It's almost six years since Unreal redefined the sci-fi shooter and made the Voodoo 2 the most desirable piece of gaming technology of its era. For a while it genuinely seemed like the PC was the only gaming platform worth bothering with, such was its technological superiority over anything else out there. It seemed almost unbelievable how we'd gone from Build-era bitmapped 3D to Epic's glossy tech in a couple of years - but in many ways it was so far ahead of its time that developers and publishers were only too happy to stick with churning out similar looking games for the next five years. It's not too far from the truth the suggest that progress has been slow ever since - a situation not helped by the fact that the next crop of 3D engines out there are stuck in development hell for one reason or another.
So when Unreal 2 emerged just over a year ago on PC there was cause for genuine optimism that another revolution was on the way. The reality was, as PC owners will recall, a huge disappointment. For reasons best known to the developers involved, Unreal 2 became just another FPS, and given its heritage it seems hard to fathom how that happened.
Sometimes we all agree...
As Tom and Rob correctly observed in their original reviews, here was an exceptionally pretty FPS that, rather than ripping up the rulebook, appeared to observe every word of it. Everything from the weapons to the monsters to the AI to the scripted sequences was simply a retread of every idea that even casual FPS players were a little tired of.
Worse still, the air of other worldliness and bewildering expansiveness of the original was replaced with a set of familiar sci-fi clichés, unloveable characters, and only occasional standout moments to bask in. In short, after having our expectations built up so much by Unreal and Unreal Tournament (and to an extent, UT2003), this was not what was asked for. More of the same would've probably sufficed with this shinier engine, but it wasn't even good enough to be considered that, and clocking in at less than 10 hours it was also a game consigned to the trade in pile in a weekend.
So what of this long-overdue Xbox version? As you'd probably have already guessed, it's a fairly faithful port, but by faithful, I mean only in the sense that all 12 levels are there and laid out exactly as they were in the PC version, with no variation over plot or such like. But with just two levels of difficulty (Normal and Hard) we played it on the default level and immediately regretted it.
How can easy be agony? Try it and see...
To say it's agonisingly easy is an understatement, having gone through half the game in one sitting without dying once - something you just don't expect from any videogame. In fact, in my eight hour stint with the game, the only levels that caused any problem at all were the end bits of the final two, and they were both down to the ongoing problems of precision joypad aiming rather than any challenge-based issues.
Visually the lushness of the PC version is compromised quite significantly, although how much you'll notice this entirely depends on the size and quality of your screen. Stretched into widescreen it's blindingly obvious that massive compromises were made, with blurry textures, and a general lack of sheen compared to the sumptuous-looking PC original - not to mention jerky animation and less than stable frame rates. For those fresh to the game it still might strike you as a respectable looking game on the whole, but it's not what it could or should have been - especially when you're faced with an uninspired set of forgettable levels that you can plough incredibly quickly.
If the AI in the PC version was a little on the predictable side, you'll barely get the chance to find out in the Xbox version, with most enemies falling to single sniper shots or a couple of rockets. In all seriousness, all I had to do was be aggressive to charge through every level - a tactic that Halo, for example, would smack you down in about ten seconds flat for attempting. Obviously, Hard mode makes up for this, but that's not really the point. You shouldn't have to up the difficulty to even have a decent challenge - Hard ought to be for experts who know the game inside out, not for someone just starting out. A few minor sections have even been stripped out of the game, although arguably these omissions are an improvement.
Please shoot me; I didn't want to live anyway
As also observed in the original review, the enemies in Unreal 2 just fail to do anything interesting. Everything, be it the various flavours of Skaarj or the spiders and their headcrab style minions, or the generic marines, merely display two modes: unaware, or rushing headlong at you like suicide bombers. It's like a less frantic Serious Sam - and in 2004 this parade of generic sci-fi fodder feels tiresome, lazy and mediocre. For those of you who insist on bleating about Halo's faults, playing it after Unreal 2 will feel like a revolution in gaming.
And while we're on the subject, at least Halo threw in some coherent buddy mechanics and vehicular sections to mix things up, and frantic sections where it just goes berserk. In Unreal 2 it's steady progress all the way, and even the finale is a brief, forgettable let down. I only got about 60 per cent through the PC version and left it, and now I can fully appreciate why. On the plus side, the defensive missions that task you with protecting your base for a set period make a pleasant change, but aside from that, it's hard to think of anything at all that Unreal 2 does that hasn't been done before.
There are, of course, a bunch of welcome Xbox additions on the multiplayer side of things. Perhaps the most welcome is two-player split-screen co-operative (which players can jump into at any point should they wish), as well as Xbox Live multiplayer - which amounts to four of the smallest maps in the XMP patch, which was a minor deviation from the popular Capture The Flag mode. Sadly, the limits of the Xbox means that with just 12 player support, even the smallest PC maps aren't done a huge amount of justice, with matches feeling under populated - if the lag issues haven't already crept in to spoil your fun on servers with more than eight players.
As a single-player experience, Unreal 2 is undoubtedly one of the more forgettable shooters on the Xbox; joining the likes of Jedi Academy and Soldier of Fortune 2 in that club of below par PC ports that have been unceremoniously dumped on owners of this capable machine. As a Live experience, it's acceptable if you don't know any different, but for those of you reared on packed PC online matches it won't be a worthy substitute. In summary, Unreal 2 is disappointing generic sci-fi fodder - how did it come to this?