of graphics to begin with. After all, I grew up on a library of outdated Game Boy and PS1 games, always behind my older brother in that regard. But where graphics may not have been the most grappling thing about Unreal for me, other elements damn sure were.

Innovating in More Ways than One

Fighting a Skaarj with the Eightball

On the surface, Unreal may come off as another Quake knockoff, one in many that were a step up from the various preceding Doom knockoffs of sorts. Though Unreal unmistakably pitched itself as the killer of Quake II, I do not see it as being so much like Quake. After all, when Quake was in development, so too was Unreal, and already in 1995 it had a pretty impressive technical demonstration that's out there now.

Truly, Unreal existed on its own merits in spite of its marketing and drive to outdo the id Software commandos. Quake and Unreal are very different games, right down to the raw meat of it. Whereas Quake is about slaughtering many demons which are pretty dumb, simplistic, and easy to kill, Unreal pits the player against few monsters that are often agile and cunning, seriously putting up a fight. On conventional measurements, neither is truly better than another; there's many different qualities on each end which balance each other out.

The Skaarj, the main antagonistic force of Unreal, are especially notable for their highly aggressive combat. They'll dodge your projectiles, they'll keep strafing out of the way of your hitscan shots, and they'll leap towards you to try to rip you apart. Whereas in Quake, you can comfortably use one weapon against one type of enemy all the time, you're often going to find yourself switching between multiple weapons depending on how you're positioned to conquer each instance of the same Skaarj.

The small quantity of enemies in Unreal may be due to their complexity that can put a strain on a slow CPU, but that's what makes them stand out. You don't necessarily need a large quantity of everything to overwhelm the player with a cutthroat challenge.

Gazing up towards a moon, by the looks of it

Unreal also tells its story in a really clever way, arguably better than how Half-Life did it. At the start of the game, you can pick up the Universal Translator, which blips every time you walk near something which contains a message for you to read, which could be computer terminals, ancient inscriptions, or even the electronic logs of other human casualties. Whereas in Half-Life, your gameplay is sometimes interrupted by long expository dialogue, Unreal almost always puts you on the move. Any scripted sequences it does lock you into are very brief and punctual, especially compared to that opening scene from Half-Life where you're stuck in a train for five minutes... eugh.

Translator message - ...I will rest before I make my final stand tomorrow morning.

All of the translator messages, as far as I can recall, are entirely optional. Some may help you figure out how to progress through the game, while others provide some extra context to the story from many differing perspectives. Spoken words are miniscule, and consist entirely of monologue. These factors make it a lot easier to replay the game without having to jump through so many arbitrary hoops - well, except for a few enemies that end up outstaying their welcome, particularly the Titans.

A Nali and his cow

While the entire plot of Unreal is basically to escape from the planet of Na Pali, it's easy to get immersed in it to a point where you might not want to leave. It's far from a true hell; a good share of other characters populate some parts of the environment that are not hostile, including passive wildlife and the Nali, a deeply religious race that has hailed you as the Messiah to bring salvation from their enslavement. You really don't want to shoot them; some of them are the key to some really helpful secret items to acquire as you progress through the game.

The uniqueness of this world-building approach to Unreal's storytelling would later be violated in its expansion pack Return to Na Pali, which features many intermissions of the protagonist, Prisoner 849, making verbose recordings to a log.

Unreal also has an absolutely killer soundtrack - largely composed by Alexander Brandon and Michiel van de Bos, but with a couple others pitching in as well. It has so many tracks as well, which could very well amount to about two hours, yet the entire game still fits in a single CD-ROM. This would absolutely not have been possible if the game used redbook audio as many games from its time settled for.

Instead, Unreal uses what looks to be its own wrapper for a couple of popular music tracker formats, being Scream Tracker 3 and Impulse Tracker. As with other tracker formats, these combine the best attributes of MIDI and pure waveform audio streams. Different waveform samples are stored independently and mixed in parallel according to the patterns assigned in each tracker file. Tracker music often suffers when lyrics are implanted since their require long and/or highly compressed samples, as well as when so many audio channels are playing back at once on less powerful hardware without reducing the sample rate.

The structure of the format of S3M, IT, XM, MOD, and others incentivizes a strong emphasis on an intimate usage of notes. It is because of this structure that some incredibly talented independent musicians have come out with an abundance of blunt, charismatically melodic masterpieces, something that would have seemingly been reserved for video games entirely.

Many games opted for redbook CD audio believing that would give them maximum freedom with their music, but actually, tracker music enables more functions that would have been nearly impractical or outright impossible otherwise - the ability to switch between tracks or patterns with minimal delay, and loop any part of a track seamlessly without too much of an extreme effort. Tracker music is installed to a hard drive, which is much faster than optical media, and when it's loaded into memory, much of the latency is eliminated.

