Playing Unreal was all that I hoped it would be, but it has also caused some redefining opinions just upon recent reflection. Despite its age, the game has made me reconsider perspectives and opinions that can only be fully explored in hindsight. There is a clear demarcation between what are generally considered to be “old school” shooters and those being made today. I believe that Unreal was released just before this transition whereas Half Life (released soon after) is on the other signaling the rise of what we recognize today as an FPS.
Let me explain.
As a young guy, my opinion of what a first person shooter is was defined by classics such as Wolfenstein 3D, Doom, Duke Nukem 3D, and Rise of the Triad. These all funneled DNA into Unreal to form the tropes that I think of when remember what made them fun. These include fast movements, lots of guns carried at one time for different situations, tons of monsters, and interesting environments with architecture built for mechanics rather than realism. These are mostly arbitrary and only hold so much gravity because they were introduced at such a formative time, but they have stuck with me.
[This is seared in my mind like a burnt in TV screen.]
As soon as Half Life was released, games started seeing less weapons, more gated enemy releases, realistic environments (offices, factories, etc.) and controlled movement. Of course, the Half-Life mod titled Counter Strike completed this transition with its focus on semi-realistic movement and shooting mechanics. A bullet in the head will kill you in one hit, your speed and range of motion are severely limited, and you can only carry a few weapons at a time that have very specific uses. The popularity of this style of game play changed the scene for almost all future designs and makes up most of what we see today as FPS games. I do appreciate the strategy and pacing these games go for (I logged over 100 hours on CS+Source), but it seems to be missing something. Not to mention multiplayer has become more and more atrocious as voice is introduced and computers become more widely available.
I miss the time when games were worried about being a game rather than a facsimile of a movie. Sweeping set pieces and dramatic stories always work well, but it’s just watching another movie. For me, I get the same impact when I see a nuke go off in Modern Warfare (I think the spoiler statute of limitations is up) as when I teleported into the giant room at the end of Doom 2 faced with the deadliest wall texture ever to be featured in a video game. (This brilliant description is attributed to CyRaptor of the Something Awful forums) It’s like witnessing a major identity crisis and for FPSs that have always been concerned about mechanics, the introduction of story elements and realism that limit the range and exploration of these options have gummed up a lot of works.
[The strange final boss of Doom II.]
As for Unreal, I had a splendid time. The guns that were introduced (aside from the stinger) all felt great and provided enough variety to never make things totally boring. I forgot to introduce a few of the weapons I got later including one that shoots razor blades, a toxic goo gun, and a mini gun. My all time favorite weapon was the sniper rifle that allowed me to shoot the heads off enemies. Watching their head fly off while they feel the stump and keel over was pretty funny in a cartoonish way.
The levels and environments really take the visual cake, though. Although the textures are low res now and do not hold up, the ability to recreate seemingly realistic environments still goes a long way. Huts scattered along plains, vast underground lakes, castles, and tech bases provide a lot of variety that does not wear out its welcome. Despite my complaints about some of the structures, these were few and far between. I only got stuck two or three times out of around thirty levels, the rest of which were a joy to play. One remaining complaint I do have is how linear the designs were becoming. There was still backtracking and revisiting, but nothing like Doom and Duke Nukem 3D which I think did the best job of providing areas that feel fully utilized and not just something to move through on the way to the next arena. This is also due to faster movement speeds and shortcuts that open providing speedy access to all areas.
[Some haunting scenes in Unreal.]
The number one reason I liked playing Unreal was the mechanics. Movement and dodging are smooth and quick. Circle strafing around aliens that are a little faster than you makes the player feel empowered and vulnerable at the same time in a way that most new games do not. The use of cover is fully organic and no sticky mechanism is needed. The guns feel weighty and all the enemies pose a danger up until the very end of the game.
In the end it was a very non-artificial experience. If there are rails , they are very well hidden and exploration feels dangerous rather than forced upon the player. This all changed with Half Life which I may consider the ultimate alchemical combination of story and FPS, but also the last time a game was ever able to do it well. (Excluding HL2)
[The 'perfect' first person shooter?]
[Maybe the most unusual packaging for a game ever.]
As I mentioned, I will be playing Gabriel Knight for Watch Out for Fireballs and am actually thinking of taking a break from the blog. I was going to blog GK, but I’m not sure now. If you would be interested in hearing the day to day of it, I can. I was generally thinking of doing an initial and final write up. We will see since I’m pretty busy.
If you want to talk about FPS games and how they’ve changed and how I’m wrong, Tweet @backlogkiller or leave a message below. Any comments are welcome and it’s good to hear from all readers.
See you next time for Gabriel Knight