Unreal Preview

Sharp, amazingly rendered 3-D environments and quick action are two genuine articles in Epic's upcoming Unreal


"You awaken in a small, enclosed room with metal walls. The floor and walls are notably tilted at an odd angle. The room is illuminated by a dim light flowing through a crack in the ceiling. A small fold-out bed is attached to a wall. Though you have no recollection of where you are, it might appear to be a prison cell. An angled metal door lies ahead. With effort, you push the creaky slab open.

"You reach another large metal door. It's partially open, revealing light beyond it. Pressing a switch on a nearby wall causes the door to slowly and noisily open, uncovering a bright green landscape and lake beyond. Walking forward, you find yourself in the middle of a small peninsula within a lake surrounded by mountains.

"This is not at all what you expected. The 'prison' you just exited is now revealed to be a small, badly-damaged spacecraft. Debris trails the crash site. The craft itself is wedged halfway into the ground, forming a crater in the area surrounding it. Walking along a trail in the foreign terrain, gun in hand, you journey onward to find out whereyou are and what your purpose is here.

"Observing your surroundings beyond the carnage reveals a beautiful and serene, yet somehow spooky, landscape. Two moons are in the sky. Ruins are in the distance. And a big, bad, alien is eating one of your buddies."

Thus begins Epic's lead-in to their highly anticipated new 3-D action game engine, Unreal. It's an enticing scene, but how much does it reflect a real game? Considering that Epic has been at work on this title for several years, and that the game uses the latest processor technology from Intel, it could be pretty close. Epic has revealed some of the environments, and they are indeed stunning, fully realized worlds far more elaborate than the dungeons of Quake or the cities of Duke. The game levels are actual buildings (a castle, a temple, a mine), linked by hills and landscape. You can move freely from one level to another during gameplay, with no breaks or level loading. If Epic fulfills the promise they've shown so far, Unreal will not be just another company's attempt to build a Quake-killer; it will usher in the next generation of PC gaming.

How did Epic, a company known for slight, arcadish titles like Jill of the Jungle, get into the cutthroat, competitive world of 3-D action gaming? Over two years ago, knowing they would need new technology in order to survive against id, Apogee, and the rest of their competition, Epic began research into new 3-D rendering technology. A visit to Intel helped them find the direction that would ultimately lead to Unreal's breakthrough look.

"We showed them Unreal a couple years ago," says Epic president Mark Rein, "when it was still a research project, and that's when they told us about MMX. They obviously thought it was something that could make use of it because we were using a software-only renderer."

What is MMX? Essentially, it's the next generation of Intel Pentium processor technology. Most leaps in processor speed are made by conventional measures applied to existing system technology. Faster clock speeds are accomplished through micro architecture techniques such as superpipelining, branch prediction, and superscalar execution. Intel used these methods with MMX, but more importantly added 57 new instructions to the architecture. These instructions speed up those processor-intensive loops that tend to slow applications down. (While these loops usually only account for 10 percent of the code, they can drain nearly 90 percent of the processing time.)

What Intel learned was that graphic- and sound-intensive programs like 3-D games use small integer data types, code that runs in parallel, and make a lot of individual calculations. They created a new set of instruction techniques, called Single Instruction Multiple Data (SIMD), to enable programs to handle more than one of these data elements at once, in parallels. The new instructions allow multiple pieces of data to be handled with a single instruction. Simultaneous, multiple functions such as sound effects, music, 3-D graphics, and Internet connections can be handled more efficiently. More data can be chunked at once, allowing for 24-bit true color to run at 30 frames a second while mixing diverse sound effects. Since these protocols are just a new set of instructions that a developer can choose to write to or not, MMX will be fully compatible with other software. All new Intel chips after the rollout in 1997 will be MMX-compatible.

While Unreal will run with or without MMX, the benefits of the new technology are apparent. The true beauty and depth of the images will really only shine with the new processor, and MMX enables better speed at higher resolutions such as 640x480 and above.

"The biggest thing we've been seeing with MMX," Rein comments, "is the ability to mix colored lights, and do a lot of mixing of things, something computers aren't usually too good at. With MMX we've upped the sound engine to 44KHz mixing. I'm not 100 percent sure what all the final benefits will be, but right now it enables us to do 24-bit color with colored lights at the same frame rates as we're getting 8-bit color. We've also just implemented 16-bit color for regular Pentiums, which is going to be standard."

Aside from simply creating a more realistic environment, the level of detail in Unreal will also effect gameplay. "That's one of the things that makes it different from Quake," Rein comments. "In Quake, you run around and kill everything. But in Unreal, since the visuals are so much clearer due to the higher resolution, you spend a little more time looking around and hunting for things. You'll be involved in the scenes rather than just running through them." As a result, users will find themselves scouring rooms for secret levers and objects, adding more of the gameplay that many felt was missing from Quake.

This greater depth of gameplay is reflected in other ways in the game. The premise is that the underpinnings of our myths reside in this alternate world, a mix of fantasy and science fiction tropes. Complex and interesting monsters stalk you through each level. In an effort to offer more than just the mad kill-everything frenzy of Quake, Epic aims to create a more complex combat experience in which fewer but more intelligent monsters stalk you through levels. There are almost 20 fully animated monsters in this world, and they're not always just for killing: Some special items found on the levels will allow you to morph into the monsters and fight as them, using their own strength and powers. To add one final twist to the male-dominated world of computer games, the character you play will be female.

The weapons themselves will also be more complex than in many similar games. Some will have variable settings so you can build somewhat more elaborate strategies for approaching an enemy. For instance, a shotgun can hit far and direct for a single target that you don't want to get too close to, or maybe short and wide several close up targets at once. Objects found throughout the levels will come into play, from mystical talismans to flashlights and other things. All this will be most interesting in network and Internet play. Developed as it is for Windows 95, Unreal has had native Internet play support from step one, made easy by Windows 95 DirectX technology. The "whole world" quality of Unreal will lead to some pretty interesting multiplayer games, as gamers follow each other from one massive location to another. The person who sets up an Unreal game will also have a high degree of control over the game environment, with the ability to set anything from the time of day, to which areas are locked, to which monsters are unleashed and when.

All custom features stem right from the unbelievable Unreal editor, which will probably be sold separately. This powerful world-creation utility takes the complex and often tortuous task of level creation found in similar games and makes it accessible to just about anyone. You can create entire 3-D worlds with the editor, which will come with thousands of textures and prebuilt objects, and the capability to import new ones. Simplifying the complete creation of a fully 3-D may be the biggest thing Unreal has to offer, as entirely new games can be created and traded over the Internet.

There is such a strong groundswell of interest and anticipation surrounding Unreal that its launch can hardly be anything other than a success. Though the title won't exist for a while yet, Unreal boards and even dedicated IRC channels are already up and running, showing just how much a few screenshots can prime the hype pump. Epic has set their sights high, looking to dethrone Quake as the game of the moment with better graphics and more complex gameplay. From what we've seen so far, they might just be able to do it.

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