O tempora is a series of retrospective posts where I play games from ages before to see if they stood the test of time.
Last years of 20th century and first years of 21st were really interesting for FPS game genre. The genre was slowly turning from fun mindless shootouts to story-driven events with Half-Life being the example most tried to follow. There was some resistance to this idea – Serious Sam being the best example of that, a mindless action game where you killed hordes of enemies with only basic outline of a plot. But most developers tried to go for something very cinematic, something that mixes shooting with other elements and ideas. In between release of Unreal 1 (released just half a year before Half-Life) and release of Unreal II we had Halo, Kingpin, Jedi Knight 2, Return to Castle Wolfenstein, several Medal of Honor games, Aliens versus Predator 2, Undying, Red Faction and even Metroid Prime (which is not a pure FPS, but a hybrid) all trying out very different often innovative things and new ways to mix storytelling and first person shooting. And then we have Unreal II, which at the time of release received mixed reviews and was completely ignored by me. Was it really that weak? Hahahaha, oh I couldn’t even predict how much.
Now, to its credit, like most of the FPS games of that time it had some creative ideas and I can’t help but respect some of it’s ambitions. If I had to describe Unreal II in a very short way today, I’d say – imagine someone trying to do Mass Effect, but they have no storytelling abilities, the game is a linear FPS and voice acting is terrible. Ironically, game even features the same composer – Jack Wall, – as Mass Effect and sequels. And that’s far from the only coincidence. Some aliens or lore ideas seem very eerily similar, game attempts to build an interesting relationship between the player controlled space cop and his spaceship team and even has some dialogue systems in place for inter-mission sequences where you can talk to your partners. Of course, this shouldn’t be really surprising, given that both this game and Mass Effect were built on existing Sci-Fi archetypes and cliches, and this game was even released just several months after Firefly was cancelled. But still, the attempts to build an interesting universe with small stories and rich lore is commendable and also gives an excuse to throw players to new exciting planets every few levels. If only it was not so badly done and boring.
But it is so incredibly unbearably boring. First Unreal game felt boring because of the shooting, which worked in fun ways in multiplayer, but not singleplayer. But at least it had the energy, it was fast, it was big. Unreal II, on the other hand, is an almost perfect example of a “corridor shooter” – run speed of the character is about the same as walking speed in most FPS games (and the game still has the “walk” key, which slows things down to Sam Fisher’s creeping speed) and most of the levels are just enclosed boring corridors. Game throws in an open level from time to time, but even those feel tiny and limited, with almost no exploration necessary or even possible. And while weapons are actually sometimes fun to use this time around, the speed of the encounters, the limitations of levels make shooting boring, except this time it’s usually unavoidable too.
But it’s not the mediocre at best gameplay that hurts the game the most. It’s the cutscenes and abysmal voice acting. They are always there, trying to be witty, trying to be funny, trying to evoke sadness or desire of revenge, but always failing so spectacularly that I can’t even think of any examples of similar in other games. It’s not the “so bad it’s good”, it’s not the “it’s campy”, it’s not the “it doesn’t matter anyway”. It’s cringy, it’s horrible, it’s incredibly sadness-inducing bad. It has everything to be a pretty cool Sci-Fi tale of adventure, friendship, betrayal and sacrifice, but it’s done so poorly one has to wonder who thought it was fine to release the game in this state.
And this slow motion collision, the ruin of potential is genuinely unpleasant to experience. Stripped of all it’s story elements it would be just a passable mediocre FPS game. With story elements it’s a disaster that I cannot wish upon anyone but those who want to see how great ideas could lead to terrible games. Unreal II: The Awakening is a game to be avoided, to be forgotten. It’s not surprising the series just stuck to the Tournament ever since then.