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Review by: Emil Pagliarulo & David Laprad
Published: May 25, 1998
Timing is everything.
Over three years ago, Epic MegaGames, a small, successful shareware developer that published cute platform games and pinball titles, made public two test screenshots from a new 3D game engine aimed at outdoing the titans of Mesquite, TX. While id Software busied themselves making another game about a rocket launcher-toting, alien fragging marine, Epic had loftier aspirations. Although most details were kept under wraps, it was known the title would make full use of MMX, a forthcoming technology that promised to unleash incredible computing power. In an era when the term “3D accelerator” was not part of the basic vocabulary for gamers, this news and the screenshots stirred intense interest among the gaming community, and a large, loyal fellowship formed around a first-person shooter no one had seen.
Time passed, and id Software published its game. Not only that, the company developed and published a more advanced sequel. All the while, Epic languished behind a number of false starts, including its technological investment in the over-hyped MMX. Designers joined the team, worked for months, then left, with all their work being discarded. Major release dates were missed, and fevered discontent rose among the online community. To satiate the hungering masses, Epic released an endless parade of screenshots and movies, intent on showing a game was in development and looking great.
Yet no one was convinced. Despite enthusiastic press previews, people were certain the game would loiter behind the times. Epic was making grand promises of mind-bending advances in artificial intelligence, a sharp, unbroken game world filled with purpose, and graphics to die for. They were attempting the impractical, and no one could see it happening. The people at Epic, though, understood the truth in a quote from famed science-fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke, who said, “The only way of discovering the limits of the possible is to venture a little way past them into the impossible.” The developers ignored the prophets of doom and pressed forward with profound purpose.
More time passed, and last week, the game was at last completed and released in one fell swoop. The timing could not have been better. Our watering at the mouth over the recent id Software offering had dried up, and we were parched for something new, something forward-looking. Not only was the game worth the wait, each moment of the extended development cycle is on the screen. Epic has created a stunning title, and released the right engine at the right time.
Despite its lengthy development, or perhaps because of it, the game is on the cutting edge of technology. Yet it is more than beautiful visuals; the programmers have created a well-engineered, comprehensive engine that features robust physics, powerful networking abilities, potent artificial intelligence, impressive scripting, and a smooth-as-silk interface. The design team responded in tandem, creating a game world that pierces our imaginations with fresh, invigorating experiences. Clarke also said, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic,” and Epic has proven him right. Beneath the polished veneer of back-breaking computer code is a brilliant game that alters your perception of what is possible with the first-person genre. Unreal points enthusiastically ahead, and there is no looking back.
A powerful and disorienting taste of the new world occurs in the first moments of the game. You awaken, a dazed prisoner aboard a transport starship that has made an unscheduled crash landing on an alien planet. It seems the planet is rich with Tarydium, a valuable electro-magnetic power source that muddles up starship navigational systems. As fate would have it, you are not the only intelligent life form to have collided with this innocuous sphere; rather, a savage and unrelenting race known as the Skaarj has also made it home, enslaving the peaceful native population and stripping the planet of its resources. This clever concept thrusts your scumbag persona from one prison into another and provides a simple purpose — survive the alien onslaught that follows your arrival and escape the planet. Of course, survival is imminent because you do not have a gun.
In this manner, the game forces you to proceed with care and absorb your unfamiliar surroundings. The attention to detail is stunning: Lights blink and flash with unsettling disorder; screams of the tortured echo down dark, foreboding halls; and busted equipment hisses with malcontent. There is no doubt you are in the bowels of a forsaken starship. The gritty, industrial graphics, somber lighting, and frightening sounds evoke a powerful sense of “atmosfear,” a term coined by Adrenaline Vault writer Jordan Thomas. This well-fashioned ambiance permeates the entire game, and is augmented by a powerful scripting system the designers use to control the mood throughout.
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