The Unreal franchise is one the most impactful FPS series ever created. This franchise is very personal to me. My cousin gifted me with Unreal Gold on Christmas when I was either 10 or 11 years old, so this would have been Christmas of 2002 or 2003. I spent countless hours playing this game and I enjoyed Unreal Gold so much that I ended up getting Unreal Tournament 1999 soon after. Later on I purchased Unreal Tournament 2004 and I went to Best Buy in 2007 or 2008 to pick up Unreal Tournament 3. I got so interested in the Unreal series that I even began playing with the map editor and learning quite a bit about level design and how to use Unreal Editor. Some of my knowledge from these old Unreal Editor map editors transferred over to Unreal Engine 4, which I have been playing with on a frequent basis. My cousin thought he just handed me a decent PC game CD all those years ago, but little did he know that he impacted my life. Currently one of my hobbies designing games and levels in the Unreal Engine.
The Unreal franchise was created by Epic Games and contains the following games:
Unreal (1998) – This was for Mac and PC. It had singleplayer, co-op, botmatches and multiplayer. There was also a 1999 expansion pack called Return to Na Pali. The expansion and initial release were bundled as the Unreal Gold package. This used the Unreal 1 engine.
Unreal Tournament (1999) – This was the birth of the Unreal Tournament series which focuses more on multiplayer than single player, which is the opposite of the regular Unreal series. Unreal Tournament had botmatches and multiplayer. The singleplayer entailed competing against bots on the multiplayer maps, so it isn’t a traditional campaign. Unreal Tournament is available for PC, Linux, Mac, DreamCast and Play Station 2. It was also powered using the Unreal 1 engine. There was a 2001 bundle called Totally Unreal that combined Unreal, Unreal Return to Na Pali and Unreal Tournament.
Unreal Tournament 2003 (2002) – Unreal Tournament 2003 was released in late 2002 and used the all new Unreal 2 engine. It had botmatches and online multiplayer but added newer game modes such as an Invasion co-op mode and the bombing run game type. This was released for PC, Linux and Mac.
Unreal Championship (2002) – A couple months after the release of Unreal Tournament 2003, Unreal Championship was released and it was very similar to UT2003, however this was an Xbox exclusive. It also used the Unreal Engine 2. It was a Xbox Platinum Hit and ended up being the perfect game for showcasing Xbox Live multiplayer.
Unreal II The Awakening (2003) – This was a singleplayer focused game, but later on had a downloadable expansion pack for multiplayer. It also used the Unreal 2 engine and was available for Xbox and PC. The multiplayer had vehicles, which was a first for the Unreal franchise.
Unreal Tournament 2004 (2004) – This game was powered by the Unreal 2 engine and was released in 2004. It was available for the PC, Linux and Mac. This was also primarily multiplayer focused and had 10 game types and over 100 maps. There were turrets and many drive-able/flyable vehicles. The OST had over 50 songs. The weapon count was also very high at 18. This resulted in Unreal Tournament 2004 being the most content heavy release of the entire series.
Unreal Championship 2 – The Liandri Conflict (2005) – In 2005 Epic Games released another Xbox exclusive. This time there were both third person and first person camera options. It separated itself from the rest of the Unreal series by emphasizing more on melee too. This entry was also powered by the Unreal 2 Engine.
Unreal Tournament 3 (2007) – This game used the all new Unreal 3 Engine and was released in 2007 for PC and Play Station 3, then later was ported to the Xbox 360 in 2008. UT3 had much improved visuals with the new version of Unreal Engine, however the art style did feel a bit too similar to Gears of War according to many players. UT3 built upon Unreal Tournament 2004 and also emphasized the use of vehicles in large terrain maps. The map count was decreased from the 2004 series entry, however this game was critically received well and was considered a great entry for the series.
Unreal Tournament (TBD/RIP)– Using the new Unreal Engine 4, Epic Games began working on a new entry to the series in 2014. Unfortunately most of the devs have been reassigned to working on Fortnite and the development was officially abandoned in 2018. You can still download and play it for free. However it is an incomplete product that contains very few game types and very few completed maps. The community still made several maps. So far it has been a huge disappointment. Unreal games usually showcased the Unreal Engine capabilities and were considered Epic Game’s flagship product. Us fans can only hope that Epic Games is secretly working on a future Unreal entry.
Now that we established the history we can dive into what made Unreal historically significant in the gaming world.
Unreal games obviously always use the Unreal Engine. This is one of the most advanced and popular game engines in the world. Hundreds of games have been powered by the Unreal Engine, whether it be PC or console games. Usually the Unreal Engine offers some of the best graphical abilities and ease of use. In 1998 Unreal 1 was the first game to use the Unreal Engine (what a shocker). At the time no other game could compare to these visuals. In 1999 Unreal Tournament also put the first Unreal Engine to great use and had more vibrant colors.
The Unreal 2 Engine powered many games, but Epic Game’s own Unreal Tournament 2004 took the spotlight. It allowed huge terrains to be rendered flawlessly and the weapon effects looked top notch. The characters and weapons were very detailed. It was also well optimized, at the time even somewhat average hardware could play 32 player Onslaught matches on a huge terrain map with many players launching rockets at vehicles all on the screen at once without major frame rate drops.
