22.5 - Why Unreal Is Important

The Engine

 The most important gift that Unreal has given to games as a whole is its engine. Even though the Unreal engine required a beefy computer when it came out (A Pentium 166 and 16mb (MEGABYTES) of RAM), the colored lighting, massive outdoor environments, and texture filtering were revolutionary. Keep in mind that this also offered software rendering as well as the option for 3D acceleration. If you were lucky enough to have a shiny new Voodoo 2 3dFX card, you could also have smoother textures, reflective surfaces, and faster rendering. Here is the original fly by footage as seen before loading the starting menu:

I was so floored by this demo, I must have watched it five times before even attempting to begin the game. (This was after we got the 3d card.) There was no way that this could get any better! But, games have continued to improve graphically and Unreal (for me) is on the threshold where mechanics and game play started to fall behind graphical fidelity. I would never say that Unreal has bad game play, but this game and the soon-to-follow Half Life would be the pinnacle of the combination until more recent games and indie endeavors.

The Unreal engine went on to be licensed for use in endless games and created an interesting business model. There were not many engines around at this time (Quake 2, Unreal, Half Life, and Lithtech to name a few) since the Build and Doom engines had gone out of style. As this engine was developed and new versions came out, it became more pervasive in the industry. Just look at the games that use the first Unreal engine. These iterations and progressions have continued through to this very day with the announcement and demo of Unreal Engine 4. And to think that it all began with the launch of a brand new IP fifteen years ago. Do you think that could happen in today’s market?

[A little inside baseball, but still cool.]

The Gameplay

I mentioned that for me Unreal is at the tipping point of all FPSs changing into what we recognize today. What I would consider modern are slow, plodding, cover-based, regenerative health, emotionally heavy, slog fests that have kids calling each other epithets online. Unreal and Half Life changed the feel of these games by moving from abstracted, “conceptual” approximations of locations to real facsimiles of structures. Was this good for games? You be the judge.

It certainly is not inherently bad. Many games have used these to great effect and continue to wow players. On the other hand, games are now burdened with being settled in some kind of ‘reality’ that used to be hand-waved from the get go. Duke Nukem 3d had textures representing windows, but I don’t remember any players going “Well, now this structure is larger up here than down here and this just doesn’t feel lived in”. All that mattered is that the environments felt good to play in and provided interesting spaces and opportunities for combat.

Unreal skirted this line very well (as far as I have played) and does a great job approximating these structures, but providing enough game-ness to make them feel right, too. Sort of an uncanny valley for real life structures, maybe. Personally, I don’t care about how real a place looks if it’s a consistent vision and makes for good movement and gaming.  Games appearing after this seemed to move toward slower movement, dependency on cover, and other modern tropes. This is, of course, not counting multiplayer only games that continued this fast movement and accuracy of aiming mechanics that I love.

What does this all mean?

Nothing, just some thoughts I had while preparing the next real entry. A little behind the scenes info is that it takes me a while to produce each blog post because I like to take notes, sometimes outline, and then read each draft over and over until I can bring myself to push the publish button. I just like getting into discussions about how games are changing and what that may mean. Love to hear other opinions and consider them, so fire away if you’ve got them.