The original Unreal wowed gamers in 1998 with its (for the time) revolutionary 3-D graphics, lightning-paced shooter gameplay, and creative level design. The brainchild of Epic MegaGames (later shortened to Epic Games), Legend Entertainment and Digital Extremes, its multiplayer became the foundation for the even bigger smash-hit Unreal Tournament, while it's engine would become the foundation for other greats like the original Deus Ex. It was an unmitigated and industry-shaping success. Alas, its sequel, released five years later, was not so lucky. Make no mistake: I do not mean to imply that Unreal II: The Awakening was a bad game. As a shooter, for its time, it was passably solid, with a lot going for it in terms of graphics and creative design. Unfortunately, with only Legend Entertainment remaining from the original trinity of developers, it seems that somewhere along the way, the balance was tipped and the careful blend of wild sci-fi/fantasy, cool graphics and crazy shooting that made the original great was lost. If you're looking for a good budget price shooter to kill some time, you can pick it up on Steam for $14.99, though I'd only recommend it if you've got money to burn.
Of The Awakening's many unfortunate flaws, the story is one of the most glaringly obvious. Departing entirely from the plot of the original Unreal, the sequel places you in the boots of Terran Colonial Authority Marshall John Dalton, a former space marine kicked out of the corps for disobeying his superior officer. Now he patrols around 'the ass-end of nowhere' with a crew of fellow rejects, including a former military wunderkind who dresses like a stripper and has a snake tattoo leading to her 'secret garden', a gruff, stereotypical engineer whose sole job seems to be telling you things about weapons you've already learned, and an admittedly amusing alien slug in a robot suit who serves as your pilot and who has yet to grasp the finer points of the English language, like basic syntax.
The story wants you to love these characters, but their backstories, while potentially interesting, are poorly presented and seem like an afterthought. The mostly just stand around waiting to be talked to in between your ventures down to alien worlds where you meet new people with guns and kill them, or else get ambushed by the local wildlife. There's not really much to say, truth be told. The plot is so packed with cliches and predictable stereotypes that the ending feels more like a whoopee cushion than a bang. The Unreal franchise has never been strong in terms of story, preferring to use it as a framework for justifying what really makes it shine: creative and fast-placed gun-play in wild and wacky settings. Unfortunately the former of those two things leaves something to be desired here as well.
Unreal II also does away with the classic Unreal arsenal in favor of a new and shiny set of guns that feel like the result of someone who wanted to be creative without considering the balance of gameplay. I will openly admit that all the guns were plenty of fun to use (after all, if it doesn't feel good to pull the trigger, what's the point?), but the game suffers from redundancy and 'novelty functions' that serve no real purpose. A good example of this is the so-called 'spider gun', which allows you to cover your enemy in biting, stinging alien arachnids. It's funny and cool…for about twenty seconds. Then it gets dull because that's really all it does. Another is the Hydra, a six-function grenade launcher that fires fragmentation, incendiary, toxic, EMP, concussion AND smoke grenades. This sounds awesome, except that three of those don't really serve a purpose, since knocking the enemies on their rears or blinding them with smoke doesn't have much point in a hardcore shooter, and the toxic grenade does piddly damage over time. It wouldn't be so bad if the game had been designed with this kind of silliness in mind, like Serious Sam, but this is Unreal II, which tries to be a sci-fi adventure story with a more serious tone (pardon the pun).
Regardless, only a few of the weapons you pick up will get real regular use. Enemy variety is limited in terms of function, though pretty creative when it comes to form. The alien Skaarj from the first game make a reappearance, but that's it in terms of nostalgia trips. Everything else is brand-new, and not always in a good way. The longer you play, the more it becomes clear that of the original creators, Legend Entertainment were gifted with immense imagination, but lacked the restraint and skill necessary to craft all their wild ideas into a cohesive and truly engrossing game. If only their partners hadn't skipped out on participating in the production. Perhaps we might've gotten something a bit more polished…or maybe not.
Needless to say, the game does little to prevent its repetitive nature from shining through. There's a few defense missions where you work with fellow marines or lay down barriers while holding a location, but these are few and far-between. There're a point where it feels like things might finally be changing and pulling together towards the end of the game, but it fails to pan out. In the end, you're left with an almost purely linear experience, which wouldn't be so bad if the game had multiplayer…but it doesn't. The reason why is a bit complex. Originally, Unreal II shipped without multiplayer, under the promise by Atari that it would be released after development was completed. The first playable version was released in December of 2003, but the development was discontinued after Legend Entertainment unexpectedly shut down the following year. Since then, the only public version has ceased to work, and never been patched, leaving Unreal II out in the cold when it comes to replayability.
Sound & Design
Of course, even some of the most disappointing games have their silver lining. A story can be awful while the gameplay excels, or the plot can be creative while the execution falls flat. The true tragedy of Unreal II is rooted in this fact, because while the gameplay and story are bargain-bin material, the environments are drop-dead gorgeous. From a planet in the process of being consumed by a single massive amoeba-like monster to a world overrun by intelligent alien machines, Unreal II takes the cake in creative environments that still manage to look pretty damn beautiful even after all these years. The sound design is sadly better rated as 'above average'. Almost every gun has the visceral 'oomph' to almost make up for their scatter-brained design. Monsters and enemies sport strong creativity in terms of visual appeal, but the game's overall score voice-acting could be described as 'bland'. It's not terrible, but it does nothing to improve immersion. The music is strangely schizophrenic too. The cutscenes are all accompanied by sweeping orchestral scores while the levels are filled with what feels like stock techno-beats. All that said, I could still stare at this game for hours, soaking in every flashy and colorful detail behind some of the levels. It's an experience that needs to be seen to be believed. It's such a shame that the sights alone should be one of the sole redeeming qualities of the experience. It's just further proof that Legend Entertainment screwed themselves by trying to go it alone; all flash, no thunder.
In the end, Unreal II is a game that does little besides showcase how good the engine it runs on is. With budget-price gameplay, a throwaway story and little to encourage replayability beyond the art style, this is a sad tale of what could've been. It's not bad so much as forgettable, doing little to stand apart from the crowd of similar shooters in the same generation. If anything, Unreal II is a step backwards, trading almost everything for improved visuals, which as it turns out, isn't all that worth it. If it interests you, be my guest. Otherwise, I suggest you focus on the other games in the franchise. Perhaps someday Unreal will get the sequel it deserves. For now, though. you'll just have to settle for this…
|+ Excellent Art Design||– Unbalanced Gameplay|
|+ Beautiful Visuals||– Shallow, Dull Story|
|– No Multiplayer|