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.
Unreal ’98 Castle Fly-By Intro HD
How much polish did they use to get it that shiny?
Video by Hypernl
Unreal ‘98’s weapons were revolutionary and unique. They looked, sounded, and felt distinct from the guns in most FPS. They functioned quite differently too. All weapons had a primary and secondary fire mode, which were often radically different from one another. This provided a wide range of options for dispatching enemies.
Some weapons, in particular the ASMD rifle, could combine the effects of their primary and secondary fire modes. This may have been an inspiration for the ‘one-two’ Plasmid and gun combat in Bioshock or Halo’s Plasma Pistol and M6D Magnum pistol combo.
Prisoner 849 would need to utilize this arsenal of weapons to the fullest, since the A.I. and agility of the Skaarj enemies were well beyond that of earlier FPS enemies.
They rolled and sidestepped to dodge incoming fire, pounced into melee attacks, leapt from high ground to the player’s level and even lead their target’s - i.e. the player’s - movements when firing projectile weapons. This near-human player behaviour will become key to the success of Unreal ‘98’s successor.
To make matters worse, some enemies can deploy energy shields that block incoming fire. This forces the player to get creative in how they deal with them - getting around the shield is more effective than trying to go through it. This may have been an inspiration for the shield carrying Jackals of Halo.
Video by Karrikae
Another technical achievement was the games wide open spaces, and the ability to seamlessly move from them into cramped interiors and back out again. An outstanding example level is ‘The Harobed Village.’ The level consists of a wide-open plain with several primitive Nali cottages and an Abby, complete with a hidden basement. The level also features a large pool of shallow water, made opaque due to contamination from the mines. All the above can be entered and exited without loading screens or pauses.
The game’s soundscape was particularly advanced. According to the wiki, it used ‘A system of module music, composed with a tracker, which used stored PCM sound samples of musical instruments sequenced together to produce music’.
I will be honest, I’m not sure what much of that means. However, I can say that it certainly sounded better than many games of the era, especially through headphones.
The official expansion pack - Return to Na Pali - was largely more of the same with a few additional human weapons added. It was not marketed well, with some Unreal ‘98 players being completely unaware of its existence until years later. It would later be included as standard in the Unreal Gold edition.
Unreal Return to Na Pali
I find the assault rifle feels boring and misplaced next to the more exotic weapons. Video by arvutihull
However, what would prove to be more significant than Unreal ‘98’s campaign was its Multiplayer mode. The campaign could be played in Co-Op mode, but what many players found most interesting were its competitive Deathmatch, Team Deathmatch, King of the Hill and the aptly named Darkmatch. Unfortunately, the game’s net code was not up to the demands of the 56K modems of the time, and thus required significant patching.
A multiplayer-focused expansion pack was planned, which would bring Unreal ‘98’s multiplayer mode up to the desired quality. This was intended to include the ‘bot pack’. This would add AI-controlled characters for human characters to fight against in the multiplayer mode. The bots were based on the highly regarded ‘Reaper bots’, which were originally created for Quake by Steven Polge.
However, the project grew beyond the scope of a mere expansion pack, so the decision was taken by Epic’s Vice President Mark Rein to turn it into a full standalone commercial release. But that is a tale for another day.
The Unreal Engine
But perhaps the most influential aspect of Unreal ’98 was the Unreal Engine itself. It became the ‘go-to’ engine of choice for many developers. The fantastic Deus Ex was based on the Unreal Engine, as was the darkly atmospheric Clive Barker's Undying. Epic would go on to license out future editions of the Unreal Engine as well. Its forth and current incarnation - Unreal Engine 4 - is freely available now and is being used to make, and re-make, an ever-growing library of games.