For years, Epic Games has been synonymous with pushing the envelope of first person shooters. Constantly redefining the concept of Deathmatch, Capture The Flag and other multiplayer modes, Epic’s Unreal series has focused on fast, addictive gameplay along with tons of extras to keep fans fragging till the wee hours of the morning. Their latest title, bearing slight influence from Epic’s recent partnership with Midway, not only measures up to their previous games, it actually surpasses it in some ways. Grab your weapons and run for cover, because it’s time to return to the arena in Unreal Championship 2: The Liandri Conflict.
Other titles in the Unreal franchise have focused on some aspect of gameplay to augment or feature in some centralized way. Unreal Tournament centered itself around the multiplayer experience. UT 2004 centered itself around a ton of maps and including vehicles. UC2 offers what can be considered a possible glimpse into the evolution of the first person shooter genre thanks to the inclusion of melee combat. In previous shooters, battering your opponents was a simple afterthought or a desperation move designed to stun enemies that got too close. In UC2, hand-to-hand combat is a viable attack strategy that can be just as destructive as a well placed flak cannon round.
Part of this is due to the responsive camera perspectives of the game. Players have the option to train their guns on their targets in the traditional first person mode or switch to the “over the shoulder” third person perspective, which is specifically included for melee fighting. Leaping back and forth between the two viewpoints is performed at the touch of a button, and the change is nearly instantaneous to keep you in the in-game action. What’s more, changing perspectives can reveal surrounding threats that you might not see, such as enemies creeping up behind you. You can also lock in and target any enemy, keeping your foe in your sights wherever they go.
Every character has swords, staves or other edged weaponry, which you can perform light spin attacks or strong power strikes on opponents. You’re also provided a jumping attack which covers a large distance and can inflict a great deal of damage. Fortunately, you can also use your hand weaponry to shield yourself from incoming attacks, and even reflect incoming fire from enemies. This can potentially give you enough of an opportunity to counterattack your opponent, scoring a kill. What’s more, landing a combo with your melee weapon can stun your enemy, giving you the opportunity to land a coup de grace, a “fatality” style attack that instantly kills the target. However, you have a short amount of time to enter a button sequence to trigger this killing blow before your enemy is released from their paralysis. To further balance out the ranged vs. melee system, each character is limited before matches to one energy weapon and projective weapon of their choice. Gone now are the frantic sprints for certain weapons; you’re now “stuck” with the load out you chose before you entered the arena, picking up ammunition to replenish your depleted rounds.
Like other Unreal titles, adrenaline is acquired via kills and pickups scattered around the level. However, UC2 also continually replenishes your adrenaline meter as you run through stages, allowing you to pull off any one of six character abilities. Every playable character can trigger these skills at any time, balancing or augmenting onscreen action with supernatural powers. Some of these are purely defensive in nature, such as healing damage, defensive shields or turning yourself invincible. Others are designed around offense, such as making any projectile weapon fire tracking ammunition, poisoning enemies with gas or freezing them with ice shards. Yet others are simply helpful in nature, such as increasing your agility to bound up walls or increasing your radar’s sensitivity. The inclusion of these skills accelerates gameplay substantially and adds even more strategy to the game itself.
UC2 has a number of modes, including instant play to leap you right into a firefight. Impressively, it includes a single player mode known as the Ascension Rites. Following the story of Anubis, a young warrior fighting his way back through the Liandri Corporation’s tournament to stop his ex-fiancée, a power hungry fighter named Selket. While the Ascension Rites are essentially a training ground for some of the various game types in UC2, the story does a solid job of establishing the conflict between the former lovers amidst the backdrop of the corporate tournament and the destruction each match unleashes. Outside of the story, you can choose a character and take on all comers in Tournament mode, or you can attempt to complete one of the difficult tasks set to you in Challenge mode, such as coming back from a significantly imbalanced kill score in a deathmatch event.
