An Epic Tale

By Alec Meer on March 18th, 2008 at 11:09 am.

Not pictured: the space-boobies Unreal 2 was marketed with

In case you hadn’t noticed yet, Epic’s Unreal back catalogue – so no Gears of War or Jazz Jackrabbit, unfortunately – has cropped up on Steam. This comes just a couple of days after guys-who-enjoy-opening-squillions-of-data-files-in-notepad spotted what they reckoned were references to Epic games in Steam’s guts, causing web rumour mills to spin themselves into a frenzy.

The sheer breadth of the Steam store is becoming faintly (but agreeably) obscene. If EA, Ubisoft and Microsoft ever end up pledging allegiance to it, I foresee the death of Windows. We boot straight into Steam, we play all our games in Steam, we chat with our friends in Steam and we hack its browser to write and read RPS in Steam. Then the entire planet splits into two opposing camps – the Valvemen and the Googlemen – and we fight to the death for which giant monolithic corporation we want to entrust all our personal data to. Maybe.

It’s an interesting move, given how secondary PC gaming has been to Epic’s endeavours of late. And given their involvement with the PC Gaming Alliance, whose main aim seems to be the preservation of plastic-disc-based PC games – prompting this chucklesome moment at GDC:

PC Gamer’s Tim Edwards: “Does the PC even need retail, I mean-”

Epic’s Mark Rein. “YES! Yes.”

(via Jim’s report here).

So it’s great that they’re not ignoring digital distribution. Maybe it’s just because they realised they’d get to say “Unreal deal” if they did. Epic’s Steam discography might superficially seem a relatively small pile of game for a company (once) so closely associated with the PC – three variants of Unreal Tournament, and two Unreals – but it constitutes a neat chronology of graphical advancement over the last decade. If I owned three PCs, I’d have them each running a different UT at once and strafe my head from left to right along the row of monitors, pretending that I’m whizzing through time like some particularly unadventurous Doctor Who.

The whole lot goes for $54 (about 30 of your Britisher groats), or you can pick’n'mix. What I can’t make up my mind on is which will prove most popular – the tried, tested, beloved and multi-modded UT2004 for a mere $14, or the slightly anti-climactic, but pixel-shaded to infinity, eye-delights of UT3 for $45. That’s significantly cheaper than something like Bioshock or Frontlines, but I suspect UT3 dropping to $35ish could well win it the success that has reportedly eluded it thus far – though apparently it’s “shipped” a million copies to date.

Me, I’m oddly tempted to take a look at Unreal 2 again. I really didn’t think much of it first time around, but I’m curious to revisit its shovel-load of overstated, day-glo sci-fi trappings, in context to the gloomy, unified look, terse dialogue and super-polish of their only single-player game since, Gears of War. Are the seeds of GoW’s so-macho, scowling supermen in Unreal 2?

Finally, here’s some token everyone-loves-everyone quotes.

“Epic is a leading developer of game engine technology and has produced some of my favorite games of all time. It’s an honor to be working with them and offering their current and classic titles to the millions of Steam gamers around the world.”
- Gabe Newell, Valve

“Steam is a revolutionary technology that opens up an entirely new way to put our games into the hands of millions of PC gamers around the world. Valve has changed the face of digital distribution for game developers, publishers and consumers, and we are thrilled to be a part of the Steam community.”
Jay Wilbur, Epic Games

I wish Epic Games were still called Epic MegaGames. In fact, I wish every developer employed hyperbolic prefixes. Valve UltraSoftware, The Creative SplendidoAssembly, Relic StrongerThanGodsEntertainment…

, , , .

48 Comments »

  1. Feet says:

    I would fight for Valve if I had to chose. Which would be the losing side I fear, but there it is.

  2. Flint says:

    My favourite Unreal is actually the first one. I love the level design, it had a great atmosphere, the music was excellent (one of my favourite game soundtracks) and instead of this gloomy gorey crap that’s the fad nowadays, it had open-air levels, villages, interesting temples and other similar level types that you rarely see. An updated version of the first game is a concept I drool over – better graphics (so the outdoors bits can make you go WOAH again), refined weapons (reloading, general finetuning because there’s a few guns that are completely pointless) etc.

