Unreal II may not aim high, but it's a genuinely exciting ride nonetheless.
When Unreal Tournament was released, the franchise reached legendary status. However since that game was strictly focused on the multiplayer aspect, there were many people eagerly waiting for a "true" sequel to the first game. Unreal II: The Awakening was the answer for them. Unfortunately some people had too high expectations for this game and that led to a general consensus that the game was a "flop". But putting any unreal expectations (no pun intended) aside, Unreal II is a solid shooter with a better than average story that may not be destined to be a classic, but it sure is an enjoyable ride.
Unreal II is set in the future and you play the role of John Dalton, a marine who has been assigned the task of helping out a roaming team that performs different missions through the universe. Eventually though, an important task of recovering certain artifacts takes over as the main mission and most of the campaign will focus on that quest. Along the way you'll be able to interact with your squad mates and gain a better insight on their personalities as well as how they got along before you went in. They'll also help you unmask a ongoing conspiracy that threatens the life of everyone involved in the main mission. The story may not be award worthy, but it does a good job at setting itself apart from the typical "save the world scenario".
The gameplay is also very solid, if not necessarily spectacular. Your array of guns features some typical weapons like shotguns and assault rifles, but there are other odd weapons like a spider throwing rifle and a weapon that creates a shield around you. All of the guns are satisfying to use, though there are probably too many weapons; you're given a new weapon at the start of each mission and on top of that all weapons have an alternate fire. While the amount of variety is nice, odds are you'll rely mostly on your trusty shotgun or assault rifle. It's actually possible to reach the end of the game never having used all of the weapons or alternate modes the game has to offer.
Missions in Unreal II feature some typical scenarios where you must infiltrate a base and retrieve some documents or escort an NPC. But there are also some great defensive missions where you'll be tasked to set up a defensive perimeter and command some of your teammates to aid you as you try to repel the enemies. It's a great departure from more typical scenarios as you desperately attempt to survive rather than annihilate. On the harder difficulties, this missions can be very challenging and while this can be mildly frustrating, it adds another layer of tension that makes this sections very memorable.
The graphics are one of the best aspects in the game, and even today they remain very impressive (considering the game came out in 2003, that's quite a feat). Shadows and textures are particularity well done as they give the game a very crisp look. Character models are good, although perhaps a bit too cartoony. The same goes for the crazy clown weapons. In fact the whole game sports a somewhat goofy art direction, which is also evident in the level design. Speaking of the level design, though not spectacular by any means, it's quite solid and offers plenty of variety.
The sound effects are a bit subdued, but they do the job alright. The voice acting is adequate and helps develop the relationship between the characters. The dialogue itself is somewhat cheesy ("Go to hell Dalton!" ... "I'm already there toots!"), yet that works in favor of the game. There's also plenty of music in the background and it works very well at upping the tempo during the various missions.
Unreal II: The Awakening may not have been what many people expected it to be, but it's hardly a mediocre game. The game overall sports a great deal of polish and there are plenty of missions that make the game stand out from the rest. It's short enough to finish in just a few days, so as a game to keep you occupied during a weekend, it's a very suitable one.