Let's cut to the chase: Unreal II is Max Payne set in space. Both feature groundbreaking graphics for the time of release, both will hit you with some exhilarating firefights, and both are criminally short- they can be completed in just over a week.
I nearly forgot the cliché-ridden storylines, but Max Payne uses comic book techniques and film-noir voiceover to make something new out of what could have been a weak and paper-thin background. Unreal II, does not. You can't skip the cut-scenes, which means you are forced to endure the story in all its hackneyed glory, involving the multiple pieces of an ancient artifact which will of course, be recombined at the end of the game with predictably hell-breaking-loose consequences. Using names like Severnaya brings back shades of Goldeneye, and the Drakk were a Babylon 5 villian albeit spelt with an “h”. This just underlines the unoriginality of the storyline.
The designers have taken the realistic route with the main character's heavy armour, the slow movement meaning that on most occasions you have to fight whatever attacks or run and gun as best as you can when exiting a level after getting the artifact. Alien weapons complement the set you are introduced to in training. You get one free at the start but then the rest are built (and in the case of the better handgun, donated) by one of your crewmates. The assault rifle's ammunition makes a movie-style ricochet noise when attacking armoured enemies or the Skaarj, indeed the sound effects match the graphics. Until the shotgun and sniper rifle arrive this tends to be all you need. Later on you will also be able to mount automated gun emplacements and forcefields to defend a base area, either solo or with Marines. When having to direct a team and hold a section of the map against attack, these are the rare rewarding moments in the game that don't involve sub-Serious Sam melee attacks among the amazing eye candy.
Bringing back bosses for the end of the levels involving major exploration would have been a fresher move if you weren't helped out by the landscape every time- there's always some cover to find from which point the boss is easy to bump off.
As the game progresses the levels take on an AVP2 feel, except that these levels are populated by robots that are repaired if you don't destroy them within ten seconds. These, along with the Skaarj and the final monster, provide the only real challenge in the game. Once you run to the end and reflect on the end credits, if you play it in one final long stretch maybe you'll feel satisfied. Unreal Tournament 2003 provides multiplayer, meaning unless you want to design your own levels or wait for veteran Unreal mappers to take a break from multiplayer (you'll have to wait, since the last three versions of the editor aren't compatible with each other)- Unreal 2 becomes trade-in fodder.
Treat it as another throwaway FPS and you'll be fine- but it's a lost opportunity, As we now know Devastation and Breed fared little better, the former being a rush-released disaster needing a large patch and the latter only really having looks and a low price on its side. The PC Halo conversion, although technically shaky in places, made a more lasting mark and a better experience than all three.
From Spring 2004 in the UK, Unreal II and Unreal Tournament 2003 have been shipped in a box set. You still have to download the XMP add-on and bonus map pack to play capture the artifact, another lost opportunity when the Xbox version shipped together with both modes and also lets you play co-op.