Unreal

Unreal

[uhn-ree-uhl, -reel]

Unreal is a first-person shooter computer game developed by Epic Games and Digital Extremes and published by GT Interactive (now owned by Atari) in 1998. It was powered by an original gameplay and computer engine that now bears the game's name, one that had been in development for over three years in founder Tim Sweeney's garage before the game was released.

Since the release of Unreal, the franchise has had one sequel and two different series based on the Unreal universe. One official bonus pack, the Fusion Map Pack released by Epic Games, can be downloaded from the internet for free.

Unreal Mission Pack I: Return to Na Pali was released on May 31, 1999, and added new missions to the single player campaign of Unreal. Unreal and Unreal Mission Pack I: Return to Na Pali would later be bundled together as Unreal Gold. Additionally, the games were updated to run on the Unreal Tournament version of the game engine.

Plot

The player takes on the part of Prisoner 849, an otherwise anonymous persona aboard the prison spacecraft Vortex Rikers. The ship crash-lands on the lip of a canyon on the planet Na Pali, home of the Nali, a primitive tribal race of four-armed humanoids. The Nali and their planet have been subjugated by the Skaarj, a race of brutish yet technologically advanced reptilian humanoids. Skaarj troops board the downed Vortex Rikers and kill the remaining survivors, save for Prisoner 849, who manages to arm himself/herself and escape from the ship.

The planet Na Pali is rich in "Tarydium", an exotic crystal that possesses a high energy yield, whose utility is the reason for which the Skaarj have invaded. The ship has crashed near one of the many Tarydium mines and processing facilities that the Skaarj have built. Prisoner 849 travels through the mines, meeting Nali slaves and eventually entering the ruins of Nali villages and cities, where the extent of the Nali's suffering and exploitation are made clear.

Throughout the game the player stumbles across the remains of other humans, often with electronic journals that detail their last days and hint at the cause of their demise. Usually the tales are of desperate struggles to hide from the Skaarj or other bloodthirsty inhabitants of the planet.

Prisoner 849 continues to make his way through a series of alien installations, crashed spaceships, and ancient Nali temples infested with Skaarj troops and their minions, eventually arriving at the Nali Castle. Inside the castle, the prisoner locates a teleporter that leads to the Skaarj Mothership. The mothership proves to be a vast labyrinth, but Prisoner 849 manages to find the ship's reactor and destroys it, plunging the vessel into darkness. After navigating the corridors in the dark, the player arrives at the Skaarj Queen's chamber and kills her. Prisoner 849 jumps into an escape pod as the mothership disintegrates. Although the prisoner survives the Skaarj, the escape pod is left to float into space, with slim hopes of being found.

Novels

Two novels titled Hard Crash and Prophet's Power were published, expanding on the premise and story first introduced in Unreal. After the release of the two novels, both of the covers were accidentally switched, making it harder for readers to understand what happened in the story.

Expansion plot

The story picks up not long after Unreal's ending; Prisoner 849 is found by a human warship, the UMS Bodega Bay. Upon learning of the prisoner's identity, the military conscripts him/her into service, forcing the prisoner to return to Na Pali in order to locate the downed ship UMS Prometheus. There, the prisoner is to retrieve some secret weapons research. In return, he/she will receive a full pardon and transportation back to Earth. At least, this is what the prisoner is told; the real plan is to maintain the secrecy of the mission by killing the prisoner immediately the information is secured.

Upon arriving at the Prometheus, Prisoner 849 finds the secret weapons log, but the ship's radio broadcasts a transmission from the Bodega Bay, exposing the military's treachery. As Prisoner 849 transmits the research log, a squad of marines beam onboard the ship, intending to eliminate the prisoner. However, he/she manages to escape into a nearby mine system.

Once again, Prisoner 849 is forced to traverse a series of alien facilities and Nali temples in an attempt to locate another way off the planet. Eventually the prisoner ends up at another Nali Castle, where a small spacecraft is stored. After fighting his/her way through the Skaarj, the prisoner manages to take off in the spacecraft. However, the Bodega Bay is waiting in orbit, and launches a missile at the prisoner's ship. The prisoner outmaneuvers the missile, and leads it back on a collision course with the Bodega Bay. The large ship is disabled by the ensuing blast, and Prisoner 849 escapes into space.

Development

The Unreal game engine was seen as a major rival to id Software's id Tech 2 engine, and the Unreal game itself was considered to be technically superior to Quake II, which was out on the market at the same time (between December 1997 and May 1998). Originally, Unreal was going to be a Quake-style shooter—earlier screens showed a large status bar and centered weapons, similar to Doom and Quake.

