Unreal is free to celebrate its 20th birthday

“Dearest Alice, I do not play video games but fear I am insufficiently aware of my own mortality and am exploring every avenue to remedy that,” begins one of the many letters I received in the post this morning seeking my advice as a reputed expert in the field. “Which gaming platform would most frequently remind me that my youth is so very far behind me and all flesh is grass?”

Well, Margo From Bishop’s Stortford, PC gaming can definitely help you. Observe how the assembled commenters wail, weep, and tug at their scant remaining hairs as I say this simple sentence: Unreal came out twenty years ago today.

“What is Unreal?” Well Margo, right now you can download it for free to see for yourself.

On May 22nd, 1998, Epic MegaGames (a name they should absolutely return to) and Digital Extremes (now best known for Warframe) released Unreal, a first-person shooter about a spaceperp whose prison ship crash-lands on an alien planet, leaving him to shoot some aliens and not shoot others. It was very fancy (and a touch gaudy) at a time when graphics technology was advancing in breathtaking leaps, and our John will tell you “it’s one of my favourite shooters ever.”

Unreal was billed as a “Quake killer” by members of the games press who felt aggrieved because they didn’t have an exciting rivalry like Blur vs. Oasis to stoke, and who had nothing better to do because Twitter took ages to load on dialup.

Multiplayer spin-off Unreal Tournament arrived in 1999, chased by many sequels, and Unreal II: The Awakening followed in 2003.

Ah but Unreal wasn’t just a game, it was also the debut of a game engine which would become the foundation of so very many games. These days, Unreal Engine powers such famed unUnreal games as Playerunknown’s Battlegrounds, Fortnite Battle Royale, Ark: Survival Evolved, Rocket League, Tekken 7, What Remains Of Edith Finch, XCOM 2, 50 Cent: Blood On The Sand… if it’s fancy-lookin’, there’s a fair chance it’s using Unreal Engine.

To celebrate Unreal’s twentieth birthday, Epic are giving Unreal Gold (which includes its expansion) away for free. You can nab it for keepsies from GOG (look for the banner at the top) and on Steam. This giveaway will end at 6pm on Thursday the 24th.

I’d recommend using the fan-made Oldunreal patch, which adds support for newer renderers and other handy technoguts. Oh, and if you just want to revisit Prisoner 849’s old stomping grounds, JP LeBreton’s tourism mod will let you potter unmolested.

What to listen to at this birthday party? Epic point to this tune, a remix by Shivaxi and Xenofish of an unused Unreal soundtrack song by composers Michiel van den Bos and Alexander Brandon.

Play, dance, and be merry, Margo, for tomorrow we die.

p.s. Unreal feels like skating; Quake for life duuudes.


  1. Mister eX says:

    <3 the p.s.

  2. Lumière says:

    The 52 best FPS of all times, accordingly to RPS.

  3. Det. Bullock says:

    At the time I got it with a magazine a few years after it came out. I remember getting bored and disoriented at about half the game I think and abandoning it there. Now that I think about it it wasn’t very common for me to leave a game unfinished which is odd for Unreal because I think I might have beaten far worse stuff back in the day.
    I still have the CD but hey, two free extra digital copies are difficult to ignore.

    • milligna says:

      The whole point was the multiplayer.

    • bill says:

      Some of the levels, particularly the 3rd or 4th one I think, are really boring and disorienting.

      It comes from the Doom era of map-making, where making a symmetrical geometric pattern (that was only seen in the overhead map… which possibly Unreal didn’t have (? memory fails))…
      So you get 4 versions of every room, and they all look the same, and you’re clearing out a room and thinking “did I already clear out this room, or is this a new one?”

      the water temple level was horrendous…

  4. cp3oh says:

    Oh man, I remember playing this in high school and being blown away. The atmosphere, the visuals, the music … the fact that I was occasionally shooting at and being shot by aliens was secondary to the sensory bonanza.

    How I most remember Unreal, though, is it was the first time I think I ever remembering playing a game that got me excited for a altogether different game, which was the as yet unreleased Everquest. I’m not entirely sure how. I think it was the environments were so evocative with their imagery, music and use of space and that it was the first game since Daggerfall to really ignite my sense of adventure. To make me wonder what might lay beyond that in-game wall or beyond the horizon of that skybox.

    The impression has stayed with me all throughout my adulthood. I don’t think I’d want to replay it, though. I prefer the remembered rendition in my mind to the highly dated visuals and gameplay that it is now.

  5. YogSo says:

    “These days, Unreal Engine powers such famed unUnreal games as (…) Warframe”

    I’m sure, considering its developers pedigree, that there are many similarities with the Unreal engine, but Warframe uses its own propietary Evolution Engine.

  6. MattM says:

    I replayed Unreal last year for the first time since it came out. It was surprisingly enjoyable and since newer fps’s have evolved away from the unreal/quake style, Unreal still feels pretty fresh.

  7. A Gentleman and a Taffer says:

    Best. Graphics. Ever.

    • fish99 says:

      The Glide version for 3dfx cards was especially stunning at the time. The OpenGL/DirectX versions have never quite looked as good.

      Unreal was a breath of fresh air compared with the drabness of Quake 1/2. It has so many gorgeous effects and great soundscape too.

  8. Chromatose says:

    There are probably ‘objectively’ better late-90s FPS experiences, but none had the same indelible effect on my young imagination as Unreal. Quake and its sequel may have been more technically proficient and refined, but fuck, Unreal felt alive.

    Definitely going to fire the game back up this week in its honour and go blast some Skaarj with my trusty Eightball.

  9. Darth Gangrel says:

    Clicking on the “Get For Free” button on GOG does nothing, gonna try tomorrow morning or sometime when the site isn’t attacked by hordes of wants-free-game-people. Have it on my GOG wishlist, so that’s one game off one list and into the owned-but-yet-to-play-list.

