Review: Unreal Gold (PC)

In this review, we try the FPS game Unreal. The version we are trying is Unreal Gold. We find out if this expanded version is worth playing.

While the original Unreal game was released in 1998, the expanded version, Unreal Gold (which contains the Return to Na Pali expansion) was released in 1999.

The story of this game is that you are prisoner 849 who happens to be aboard a prison ship headed to a prison on a moon. The ship unexpectedly crash lands on a nearby planet. In the midst of the chaos you manage to escape while the crew is attacked by alien forces. In the expansion, the plot continues where you are “rescued” and forced to return to the planet to retrieve data from a crashed ship.

You pretty much start with absolutely nothing. An element of creativity I found here is the fact that you also start with diminished health. The first item you pick up is the translator. With this item, you are able to receive messages throughout the game. Typically, the messages are triggered when you find a particular object in the game – often a book or a computer console. A good number of these messages are pretty much useless, but some offer you hints on where to go next.

The first weapon you obtain is the dispersion pistol. This pistol uniquely charges itself over time, thus constantly increasing your supply of energy for the weapon. In a sense, you are given unlimited bullets as long as you have the time to allow it to recharge. As you might expect, it is pretty much the weakest weapon you have, but in the event you run out of ammo from your other weapons, this can be a weapon of last resort or the ideal weapon to bust open weak breakables.

The original game offers 10 weapons (which correspond with the number keys on your keyboard). You can manually cycle through the weapons early on when your arsenal is more limited, but as your arsenal expands, it gradually becomes more and more practical to use the number keys. While this isn’t immediately obvious, the “0” does give a subtle hint that this option is available in terms of weapon select.

You can find a wide variety of weapons. Consequently, there is also a wide variety of ammo you can collect as you make your way through the game. The only ammo supply that is shared between more than one gun are the bullets. You can use it for your stapler lookalike pistol or a late game machine gun.

This game also offers a wide variety of items that can help you along the way. The flare, for instance, can light up a small dark portion of a hallway. Some levels are extremely dark, so this does come in handy in more than just dark huts you find along the way. You can also obtain a flashlight which lights up a small spot wherever you look. A limited supply of battery will mean you should use this sparingly if you want this item to last. Another item is jump shoes which allow you to jump extremely high while it is activated. Unfortunately, while this is turned off, energy is constantly drained from this item, so your chances of using this item can be limited. One item that can really help you in a pinch are Nali Fruit Seeds. While they don’t appear that often, and it seems that all you do is collect these things, when you suddenly find yourself in a bind for health, deploy a few of these. They will turn into Nali Fruit which can restore health. You have to wait for a moment for them to grow, but if you wait long enough, they will restore a maximum of 29 health each.

Other kinds of items you can pick up include various kinds of armor which can absorb some of all hits you take as long as the item lasts. The shield belt and assault suit are two such examples of this kind of armor. Additionally, there are special kinds of suits that protect you from particular kinds of damage or poisonous/burning pools. This doesn’t come into play that often in the game, but these items are present in the game and can assist in your survival. Additionally, there are the health items. These items can heal you up to a maximum of 100 health. The bandages restore 5 health, the packs restore 20 health, and the Nali fruit restores 29. One health item, the superhealth pack, allows you to go all the way up to 200 health by restoring 100 health. Simple health items you pick up after this won’t work until you fall back below 100 health.

Like a few of the games released at the time, this FPS doesn’t have a level system that is strictly broken apart into specific levels like Doom. Instead, the level system has a more interconnected approach like Quake II. Interestingly enough, the expansion levels drifts closer to the older style with statistics being shown between each level. There is even a feature that has the protagonist speaking to a log infrequently in the expanded portion as well.

The Heads Up Display (HUD) is customizable, but unlike games like Duke Nukem 3D, it offers a more minimalistic approach with minimal amounts of the screen realestate being covered up by statistics. This runs the risk of being confusing for the player, but outside the tiny numbers that allowed me to forget that weapons can be cycled by hitting the numbers until towards the end, the stats are actually quite straightforward with bars indicating ammo and armor and a number indicating how much health you have left.

