Unreal turns 20 today. It remains a classic and one of the most important first-person shooters ever developed.

Unreal was a narrative and atmosphere rich shooter pre-Half-Life. The game was developed by Epic Games when they were “Epic Megagames,” and released May 22, 1998 for the PC and Mac. It was never ported to consoles.

In Unreal, you play as prisoner #849, who is being transported to a penal colony aboard the space freighter Vortex Rikers. The ship crash lands on an uncharted planet after being pulled into its gravitational field, and you start the game in the wreckage of the ship. It’s filled with horror: you hear screams in the distance, and see dead bodies throughout. The Skaarj, an alien species, have breached the Vortex Rikers and slayed most of the surviving crew.

You quickly forget the death-filled, cramped confines of the Vortex Rikers once you walk onto the surface of the planet, Na Pali, at Nyleve’s Falls. Stepping out into the open for the first time in Unreal is a breathtaking experience. When I played the game back in 1998, I knew it was a special game as soon as I walked out of the crashed ship. The visuals were stunning. The look had given the game its title, of course: the graphics are unreal.

This was a beautiful scene to take in.

Unreal was about more than awesome graphics. As you go along, you use a Universal Translator that allows you to read the journal entries left behind by human victims on the planet, logs left by the Skaarj and their mercenaries, and writings left by the planet’s natives, the Nali. These logs were effective narrative tools for adding story to an FPS game. Scripted sequences, in-game cutscenes, and conversations between NPCs would have interrupted the flow of the game’s action and the feel of its isolated, lonely atmosphere. Reading log entries fit right in.

Central to the game’s story is the menace the Skaarj pose to the Nali. The Skaarj are forcing the Nali to mine tarydium, a valuable resource in the planet, and have compromised most of the Nali’s villages and temples. In some of the Nali writings you read, you pick up on the idea that you are seen as a savior, as had been foretold. It’s an interesting part of the backstory and makes you feel more than a surviving prisoner trying to escape this planet.

Unreal’s environments range from cramped facilities to open valleys, like Noork’s Elbow.

There are three major atmosphere types in the original Unreal: facility-like wrecked human ships or Skaarj constructs, ancient temples of the Nali, and wide open outdoor areas. Each environment has its own style of music and design. The Rrajigaar mines are cramped and have an industrial sounding music track; the Temple of Vandora is dark and eerie and has an exotic, choir voice, drum, and bell-laden track; Spire Village is stretched far out and expansive, and has a rustic sounding music track. These different environments give Unreal’s adventure a variety, so despite the game being long, it never becomes too repetitive. You’re always reaching a new kind of area to explore.

The Temple of Vandora is one of my favorite levels.

The arsenal lends the game variety as well, and was more exotic than those of its FPS contemporaries. There’s the ASMD rifle, which allows you to fire either waves or an energy ball. There’s the Razorjack, that allows you to cut enemies’ heads off with if you aim just right. There’s the delightful Flak Cannon, with two firing modes – one that shoots a spread of flak and another that lobs a ball – that make it very powerful, like a super shotgun. Even the game’s rocket launcher, or the “Eightball Launcher”, is odd, with a grenade alternate fire and the ability to save up to six shots to fire at once.

Unreal was a step apart from and ahead of its FPS contemporaries, and has remained a classic. Does it have any shortcomings?

Well, one. Some of the later maps in the game are not as fun to play.

I can lay out five sections to Unreal: the game’s start through Dark Arena, Harobed Village through the ISV-Kran levels, Spire Village through Outpost 3J, Velora Pass through Demonlord’s Lair, and then the mothership levels. The first three sections are great, each with solid maps. The last two are uneven, and have a few throwaway maps. The game could have done with tightening and cutting down.

The Skaarj mothership levels are confusing to navigate, with several dark areas, or segments that just don’t make sense. There’s one level with nothing but a big room and waves of monsters; right after this is a “level” that’s just a short scripted sequence; and just before the mothership there’s an out-of-place and anticlimactic boss fight against a “demonlord” and a short, mostly dark and totally throwaway level called “Demoncrater.” These maps are tedious and pale when compared to earlier ones, even if they retain the game’s cool atmospheric vibes.

The Skaarj Mothership levels aren’t as great as the rest.

Aside from the uneven later levels, Unreal is a masterpiece, and a classic first-person shooter. If you haven’t played it, I highly encourage you to purchase Unreal Gold off GOG or Steam. It’s $9.99 and includes the original game, all patched up, and the mission pack, Return to Na Pali. As today is the 20 year anniversary of the game, it’s a highly appropriate time to buy and play it if you haven’t.

It’s also highly appropriate time for longtime fans to replay it, which I’m doing plenty of. Check out some of my play in GameLuster Plays Unreal.

Did you play Unreal back in the day? Do you consider it a classic? Maybe you’ve never played it? Either way, we’d love to hear from you, so let us know in the comments section below!