After being in development for more than three years at Legend Entertainment, Unreal II will finally be in stores next week. We recently had the chance to play through part of the final version of the game in order to get a sense of the game's graphics, control scheme, and general difficulty. As you might expect from an Unreal game, the visuals are particularly remarkable, at least a notch above the quality seen in Unreal Tournament 2003.
The game doesn't immediately throw you into the action. First, you'll watch a series of cutscenes that introduce your character, John Dalton, as a space marshal patrolling a backwater part of space who really wishes he could return to his former position in the marines. There are a couple of low-key segments in which you walk back to the shuttle that takes you back to your ship, the Atlantis, and then explore the ship and meet its three-person crew. But once you figure out how to start the first real mission, the action starts in earnest.
In fact, even the game's early missions can be quite challenging on the normal difficulty setting. The first enemy you'll meet, the izarians, often work in groups to surround you, and they can get some good shots in if you're careless. They're not that much of a threat, but they can wear you down for the first intelligent enemy you'll face: the fearsome skaarj warriors that many will recognize from the original Unreal. The skaarj will block shots from your assault rifles by crossing their claws, and some skaarj have protective energy shields that serve the same purpose as Dalton's protective armor suit. Both enemies are even tougher in the second mission, which takes place at night in an alien swamp. The best way to avoid getting fatally clawed in the back by a hidden skaarj is to use the narrow terrain strategically or have one of the three marines who accompany you guard the other entrance to the valley you're protecting. Fortunately, if the missions ever get too hard, it's possible to change between the three difficulty settings at any point.
From the first mission, you'll be armed with a typical sci-fi assault rifle that has a very high rate of fire and a slow-yet-powerful alternate fire mode. But while the assault rifle is an important weapon in many missions, you'll soon find much more powerful terran weaponry, such as an assault shotgun with an incendiary secondary fire mode, a visually impressive flamethrower, a grenade launcher, and a rocket launcher. The shotgun and flamethrower are particularly good for taking out groups of smaller enemies, such as the many spiders you'll encounter throughout the third mission, while the heavy weapons are useful against enemy bosses and hardened defenses, such as the rocket turrets and energy fences that opposing human forces will deploy in the game's middle missions. As the game progresses, some more-unusual alien weapons will be added to your arsenal.
Unreal II's visuals are technically outstanding. Because it's a single-player-only game, Legend was free to turn the detail levels up a notch compared with the recent Unreal Tournament 2003, despite the fact that the two games' engines are fairly similar. There are a few occasions when Unreal II clearly outpaces UT2003. For example, the game makes use of some advanced texture effects to help make certain environments look appropriately odd and alien. Legend also added a particle system that allows for some great fire and smoke effects, and the shadows are also much more robust, which becomes apparent in the dramatically lit scenes where you watch a non-player character move around a level. Given all the graphical niceties, it's not surprising that the system requirements are a bit higher than in UT2003. The minimum recommended system is a 1.2GHz Athlon with a GeForce3, and the game ran at a steady frame rate with all the effects turned up on our test system, which is equipped with a 1.6GHz Athlon and a GeForce4 Ti graphics card.
As Unreal II is a single-player-only shooter, the game will likely succeed or fail based on the creativity of its story-based missions. The designers have said that they set out to put a lot of variety into the game's environments and weapons, and to present its story in a more interactive fashion than is traditional in shooters. We've seen plenty of interesting locations in the game so far, and there's plenty of opportunity for multiple-choice conversations with the characters on the Atlantis. However, obviously, the game should be most satisfying in the middle of its gunfights. And the action does seem quite good, between the varied guns and an enemy AI that presents a good challenge when you're up against humanoid opponents and is predictably simple when you're just faced with a mob of aliens. But we'll have to see how well Unreal II maintains its pacing and variety over the course of the whole game.
Check back early next week for our full review of Unreal II. In the meantime, take a look at these