With the exception of the outdoor portion after the prison ship levels, this game suffers a fair bit from simply looking like a Quake II clone. The levels are short and basic and progress through the level maps are made quickly. The atmosphere is gothic looking at times or the atmosphere is heavily sci-fi and dark. The movement system only punctuates this between the low jumps and the fast running speed. All it needed was the grunt to be changed when you jump and you pretty much have Quake II. That simply goes for the initial bunch of levels. As you get to the later levels, the game does finally start to drift away from the Quake II look and feel and morphs into its own entity. Unfortunately, you spend a number of hours just getting to this point in the game. The levels found in the expanded game was probably the highlight in terms of level design, but unfortunately, elements – and even an entire level – wind up getting recycled along the way.

A strength of the initial set of levels, besides being simple and allowing the player to get used to the controls, is the sense of unpredictability with the traps you encounter along the way. There are boards that fall out from under you and earthquakes shift the ground. While I did get a sense of this game being about trial and error, it did force me to think – and get into the habit of saving frequently.

While the later levels in the original Unreal maps do have a sense of this game having its own identity, the level design gradually devolves into a game of “find that next switch”. The switches do change in looks as you progress, but it gradually becomes an extremely repetitious task. Only later in the game are the levels complex enough that the monotony isn’t as pronounced, but the puzzle remains finding wherever the next switch is. Some games use keys to unlock doors to keep things a little more interesting. This game does not do that. A few games are creative enough to allow players to find unique solutions to clear the path ahead. This game doesn’t bother with that. The most this game does midway through is offer the rare breakable wall which is used in games like Duke Nukem 3D. I thought that the breakable walls were less successful in this game because the cracks blend in a bit too well in the wall. So, the game is repetitive because of this.

An interesting element in this game is the lack of a map – or, at least, an easily accessible map because I didn’t find it. Fortunately, a map is rarely ever needed to begin with because the levels are so simple, it is borderline linear. This is good in that it’s a straightforward game, but bad in that this game offers less of a challenge when it comes to exploration. On occasion, there’s a somewhat well hidden ramp to find, but besides requiring some memorization of a level from time to time, that is the extent of the challenge you face exploring the levels and finding the exit.

One element that is often highlighted in this game is the AI. Some felt that this was an excellent element in this game. I’m a bit more mixed on this aspect. When fighting enemies, there is a bit of a challenge in fighting these enemies because it is often a case of multiplayer style combat which involves a lot of strafing. While it’s good that it presents a challenge for the players, it is terrible when we’re talking about realism. The two exceptions are the insects (which simply goes straight toward you if they aren’t already attacking you) and the titan which lumbers around and throws giant rocks at you. Those enemies, for me, are the highlight of any sense of realism in combat. I thought the strafe fighting cheapened the game a little. When enemies are idle, there is a bit of variety in how they behave. While it was nice to see that, you rarely encounter that in the grand scheme of things. The non-combat highlight for AI was the Nali. If you don’t scare them, they can lead you to items and secrets that help you along the way. They also do various things while idling after a while like float meditation or worshipping idols or symbols. I thought this was a nice touch to the game as it added in harmless residents in the mix.

Another factor that does impress is the length. While it isn’t the length of Turok 2 (which clocked in at 15 and a half hours of single player gameplay), this game is still one of the longest FPS games I’ve played (clocking at roughly 14 hours with expanded content). With the level design the way it is, I would have liked to seen a bit more variety in the middle levels instead of the whole “switch quest” thing.

A good thing about the expanded content of the game is the fact that there are new items and weapons. While it was nice to see things like the assault rifle and the rechargeable scuba gear, the game practically begs you to notice these elements through the storyline. I thought this was a bit irritating more than anything else.

One thing I did notice – especially in the non-expanded content, are the weakness in the weapons. If you are on easy, I thought it should be possible to find a way to have one hit kills somewhere along the line. If you have a sort of grenade launcher, some enemies should be one hit kills. I’m perplexed at the idea that you can empty an entire pistol clip onto a spider before you have a chance at killing it. If an enemy has more than 50% of hot lead content in its body (ala insects), you’d think it would be dead. Evidently, this is not the case in this game.

