Keith's Crappy Videogame Blog


Unreal II: The Awakening (PC, 2003): In Retrospect, A Real Gem
August 17, 2010, 2:13 am
Filed under: Unreal II: The Awakening (PC, 2003, US)

Regardless of how famous the “Unreal” games franchise is (and the Unreal engine which apparently powers every domestic, non-Valve game ever made), I never played any of the 3 or 4 iterations of the title. How could this be, you ask? This is mainly because, in my addled mind, the title “Unreal” signalled an online, multiplayer game–in other words all I ever really thought about was the fabulously popular “Unreal Tournament” games.  (Thanks to Bernd for the clarification on this–Ed.). As such, I avoided all the “Unreal” games because I assumed they were not in my mileau. I play games to have a hand in unfolding the (oft mediocre) narrative, to witness the (oft confusing) character development, to whoop up on some (oft brainless) AI enemies of the monstrous variety, and to do some awesome and scary virtual sightseeing, snapping screenshots along the way. On the contrary, I never cared to jump wildly around a map at breakneck speeds, endlessly cycling through the same maps, getting shot in the head by 14-year-olds—rinse, repeat…and repeat and repeat.

That’s why “Unreal II: The Awakening” never caught my eye. Whenever I saw the title, I simply assumed it was another chapter in the multiplayer-centric franchise that I wanted nothing to do with. But I was wrong. “The Awakening” is a singleplayer, story-focused, nonmultiplayer sequel–and unfortunately, this may also be the reason why the game was burned in huge piles in parking lots by aforementioned 14-year-olds. Well, not really, but many hardcore “Unreal” online fanboys don’t consider it to be a “real” part of the “Unreal” franchise. (In fact, the whining of said 14-year-olds got so annoying that a second version of the same game, with online multiplayer support, was released soon after.) But as a singleplayer campaign game, it was reviewed rather positively by most critics, garnering a 75 Metacritic score in 2003. It was called “pretty.” Having been released one year (almost to the day) before “Doom III,” this game has a lot in common graphically speaking, use of colors and light, the similar blockiness, and tight indoor sci-fi lab spaces. It looks really good for its time. The AI enemies are fast and aggressive, also like “Doom III.”

Frankly put, the game is impressive on almost every front. This is an old-school first-person shooter at its best, really. The plot is neat, involving 7 ancient alien artifacts possessing arcane powers spread out across several galaxies. To make things interesting, approximately 6 warring races/intergalactic conglomerates are vying to collect and exploit said artifacts. Your character, John Dalton, is basically a low-level space marshal whose only wish is to re-enter the Marines (something shady in the past went down that forced him to resign), but his application has been repeatedly denied. (This is actually the note the entire game begins on.) He and the 3 crewmates he commands (one who is a grade-A smartass; one who is a disheveled, recovering alcoholic weapons expert; and one who is an alien butchering the English language) sign on to help recover as many artifacts as possible before the other nefarious groups swoop in.

But when it comes to the artifacts, even we don’t know what to do with them: In one mission, a deep space arms-development lab (which was conducting experiments with one of the artifacts for military purposes) on an icy moon covered in toxic snow (nicknamed “Hell”) goes silent unexpectedly (yes, sci-fi cliches abound, but who cares?). You shuttle down to the moon as a one-man force to see what transpired. It wasn’t good. While scientists passed high energy beams through the artifact, some local insectoids crawled their way into the test chamber and grew to enormous, aggressive sizes, killing everyone in sight. You arrive at the wrecked, overrun lab, flamethrower in hand. Yup, had to go “Orkin man” on them and nab the artifact. Many of the missions are structured like this. You collect (or try to collect) each artifact in turn, taking you to all corners of the universe. The game is visually fabulous for its time, with a great mood, and snappy characters overall whose pasts are complicated with one another (which, by the standards of today’s multilayered, movielike, sandbox FPS/RPG hybrid games, would seem terribly weak—but we’re talking a super-linear 7-year-old game at the time of this writing, folks). Unlike so many other early-2000-era videogame heroes who are faceless no-names with zero personality (yeah, I’m looking at you, “Doom III”), the protag in this game is quirky and oddly low-key, whose intercom banter with Aida (his busty, bitchslapping bridge officer) during missions feels ad-libbed, off-the-cuff, extremely relaxed—even while crawling along poorly lit corridors haunted by otherworldly things. It is a neat vibe.

I compared the game to “DOOM III” earlier, but how about a slightly more recent comparison (by a stretch, of course): Considering the game’s character development and overall mission structure, see if this rings any bells. You command a spaceship; you get orders from your superiors at a military base which you visit; some of your crewmembers are aliens; you have an armory specialist who outfits you before each mission; you have a female bridge officer who gives you briefings in front a rotating 3D map before every mission (of which there are 12—one common complaint about the game is its short duration; according to beyondunreal.com, something like 6 whole missions were cut from the game, as well as a handful of vehicles and alien races, material which exists somewhere in beta form); you shuttle down to planets where your missions are located; there are some (quite scant) dialogue choices when interfacing with crewmembers; you engage with native populations during missions, solve problems, fight, etc… UH “MASS EFFECT” ANYONE? I mean, I’m talking some grade-A similarities here. Of course, this is NOT “Mass Effect” or any of its sequels, but more and more I can see how very little in videogames is unique—everything began somewhere else, it seems. Of course, that’s only natural.

SPOILER: In the final stages, the game takes the unlikely leap from very good to simply great. Two chapters before the end, while you are planetside, you hear over com chatter that your quirky crew of 3 is being attacked in orbit. Then the ship explodes—gone, goodbye, crew and all. Marshal John Dalton, the character you play, drops to his knees. As a player, you simply don’t expect that. Then, during the epilogue, after defeating the evil (which, no surprise, were the folks you were fighting FOR the entire time), as you float through deep space in an escape pod, you find and listen to a final transmission made by your crew—they knew they were doomed and they are posthumously saying their goodbyes. Ne’ban, the niave alien pilot, thanks you for giving him a meaningful task to fulfill before the end of his overprotected life; Isaak, the now-sober engineer, thanks you for believing in him and asks you to go back to the “old club in Quantico” and buy one last round for everyone; Aida, the bridge officer said she never really believed in much, but that she believed in you. Then you are alone in your pod…and the game ends. Roll credits. Great, and even moving. SPOILER ENDS.

For a game of its time, the cast of characters (your crew) works well. You only sorta get to know them, but they are not entirely cardboard cutouts and actually have complex relationships with one another.

In 2003, critics busted the game’s chops for being too short—but by today’s standards (“Terminator 3” tie-in game anyone? I finished it in 2 nights, uh…), the game’s length is just right, clocking in at around 13 or so hours. BTW, something I did not realize even though I DID know this was published by Epic Games: Cliff Blezinski (Gears of War) was executive producer.