    Unreal 2 is nice too. It’s not great and I don’t think it’s got anything that makes it a special thing of its own, but it’s a fun game. And it doesn’t ignore the existence of the outside world and sunlight either.

    I’ve played UT2k4 quite a bit with friends but I’m not so overly in love with them, the ADHD megaspeed non-stoprocketspamfest style isn’t the sort of deathmatching I enjoy.

  3. The_B says:

    This is good stuff, but I can’t help feeling now – moreso than ever in fact – that Epic are becoming a many headed hydra, with none of the heads agreeing with each other on anything. If one more member of Epic contradicts something another said then I fear for civil war breaking out.

    Civil War can break out in developer houses, right?

  4. Rook says:

    I’ve seen UT3 in most shops for £10-15 and that’s not even online stores. It’s a shame that steam prices just aren’t as ready to drop as retail is.

  5. Alec Meer says:

    I guess that’s the result of this 1m copies shipped (but presumably not sold). Shops and publishers have physical inventory to get rid of; Steam doesn’t have that problem, so it (or the publishers & devs using it) can wait out discounts for longer.

  6. Theory says:

    Me, I’m oddly tempted to take a look at Unreal 2 again.

    So was I, so I downloaded the demo again. It’s not gotten better with time.

  7. Optimaximal says:

    Please explain how you plan to ‘strafe your head from left to right’… Do you need to have a double-jointed neck or something?

  8. derFeef says:

    So Steam is the saviour for PC Games and Gamers? The only company left with good games is Ubisoft now… Lets do it!

  9. splines says:

    This is met with great enthusiasm, from my quarter.

    Steam is my PC distribution platform of choice, and for good reason.

    Also, Flint, I totally agree. Unreal was a revelation when it hit, considering what we were playing up till then. That time where the corridor goes dark, light after light *cue thumping techno* is still ingrained in my memory as a great moment in game design. Not to mention it was stunning when released.

  10. Seniath says:

    Atari came to Steam last week. Atari currently publish Unreal, Unreal 2, UT and UT2003/4. An odd coincidence, or maybe I’m just being cynical.

  11. Andrew Wills says:

    “We boot straight into Steam, we play all our games in Steam, we chat with our friends in Steam and we hack its browser to write and read RPS in Steam.”

    I dream of this day. And if the rumour mill is anything to go buy, you can add “download our music, tv and films in Steam” to that sentence too.

    All we’d need then is “The Steam Engine”, a portable handheld mobile phone/laptop/music/video/gaming device to keep us entertained/shackled to the internets all day long!

  12. Optimaximal says:

    So Steam is the saviour for PC Games and Gamers? The only company left with good games is Ubisoft now… Lets do it!

    Have you been hibernating or something the last 2 years? Splinter Cell: Double Agent, Resident Evil 4, Silent Hunter 4, Assassins Creed… Good doesn’t really cover their distinct lack of flair, QA and overhyping.

  13. Jim Rossignol says:

    A casual browse suggests that there are still more games on Direct2Drive.

  14. Ging says:

    Of course, if we did boot into Steam, we’d have no way of sorting it out when the Steam guys hit their “break steam completely” button during an update.

  15. Scandalon says:

    I just wish I could “register” my existing copies on steam (by inserting the discs…I still have them somewhere) of Unreal and UT…heck, I’d pay a $5 fee for that. (Er, don’t tell Gabe Newell that last part.)

  16. Mike says:

    Lack of One Must Fall, Jazz and Jill of the Jungle makes this less of ‘An Epic Tale’ and more of ‘An Epic Fail’.

    Zing!

  17. roBurky says:

    “Then the entire planet splits into two opposing camps – the Valvemen and the Googlemen – and we fight to the death for which giant monolithic corporation we want to entrust all our personal data to. Maybe.”

    This sounds awesome. Someone make a game of this.

    I’m imagining headcrabs and striders fighting lolcats and the star wars kid.

  18. Robin says:

    I reinstalled Unreal 2 recently to mock it on the internet. I can’t stand to play it for more than a few minutes at a time (assuming it doesn’t crash). It’s astonishingly bad.

    94% in PC Zone!

  19. Mr Pink says:

    I loved One Must Fall, that was a great game. Less bothered by Jazz Jackrabbit though, did anyone actually play and enjoy that?

  20. Optimaximal says:

    94% in PC Zone!