Generally speaking, there are elements in this game that make things interesting. There are doors that can be locked by enemies, doors that only open upon death of an enemy, and various deadly traps. Unfortunately, the length of this game meant that these elements are few and far between. For extended periods of time, you are simply tasked with finding the next switch. With the expanded levels, there is only one quest item in the entire game. I would have liked to seen more creative elements in this game because there is a degree of monotony that drags the gameplay down. The AI is a bit hit and miss. It misses in the strafe fighting, but it hits with the Nali. The level design is a bit simplistic for my tastes for the most part, but the later levels do start getting interesting in the complexity department. The expanded portion of the game is interesting with the added content, but recycled level elements does leave a bit to be desired. I’m not really sure what to think of the new log feature of this game. At first, it was a refreshing addition to the overall gameplay, but it does end up overstaying its welcome by being a bit unimaginative at times.

Graphically, there were strong elements and weak elements here. A strong element was the smoothness of the game. Even when there are a lot of enemies in the area or a lot of scenery to render, the game seems to refuse to slow down. The draw distance was very nice, but the game doesn’t exactly render things far away very well. There seems to be glitchy wavy shadows that appear on distant walls (which is more pronounced while looking around). The water ripples was nicely animated, but if you look at a large body of water at a distance, the animation starts glitching in that some of the water animates, but not all. There is a very nicely done blur effect found in this game. Unfortunately, it is very rarely seen. There is the occasional polygon that fails to appear from time to time. This is more pronounced, surprisingly, in the expanded content where small pieces of wall simply don’t exist. This can range from the corner or a side of a box to a rectangle portion of a wall. The models were decently done and the reflective surfaces were also good. One of the few creative elements that I liked seeing was the glow in the dark models. I thought this was a great element that was added because not only did enemies glow, but they glowed different colors as well.

Another comment I will make on graphics is the fact that I would have liked to see more variety in the textures. In a game this size, there is a high demand in environment variation. In the regular game, I could count a grand total of four environments: outside, village, cave/temple, and space craft. With the length of this game, it might be a bit of a stretch to have four major environments, but the fact that some textures are found across environments makes say that more variety should have been found in this game. At the end of the game, there is a 5th environment, but since it’s found only very lat in the game, it does little to contribute to the variety – though it was a welcome sight to see. The expanded content recycled some of these environments, so that was a bit of a disappointment, but it does add an ice environment. Too bad it’s only seen in all of two levels.

The audio was an interesting thing to judge in this game. In the first level, the sound effects was brilliantly done. There were distant screams of crewmen getting attacked as well as a computer voice saying things from time to time. I really felt that this was going to be an excellent game when I played the first level. Unfortunately, the momentum wasn’t carried beyond that as the sound effects fell back down to par for the course. They weren’t bad, but they were rather standard for the most part. The music was decent from time to time towards the beginning, but becomes little more than average after. One thing I picked up on my way through was that a melody found in the Temple of Vandora was the same as a track found in the N64 version of Vigilante 8. Because this was the only melody that I found that matched a track I knew about from another game, and that this only is heard briefly in the track, I can conclude this may be a case of inadvertent plagiarism. This can happen if the composer heard the track at one point, forget about it, then happen to re-create it later on while not knowing this was something the composer had heard before. It’s an entirely plausible thing because the two tracks do drift apart gradually after.

Generally speaking, this is an enjoyable game. It’s certainly one of the longest FPS games I’ve played, but bigger doesn’t always mean better. I would have liked to seen more variety in level design beyond simply finding that switch. This monotony drags the enjoyability of this game down. The AI can be a bit hit and miss depending on if you are looking for any sense of realism. The expanded content does offer not only new levels, but also new items and weapons – though the fact that game game borderline begs me to notice these things was a bit annoying. The weapons were decent in terms of variety, but they were, overall, rather weak. The weakness of the weapons was a bit of a headscratcher for me. The environments left a bit to be desired in that there wasn’t enough variety given the size of the game. Combined with elements of repetitious gameplay, the graphics had its highs and lows. The draw distance was great, but there were glitches found along the way. The reflections and some of the effects were nice things to see, though. The audio starts off strong with the first level, but then drops off to being little more than par for the course. The music was decent in providing an environment, but didn’t do much beyond being average. I would say this game is worth trying, though I can understand if players stop before finishing the game.

Overall

Furthest point in game: Competed both the original Unreal and expanded content on easy.

General gameplay: 17/25
Replay value: 7/10
Graphics: 8/10
Audio: 3/5

Overall rating: 70%

Drew Wilson on Twitter: @icecube85 and Google+.



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