The difficulty in reviewing a game like Unreal is keeping in mind what has come before it while at the same time allowing the game to flesh out its own sense of style and gameplay. Unreal is not Quake. The look is different. The feel is different. And what gives Unreal an edge is how these differences, while not always positive, distinguish it from the legions of other 3D shooters.
In Unreal, you are a prisoner aboard a ship en route to a penal colony. The ship crashes on a mysterious planet where the mystical Nali race is being subjugated by the cruel and technologically advanced Skaarj. As you journey through the many environments on the planet, you must find a means of escape from the planet and help the Nali defeat their oppressors. Unreal intertwines the feel of the medieval Nali architecture and culture with the sci-fi design of the weapons and the Skaarj warriors to create an environment that's a step above other games of its ilk.
As far as the game itself, the graphics are incredible. Unreal has the best graphics of any first-person shooter - and possibly of any game - to date. The palette is bright and varied, while the textures are intricate and well defined. The quality of textures deserves high praise - they help create environments that really take hold of you. The levels are so detailed and distinct that it's easy to distinguish one level from all the others, and you won't confuse the prison spacecraft for the Nali village. In conjunction with the graphics, the level design is advanced and complex. The mix of wide-open spaces and cramped hallways is refreshing. As far as graphics go, you just can't beat Unreal's immersion factor.
Combining an alien world with weapons that seem alien themselves has produced some interesting results. As varied as the ten weapons are, there's also an alternate method of firing each of them (the 8-Ball Launcher, Unreal's equivalent of a rocket launcher, can also be used as a grenade launcher). This wide range of attack styles will undoubtedly produce higher degrees of strategy in deathmatch play. As for single-player, the weapon placement and location was spaced out evenly, and finding ammunition was not a daunting task.
One of Unreal's best features is the enemy AI. In other games, the logic of certain creature actions seems to be linear and undefined. In Unreal, each opponent attacks with its own style, using a combination of melee and ranged attacks. One of the most impressive experiences (if not the most aggravating) was seeing a well-placed rocket shot miss because a Skaarj dodged it at the last second. Another eye-catching sight was watching different enemies power up shields to protect themselves in the midst of battle.
As far as problems go, there are some, but they don't hurt gameplay enough to reduce the overall experience. The first is that there are too few enemy model types. Unreal has only six main enemy models, but the design team has done a pretty good job of using different skins to create a variety of opponents. In addition, there are other models for the random critters that you fight throughout your adventuring.
Another complaint deals with the pace of gameplay. Sometimes the pace of action seems too stretched out, and it feels as if each battle is just the same as the last. However, these gaps were few, and for the most part the game pacing and plot development were enjoyable. On the puzzle-solving side, there isn't much to be had; most of the game you simply push buttons to open a path leading to the next level. But your actions involving them are well integrated into the plot. There are few complex puzzles to solve; it's doubtful that Unreal would benefit from more in that area.
Lastly, the weapons are pretty cool, but there's no simplicity in design. Each gun takes some practice to understand its use and benefits, but in the end, you spend too much time learning. Rather than give you instinctual weapons (like a basic shotgun or machine gun), Unreal's unusual weaponry forces you to adjust the way you play, without much added benefit of weapon ferocity or visceral gratification.
If you're looking to hone your deathmatch skills, however, you're going to find playing online to be next to impossible. The developers have stated in the readme.txt file that the game is still in the tweaking phase as far as Internet play is concerned. But with seemingly boundless game customizability options as well as in-package deathmatch levels, Unreal gives you everything you need to practice for the big time. It even gives you a choice of bots designed by Steve Polge to test your mettle. This was probably one of the most enjoyable features, and after you've finished the game you can go in and set up your own games for a single-player deathmatch experience.
Unreal is a truly great single-player game. It's hard to say whether it will stand the test of the first-person action-shooter wars and become a classic in and of itself. It will definitely have to overcome the lack of a decent Internet experience if it wants to obtain any more accolades, but, apart from that, it offers as much as you could possibly want from a game in this genre.