Unreal Engine 3 was used in many famous titles that are known for groundbreaking visuals including Mass Effect, BioShock, Unreal Tournament 3 and the Gears of War series. Many gamers hold the opinion that Gears of War is the best looking game on the Xbox 360. Unreal Engine 3 powered dozens of PC, Xbox 360 and Play Station 3 games. It had many features and could be optimized for cel shading cartoonish styled games including Borderlands. It could handle large open world cities such as Batman Arkham Knight. Unreal Engine 3 also had great destructible objects as shown in Stranglehold which is a little known game, but did offer impressive destructible environments were nearly every level decoration could be destroyed.
Unreal Engine 4 massively improved workflow with its superior terrain editor and offers updated destructible environment options in the latest 4.23 release of the engine. Unreal Engine continues to be a popular choice for top titles including Borderlands 3, Crackdown 3 and the upcoming Final Fantasy VII remake. It is also used in the latest Unreal Tournament that was unfortunately put on pause, so it isn’t a great demo for the engine in the way that prior Unreal Engine release were. However, even in it’s limited demonstration in an abandoned project, it still looks great. Beautiful rendering, optimization and effects.
One of the best aspects of prior Unreal titles is that the Unreal games included the Unreal editor. This allowed the community to make mods and maps for the games. Epic Games also released the Unreal Engine 3 in a package called UDK (Unreal Developer Kit) that was free for anyone to download. There is also the Unreal Engine 4 that can be downloaded for free with the Epic Launcher installation. The newer engines are so easily accessible now that they are completely free, but of course if you release a game a royalty percentage rightfully belongs to Epic Games.
The editor is fairly easy to learn and use. There is a helpful community who makes tutorials and guides on the forums, YouTube and various Unreal dev community sites. Even Epic Games releases some tutorials. I myself learned from other map creators by reading their tutorials and watching YouTube videos.
The Unreal community has been one of the strongest communities. There are thousands of custom maps available for Unreal 1, Unreal Tournament 1999, Unreal Tournament 2003, Unreal Tournament 2004 and Unreal Tournament 3. Not only are there thousands of maps, but there are thousands of mods available, even some total conversions that have been made into stand alone release titles such as Red Orchestra.
Many of the mods can be found on Moddb at moddb.com and the custom maps can be found on MapRaider at mapradier.com
The Unreal Tournament franchise always has both a great number of maps with each release and great map theme diversity. Other FPS franchises commonly launch with 8-12 maps, meanwhile Unreal Tournament games launch with 50+ maps and then get free updates from Epic with extra maps. Many other franchises stick to just one theme such as space, hell or war torn zone maps. However in this series there are quality maps with every theme. If you are in the mood to see sand, snow, green grass, urban environments, space themed maps or futuristic maps; these are all always options included with the game. Almost every genre or theme of map that you can dream of is included right out of the box. There are large terrain maps, low gravity outer space environments and small crowded indoor maps for all play styles.
Unreal games have unique sound tracks with all original music. The music is memorable and is of a wide variety. Orchestra songs, techno songs, slow music, fast music and more. The music is so epic that Wal Mart used to sell the OST CDs of Unreal games. These soundtracks are often 2 – 3 hours long. With all of the thousands of musical artists in the world, I still find myself often listening to Unreal OSTs quite often while working. Even right now while writing this article I am listening to the Unreal Tournament 2004 soundtrack. These aren’t generic and forgettable songs that you hear in the back of a game. These are electronic/instrumental masterpieces that stick with you for life.
Instead of generic variations of assault rifles all firing standard bullets, Unreal has futuristic fictional weapons that are unlike any other game’s arsenal. Each weapon feels different and is specialized for one combat scenario. Each weapon has multiple firing modes and sometimes can be combined. Once Unreal 1 established the weapon line up they stayed around for most of the series.
Some noteworthy examples would be the Ripper (Razorjack), Rocket Launcher, ASMD Shock Rifle, Redeemer, and the Pulse Rifle (Link Gun). There are other weapons too such as the Enforcer Pistol, Minigun. Bio Rifle and Sniper Rifle. However the first list happens to be the most unique.
The Ripper – Can fire discs that bounce off of walls and they hurt enemies and if the disc bounces into an enemies head, they are decapitated.
The Rocket Launcher – Can load up multiple rockets at a time or can fire single rockets at a higher pace. You can also use the alternative fire mode to lob the rockets out and bounce them off the ground to act as grenades.
The ASDM Shock Rifle – You can fire an instant hit plasma beam with the primary fire mode or you can fire a slow moving projectile plasma orb. If you fire a slow moving orb and then shoot a plasma beam into the orb, it causes a larger scale plasma explosion. You can perfectly link together the primary and alternative fire mode.
The Link Gun – This is a rapid fire plasma bolt gun when using in the primary fire mode. The alternative fire mode is a long continuous energy beam that can either damage enemies or be used to repair vehicles.
The Redeemer – This is a portable nuclear warhead. You can either directly fire it and it explodes on impact where you aimed it. Or you can remote control the Redeemer warhead. The nuclear explosion sometimes clears a third of the map size.
This next mention isn’t part of my initial list of what made the series great, but it is noteworthy. The character selection is phenomenal because there are so many different types of character designs to choose from. I can’t include this in the list, since there are so many games with a great character selection such as old school fighting games. However it is worth a mention because Unreal Tournament games often allow the player to select between male humans, female humans, aliens, robots and cyborgs. Often the armor style varies greatly between the human characters too.
This is why the Unreal franchise has a one of a kind legacy. This level of weapon design is rare. The ability to easily create and download thousands of custom maps is a seamless process. The amount of maps and variety of map design is unmatched. The soundtracks contain songs that I will remember for life. Hopefully Epic Games decides to continue one of the most influential series in the history of gaming.