Unreal II: The Awakening

Review by Old Rooster
March 2003

Long we have searched for an action and/or shooter title that successfully bridges the gap between the revered adventure genre and the mindless, if pretty, mayhem so often found in today's popular games. Our hearts have yearned for a Bond, or even Croft, game that tells a story, creates relevant puzzles around it, involves us interactively in the narrative, and offers us nonviolent alternatives to conflict resolution. Hopes soared when Legend Entertainment, the creators of the wonderful Wheel of Time, were assigned the task of developing Unreal II: The Awakening. Here, at last, would be the saviors who would herald the new age of action/shooter titles—those who would bring us an example of the best of all game ideas: an amalgam of immersive story, logical and satisfying plot puzzles, thoughtful and deliberative action of a gentle nature, even nonviolence as an alternative. Enter Unreal II: The Awakening!

Well, folks, they had some good thoughts and, perhaps, intentions; but the end result is, basically, just another pretty shooter. Close, but no cigar!

The Awakening casts the player as an exiled ex-Marine assigned to routine patrol of the outer edges of the galaxy. Accompanying you on your humdrum duties is a crew of three: Aida—a theoretician and strategist, who has some secrets in her past she'd rather not discuss; Isaak—a recovering alcoholic who delights in modifying and supplying you new weapons; and Ne'Ban (brother of Ray)—your alien pilot, with broken English, and another exile.

The known universe is under the control of mega-corporations, which presents a twist on plot complexity. Of course, alien races, such as the delightful Skaarj from Unreal 1, also form a significant component of plot, gameplay, and fighting opportunities. While plying your way, minding your own business, you find yourself investigating a peculiar communication cutoff on a nearby planetary station. This simple procedure initiates a complex and ultimately horrendous series of events. Eventually, you're told and discover for yourself that there is a set of artifacts, on various planets, which needs gathering. The nature and purpose of these items is mysterious (at least to you), but it soon becomes apparent that the possessor of these treasures may wield a good deal of power and control. If nothing else, it's important to keep them out of the hands of others. Of course, those "others" have the same goal and idea!

So we have the solid premise of a B sci-fi flick, with some mystery thrown in. Not only is character development interesting in that each of the crew, including yourself, is flawed in some respect, but there's also an unusual opportunity (for an action/shooter) to engage in dialogue choices. Although not necessary to advance the plot or even start a mission, these options provide considerable personal background information. You can even wander around your little ship, visiting rooms, opening lockers, chatting with your fearless threesome. Unfortunately, little is done with this information or dialogue option in terms of meaningful gameplay. The developers have added a shocking and melodramatic finale that breathes a bit more life into the characters. Finally, in terms of story setup, the search for lost artifacts provides an opportunity to visit various planetary stations with different climates and topography—thus allowing the incredible Unreal II engine a chance to show its stuff!

And that engine is indeed a marvelous depictor of various environments, especially the outdoors. There seems little question that the Legend designers as much had engine variety in mind, when choosing levels and environments, as they did the nature of the story. And who can blame them? You'll experience claustrophobic tunnels, an icy moon, the greenery of a jungle, the barrenness of a mechanical world, and all manner of alien landscapes that lead you to just want to explore and gape in awe. However, this is a shooter, remember, and you can't stand around too long without being prepared. Enemies come in all shapes, types and sizes—from the aforementioned Skaarj to other humans, mechanical spiders, Ghost Warriors, and even genetically engineered female mercenaries. To deal with them, you have a range of weapons, which Isaak, back on the ship, delights in introducing to you in the lulls between missions. All of these, from worlds to characters to weapons and their effects (I love smoke grenades in the morning), are displayed in what is likely the most beautiful graphical rendering of any game to date. Accompanying this is fine voice acting, a quite decent script, appropriate weapon noises, terrific ambient sounds, and satisfactory musical interludes.

The creative intent of Legend spilled over to the design of the levels—not just the intricacies of the paths to be taken to completion, but also the nature of the routes to that end. Specifically, in a typical shooter, one simply has to dispatch a large and tough series of foes, blasting one's way through the corridors of the environment. Legend experiments, somewhat successfully, with incorporating other strategies. On several levels (really, the best ones), your task is primarily to set up protective defenses, using devices and marine colleagues, essentially waiting for the enemy to come. These are tense and fun. At other times, you need to sneakily infiltrate, or position yourself on a high rooftop to snipe at enemies approaching a distant repairman. These certainly, along with the different settings, add considerable variety.

To sum up, Unreal II: The Awakening is disappointing, not so much in terms of what it is as in terms of what we expected, what it hints at, and what it might have been. As indicated above, the premise and basics are there for allowing meaningful interactive choices, for more than superficial conversational involvement of your crew mates, for developing a story that allows other than killing as a resolution. When all is said and done, with the possible exception of the defensive missions, The Awakening boils down to being a first-person shooter, without more in the way of depth than Red Faction and much, much less qualitatively than Medal of Honor or No One Lives Forever. I will say this: it often reminded me of the suspense and atmosphere present in Aliens vs. Predator (both 1 and 2), which is a good thing. As one who enjoys shooters and appreciates the gorgeous graphics, as well as level design creativity, I'm awarding it a Thumb Up. However, to my adventure colleagues looking for that genre-crossing game, let me say: this isn't it—or even close to it—in spite of having more potential than many efforts of this type.

What I Liked About Unreal II

  • Splendid graphics, across a wide variety of settings.
  • Significant design alternatives to the classic "rail-shooting."
  • Attempt at character development.
  • Attempt at suspenseful story.
  • Very atmospheric and often frighteningly tense.
  • Good voice acting and other sounds.

What I Didn't Like About Unreal II

  • Unfulfilled and unmeaningful character development.
  • Ultimately hackneyed and straight-line story.
  • Only one way to resolve situations—killing.
  • Graphics bring your PC to its knees—use only recommended, not minimum, specs. The End

The Verdict

The Lowdown

Developer: Legend Entertainment
Publisher: Infogrames
Release Date: February 2003

Available for: Windows

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System Requirements

Windows 98/ME/2000/XP
Pentium III 733 (PIII 1.2 recommended)
256 MB RAM (384 MB recommended)
8X CD-ROM drive
32 MB 3D GeForce 2 video card (64 MB GeForce 3 recommended)
DirectX 8.1 compatible sound card
3000 MB free HD space(!)

Where to Find It

Gogamer.com 39.90

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