The good news is that Unreal--the most anticipated computer game of the year--is truly unreal to play and behold. The bad news is that it was designed for hard-core gamers with high-end systems. Though the game requires a 166MHz Pentium computer with 16MB of RAM, I still had some problems playing it on a 233MHz Pentium MMX with 32MB of RAM, and even some slight hiccups with a 266MHz Pentium II.
Unreal (Epic/GT; $55) pushes the technological envelope for first-person shooter games, taking its place in a long line of blast-and-kill classics like Doom, Quake, Duke Nukem 3D and their sequels. It's a gorgeous-looking game with loads of great features, but it also requires a hefty system. You need at least 337MB of free disk space, and 3-D video and sound cards to enhance the immersion of the game.
So is it worth upgrading for? That depends on how much a fan of action games you are. Unreal's alien worlds are astounding, with double suns shining over vast plateaus, birds soaring in the distance, and waterfalls churning you away from their power. Epic tried to provide more of a story to the game; the idea is that you're an escaped prisoner, locked up for a murder you didn't commit. Before you start, you choose among various characters to play, both female and male, with looks ranging from clean-cut to punk rock.
You receive transmissions via a hand-held communicator, but they get tiring after a few levels. The basic game-play is the same as all shoot-'em-ups: Get weapons and ammo, and shoot the monsters. More interesting are the slaves you release, who follow you around and point out secret passages. In the outdoor levels, you can regain your health by eating certain plants, a nice holistic touch.
But single-player games are only the beginning. You can play over the Internet or modem-to-modem. And you can play against computer-generated opponents. There are cooperative and team games, as well as an interesting "darkmatch" game in which you battle in the dark with a flashlight or flares.
Oh, and then there's the monsters. Unreal's monsters are incredibly smart. They come at you from random angles and have the artificial intelligence to know to dive away from your fire. And they are so graphically complex that when you encounter them, your computer will often lock up or hiccup. Use lower graphics and sound settings to avoid these problems.
For the hands-on gaming fan, there's a level editor included, which lets you design your own worlds. Already, sites like http://www.unreal.org have popped up with downloadable player-designed levels to stretch the game's life even further.
Though Unreal doesn't really break out of the action, first-person shooter genre, it sums up all the advances of the past few years and will satisfy anyone looking for eye-popping graphics and heart-pounding game-play. Just be sure your computer has enough horsepower.
If you get stuck while playing, try these special cheats:
* Hit the tab button and type "allammo" to get ammo for every weapon.
* Hit Tab and type "fly" for zero gravity so you can soar around a level.
* Hit Tab and type "god" so monsters can't harm you.
* Hit Tab and "behindview 1" to watch from a third-person viewpoint, Tomb Raider style.
Mark Glaser is a writer and critic, reachable at email@example.com.