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The Backlog: Unreal

Backlog Unreal featured

It turns out that the people who make Gears of War also make some other game series called Unreal.  Or at least they used to.  You wouldn’t really know it, considering that it has been five years since they actually released an Unreal game.  Killing locusts with chainsaw bayonets is all well and good, but now that the Gears trilogy is done, maybe Epic Games can get back to the franchise that put them on the map in the first place.

Last week Epic Games publicly unveiled the existence of the Unreal Engine 4.  This isn’t an actual game, it’s just the new engine they’re working on.  It has been Epic’s custom to show off their latest engine with a new Unreal game, so perhaps shooter fans can look forward to Unreal Tournament 4, or even an actual story-based shooter set in the Unreal universe at some point in the next couple of years.

Back in the late 20th Century, Epic Games was called Epic Mega Games.  They’ve humbled a bit in the 21st Century and dropped the “Mega”.  Now they’re merely epic.

Backlog Unreal 001 The Backlog: Unreal

Their claim to fame back in the 90’s was one of the best looking shooters of its time.  Unreal was a science fiction shooter about a prisoner who escapes from space jail and finds himself on an alien planet, caught between two warring alien species.  It was a fun story, but Epic knew what gamers really wanted… Gamers wanted to use that fancy new internet to kill other people, instead of shooting AI aliens, so thus came Unreal Tournament, a game that dispensed with the single-player campaign and just offered various forms of head-to head combat.

I played the first few Unreal and Unreal Tournament games when they arrived in the late 20th Century, but didn’t keep up with the franchise as Unreal Tournaments 2003, 2004 and UT 3 came out.  I, like many gamers, was just plain having too much fun with the originals.

Pretty much every game in the series still has an online community.  This is especially surprising in the case of the first Unreal game from 14 years ago.  The population is only a few dozen at any moment, but they’re still there!

Unreal Tournament, at 13 years old, has an even bigger following. It was never intended to be a “Straight out of the box” sort of game.  It was made to be modded and augmented and that’s what happened.  Skins and character models of everything players could imagine were made, plus new maps, mods and mutators popped up quickly.  There were also single-player campaigns added in, plus total conversions too.

Unfortunately players who just now try the game (Or re-install it) will have to sit through some lengthy downloads and updates in order to join in the fun.   These people have taken over the game and are now playing it as a thoroughly mutated version of what the developers originally created.

Backlog Unreal 002 The Backlog: Unreal

Epic has created a vast universe for the games, but has never done a particularly good job of letting players explore the setting.  Although the various Unreal games that arrived between 1999’s Unreal Tournament, and 2007’s Unreal Tournament 3 have expanded the Unreal universe and its characters a little bit, the franchise has pretty much just been a showcase for Epic’s latest version of their Unreal Engine.

If you’ve played a video game at any point in the last fourteen years, it was probably built on one of the Unreal Engines.  The list is varied and endless, from blockbuster shooters like Deus Ex, to Zumba dance games, and even iPhone sword-fighting games like Infinity Blade; this engine has been used for just about everything.

When it arrived in its first form, it was a big competitor of the Quake id Tech Engine, and there was a period around the year 2000 where just about every 3D action game was made on either Unreal or id Tech.  Each had a distinct look and feel; experienced gamers could play a game for a few minutes and just KNOW which engine it was running on.

The current version is Unreal 3, and the advances that Epic made are clearly illustrated by playing Unreal Tournament 2004 then trying Unreal Tournament 3.  Aside from the fact that UT3 looks exactly like Gears of War, there was a massive jump in quality during those few years.  Even five years after launch, this thing looks damned good!

Backlog Unreal 003 The Backlog: Unreal

But all the graphical bells and whistles are just icing on a very good cake.  Unreal Tournament in all its variations has its own distinct style of play, and a very cool selection of weapons.  While some of these are standard guns like the pistol and assault rifle, there are a few very distinct ones; my favorite being the Shock Rifle which had a tricky alternate fire technique where players could launch a slow-moving ball of energy at enemies, then blast the ball with the weapon’s primary fire for a huge explosion.

This requires timing and finesse to pull off, but is always rewarding when an enemy gets annihilated by the combo.

It’s been too long since Epic last gave fans an Unreal game, but now that their other series has run its course, and the Unreal Engine 4 is upon us, hopefully Epic will roll out Unreal Tournament 2013 or even a single-player game to let a new generation of gamers explore that old story about the Skaarj and Nali war on their alien world.

Until that hope becomes a reality, gamers who have old disks of these games will find that there is still a thriving community of players and modders out there who are playing this franchise in all of its incarnations.

Another game that players have enjoyed modding is the action RPG Torchlight.  I’ve had this on my hard drive since launch, but never actually played it.  With Torchlight 2 on the way soon, it’s about time I tried it.  Next week on The Backlog I’ll hack & slashing my way through this dungeon adventure.

Charles is a proud contributor to Default Prime, as well as the Xbox/ PC Department Lead at Player Affinity, a reviewer for The Indie Game Magazine, and a Special Agent at the U.S. Department of Electronic Entertainment.