Unreal II: The Awakening offers gamers a new story that takes place in the universe introduced in the hugely successful original Unreal. Though the multiplayer-based Unreal Tournament enhanced the original game with fast action and customizable multiplayer gameplay, Unreal II is a full-fledged sequel to the popular 1998 first-person shooter, complete with diverse new single-player missions and a storyline that ties them all together. While the original Unreal put the player in the role of a convicted criminal, gamers play the part of a law enforcement agent in this story.
As a Terran Colonial Authority Frontier Marshal in charge of the aging Atlantis starship, the player represents the very long arm of the law as the only enforcement officer in a distant sector of space. Patrols seem routine and uneventful, until war breaks out unexpectedly in the area and the ship and its crew suddenly find themselves in the middle of a violent and dangerous conflict. While the player's first responsibility must be the protection of the frontier citizens in the area, determining the cause of this sudden war could make that job a lot easier.
Missions take place in ten different environments, with settings that range from a jungle planet thick with strange vegetation and dangerous creatures to an arid desert world spotted with the ancient ruins of forgotten civilizations. Missions vary from tactical hostage rescues and organized base defense to more conventional one-person search-and-destroy operations. The game is designed so that the story-telling elements will not interfere with the player's immersion in the game world. Before each assignment, the player is briefed aboard the orbiting Atlantis. When objectives are completed, the player returns to the ship and the story advances based on new developments.
After nearly five years since Epic released the original Unreal, and after a mission pack, two Unreal Tournament games, and a slew of games licensing their next-generation engine, a true sequel has finally arrived: Unreal II: The Awakening.
Developed by Legend Entertainment (who developed 1999's vastly overlooked The Wheel of Time), Unreal II is a solid and gorgeous-looking shooter, but rarely reaches higher than its more-of-the-same multiplayer sibling, Unreal Tournament 2003. It's a good game, but too often resorts to recycling a number of first-person shooter clichés instead of breaking new ground.
Unreal II is set in the same universe as the original game, but this time around you're playing Marshal John Dalton, an ex-space marine working for a cosmic police force called the Terran Colonial Authority. Dalton's not particularly happy with his current TCA assignment, patrolling "the ass-end of nowhere" in his ship, the Atlantis. He's been trying to get re-enlisted in the Marines without much luck, but when fighting breaks out on multiple worlds, centering around seven mysterious alien artifacts, Dalton is called upon to help.
Aboard the Atlantis, you have three crewmates who you can interact with between missions. Aida, your first officer-ette, has the chest of Lara Croft and dresses like a Bon Jovi groupie. Ship's engineer Isaak tends to chain smoke and doubles as your weapons expert. Ne'Ban, a "muckety-muck" from an alien race, has recently been assigned as your ship's pilot (to keep him out of harm's way), and provides a good deal of comic relief with his purposefully bad English. While on board, you often have the option of exploring the Atlantis, similar to Star Trek Voyager: Elite Force. It's not necessary to your cause, and there's not much to see, but you can talk to characters and learn about their backgrounds, setting the stage for future events.
For what's essentially a full-tilt action game, Unreal II tries hard to create some atmosphere and tell a story. While many games would just flash you some text and drop you off on a new planet, Unreal II contains numerous cinematics (rendered in the game engine) that connect one mission to another. Unfortunately, the majority of these cutscenes (at least early on) show little more than (a) your shuttle leaving the Atlantis and landing on a new planet; (b) your shuttle leaving said planet and returning to the Atlantis. There are a few moments of levity, but for the most part the dialogue and story are no better or worse than your typical summer action flick, and only towards the very end do things get interesting.
When loading up the game for the first time, it's hard not to be impressed by Unreal II's beautiful graphics. Grass blows in the wind, character models are well-defined, and levels are meticulously detailed. Fire effects are outstanding, and the game's space-hopping plot makes a convenient excuse for creating a number of unique alien worlds for Dalton to fight in. Environments range from tight indoor bases to sprawling outdoor areas, covering swamps, ice, mountains and even one set inside a living, breathing planet. The opening sequence of the game has you emerging from a claustrophobic control room into a massive mountainous region -- it's hard not to stop and say "wow". By far, the graphics are the star of Unreal II.
