Unreal II: The Awakening, the latest entry in the best-selling PC game series, takes something of a novel conceptual approach to the first-person shooter genre. Instead of including both single-and multiplayer modes -- as is customary in other FPSs like ''Quake,'' ''Halo,'' and the original ''Unreal'' -- the designers chose to focus exclusively on the single-player experience. The rationale behind that decision, it seems, is that ''Unreal II: The Awakening'' would feature a uniquely compelling solo-play campaign, woven into an epic science-fiction story.
It should be noted that ''Awakening'''s story bears little resemblance to the tale told by its predecessor, 1998's ''Unreal.'' While both feature the Skaarj, red-eyed aliens who swipe at their prey with Edward Scissorhands-like claws, the similarities end there. The new protagonist is John Dalton, a former Marine who was discharged for insubordination. The game begins when Dalton, currently biding his time as a patrol officer, is dispatched to investigate a distress signal from a distant mining colony.
His journey subsequently takes him to a variety of stunning planets. There's a vast snow-covered outpost, a densely fogged forest, and even the inner sanctum of an alien citadel. All the environments serve as dazzling backdrops for the game's fast and furious action sequences, where you have over a dozen weapons at your disposal. Judged purely on its combat element, ''Unreal II'' is almost flawlessly executed.
But today's story-driven action games need to be about more than just piling up shell casings. Even the creators of the original ''Unreal'' understood that. In one famous sequence from that game, the Skaarj turn out the lights in a room and attack under the veil of darkness. ''Unreal II,'' for all its technical pizzazz, lacks a similar let's-pile-on-the-scares inventiveness. To be fair,there are some goose-bump-raising moments (including one in which Dalton gets trapped in an elevator). But even these sequences lack creative spark; most feel like imitations of what has worked in previous FPSs.
''Unreal II'''s pacing also feels uneven. The game constantly jumps back and forth between scenes of fast-paced action and those that take place aboard Dalton's spaceship. These latter, more story-focused levels (in which you walk around and converse with your crew) are problematic: Once you realize the Skaarj aren't going to attack your ship, these sequences feel removed from the action. More than once, the game builds dramatic tension on the ground, only to have it quickly dissipate as soon as Dalton flies back into the safe haven of his ship. These space sequences help advance the plot, but do little to shed light on Dalton's back story -- as it is, he's mostly reduced to delivering cliched one-liners.
Dalton's laconic nature is fitting, however, since ''Unreal II'' is ultimately defined by its brevity: It can be finished in just over nine hours. A short playtime might have been justifiable if it delivered nonstop action sequences and a pulse-quickening plot. But the game never reaches such dramatic heights, and the exclusion of a multiplayer mode severely limits its long-term value. In the end, ''Unreal II'' does have some admirable qualities, but it also has some very real faults. ''Awakening,'' we have to say, is anything but.