Unreal leverages tracker music to great effect. Some tracker modules contain different versions of the same music, which can be triggered by encountering an enemy or advancing to another part of a map. And... HOLY SHIT, it's some of the best music I've ever heard. Right off the bat, Dusk Horizon alone was what kept me coming back for more, determined to experience the whole game to the end. Unreal's soundtrack has everything - chilling ambience, off-the-wall synthesis, and even a likable flavor of orchestra on the side, often combined with the electronic instruments.

It really displays what the elites of music tracking could do in one neat package, or even more so, what soundtrack in general can be. I think it might be worth noting that Peter Hajba (aka Skaven) also made a contribution to Unreal's multiplayer-only spinoff Unreal Tournament, and his work that would appear in later games is what would make me start to learn that music can be so much more than background filler. I would say he and those involved in Unreal were to PC games as Hisayoshi Ogura was to Japanese arcades. I still wonder if it's more than a coincidence that both Skaven and OGR made different tracks called "Network" which carry similar tones.

It Eats Itself

Unreal was a memorable experience hardly like any other. With just a tad few refinements, and maybe getting something a lot more akin to Quake's bunnyhopping to more easily traverse some of the wide open maps, this would've been the perfection of the first person shooter.

If there's any games out there which carry this same merit, I really don't know of them. Unreal matters to the collective of games greatly, and I'm still left waiting for more like it. Unfortunately, now Epic themselves apparently want little to do with Unreal as a game, going out of their way all of a sudden to flat out deny others the opportunity to experience something that could inspire yet more masterpieces if it's given to the right people.

I've been thinking... as amazing as Unreal was, it may very well have been Epic's undoing to begin with. In the company's infancy, it offered a wild variety of games developed both in-house and from other studios, and one could tell the guys involved there were serious about showing what the PC was capable of as a gaming platform. But ever since Unreal, well, I guess they accomplished their goal... and since then, they've bent over to being more on the cutting edge of technology and not much more, riding comfortably on licensing Unreal's engine to numerous other developers. What few other games that did come from them don't look all that exciting.

But then, of course, the whole Unreal series would end up being cannibalized by one of their other games entirely, one that is riddled with malicious intent. These days I shudder at any game which uses the Unreal Engine. One such game I bought a couple weeks back, R-Type Final 2, comes to mind. I've been enjoying it so far, but can't help but think about the unsettling implications of giving Epic and Tencent a small paycut due to potential licensing fees. I only did this because I give that much of a damn about STGs and want to see that genre flourish again. Please, to all the aspiring developers out there, don't use Unreal Engine. I wonder if GODOT might be a lot more viable by now.

I should now refer you to THEBaratusII's article on Epic's delisting of Unreal if you want to read more on this.

What happened to you, Timmy?

NyLeve's Falls in Unreal on 3dfx Voodoo2


Comments

osh - January 17, 2023 at 04:25 AM

Its too bad epic decided to basically say go fuck yourself and delisted this classic. I tend to gravitate towards it every once in awhile just for that very first opening.

Xnmcv - January 11, 2023 at 12:37 AM

YEP, definitely a thing. If there are Unreal mods based on memes, then it gets so more crazy. :bugfix_delight:

flatrute - January 10, 2023 at 01:31 PM

Xnmcv: The first time I knew about Godot was when someone here made a joke pseudo-horror game based on a meme using the engine about a year ago:

https://meodestroy282.itch.io/escape-from-lau-dai-tinh-ai

(La^u dda`i ti`nh a'i is "castle of loves" in Vietnamese by the way.)

XTac - January 10, 2023 at 08:22 AM

I am not that fond of Unreal as a game, mostly due to its level design. I did, however, always appreciate its creativity and aesthetics. There is a lot of beauty in this game, aside from its presentation (which is great, and one last show of force for software rendering)

It is a shame that Half-Life overshadowed it so much, despite being inferior in so many ways. Not that it is a bad game, far from it, but it is being praised as this timeless and faultless masterpiece while being filled with problems and design choices that plague so many modern games. Oh, and GoldSrc is really an ugly beast. Most people don't really know or care, because their hardware allows them such luxury. But Half Life is a horribly optimized game, and any attempts to play it on period correct hardware from 1997 to 2001 will prove it.

Xnmcv - January 09, 2023 at 08:41 PM

I am in the process of making some racing game with Godot, and it's gonna be interesting.

flatrute - January 09, 2023 at 07:27 PM

I do not have much interests in FPS games (I am waiting for an anime-artstyle Chinese-made online-only turn-based RPG gacha game to release since I love a certain character there :space_mop:) but I would love to hear the music. Overall what can I say than a good article from our beloved maroon whale :bugfix:

Trey26: It is also a good thing that the Fortnite brainwashing storm never reached my country since "gamers" here was too busy with PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds, League of Legends and Minecraft already :bugfix_discontent:

Trey26 - January 09, 2023 at 03:25 PM

It's a good thing a no longer play Fortnite.
The OG Unreal truely lives on.

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