Why Can’t I Get Into “Unreal”?

It’s not a “Coke vs Pepsi” thing anymore… After the break…

Why Can’t I Get Into “Unreal”?

Coke versus Pepsi.

Atari ST versus Amiga.

VHS versus Betamax.

HD-DVD versus Blu-Ray.

Madonna versus Cyndi Lauper (yeah, that happened).

The General Lee versus KITT (yes, that also happened).

Quake versus Unreal.

These are just some of the rivalries that I’ve witnessed throughout my life. Obscure, personal rivalries as well as large, business-related rivalries. A lot of times, the rivalries are driven by emotion rather than empirical facts. A lot of times, the preference can not help but be subjective as there is not a lot to empirically compare. A lot of times, the rivalry is more in the mind of fans than of the two entities being compared.

I can remember that, once Quake 1 (then known as just “Quake”) debuted on the market, everyone wanted to be the one to develop the first “Quake-Killer,” the first first-person shooter that would make everyone forget about Quake 1. A lot of people wanted that “Quake-Killer” to have been “Unreal 1” (then known as just “Unreal”).

By the time Unreal emerged, Quake 2 had already been made and so it seems a little unfair to compare Quake 1 versus Unreal 1… It is sort of like pitting two boxers against each other but one is in a heavier weight class than the other. Unreal is a few years younger and, by default, a bit more “advanced.” I know that people compared Quake 2 versus Unreal 1 as they were both contemporaries of each other but Quake 2 was a “Quake” in name only; iD software supposedly couldn’t get the license for the name that they had wanted.

The Quake & Unreal series have since gone their separate ways from the earlier days. Unreal pioneered the “Multiplayer” emphasis by unveiling the “Unreal Tournament” series (There was eventually a single-player sequel called “Unreal 2” but, since then, no further single-player efforts). After Quake 2, Quake 3 was also a multiplayer-only title (And, no, multi-player with ‘bots’ is not single-player) before switching back to single-player for Quake 4. Although Quake 1 had it’s engine licensed and eventually open-sourced (along with Quake 2, Quake 3 & Quake 4) to commercial success, it seems like history will be kinder to the later versions of Unreal as that became the engine of choice for smaller and indie game developers.

And yet, I’ve never really completed “Unreal 1” and I’ve never understood why. Of course, when I was younger I could merely state that I had a shorter attention span. So, could I really lend a credible voice to the “Quake versus Unreal” debate if I hadn’t played the entire game of “Unreal 1”?

Having attempted to play “Unreal 1” after many, many years of inactivity, here are my thoughts on the whole “Quake versus Unreal” debate:

  • Unreal’s levels are more “connected” but, sometimes, short levels are good. Unreal’s “levels” were more connected and were made to feel like one continuous (albeit linear) world as opposed to the 28 levels of Quake which all had definitive beginnings and endings and were often starkly different from one another. The disadvantage of Quake’s levels are that there is no feeling of personal progression: You are playing a game and know it and that your actions don’t seem to have much effect in the world. The disadvantage of Unreal’s “levels” is that, sometimes, the levels feel too large and empty… Sometimes, there’s a lot of nothing for nothing’s sake. There is variety and the variety is definitely nice.
  • Unreal has a better story… But not by much. Let’s be honest with ourselves; “Quake 1” has no story. Enter level, shoot stuff, survive until you reach the exit. Get to the next level. Wash, rinse, repeat. Practically by default, Unreal has the better story merely by showing up. However, I was surprised by how little story there was. A lot of the story telling is environmental; You move from the outside surface into the inside and from the inside back to another part of the outside. Along the way, the environment and a few scripted sequences tells the story and yet it’s also not tremendously compelling. A lot of Unreal’s direct storytelling is through small text statements, something that Quake could have easily done.
  • Color… It really does make a difference. I understand that Quake 1 had technical limitations that forced the game to have a “brown and grey” color palette which has since become widely mocked. Yet having different colored textures really does make a difference. The vivid colors of Unreal are attractive and do make the player want to progress further than they would normally go merely based upon the gameplay.
  • Both games suffer from the “So what’s your point?” fatigue. You continue to play a game because it compels you in some way. Likewise, you stop playing a game when you no longer sense any kind of significant benefit from it compared to other activities (gaming or otherwise). The disadvantage of Quake’s levels is that you play the game solely for the combat gameplay and the environmental gameplay is extremely limited. Yet an advantage of Quake’s levels are that they are short. Unreal takes longer to fatigue the player but, once the fatigue has set in, there is the added “drag” of knowing that the levels are longish and connected… Quake is a series of small, soulless sprints but, at the end of the day, they are merely sprints. Unreal is one long marathon and, if you do not like the story of that marathon, you’re stuck with it until the end of the game.

In the end, I don’t believe that the two games were competing against one another directly. Yet I can’t honestly write which one of the games is “better.” They each have their own appealing qualities: Quake 1 has both nostalgia and short levels as it’s advantage while Unreal 1 has more compelling scenery and more environmental gameplay as it’s advantage.

There are few rivalries where there is a clear victor unless that rivalry exists in the business world. Both Unreal and Quake were commercial products but the rivalry was more about the quality of the products than on price or sales figures. Quake versus Unreal is one such rivalry but, in my mind, even a rivalry on the level of artistic merit might be overblown. Fans of gaming ought to appreciate both products for what they are and for what they have been to the first-person shooter community.


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