24 - Unreal

Well it has been a while since I posted the last blog entry, but there are good reasons for that. Unfortunately, only a small percentage of those include "I was playing the game". Things are pretty busy and there isn't much free time, but that's what the blog is about, isn't it? It’s about finding a way to haphazardly structure my playing of the backlog to keep it going. It's working, and I feel pretty good about how beholden I am to the schedule. It is mildly stressful, pushing and prodding me to complete the next entry. But it is also pretty relaxed and I don't get freaked out that I haven't written a new entry for a while. (Not having written at ALL is very distressing, though.)

A quick note, I am going to fudge around with the schedule again and announce the next game to be "Gabriel Knight: Sins of the Fathers". The reason for this is that friends of the blog, Watch out for Fireballs, will be discussing the show in just about a month's time. This gives me enough time to play it and finish it so that I can offer some comments. Before none of you say "But Killer! Those games aren't on the backlog!" Well, they are not on the list. I own them, but I have played them all in the past. I just bought them to replay sometime when I got bored, but I remember GK1 being awesome so I'll take this chance to go through it again. I'm sure it won't hold up as well as I remember, but it's got a cool story.

Enough with this jibber jabber, though. Let's talk about Unreal.

How's the game going?

Unreal is going pretty well, but unlike the ups and downs of Psychonauts and Torment, it is more of a flat line of quality. Most of the levels have been consistent in both difficulty and construction quality with a few glaring differences. Before I get to those, though, let me fill you in on the plot:

When I last left off, I had discovered that I was a prisoner who had crash landed on an alien world. After exploring some mines and native temples, I was confronted in an arena by a giant titan who tried to slap me around with rocks, but discovered that my rockets did more damage. That was about seven maps into the game.

[Grand views were a highlight of this game.]

At the time of this writing, I am currently on map 25: Cellars at Dasa Pass. Along the way, it has run the gamut of villages, underground mines, and ships that have been taken over by aliens, but the plot has not really progressed. I am simply trying to find a way off the planet and that is fine with me. The only mild bit of flavor that is added is that the Nali (the local race) have a prophecy that a savior will come and destroy their enslavers. Hmm... I wonder who that could be.

Anyway, the levels have been very well made with easily recognizable sections and passable puzzles. I have enjoyed quite a few 'jump' traps and rare monster closet or arena fights that shut of a small area forcing me to fight certain enemies. It all seems pretty standard now, but the ability to put in triggers and traps was still being experimented with at this time and had not yet evolved into the overly scripted sequences we see today. It's a great step beyond Doom, but not up to snuff for what would be the upcoming Half-Life's storytelling ability.

The only levels I dread to see are those resembling Nali temples as they tend to all be very “samey” and confusing. It's OK if you want to bewilder the player, but put enough recognizable paths and differences to create a few points of reference. The greatest offender for this has been map 18, the Sunspire. It is basically a giant tower made out of a brown sandstone material that looks all the same. There are pitch black hallways and twisting tunnels, all connected by different elevators that lead back down to the bottom. I explored the place for almost an hour. I retraced my steps, ran out of ammo facing respawning enemies, and got nowhere. It turns out I missed one little unmarked elevator that led me right to the top allowing me to bypass all other paths and exit the level.

[The entire horrid level looks like this.]

I do not understand this type of design, nor do I understand the modern trend of shooters putting one linear path that makes up an entire map. John Romero had a great philosophy of level design stating some simple facts, a few of which are:

  • The player should be in constant fear – revisited areas are changed or dangerous again
  • If the player can see it, they should be able to go there
  • Players should have to revisit certain parts of the level several times

If the player is running around an area that is not interesting or changing, then it is called backtracking. When things are in flux and have new enemies or traps revealed, the player does not realize he or she is revisiting an area and continues to have fun. One of the best examples I can think of is the map “Computer Station” from episode one of Doom that follows this idea. Areas are easily recognizable, quickly traversed, and new enemies are introduced after every milestone. Unreal has yet to do this besides a ham fisted respawn system that seems a little cheap as monsters just appear from no discernible sources.

[This map is a masterpiece & made without Doom Builder!]

The levels are also linear and do not offer any sense of interconnectedness. The previous level I mentioned, Sunspire, does have this idea but most of the areas can be skipped completely. Through to this day, most level designs are nothing but a linear path from one end to the other with nothing interesting to think about or worry about. I hope this trope changes as time progresses.

One major win that Unreal offers is the level titled Bluff Eversmoking. This map is a masterpiece exhibiting interconnected areas, a sense of place, and constant danger. The huge map is made up of three major areas: a long causeway to the main keep, a giant castle or church with a crypt, and a bell tower used as a command center by the aliens. There are drastic elevation changes between all these areas, they each have a unique look, and they are all connected by shortcutting elevators and underground passages to allow easy return to previous locations. I had more fun playing this level than I had the last fifteen combined. I would like to do a full map review, which I may do.

[Favorite map of the game.]

What’s next?

I am almost finished with Unreal and will post a ‘Finished’ post with my review following. It’s very good so far and exactly what I was hoping for. I would recommend it for a purchase from GoG at $9.99 if you enjoy shooters and have not played it. It flows well, is not completely frustrating, and is an important part of shooter history. Give it a go.

--Backlog Killer