E3 2002: Unreal II impressions

Legend is finishing up the sequel to the 1998 game that set a new standard for 3D visuals.

The success of Epic's 1998 first-person shooter Unreal guaranteed a follow-up, but the developer decided to focus first on a pure multiplayer game, which ended up as Unreal Tournament. Epic turned the reins to Unreal II over to Legend, and after an extended development cycle, the elaborate single-player game is in the final stretch. We had a chance to see a walk-through of a few of the game's levels, and from what we saw, Legend has packed in a lot of drama into the game.

The first mission we saw showed your ship, Atlantis, approaching a planet that's entirely covered with a giant organism. Over thousands of years, the organism drew power from one of the mysterious artifacts in the game to grow to its monumental size, and the player's mission is to retrieve the artifact before a greedy terran corporation does. The corporation already has an excavation effort under way, so the first step is to infiltrate the defensive perimeter. Even during this battle between what are essentially space marines, there are dramatic moments. The level is enormous, and there's a scaffold built above the gigantic maw of the planetary organism. At times, guards will fall over the railing into the chasm below, and the sense of scale is like something out of a big-budget movie. Once you descend in a construction elevator into the alien itself, things are very different. The environment is filled with a greenish gas, with innocuous little white worm creatures floating around as terran guards attack. After you take the artifact, there's a new threat. The organism releases what are essentially immune-system antibodies to attack you and protect the artifact.

The terran guards are in powered armor suits, as is your character, so it takes some serious weaponry to take them down. Even at this early point in the game, you have a good selection of human weapons, including a shotgun, a sniper rifle, an assault rifle, and a rocket launcher. The weapon models are all incredibly beefy, much larger than what an unarmored soldier would be able to carry. The grenade launcher is modular, with six different types of grenades--including EMP, frag, smoke, toxic, and stasis--and each type is more appropriate than the others in particular situations. The human weapons are only a portion of the total number of 14 weapons, and the others are picked up from the various alien opponents you face later in the game.

As we've come to expect from previous demos, the game looked very impressive. The next-generation Unreal graphics are technically superb, with lots of particle effects and high-poly environments and characters. But the creatively designed alien environments make it look quite unique. Another level we saw was set in a world covered with alien technology. The surfaces were covered with ornate metallic surfaces reminiscent of Aliens. Here, the player encounters a mechanical alien creature, the Drakk, which packs lasers that track the player and can be repaired by drones. Such encounters underline another of the game's technical strengths: dynamic music. The audio developers use DirectMusic to match the intensity of the audio to the action on the screen. Between encounters the music fades, so players don't have to hear a blaring soundtrack in the game's calmer moments.

With 30 missions spread across 10 different environments, the developers expect the game to take well over 20 hours for experienced players to complete. Parts of the demonstration included very intense moments, like a Skaarj's glowing eyes peering out at you through the darkness shortly after it used its claws to slice up the roof of an elevator you're riding in. The first game had memorable scripted sequences like this right at the beginning of the game, and Legend has tried to capture this in sequences spread throughout. After all this time, Unreal II seems to be coming together. The team is very confident that the game will be done this fall.

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