    I don’t think Zone ever lived that score down. It’s sitting there on their shelf, next to their over-enthusiastic reviews of Double Agent, Black & White and Jon Blyth’s never-ending knob jokes…

    Why do I still subscribe to this mag?

    Less bothered by Jazz Jackrabbit though, did anyone actually play and enjoy that?

    The special stages were great! The Mode-7 graphics came out just as Mario Kart did and kicked it square in the nads!

  21. Flint says:

    I liked Jazz quite a bit, though I only ever played the shareware version. Was fun.

  22. Chris Evans says:

    Unreal 2 wasn’t that bad, I honestly don’t know what everyone has against it. It is a bit like The Club, it does what it does well, but lacks the certain something that makes a game great.

  23. MCHN says:

    It’s not more expensive than Bioshock. That game is $29.95 on steam now. Huzzah!

  24. Jim Rossignol says:

    I’m so writing a defence of Unreal 2, probably.

  25. Ian Dorsch says:

    It’s really not a bad game, it’s just not a revelation like the first Unreal game apparently was for a lot of people. I played it to completion and enjoyed it.

  26. Chris Evans says:

    Jim – do that and you will win…something….

    ¬_¬

  27. dhex says:

    according to steampowered right now, bioshock is 54.95USD and frontlines is 57.95USD!

    what gives?

  28. Turin Turambar says:

    Meh.

    Unreal I was an important game for the time, but it is overrated.

    Unreal 2 was an average shooter, as everyone knows.

    UT, UT2004 and UT3 are good, but you aren’t getting 3 games really, but three versions of the same game, if you know what i mean.

    I don’t think it’s near as good as the Id pack.

  29. Flint says:

    How is the first Unreal overrated? I can more often find people dismissing it than praising it.

    Maybe I’m just walking amongst ignorant fools or something, I don’t know.

    Splines: the moment imprinted in my mind forever is when you first step into the bright, paradise-like outside world after crawling through a spaceship full of death and destruction. It’s still one of my favourite game beginnings. And in general Unreal had a lot of moments where simply entering a new location was an experience of its own.

    I do agree on the darkening corridor bit too though. Very strong moment atmospherically.

    I’d very much find an Unreal 2 defense post highly interesting, btw. Please write it, mr Rossignol.

  30. Optimaximal says:

    I do agree on the darkening corridor bit too though. Very strong moment atmospherically.

    It was great until they raped it in Unreal 2. It had a great start, where the elevator jammed and the like, but then you just got to fight the Skarrj… and there was disappointment.

  31. Mman says:

    “How is the first Unreal overrated? I can more often find people dismissing it than praising it.”

    Agreed, if anything, I’d lean towards it being underappreciated (although that’s namely because Half-Life came out just after its release). There are a lot of subtleties to its backstory (despite it getting slammed as “storyless” at the time), especially considering its time of release, and, while there are a few weaker levels, it also has a few of the best designed levels I’ve seen in a “straight” FPS (or any game, for that matter). Plus it’s very unique and even today there are very few (if any) FPS games that are anything like it (it’s closer to games like System Shock and Deus Ex than most “standard” FPS’).

    I guess I might be interested in an Unreal 2 defense, but its main problem (although even separated from the history of its franchise I’d still consider it a pretty mediocre game) is that it completely removes everything that made the original game so unique.

  32. Shanucore says:

    I played Unreal 2 to completion sometime in 2006, having never played it before. It’s not a great game but I did enjoy the varied environments and enemies, and the *slightly* rational attempt to explain away the steady trickle of new equipment. I even felt a bit sad when one of the characters died!

    Maybe I’m just a sucker for people stomping about in absurd suits of armour, as though they were about to wrassle bears or some such. Plus there were still shades of that first Unreal, which totally blew me away when I bought my first computer in ’97 or ’98. The first time that giant fecker who lobbed rocks showed up… wow. And the stuck door in the prison ship: fantastic.

  33. Nallen says:

    I rushed out and purchased Unreal 2 on release, having listened to all my friends rave about Unreal and basically being unable to see past the (at the time) awesome graphics.

    It blows. Any attempt to defend it stands to make you look like a right pillock. I had the same feeling playing that as I had before you reach Hell in Doom 3 – This is boring.