    • Darth Gangrel says:

      Or perhaps GOG just doesn’t like the Opera browser, because I was able to get Unreal using Google Chrome.

      • bill says:

        Switch to Vivaldi, it’s better (and by one of the old opera founders, before Opera got bought out).

        I have no idea if it’ll fix this particular issue… though I’ve never had a problem grabbing free games on GOG before with it.

  10. mashkeyboardgetusername says:

    I sure I have the disk somewhere, but I’m buggered if I know where. So this is handy.

  11. shitflap says:

    Tourism mod link is broken

  12. Psychomorph says:

    Had a blast with it in the 90’s. Still playing it today! One of the best games made.

    The musical score was brilliant, too. And yes, I’m still listening it, too.

  13. Napalm Sushi says:

    There’s a bit where you emerge from the bowels of a ruined temple into an open canyon, and as you slog to the other end of the canyon you realise that it’s not a geographic feature but a furrow ploughed by the impact of the giant crash-landed spaceship whose stern you are now approaching and whose dead engines loom high above you, their shadow swallowing you. It was a scene of masterfully escalating scale at a time when scale wasn’t really a thing FPSes did, and it’s proven to be one of my most persistent gaming memories.

    • Premium User Badge

      particlese says:

      OH MAN YES

      That does it: I’m going to have to play this for my next nostalgia trip, which is perfect timing since I just finished ye olde 3-episode Doom this past weekend. I was thinking of doing Quake next, and I do still love it, but for me, all its interesting weirdness just doesn’t compare to the memorably wonderful environmental reveals and encounters Unreal had.

      • Napalm Sushi says:

        Expect far less from the combat than from those environments (which are themselves almost certainly benefitting from the old rose-tinteds right about now). I suspect this weakness to be largely down to hardware limitations: while Unreal’s individual enemies were complex adversaries for the time, fighting more like deathmatch bots than conventional NPCs, the cost was that you rarely fought more than one or two at a time, which the game compensated for by making them walking bricks of PCP, rendering each battle a repetitive strafe dance where surprise and environment played minimal roles.

        Honestly, that tourism mod sounds like a good idea, though one that just doubles the lethality of the combat might also do the trick.

  14. TheAngriestHobo says:

    Unreal is free to celebrate its 20th birthday

    Says who? I don’t remember signing off on this. Birthday party denied.

  15. dethtoll says:

    About what it’s worth. I never liked it when it was new; I found it dull and frustrating. I replayed it a few years ago and nothing has changed. It’s like what Quake would have been like if the boys at id Software listened to Radiohead instead of heavy metal.

    I’ll grant that it was really pretty with big, expansive vistas. It also did absolutely nothing with that.

    Good engine, though!

    • Premium User Badge

      particlese says:

      I’d say it seems more like what Quake would have been like had the folks at id listened to the more fantastical strains of symphonic power metal instead of brown things and Trent Reznor: The Musical Genre.

      It is a good engine, too, though, yeah – as is Quake’s!

      • dethtoll says:

        Hahaha, symphonic power metal, really? Unreal isn’t nearly as exciting. At least things happen in symphonic power metal.

      • Napalm Sushi says:

        Prog rock, surely? Whatever you think of the uninspired, bullet-spongey combat, the overall narrative-aesthetic weave is pure space age planetary romance.

  16. Jungle Rhino says:

    The thing I remember most clearly is that Unreal was the first FPS I played that actually had pacing and stoked tension. I recall after crash landing wandering around for quite some time exploring the local environment before entering a fairly standard looking FPS corridor.

    Then all the lights went out.

    Cue pumping techno music and strobe lighting as I almost pooped my 11yr old pants as I encountered my first Skarj!!

    Prior to that moment contemporary FPS’s had simply hurled you straight into the action with monsters and fireballs. Unreal actually had scripting and many cool moments like the one above.

  17. Amstrad says:

    For anyone who hasn’t seen it, Lazy Game Reviews just did a great retrospective about Unreal

  18. Sin Vega says:

    I used to play the bot deathmatch for hours on my cousin’s PC. A year and a bit later, I got Unreal Tournament, which was even better.

  19. Risingson says:

    Thing is, Unreal engine 1 is the engine where I feel the IMMENSITY of the world. It had a treatment of the colours and the lights and the vastness of everything that I don’t think even Halo could reproduce.

    Pity that Unreal the game dragged so much in the later levels.

  20. Turkey says:

    I remember getting a Voodoo card specifically just to play this.

  21. Schnallinsky says:

    oh man. the first game i owned on my new PC i bought with the earnings from my first summer internship. coincidentally this was also the time i got a stereo with a CD player and i bought two CDs, because i liked the covers, not knowing anything about the bands. the one was “Dummy” from Portishead, the other was Pulps “This Is Hardcore”.

    i listened to those two on repeat while playing unreal for weeks and now whenever i listen to a portishead song (pulp is never played anywhere) i’m reminded of unreal.

    “help the aged” is practially my unreal soundtrack.

    • bill says:

      I remember playing FPS while listening to Dummy and Pulp… though it wasn’t unreal.

      I think it was Duke Nukem 3d, though I’m not sure if that lines up chronologically.

      [edit] turns out it does. Dummy: 1994. Dn3D: 1996

  22. Risingson says:

    BTW, female protagonist.

  23. montfalcon says:

    I remember getting Unreal after getting into Unreal Tournament GOTY. It blew me away with its sense of space and mystery. Looking forward to giving it another run.
    Are there any recommendations for quality-of-life mods (hi-res texture packs, widescreen resolutions, UI and text scaling, updated renderers etc)?

Comment on this story

HTML: Allowed code: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>