As in many other first-person shooters, a tutorial is present to help newbies get acquainted with things. If nothing else, it's useful for getting acquainted with some of Unreal II's weapons, along with a few inside jokes for veterans (like our opening quote and a Capture the Flag reference) and learning some of Unreal II's special moves, like mantling (a form of jumping).
Your first assignment is a search-and-rescue mission, which quickly turns into a fight for survival and a race to locate a strange alien artifact. As a bonus to Unreal fans, your main enemies during this mission are the Skaarj, returning from the original game. As things progress, you and your crew embark on an artifact hunt, trying to keep the relics out of alien hands and collecting data on how all the pieces fit together.
For the most part, Unreal II's twelve large missions are standard shooter fare -- you walk around and kill things. Enemies vary from grunting aliens to human mercenaries to bio-engineered mutant spiders, with varying levels of intelligence. The human enemies are far more interesting to fight: on one occasion, I sniped an enemy toting a rocket launcher, only to have another enemy run over, scoop up the launcher and fire at my feet, trying to catch me with splash damage -- some of the most human combat I can recall in a shooter. This makes it all the more frustrating to fight brainless enemies like the spiders, who move slowly and require nothing more than consistent doses of ammo. There are also a few boss battles, which ... well, let's just say I hate boss battles and Unreal II did nothing to change my opinion of them.
While there aren't any stealth sequences in Unreal II, the game does vary the action on occasion. A few missions task you with protecting an area for a certain period of time, such as one level where you set the Atlantis planetside to make repairs. These missions involve setting up a defensive perimeter using special laser fences and automated turrets, briefly placing you in the role of engineer (although Dalton's relatively slow running speed proves most frustrating during these scenarios). There are also a few puzzles, running the gamut from find-the-switch to don't-get-hit-by-the-lasers jumpfests. As you might expect, they're largely forgettable.
It's a shame that -- like many shooters we've seen lately -- Unreal II seems to save its best for last. While many of the missions feel plain or uninspired, the final two missions are easily two of the best Unreal II has to offer (including a wonderfully executed sniping sequence). They're not going to go down as the greatest levels in gaming history, but they should provide gamers some satisfaction for sticking it out until the very end.
All told, Unreal II has 15 weapons or so, ranging from your standard assault rifle, shotgun and rocket launcher to more exotic alien weapons like the Drakk laser rifle. A grenade launcher can hold up to six types of bombs, including concussion, incendiary, and an EMP grenade that shuts down anything electrical within range. Since your body armor has a number of computer systems in it, you'll be more than aware when someone hits you with one. All of the weapons have a secondary fire mode; for instance, Aida lends you her pistol ("Grace") on occasion, which has a more powerful alt-fire but a slower reload rate.
Overall, the weapons are serviceable enough, as is the combat. It doesn't quite pack the same visceral punch of SoF2 or Halo, but some good sound effects help draw you into the action, especially the shotgun, which lets out a satisfying "BOOM" with each shot. Bullets dink off of metal surfaces, and aside from the weak hissing of the assault rifle, sound effects are pretty well done. (We could have done without a lot of the often up-tempo soundtrack, but your tastes may vary.)
Once you're finished with the single-player game (which should not take most players more than 10 hours on Normal difficulty), it's time to go out and download Unreal Tournament 2003, because there's no multiplayer component to Unreal II. Your only options are to go back and play through the game again, or build your own adventures using the built-in Unreal editor and Maya Personal Learning Edition. UnrealED is arguably the best level editor available for any first-person shooter, and while the included version of Maya is a little slower than the normal version and contains watermarking, it's otherwise a full-featured tool well worth using. But if you have no aspirations of level creation or mod making, that's about all there is to Unreal II.
The Final Word
By most standards, Unreal II is a quality first-person shooter. If you're a fan of the genre, it's a polished product and doesn't appear to have any major bugs or flaws. The main drawback is that it's simply not that interesting most of the time. Pretty graphics aside, there are portions of Unreal II that could easily be mistaken for other sci-fi shooters like Red Faction, C&C: Renegade, Halo, Serious Sam, Elite Force, or even Quake 2; only at the very end of the game do things turn around.
If you're looking for about 10 hours of mindless entertainment, you'll certainly have some fun with Unreal II.
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