Updated: Feb 24
In the previous articles of the series, we have investigated three of id Software’s franchises, specifically, Wolfenstein 3D, Doom, and Quakes 1 and 2. In the last article ee also covered Half-Life, the game which put Valve on the map. In this episode, we introduce the next big player in the FPS scene, a brand-new franchise and the debut of a game engine that would benefit the gaming industry for years to come.
That company was Epic, the franchise was Unreal and the engine was the Unreal Engine. Let’s dive in.
Before Epic was called Epic, it was known as Potomac Computer Systems and was originally a business computing consultancy. However, Founder Tim Sweeny developed a simple little game called ZZT whilst he was at college. This was distributed via the bulletin board share-ware model in much the same way as the early i.d. software games.
It proved to be a surprise hit, which encouraged sweeny to turn Potomac Computer Systems into a video game company named Epic Mega Games. DavidXNewton’s video below explains ZZT and Epic Mega Games Pre-FPS titles.
Video by DavidXNewton
That game was the aptly named Unreal. It was released in May 1998, about six months before Half-Life. Nowadays it is often referred to as Unreal ’98 to distinguish it from other games and game engines that would also be called Unreal.
Unreal ’98 was the first game based on the first generation of the now near-ubiquitous Unreal Engine. Graphically it was far in advance of the competition, as can be seen in the video below.
Unreal ‘98’ conveys the sense of isolation and alienation magnificently. You really do feel that you, as prisoner 849, are a stranger in a strange land.
Video by Methos
Unreal ‘98’s story was intriguing. The player, known only as ‘Prisoner 849’, is locked away on a prison starship, the Vortex Rikers. However, something causes the ship to crash on Na Pali, an uncharted planet. Those that survived the crash must now face the planet’s dangerous flora and fauna.
Unfortunately, these insentient beasts are the least of the survivor’s worries. The major threat comes from the technologically advanced but savage alien species the Skaarj. These Predator-like humanoids from the planet Skrath appear to have invaded Na Pali at some point in the past and have enslaved the pacifistic native Nali ever since.
A Nali prophesy states that ‘a horror would come from the stars’, but a saviour would also come from the stars to drive away the horror and set them free. Therefore, you end up assuming a messianic role as the saviour of the Nali people.
Your character’s motivations are never explicitly stated. You might be heroic, or you might just be trying to save your own ass. Either way, you need to get off-world before either the authorities turn up and put you back in prison, or the Skaarj kills you as they did with the rest of the prisoners and ship’s crew.
Unreal ’98 brought several innovations to the table, some of which would become common practice in the FPS that would follow. One such innovation was character customization. ‘Prisoner 849’ could be either male or female, and their appearance could be altered to suit the player’s preferences. Sadly, few FPS games outside the Unreal franchise would go on to do something similar. However, it would become common practice in many first-person RPGs such as The Elder Scrolls series and the Fallout franchise from Fallout III onwards.
As stated earlier, Unreal ‘98’s graphics were notably more advanced than the FPS games that came before it. Let's take a look at some of the game's graphical innovations;
One feature that was likely a first for FPS gaming was transparent water. In earlier FPS games - and even some that would be released later the same year, such as Half-Life - the water’s surface was opaque. Therefore, it was impossible to see what was under the surface unless the player dived in. This would then make it impossible to see out of the water to what was above it, on the river bank, poolside, etc.
Unreal ‘98’s virtual liquids were different. Water possessed a transparent surface, which enabled the player to see how deep it was and what was swimming in there. The level design put this to good use, featuring several sections where the player could snipe aquatic enemies from on high before taking the plunge themselves.
Ingeniously, the water’s surface had a shimmering effect that allowed some enemies to blend in, especially when they were stationary. To spot them the player would need to pay close attention and attempt to coax them into movement.
What’s more, the player could observe and attack from underwater, potentially surprising enemies standing at the water's edge, on bridges, etc. This too would go on to be used in many FPS, including Half-Life 2, Crysis and especially Far Cry Instincts Predator, where the player could lunge from the water to surprise melee attack enemies.
Another innovation was how the game dealt with dynamic lighting. Some sections of the game were deliberately too dark to see in without illumination. Enemies could hide in the shadows and ambush the player.
To illuminate these areas, the player had three options. Firstly, there was the muzzle flash and the light from protagonist’s dispersion pistol. Secondly, prisoner 849 possessed a flashlight and thirdly they could throw flares into hard to reach places. Flashlights have become standard issue for most single-player FPS. Deployable flares have also been put to good use in games such as Aliens vs Predator Classic 2000 and Black Mesa, where they double as incendiary weapons.
Another graphics innovation was reflective surfaces. It didn’t affect gameplay, but it looked amazing and has gone on to be used in several games, such as Deus Ex. There is a very good reason why Deus Ex also had such shiny surfaces, as we will see later.