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Review by: Adam Swiderski
Published: July 16, 1999
There is no Quake II.
These were the words that first inspired me to try Unreal. They were spoken — typed, rather — by a fellow writer at an online staff meeting for the small site for which I was working last year. I had been waffling for a few days over whether or not to purchase the game, but this pretty much sealed it for me. I wasted little time in rushing to my local software store and picking up GT Interactive’s long-awaited first-person shooter (FPS), all the while drooling at what I would find when I finally loaded it up. After all, it had to be something truly special to bring about the downfall of the reigning action gaming king. Didn’t it?
Well, yes and no. There is absolutely no doubt that Unreal set a new standard when it came to visual flair. With the right hardware acceleration, it offered colorful vistas and open outdoor environments that none of its competitors had mastered at the time. There are portions of the single-player game that still take my breath away when I revisit them, and I can’t help but marvel at the clarity of the texturing and the capable use of effects like fog and colored lighting. Toss in a dash of clever scripting and some intense enemy AI, and it seemed that we were witnessing a new era in FPS gaming. And yet, Unreal was also somewhat of a throwback. There was not a whole lot in the way of interaction outside of the occasional button to be pushed, and the gameplay does appear a bit hollow when held up in comparison to deeper contemporaries such as Half-Life and Thief: The Dark Project. It was at once a big step forward and a half step back for the genre that, while unable to decisively unseat Quake II, did show that companies other than id could contend for the action gaming crown.
Still, the end result was a massive financial success for GT Interactive, and many fans of the title waited with baited breath for the release of Return to Na Pali, the almost immediately announced expansion pack. And waited. And waited some more. Finally, a year later, GT Interactive and guest-designers Legend Entertainment have teamed together to release the add-on, which has promised to add a few new twists to the well-received Unreal formula. Like most expansions, it is pretty much a continuation of the original game with a number of new weapons, enemies and levels tacked on. But Return to Na Pali attempts to do more by addressing one of the original’s harped-upon shortcomings: the lack of a cohesive story to tie the action together.
You may remember that Unreal ended with your marooned convict making his or her way off of the planet Na Pali and into orbit aboard an escape pod. Well, it seems that wasn’t the best move, because you’ve pretty much been floating around the ol’ asteroid belt since then, without much hope of rescue. Just then, a passing military vessel picks you up and makes an offer you can’t refuse. Another ship, the Prometheus, has crash-landed on the surface of the world below, isolating the crew and losing some very important research and development in the process. Seeing as how you have intimate knowledge of Na Pali, having almost died there and all, the powers that be decide you’d be the perfect person to descend through the atmosphere, find the Prometheus and get back with the plans. You’re ”volunteered” for this mission with a gun to your head, and dropped back on the planet with only a single weapon and some scuba gear to help you out. You’ll get occasional help from your ”friends” in orbit, but it’s pretty much up to you to find the Prometheus and get out alive.
At first, it seems that Legend and GT Interactive have really pulled off this whole story thing. The opening cutscene and between-level log entries do a good job of setting the scene and helping you to identify with your character. Unfortunately, as you progress through Return to Na Pali, the theme becomes somewhat less compelling. What you’re left with is a very straightforward affair that can’t stand up to a lot of what’s out there in the FPS category today. Admittedly, it’s more than Unreal provided, but the rapid decline of the story sets Return to Na Pali back on familiar ground within a couple of levels.
But most gamers are probably more interested in Return to Na Pali’s other new additions: the weapons and enemies. There are three of each, and most of them are very welcome. In the armaments department, you can now outfit yourself with a rocket launcher, a grenade launcher and a Combat Assault Rifle. Like Unreal’s original arsenal, these implements of destruction have both a primary fire and secondary fire mode, both of which do damage in different ways. For example, the Combat Assault Rifle — to which you’ll actually gain access fairly early on — can be used as a lightly-damaging but extremely rapid-fire machine gun, or as a powerful but slow to reload shotgun. All of the new weapons are useful, and refreshingly familiar after the more surreal pattern originally followed by Unreal. The three new enemies are the spider, the Space Marine and the Pack Hunter, a velociraptor-type creature that is weak, but extremely fast and deadly in groups. I wasn’t overly impressed by the spider, but the Pack Hunter was a fiendishly difficult target, and the Space Marine rivals the already-present Skaarj for deviousness and aggressive AI. It’s too bad that you don’t see more of them in Return to Na Pali’s single-player game.
There have also been a couple of new touches added to the multiplayer suite. New game types like the Cloak Match — a sort of tag in which the player who is invisible is ”it” — and the Gravity Match — in which the laws of physics are slightly bent in order to allow stories-high jumps and other neat maneuvers — add some freshness to the standard deathmatch and work well with the now-playable network code to produce multiplayer fun even for those with less-than-stellar Internet connections. What’s more, the new games and weapons are fully functional within Return to Na Pali’s Botmatch mode. In this way, players can get deathmatch experience before going online thanks to the challenging AI.
And yet, one gets the feeling that Return to Na Pali is not all that it can be. There are technical issues that have plagued Unreal since its release that have still not been resolved here. The promised story is fairly nonexistent, and the gameplay still consists of running from place to place, killing monsters and pushing buttons. The new additions do add a bit of spice to the works, but were not utilized enough to truly make a difference. It’s gorgeous, to be sure, and I did want to carry on so that I could witness the next cool vista or animation. But the potential of this well-constructed atmosphere is wasted slightly when there’s not much to do but run around looking at it. Had it shipped even six months after Unreal’s release, Return to Na Pali might have brought even more attention to its franchise. Now, it’s a case of more of the same, a bit too late.
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