My plans to play Planescape last night were unexpectedly turned on their head thanks to my friend Jamie who I'd traded my copy of System Shock 2 with for Unreal 2. When I got home, a suspiciously DVD-sized package with Scottish stamps was waiting on the doormat, so I rushed off to install it, after making dinner (one of my trademark chillies).
I had, of course, heard all the horror stories about how bad it was, and how PC Zone had sold out big time to get the exclusive - naturally I wanted to see if they were right, but I wasn't going to fork out £35 to find out. Since I'd never really gotten into SS2, and never play it anymore - hearing that Jamie was after a copy, I negotiated a trade. I'm not sure yet who got the better deal - only time will tell.
I only managed to get in an hour or two on the game last night, and rather frustratingly, it seemed like half of that was watching fairly banal cutscenes and immersion smashing loading screens. The loading times are absolutely glacial. Understandable perhaps, given the quality of the textures, but nonetheless no less irksome.
Unreal 2 is pretty - you have to give it that - the new Unreal engine, given a P4 processor and a GeForce 4 Ti4600 looks positively gorgeous, and the frame rate doesn't suffer too much even at high detail in 1024x768 resolution. For looks the game can't be faulted, and this is exemplified by the lovely Aida.
The rendering of Aida is a triumph of modern 3D modelling. Her breasts alone give entirely new meaning to the phrase *bump mapping*. Thankfully, the developers have at least attempted to give her some personality beyond her anti-aliased arse. Aida has a bitter and cynical edge to her, and her sarcasm and cynicism is a refreshing move away from type for a character who's essentially just there to provide a bit of eye-candy. She even has a nice voice, too.
Unfortunately, the rest of the cast rather let the side down - Issak is a bit of a clichéd hard-bitten-recovering-addict personality, and is totally unexceptional - nothing we've not seen before - and Ne'Ban is the classic outsider-trying-to-fit-in-but-making-a-complete-hash-of-it type. And the protagonist himself, Dalton, is the wronged-hero-striving-for-redemption. At least he's not the usual All White All American Hero. Nice to see a developer going for a bit of ethnic diversity in it's main characters.
After sitting through half a dozen loading screens and a couple of cutscenes, we finally get to the action - such as it is. The level design thus far is solid, if uninspired, lacking the grandeur of some of the UT2003 levels. The weapons too, aren't great - the aptly named Popgun is as throughly useless as most other pistols in FPS games, bar the fact this one doesn't run out of ammo. The CAR assault rifle is nice, though the alternate fire lacks punch, and the grenade launcher, like the one in AvP, is too dangerous to use at close quarters, and too unwieldy and imprecise to aim at medium range. Why did they bother, then? The alien shock lance is a barely disguised UT Shock Rifle, only lacking the power and accuracy.
Fingers crossed things will pick up later - I particularly want to get my hands on the flamethrower.
Thus far I'm a couple of levels in - having retrieved the first artifact from the Sanctuary mining base - and I've only met two types of enemy; Izarian grunts and the odd Skaarj. Again, not very impressive, though I did have a nice Aliens-style moment when I was playing hide-and-seek under the floor of the reactor control room with a Skaarj above me.
Unfortunately, there haven't been enough moments like that for a couple of hours play, and the rest of the combat feels lightweight and not especially tactical. What's annoying is seeing the Skaarj leap and roll about, avoiding fire, when you can't do the same thing, lumbering about like a flat-footed elephant. I'll have to try enabling the UT style dodging, but since Dalton's movement rate is so slow, (the running pace is more like walking, and the walking pace is more like crawling) I wonder what difference it'll really make.
The jury is still out on this one - I need to get further into the game to really pass a final judgment - but everything so far points to a highly polished, yet utterly uninspiring experience. It's not a bad game by any means, but it fails to be exceptional in any way, bar the sumptuous graphics engine.