As development progressed, various levels were cut from development. A few of these levels reappeared in the Return to Na Pali expansion pack. A number of enemies from early versions are present in the released software but with variations and improvements to their look. One monster that didn't make the cut was a dragon. The main character was going to be a woman, however in the final version the main character's gender is selectable in the game's "player setup" screen, though the default is a female character named Gina. One of the weapons shown in early screenshots was the "Quadshot"—a four-barreled shotgun. The model remains in-game, while there is no code for the weapon to function. Another weapon shown was a different pistol, however this may have just been an early version of the Automag. At one point the rifle could fire three shots at once, which is wrongly stated as the alternate fire in the Unreal manual that comes with the Unreal Anthology.

Since Unreal came packaged with its own scripting language called UnrealScript, it soon developed a large community on the Internet which was able to add new mods (short for "modifications") in order to change or enhance gameplay. This feature greatly added to the overall longevity of the product and provided an incentive for new development. A map editor and overall complete modification program called UnrealEd also came with the package. Epic Games has encouraged its community to contribute to creating modifications through sponsoring big dollar contests, including one for Unreal Tournament for $150,000 in cash and prizes, and another for Unreal Tournament 2004 for $1,000,000 in cash and prizes.

Graphics

Unreal is known for boosting the expectations of 3D graphics considerably. Compared to its peers in the genre, such as Quake II, Unreal brought to life not only highly-detailed indoor environments, but also easily the most impressive outdoor landscapes ever seen at the time. This graphical splendor brought with it the side effect of requiring powerful hardware to run the game fast enough to enjoy. The minimum requirements stated that a Pentium 166 MHz with a mere 16 MB RAM and no 3D accelerator would be capable of running the game. This was not realistic, however, and many gamers were very disappointed when they tried to play the game with such a system.

The Unreal engine brought a host of graphical improvements, including colored lighting. Although Unreal is not the first major release with colored lighting (see Quake II), it is the first to have a software renderer as feature rich as the hardware renderers of the time, including colored lighting and even a limited form of texture filtering referred to by programmer Tim Sweeney as an ordered "texture coordinate space" dither. Early pre-release versions of Unreal were based entirely around software rendering. SIMD technology is integral to allowing the software audio and 3D graphics engines to perform as well as they do. Unreal uses several SIMD technologies, including AMD's 3DNow! along with Intel's MMX and SSE (known as "KNI—Katmai New Instructions" within Unreal).

Unreal was one of the first games to utilize detail texturing. This type of multiple texturing enhances the surfaces of objects with a second texture that shows material detail. When the player stands within a small distance from most surfaces, the detail texture will fade in and make the surface appear much more complex (high-resolution) instead of becoming increasingly blurry. Notable surfaces with these special detail textures included computer monitors and pitted metal surfaces aboard the prison ship, and golden metal doors and stone surfaces within Nali temples. This extra texture layer was not applied to character models. The resulting simulation of material detail on game objects was intended to aid the player's suspension of disbelief. For many years after Unreal's release (and Unreal Tournament's release), detail texturing only worked well with the Glide renderer. It was, in fact, disabled in the Direct3D renderer by default (but could be re-enabled in the Unreal.ini file) due to performance and quality issues caused by the driver and present even on hardware many times more powerful than the original 3Dfx Voodoo Graphics.

Because of Unreal's long development time, the course of development occurred during the emergence and rapid progression of hardware 3D accelerators. So, along with the advanced software 3D renderer, Unreal was built to take advantage of the 3Dfx Glide API, which emerged as the dominant interface towards the end of the game's development. When Unreal was finally released, Microsoft's Direct3D API was growing almost exponentially in popularity and Epic was fairly quick to develop a renderer for their game engine. However, the Direct3D renderer, released initially to support the new Matrox G200, was less capable and slower than the Glide support, especially in the beginning when it was unstable, slow, and had many graphics quality issues. The Glide renderer's superiority can be seen in a review of the 3dfx Voodoo 5, where it outperformed every other card in Unreal Tournament (same engine as Unreal), due to its native Glide support. Even video cards which consistently defeated the Voodoo 5 5500 in other games could not win against Glide's greater efficiency. Unreal also had official OpenGL support, but its compatibility was very limited due to poor OpenGL client drivers from most hardware vendors at the time and Epic's resulting disinterest in furthering development. OpenGL could perform better in some rare situations, but Glide and Direct3D were usually the APIs of choice.