This can be especially difficult considering that there are 5 difficulty levels included in the game, none of which are particularly easy or simplistic to defeat. In fact, you’ll more often than not get your guns shoved down your throat on the steeper levels, meaning you’ll really need to bring your A-game and Lady Luck to beat some stages. This is especially true on deathmatch levels, where it’s every man or woman for themselves. Fortunately, the AI is extremely solid during capture the flag games when you need teammates, and are surprisingly intelligent in the two new features: Overdose, where you grab radioactive balls and deposit them in goals and Nali Slaughter, where you have to kill a set number of pacifistic aliens as well as defeat your opponents.
Obviously, this wouldn’t be an Unreal game without some attention paid to multiplayer, and UC2 is no exception, providing multiple ways for gamers to get their frag on. Aside from split screen play or system link games, the true star of the multiplayer experience is on Xbox Live, which provides fast paced play for up to 8 players. Not only can you drop additional bots into online matches if you don’t have enough competition, you can pick and choose additional options for each game. Known as Mutators, these tweaks to play cover everything from melee only fights to Instagib options and many others. This increases the replayability of the game substantially, especially when combined with more than forty maps included with the game. What’s more, the included skill rankings that are provided with the game even improve upon the traditional Optimatch system, moving you up with victories against better skilled opponents and dropping you if you take out lower ranked foes.
One look and it’s pretty clear that UC2 is one of the sharpest titles to hit the Xbox in quite some time. Character models are large and well animated, and display a large amount of fluid movement, particularly under the influence of Adrenaline-infused abilities. Maps are just as detailed, with each level displaying a unique core design, as well as sense of scale. It’s possible to move between three or more levels on one stage alone, not counting times that you step on jump pods that catapult you into the sky. These stages also manage to combine indoor tunnels with outdoor spaces to increase the scope of each battleground. The cutscenes provided for the story mode are rather nice, and manage to add to the game without completely distracting from the action. Additionally, the particle and lighting effects, reflections and other visual tweaks stand out, and further support the rock solid frame rate. As I said earlier, even switching camera perspectives back and forth isn’t a problem. In fact, the only complaint that anyone could potentially have would be that some camera angles, particularly locked onto targets can be sometimes disorienting, most notably when they attempt to evade fire.
UC2 does provide a sweeping orchestral theme, which can get your heart racing during pitched battle sequences and tight matches. It’s hard not to feel somewhat charged up during play when you hear drums pounding in the background as opponents come from all sides trying to take you out. UC2 also manages to capture the feel of smack talking opponents with the large amount of comments and chatter that your computer enemies will spout. They’ll insult you, congratulate you and generally make comments that will either make you laugh or make you ready to put a slug into their corpse. Couple that with decent line deliveries across the board, and there’s no surprise that this is an engaging title. Even the Mortal Kombat announcer, who’s included in the game and would otherwise seem out of place feels right at home within the UC universe.
If there were any complaints to be made, they might seem minor, personal and at times even petty. For one, this game is really challenging, even for experienced deathmatchers. Novices might feel completely at sea fighting against bots and human opponents that are better than they are, and may quickly become disillusioned at times with the game. The steep learning curve is merely augmented by the sheer speed of the game, which fortunately balances out a seasoned vet’s play for a while, until they become accustomed to the nuances of melee combat and coup de graces. I’ll admit that while I’m not the best Unreal player, I have played the series at least once a week for the past few years, and it still took me a few hours to fully wrap my head around the strategy inherent in the game.
Along with the speed, there are some things that I don’t understand. For instance, while the inclusion of a randomly generated button sequence does prevent some players from pulling off finishing moves from memory, it would’ve been nice if there were additional finishers that potentially could’ve been synced to character specific “fatalities”. What’s more, I did want the melee system to be a little bit richer, potentially with different fighting moves, juggles or combos instead of a light and strong attack. While the included moves perform well, this could’ve been somewhat deeper playwise. Finally, I do wish that other characters would’ve had their own stories explored in their own story mode on par with that of Anubis.
Combining the proven play of the Unreal franchise with the mechanics of a fighting game, Unreal Championship 2 elevates the first person shooter genre to a completely new level. While the speed of the gameplay can seem daunting at first, the amount of complexity and replayability, along with the additional features makes this game a must own for any action, fighting or FPS fan. Midway and Epic have a true classic on their hands with this game.