Let's Reboot... Unreal
Unreal’s most enduring legacy has been its engine tech. It’s a shame. Not because Epic’s awesomely powerful development toolkit is undeserving of its industry-dominating status, but because it now overshadows one of the most spectacular and evocative singleplayer experiences in gaming history. Unreal needs to come back, and it needs to use Epic’s ever-increasing engine grunt to deliver a shooter as exotic and expansive as was suggested by the original.
"I want Unreal by way of Far Cry 3 with a little bit of The Witcher 2 on the side. I don’t ask for much."
But to truly deliver on that vision, it might have to make a departure from the kinds of shooters that Epic now tends to make: linear cinematic shooters. Unreal suggested a future not of tightly controlled set-pieces and cut-scenes, but of sprawling landscapes, complex histories and interesting alliances. An Unreal of today - at least, the awesome Unreal I can imagine - would have to be expansive, perhaps even an open world, and allow for a richer interaction with its inhabitants than was possible by waggling an Eightball at them. I want Unreal by way of Far Cry 3 with a little bit of The Witcher 2 on the side. I don’t ask for much. Well, okay, I do - but surely no more than Epic’s deep, deep pockets can fund.
I’ve banged on about why I love Unreal before, but here’s the Cliff’s Notes version: it crashes you into an alien world of (once) unprecedented scale and cohesive imagination. Stepping out of the ruined prison ship in which you were incarcerated, you find yourself in a place both familiar and alarmingly alien. It has its own history and its own politics - a subjugated tribal people, crushed by a race of lizard men, themselves under the command of a brutal invading hi-tech species, the Skaarj.
As you fight to escape the planet itself, you unturf the world’s many strata of civilisation. You wade through long-abandoned Mesoamerican-style water temples, and clamber across the rickety remnants of a Tibetan-ish mystic tradition, clinging to a cloud-puncturing bluff. European-style medievalism follows, then industrial mining operations and finally an ascent through technology towards the stars. All the while, you unravel the world’s history through lore books and data pads, ultimately liberating its people.
"It'd be a missed opportunity to retell it as a series of corridor gun-battles."
I mention these particular things instead of Unreal’s (excellent) shooter credentials because these are the areas in which a reboot could really stand to expand and improve. It would be a missed opportunity to simply retell this story as a series of corridor gun-battles, as it was Unreal’s sense of place, not its plot, that buoyed it to greatness.
One of the things that first impressed me, as my player character stooped out from the crumpled remains of the Vortex Rikers prison ship, was the organic world beyond - a verdant grassland, sloping into a tropical pool, fringed by palm-like trees and fed by a waterfall, which cascaded from a sheer rock-face. Beyond the high cliffs lay a distant mountain range beneath a lowering sky. In retrospect, all this was achieved with a handful of repeating textures, smeared across a flew polygonal slabs. With the sorts of greenery today’s engines are capable of putting out, a rebooted Unreal could finally do justice to the steaming jungles and soaring mountains imagined by its predecessor, not to mention its crumbling, half-submerged ruins, monumental towers and unfathomable alien technologies.
What a rebooted Unreal would need most, however, is scale. During one part of the original, you stumble into a trench carved by a crashed spaceship. It’s huge, taking minutes simply to walk down. Today’s cutting-edge engines could spit that sort of thing out easily, and fill in all the landscape between you and those distant mountains, too.
"A true open world Unreal might forfeit the ability to manage the drama and lack the original’s narrative drive."
Unreal’s levels may have ultimately described a linear progression and in doing delivered some well-orchestrated dramatic moments, but they often funnelled into arenas which were as open as the technology allowed. A true open world Unreal might forfeit the ability to manage the drama and lack the original’s narrative drive, but I can foresee a happy compromise in a game which creates landscapes as much as levels, allowing the player to explore sprawling temple complexes or thronging jungles, before barrelling them to new areas through a sequence of more tightly controlled environments. A bit like Rage’s hub-and-spoke system, then, only with textures that don’t unload themselves whenever you blink.
Breathless though the original’s escape trajectory was, a reboot might demand a more circuitous route - and perhaps not an entirely linear one, asking you to criss cross its vast locations to scavenge for the means of survival, rescue fellow castaways, and barter with locals. While Unreal was a shooter first and foremost, it seeded its landscape with story. Actual talking characters proffering quests are the natural extension of the original’s scattered datapads and texts - it was merely a function of the game’s limited palette of interaction that the only other survivors of the crash died before you reach them.
Not only would chatty NPCs create a motive for you to explore this alien territory more completely, and create more of a sense of agency to your journey, but they might be played off one another. One of the tantalising things in that game was the suggested relationship between you, your erstwhile human captors, fellow inmates, the indigenous people, and their vicious alien masters. It paints a picture of difficult allegiances, and one which could be better explored today: necessity might put you in an alliance with a former prison guard or a convicted mass-murderer - and that tension could be a rich vein for drama.
"Necessity might ally you with a former prison guard or a mass-murderer."
There are other malleable relationships which beg to be unpicked using a faction system, creating different narrative consequences: you might find your attempts to help the Nali come at your fellow survivors’ expense, or, even discover that the other species the Skaarj have yoked into servitude might be willing to revolt against their masters.
Of course, you wouldn’t want to compromise on the gunplay either. Successive Unreal Tournaments may have refined its arsenal for competitive play, but there was something thrilling about the original game’s smorgasbord of idiosyncratic death-tools. Critically, nearly all of them fired projectiles at a visibly finite speed, turning combat into an intense dance, as you dodged arcing flak shells and tried to land your own rockets before the enemies could roll away. None of that stop-and-pop stuff here, thank you. We want chaotic sandbox combat that shows off the fearsome AI powers of the Skaarj - they shouldn’t be regular enemies, but deadly opponents in command of more dispensable goons, and each one promising a fraught, easily lethal battle. However, I'd petition for them to be redesigned - latter versions of them in Unreal Tournament have made them hulking absurdities, when their principal threat was always their agility. Make them lithe and alien, rather than the toothsome big-foots that populate Gears of War.
That’s the kind of return to Na Pali I want: a sprawling exotic landscape of sky puncturing mountains, forgotten temples and crashed space-hulks. It should demand exploration in the way that only a non-linear game can, and be more about survival and escape than the original’s simplistic motive of messianic destiny. It should build your criminal backstory into its mechanics, making significant the shaky alliances among a motley bunch of castaways, and giving you some choice over the degree to which you get embroiled in the indigenous people’s struggle. It should be as strikingly otherworldly as its name suggests and a game of such scale and ambition that it's remembered long after the tools it was built with. All Epic Games have to do is live up to their name.