Sound effects

Unreal's "Galaxy" audio system is highly optimized for speed and quality, utilizing Intel's MMX extensively. It manages both music and sound effects. For sound effects it uses uncompressed waveforms in 8-bit or 16-bit monaural format. The engine is capable of playing back at all common sample rates but is set by default to 22 kHz playback to reduce CPU load on computers available at the time of release. One can change the unreal.ini file's sample rate setting to 44.1 kHz ("44100" in the file) and receive a boost in quality for both music and effects.

Galaxy supports rudimentary software-based 3D audio positioning as well as hardware 3D sound support (although this is quite buggy). In software mode, sounds are only stereo-panned. Phase shifting and band-pass filtering are used to imitate changes in position and distance. The sound system is limited to mixing and playing back a maximum of 64 channels, but the default is 16 channels because of CPU power limitations. This option is also user configurable within the unreal.ini file.

In hardware 3D audio mode, the engine is designed to support sound cards with hardware 3D audio mixing and positioning capabilities. At the time of release this included primarily the Aureal Vortex line of audio cards. In this mode, the sound card takes over sound placement with the game providing only positional information to the hardware. If the game uses more channels than the sound card supports, then the extra channels will be run on the game's software engine; this can cause sound consistency problems.

If the processor Unreal is running on lacks MMX support (i.e. a Pentium Pro), then the game will automatically reduce sound quality to low. Quality can be turned back up to full, but the audio engine is less efficient without MMX support. On non-MMX machines, the sound code does make some quality and speed trade-offs by limiting sound effects to having only 64 volume levels. This limitation can be heard by setting up an ambient sound effect with a high radius in an otherwise quiet area; the discrete steps between volume levels are quite audible. Epic also noted nearly a twofold speed boost with MMX code.

The sound system supports both the legacy WinMM sound system, and DirectSound. DirectSound generally achieves the lowest latency, while WinMM works on Windows 95 without DirectSound or Windows NT 4.0 machines.

Music

While many game companies went from FM synthesis or General MIDI in the early 1990s to CD audio and pre-rendered audio, many of the Epic games used the less common system of module music, composed with a tracker, which used stored PCM sound effects sequenced together to produce music. Epic had been using this technology for other games such as Jazz Jackrabbit and One Must Fall: 2097 which allowed relatively rich music to be stored in files usually smaller than one megabyte. Naturally, this technology allowed easy implementation of dynamic music for mood changes in Unreal. The Unreal soundtrack was written by MOD music authors Alexander Brandon and Michiel van den Bos with a few select tracks by Dan Gardopée and Andrew Sega. Alex Brandon and Michiel van den Bos were also responsible for the soundtracks for Unreal Tournament and Deus Ex, which also use the Unreal Engine; Michiel van den Bos also produced the soundtrack for Age of Wonders.

Unreal's music engine also supports CD audio tracks.

Reception

Upon release, Unreal was praised for not only for its graphics and environments, but also for above-average AI and gameplay. Enemies would dodge out of the way of projectiles and pose a competent threat. In addition to dodging, the enemy called Skaarj would sometimes feign their deaths, tricking the player into moving onwards only to be attacked by the same enemy. Headshots would do more damage as well, and the player could even decapitate enemies with weapons such as the Razorjack and the Sniper rifle. The planet of Na Pali was rich in atmosphere compared to many other FPS out at the time—outdoor levels were populated by many small creatures and birds, who did not attack the player. Its engine was considered revolutionary at the time, boasting huge environments and colourful lighting available in software as well as hardware-accelerated mode.

Map editing

Unreal's method of creating maps differs in major ways from that of Quake. The bundled UnrealEd map editor uses the Unreal engine to accurately render the exact scene, as opposed to external editors like Worldcraft attempting to recreate it with different methods. Whereas Quake maps are compiled from a variety of different components, Unreal maps are inherently editable on the fly. This allows anybody to edit any map that is created, including the originals from the developers. Though UnrealEd loads quite a bit slower than most map editors, it runs maps smoothly and swiftly: hitting rebuild automatically finalizes the level within minutes (or even within seconds, on a modern day computer), as opposed to the hours or (at the time) even days with a full Quake map compile.

In addition, Unreal starts with a completely solid world in which the user extract areas with primitives instead of starting with a void and building rooms by adding primitive shapes to fill it. Many map designers believe that this eliminates the tedium of matching up separate walls, floors and ceilings.

Mac OS version

The last update for the Mac OS port was version 224b, which breaks network compatibility between it and the PC version, as well as lacking support for some user-created content made for 225 and 226f. Westlake Interactive, the company responsible for the port, claimed that previous patches were produced voluntarily in their free time, beyond their contractual obligations. They also stated that they did not receive the code for the 225 patch and that it had become unavailable due to Epic moving on to develop version 226.

References

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