E3 2001 Hands On: Unreal II

We take a look at the sequel to the original Unreal.


Unreal II: The Awakening

Infogrames is showing several of its games behind closed doors at this year's E3, one of which is the highly anticipated Unreal II, and the game looks especially impressive. Following in the footsteps of its predecessor, Unreal II features a central story that takes place in the same universe as the first Unreal, but with a different main character and cast of supporting characters. You play as a colonial marshal assigned to a new colonial area within the galaxy, but while you're on a routine patrol of the area, a massive war breaks out between six alien races, including various mercenary and military groups. You must find out why all the different factions are fighting.

There are 25 levels that are dispersed over 13 missions. The first level shown to us was designed specifically to be reminiscent of the early levels from the first Unreal, known as Nali Falls, and it succeeds in doing so. When you start the level and land on the planet, your ship takes off and flies off into the distance. The amount of detail in this first level alone is astonishing. You're completely surrounded by lush green hills that stretch far into the horizon; plus, incredibly realistic water flows right next to you, and small patches of grass made up of individual polygonal blades dot the landscape. There are even small native creatures feasting on a carcass of an enemy you encounter later in the game--just part of Legend Entertainment's dedication to making you think that each environment has its own realistic ecosystem.

After browsing the surrounding areas, we were shown a few of the weapons. There are 15 weapons in Unreal II--five of them are more conventional, such as the sniper rifle, pistol, and assault rifle, but the rest of the weapons are a little more creative. For example, there's a leech gun that actually fires leeches, which can eat away at armor and deplete armor strength. There's also a weapon that launches hunter-killer drones that seek out and destroy enemies. There are different kinds of energy weapons, but the most impressive weapon is the flamethrower. It does an enormous amount of damage, and the effect it produces is incredibly realistic, rivaling the same effect in Gray Matter Studios' upcoming first-person shooter, Return to Castle Wolfenstein. Like the weapons in previous Unreal games, Unreal II's have secondary functions, and though we weren't able to see most of them, we were told that the flamethrower's secondary fire produces globs of material that you can ignite after firing. Interestingly, it appears that when you find certain weapons, you can't use them right away--instead, you have to take them back to your ship and research them so that you can use them for the next mission. In addition, firing your weapons on different types of terrain produces different visual effects. Fire your machine gun into dirt, and gravel flies into your face; fire it into metal, and sparks bounce off the surface.

The brief weapon introduction was followed by further exploration of the first level, in which you find out that you have to infiltrate an enemy dam, place detonation packs, and destroy the dam, causing the trapped water to pour out over the landscape. While traveling toward the dam, we got a glimpse of a new enemy that's equipped with armor. A stream of water from a broken pipe draining into a lake on one side of the dam provides a nice demonstration of Unreal II's particle system capabilities. The first level was only a taste of later levels that are as--if not more--impressive.

But before showing us any additional levels, Infogrames wanted to show the ship--which functions as your home base area--as well as the new conversation system. Your home base essentially acts as a briefing station for upcoming missions, and on the ship is another character named Aida, who's responsible for getting you all the information you need. In one particular scene, Aida pages you through the ship's communications system, so you have to travel through your ship and up to the bridge, where Aida fills you in on your mission. The amount of detail on Aida is amazing--the sheer number of polygons that make up her face is staggering. Aida has also been designed so that her lips synch with whatever she's saying. She is also supposed to follow your movements by moving her head and torso.

While not entirely unique, the conversation system in Unreal II is not something you would typically find in a first-person shooter. During conversations with Aida, you're given the option to select from four or five different responses, which causes the conversation to change accordingly. However, Legend Entertainment is tweaking this basic conversation system so that it's much more dynamic. For example, if you leave in the middle of an important conversation with Aida, she becomes angry, her facial expression changes, and she asks you why you left. It's an interesting feature to incorporate into a first-person shooter, but it still remains to be seen whether first-person shooter fans will take to the idea.

The next level we saw, which has been featured in previous screenshots, featured the Skaarj, a familiar foe from the original Unreal. Like Aida, the Skaarj models are very complex and look much more muscular than they did in the first Unreal. There's one major difference between the Skaarj of the original and the Skaarj of Unreal II: The Skaarj of Unreal II are covered in unique tattoos that indicate their affiliation with a specific faction. This becomes important later in the game because you can actually ally yourself with Skaarj factions that'll fight alongside you at various points in the game. A quick shot of the sniper rifle caused the enormous Skaarj to run off behind a wall.

The last maps we saw showcased Unreal II's team-play modes, as well as some of the unique alien architecture. At the beginning of one level, you're joined by three other soldiers, and you can give them different orders. If you want one to guard the front entrance, you simply walk up to him and order it--or you can order him to patrol the perimeter. These strategies play an important role in the game because you have to plan an effective strategy, and obviously, if you have very few soldiers accompanying you, you're going to have some difficulty in getting through the level. The AI for these soldiers still needs some work, particularly when enemies confront them, but for the most part, they follow your orders without many problems.

Perhaps the most impressive level at the entire demonstration was the alien level. This particular level starts in a massive structure that rests on top of an archaeological dig area, and you must make your way up the structure to the elevator that travels into an alien structure. The detail in the alien ship is amazing--areas where developers would normally use detailed textures or bump mapping are now entirely made out of polygons. For example, the floor you walk on during this level is basically a series of spinelike ridges, and there are reflective rocks jutting out from the walls. It was hard to believe that these were actually polygons until the game switched into the wireframe mode, which shows that the ground and the walls are indeed made out of polygons. There are quite a few other subtle effects in this level as well, like little particle beams that race along the walls and lead into large transparent globes.

The demonstration ended with a brief look at a multiplayer map that takes place within an asteroid belt, as well as some specific details about Unreal II's multiplayer features. In addition to basic multiplayer modes such as capture the flag, deathmatch, and last man standing, there will be a multiplayer mode that plays much like Tribes. Two teams basically fight to capture each other's flag, which is located in their respective bases. You'll be able to select from different character classes, and you'll also be given access to replicators, where you can buy new weapons, items, or special equipment, like machine gun turrets that you can place around your base.

Needless to say, Unreal II looks really impressive, even at this early stage in development. The levels and characters have an incredible amount of detail, and the special effects are spectacular. When the game is ready in 2002, Infogrames plans to ship Unreal II with single-player and multiplayer modes, as well as support for bots in multiplayer. Infogrames is also shipping Unreal II with the latest version of UnrealEd, the tool used to construct maps in all of the Unreal games.

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