  34. Jim Rossignol says:

    It does have one of the best twists at the end of an FPS, however.

  35. Flint says:

    I think the ending itself was quite disappointing, though. Maybe I just self-hyped it too much but I constantly had the nagging feeling in my head that the artifact hunting was just a long intro for all hell breaking loose, and when it did, it lasted for a single level and then the credits ran. Whaaaaaat.

    I guess I might be interested in an Unreal 2 defense, but its main problem (although even separated from the history of its franchise I’d still consider it a pretty mediocre game) is that it completely removes everything that made the original game so unique.

    I think that’s a really nice summary of the main thing where Unreal 2 went wrong. It doesn’t feel like Unreal, just another random scifi shooter. And unfortunately not that well-honed one. I do like Unreal 2, but all its good things (the well-written crew you actually cared for, some great levels, one of the sexiest shotguns in FPS gaming) can’t really save it from just not having anything special to grab onto and feeling a bit… sterile.

  36. ohnoabear says:

    Not sure about Jazz Jackrabbit, but One Must Fall’s developer released the game for free a couple of years ago. Still one of the best single-player modes in a fighting game ever. I think you can even play it online (not sure if any of the multiplayer options will work nowadays).

  37. Larington says:

    I self hyped Unreal 2 having read an article (Err, I think in PC Gamer) where it sounded as though you could *choose* which factions/missions you helped out/with and that would have an effect on the last section of the game.

    Which sounded really awesome at the time.

    Then when I played it I discover that in fact, you didn’t choose who you helped – Rather you simply got told which missions you were doing. Found that to be a rather big dissapointment.
    That said, I did really enjoy the sections of the game where you ordered some grunts into positions, setup some defences and held off groups of enemies even if the selection of where to put guys tended to be a bit obvious and lacking in flair.
    So it certainly had its moments, but it just doesn’t live up to the awesomeness that was Unreal. And Unreal 1 suffered from the system shock effect (IE, its thunder was stolen by bigger hit released at around the same time).

  38. terry says:

    I’m astonished…nay, outraged by the lack of Epic Pinball.

    Edit: (Not really.)

  39. Mickiscoole says:

    I love valve and steam, but only for its game management, community and patching features, but I’m more of a retail buyer and will probably will stay that way.

  40. Kadayi says:

    I quite enjoyed Unreal 2 (though I never did finish it) the squad AI wasn’t too shoddy and the levels were ass huge IIRC. I gave it away in a clear out a while back, but must admit I’m quite tempted to fork out for it again.

  41. Shanucore says:

    “It blows. Any attempt to defend it stands to make you look like a right pillock.”

    Pish. The purpose of a game is, as a bare minimum, to provide entertainment to the player. This comment thread alone clearly demonstrates that Unreal 2 managed that for a fair few players.

    Accusations of mediocrity are fair, but to accuse it of being far worse than that will require a little more than mud-flinging.

    I’m looking forward to Jim’s retrospective take on the game.

  42. Jim Rossignol says:

    What was most interesting to me was that the preview of the game I saw the year before the release of the game had a much more flesh-out world. It’s clear that loads of stuff had to be trashed to get the game out of the door. I recall Mike Verdu abandoning ship towards the end of U2′s development, so I wonder if the ultimate failure of the game was down to studio mismanagement, or a lack of cash.

  43. KingMob says:

    The Valvemen are obviously a sort of steam-punk influenced army. What do the Googleites look like? I imagine some sort of Northern Californian nature-loving hippies that recruit giant brown bears and so on.
    Yes, steampunk versus bioorganic weaponry. I will play this.

    Wait, and keep Microsoft to be the leftover vanilla human race, or are they so outmoded and dull no one can imagine playing as them, like the humans in Universe at War?

  44. Nachshon says:

    If it comes down to Valve v. Google, I pledge allegiance to Valve Software.

  45. PHeMoX says:

    The Unreal 1 soundtrack is indeed one of the best. Too bad I don’t have it anymore.

  46. Aubrey says:

    Larington: Yeah, the tower defense bits were inspired! By tower defense!

    No but seriously. They were the high points, for sure. Some of the bioshock level design reminded me of it, like the part in arcadia where people are busting down the doors to get into the lab, and you can prepare by rigging the room with various traps.