Unreal 2: The Awakening could be passed off as a tech demo, falling in the ranks of Unreal, Doom 3, Halo, Quake 3, and Half-Life 2. It’s certainly good company to keep, but though their specs are impressive, the best often comes after the tweaks begin. As an engine, it scores probably an 8 or 9 overall; as a game, it fares a bit differently.
Unreal 2 follows somewhat in the footsteps of its predecessor (Unreal, not Unreal Tournament, though they take place in the same universe) by being story-driven, having characters who exist as more than just fragbait, and being fairly linear. The biggest difference is that instead of one continuous world where bits and pieces load in as needed, Unreal 2 follows a mission-based structure, which is both good and bad. For better, this gives some breaks for character interaction and story exposition, as well as easy places to save the game to be continued later. For worse, this leads to some ridiculously long load times between everything – briefings and missions, debriefings, cut scenes, etc. This is in part the engine’s fault for being so damn pretty and detailed, but spending thirty seconds to a minute in an action game loading a cut scene is a bit much. I actually fell asleep waiting for one of the missions to load.
Once the game puts together the levels, though, it does look quite good, as all things Unreal are expected to. Light sourcing and coronas manage to look great and don’t bog down the frame rate. There’s a reflective layer on top of all watery surfaces – another Unreal standard – that looks stunning. However, closer inspection reveals that all those pretty reflective textures are just that – textures. They don’t necessarily reflect what’s around, just whatever the developer chose to layer on top. If you don’t look that closely, however, it’s impressive in action.
Both the interiors and exteriors of buildings have a number of details that make them feel more organic and lived-in. The metal structures show fatigue; there are burns on the walls near furnaces, and everything even slightly luminous has a supple glow around it. Tasty.
The organic exteriors are about as good as they can be at this point in the tech curve. Plants don’t animate too much when you walk through them, but the foliage looks good enough. Geometry and texturing are well done without too much of a performance hit.
Even enemies duck and dodge realistically within their detailed suits or skins, depending on the enemy. The Ghost Warriors’ faces and voices react when they’re wounded, and the Skaarj takes hits in stride, but still twitches with each bullet impact. I don’t think I’m really spoiling anything by saying the first Skaarj you meet makes an entrance very similar to their introduction in Unreal. The setting is a claustrophobic area, where the lights start blinking out; if you played the original, you know what I’m talking about, and yet it still manages to be creepy and intimidating.
The story revolves around a man kicked out of the military and dragged into an interstellar conflict to retrieve some unearthed relics with mysterious power. Of course, the human government wants them, and the protagonist must wage battle after battle against mercenary forces, the Skaarj, and other alien races for dominance of the relics.
Every now and then, a weird new alien race pops up, and some planets even have indigenous life that won’t bother you unless you bother it. There are some surprises to be had in the game and there are a few typical boss characters/critters that will need killing, but in the end, what we’ve got here is just another pretty FPS.
There aren’t a whole lot of innovations in Unreal 2, outside of technical excellence. The fire from the flamethrower really is as pretty as you’ve probably heard. Even the voice acting of both friends and enemies is better than average. My assistant, Aida, sported a sexy voice to match her sexy body, though I never thought leather pants and a matching halter-top would be a woman’s first choice for intergalactic travel. Isaac, the weapons guy, is really kind of superfluous. If you don’t know that secondary fire on a sniper rifle is the zoom, you’re in the wrong genre. Ne’Ban, the pilot, is one of the funniest and most interesting NPCs I’ve met in a while. He’s an alien with a bulbous blue head inside a glass helmet and speaks through a translator device, goofing up the language and speaking some funny slang we’re all used to. For instance, when a broadcaster for a mission briefing refuses to work, he yells, “Intercourse!” Between the delivery and the amusing little way he waddles around the ship, he’s easily the most unique NPC in the game.
The hero lands on every planet in battle armor with a few guns, and he moves like it. Even at running speed, a snail could lap him. I guess it lends some realism, but when you encounter a few Skaarj or other quick-moving enemies at once, you’ll wish for a body that was a bit more athletic and agile.
Incorporated into the move set are peeking around corners, something that rarely ends up being useful in the game since the enemies will usually rush you with reckless abandon, meaning it’s best to jump into the fray with the biggest gun available and start shooting. Also added is a mantle move that allows the player to hold the jump button to climb up onto missed ledges or something that’s just a little too high to jump directly onto. It’s a good idea, but it’s not really capitalized on. I had to mantle up onto a crate once in a while to grab some ammo left up there, but that was about it.
There are a few missions where the player gets to command a squad of marines, and another where shield barriers and turrets can be deployed to ward off the enemy, but all these things seem to get killed or destroyed before they really do anything worthwhile. The enemy often just runs around the shield barriers and opens fire. Fat lot of good that did.
The value score above reflects how useful this engine will probably be. The last Unreal Engine got a good bit of mileage put on it before the next incarnation came about, and I can only assume people will be jumping on this one to build their creative vision on some impressive technology. Hopefully, those other studios will find ways to minimize the load times that plagued Unreal 2.
In the end, it looks good, it sounds good, yet, while it has a few interesting moments, it doesn’t impress or break new ground the way the original did. If you’re in the mood for a decent action game hidden inside last year’s big tech demo, give Unreal 2 a try.