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Full Tilt: Unreal — and the industry-altering Unreal Engine — at 20

Contributed by
Apr 30, 2018

Welcome back to SYFY WIRE's Full Tilt, where we mark the 20th anniversaries of some of the most entertaining and influential video games of all time.

The video game industry has made some miraculous advancements over the past two decades, with near photo-realistic graphics, jaw-dropping cinematics, and compelling long-form storytelling tactics that rival and surpass most anything offered by Tinseltown.

One of these monumental leaps came 20 years ago with the introduction of the Unreal Engine, a powerful graphics interface and integrated tools created by Epic MegaGames for game designers and development studios that was a massive, much-needed injection of realism.

The hi-octane graphics engine was introduced and showcased in the first-person shooter that bore its name, Unreal, which hit the market 20 years ago today on April 30, 1998, for Windows and Mac OS. The digital powerplant behind this best-selling sci-fi adventure title is considered to be the most widely-used, successful game engine ever, and even won a Guinness World Record. With Unreal Engine's debut, a new era of immersive gaming was forged, delivering an unprecedented level of detailed magic to an industry that was flatlining with a lack of any next-generation advances.

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At the time it was a revolutionary leap for video games, marking the emergence of the most mindblowing 3D engine ever created and offering exceptional colored lighting accents, detailed texturing, and ultra-realistic environmental effects.

The Unreal Engine was designed by Epic Games' Tim Sweeney and this premiere game showcasing its bells and whistles sold over a million copies. Within one year of its release, Sweeney's Unreal technology was being deployed in over 16 projects, including such classic titles as Deus Ex and Duke Nukem Forever.

"The big goal with the Unreal technology all along was to build up a base of code that could be extended and improved through many generations of games," Sweeney said in a 1998 interview with Maximum PC.  

"Meeting that goal required keeping the technology quite general-purpose, writing clean code, and designing the engine to be very extensible. The early plans to design an extensible multi-generational engine happened to give us a great advantage in licensing the technology as it reached completion. After we did a couple of licensing deals, we realized it was a legitimate business. Since then, it has become a major component of our strategy."

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Gameplay for Unreal was centered around Prisoner 849, a human onboard the interstellar prison ship, Vortex Rikers. While transporting convicts to a moon-based penitentiary, the ship crashlands on the uncharted planet of Na Pali. This world is home to a species of tribal, quad-armed humanoids called the Nali, whose people have been enslaved by an advanced reptilian race called the Skaarj. These savage smart-lizards storm the downed spaceship and slaughter everyone except Prisoner 849, who escapes with a single salvaged weapon.

Na Pali's richest treasure is "Tarydium," a rare, blue crystalline mineral that possesses a potent energy yield; the Skaarj are well aware of its valuable qualities. Prisoner 849 explores the Tarydium mines and processing facilities built by the Skaarj, encountering Nali slaves and finally discovering the ruins of Nali temples and former settlements.

More than anything, Unreal was a powerful shot of credibility for a quickly-expanding market that signaled a profound change in the way FPS games such as Quake and Doom were presented and perceived by the maturing gaming community. The Unreal Engine became the driving force behind a stellar roster of all-time favorite franchise games such as Bioshock, Bioshock 2, Dishonored, Gears of War, Injustice: Gods Among Us, Injustice 2, Mass Effect, Transformers: Fall of Cybertron, Mortal Kombat X, and Rocksteady's Batman: Arkham Asylum, Arkham City, and Arkham Knight.

Epic's Unreal Engine was developed predominantly for first-person shooters, although various iterations have been integrated into a wide range of other gaming genres like RPGs, stealth titles, survival horror, combat-style fighting games, and MMORPGs.

Written in C++ and engineered over the course of two years, the Unreal Engine was unleashed in 1998 as a ground-breaking tool for game developers. It contained a high degree of portability and adaptability still being used today in its current generation, Unreal 4.

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Unreal Engine 4 is the most recent version of Sweeney's revolutionary game engine and for the past decade, its fingerprints can be seen across digital amusements for every major gaming platform from Windows, macOS and SteamOS, to PS4, Xbox One, and Nintendo Switch.

This rule-smashing, industry-altering code has been injected into a killer catalog premier games rolling out over the past few years or upcoming like Tekken 7, Gears of War 4, Kingdom Hearts 3, Marvel vs Capcom: Infinite, Dead Island 2, Absention, Crackdown 3, and Robo Recall for the Oculus Rift system.

As million-dollar flagship titles stamped with the Unreal Engine logo continue to roll out in the next decade, revealing even more retina-pleasing imagery, it's important to raise a cheer for the progenitor of all the wizardry and to play the original Unreal (or its seven sequels and spinoffs) to see how far we've truly evolved.