Unreal Championship 2 Review
The Unreal series has had a tough time on consoles so far. PC gamers have been reluctant to buy these games because the ports so far have been generally inferior, and the controls are commonly a pretty big issue. Combine this with the lack of a real online community so far (the first Unreal Championship was plagued with exploits for months, killing off most online replayability enough that it never recovered) and how little-known the Unreal name is with many newer console gamers, and it's just a tough place to be.
It didn't really help that not only were the console ports inferior to the PC versions, but that they were somewhat crummy games in their own right. Unreal 2 was a pretty decent game, but there are far better FPS titles on the Xbox already. The stellar online and offline play of Halo has made console gamers wonder why they should bother with other games. Well, Epic, creators of the Unreal series, have taken charge of the series once again (after having Digital Extremes and Legend Entertainment handle a good chunk of the work over the last few years) and are delivering an all-new experience with Unreal Championship 2: The Liandri Conflict.
One thing I have to try and make clear is that it's best if you forget everything you know about previous Unreal games, because this one is very different, and is tailored much more for a console crowd without giving up its roots. Along with the FPS action, the game also includes a fairly complex melee fighting system which reminds me of what we saw in the Jedi Knight games - it's not quite a fighting game, but it's not just a button-masher either. The number of moves you have are slim, but put it in the context of a full-on first person shooter, and throw in the game's complex maps where acrobatics is key, and it's more than satisfying to play.
Epic truly put a ton of effort into redefining Unreal for this game. Many of their classic crazy environments that combine starships with Egyptians, robots with jungles and ice worlds have been maintained, but this is 100% new content. Many classic weapons are of course back, but some new ones are thrown in as well. The melee combat is also a viable option here, where you can use your melee weapon to reflect or mitigate damage from ranged weapons. Throw in some cool dash moves and new adrenaline moves which let you close the gap easily, and it changes the game in a way that hasn't been seen too often on consoles yet.
While the Unreal series has had a strong multiplayer component for a while now, Epic knew that with no user-made mods, they needed Unreal Championship 2 to deliver a ton of maps, characters, and weapons if they were going to compete with the likes of Halo. The single player mode they threw in isn't quite a full-on story mode, as it still has you fighting in arenas in bot-run deathmatches (or other multiplayer modes) with only a few bits of cutscenes thrown in. Still, it's better than I've seen in the Unreal Tournament series on the PC.
The multiplayer modes feature a full range of options, including split-screen action, system link, and Xbox Live! play. Up to eight players can get together in one match, and the way the maps are set up, eight is plenty. Some will complain about UC2's lack of an intuitive Halo 2-style auto matchup when playing online; instead, this is set up like older Xbox Live! titles. You need to find a game with acceptable options for you, and there is no guarantee that it will find a worthy opponent. Personally, I like it more this way rather than the Halo 2 way, but I can certainly see the merit in Bungie's method as well. I think the best way to handle this would be to allow both ways to find online games, but no one's done that... yet.
Epic packed in over 40 multiplayer maps into UC2, and the visuals in these maps are very nice. While they're not totally mind-blowing right from the start, you'll realize after a few sessions that the beauty is in the game's ability to throw eight players at each other, sometimes all in the same room with only a little slowdown. Epic already has new content in the works via Xbox Live! downloads, although it remains to be seen whether they'll charge for it. My hunch says that they'll be giving away new characters, mutators, and maps for free, as they are looking to topple other multiplayer games, and this is certainly an edge that they can use.
I figured that after the release of UT2004 I probably wouldn't be impressed with even more maps based on some of the same art style, but I was wrong - UC2's visuals are still great and the art is even better. In fact, the Xbox platform's limited memory is really what's holding back the graphics from being just plain gorgeous. We can't really fault Epic with that, though.
You may not have noticed that Epic has a new publisher for the Unreal series - Midway, creators of Mortal Kombat. And they've run with this, creating a bit of a MK crossover in this game. Not only can you do Fatality-style finishing moves (which are pretty difficult to do, but very humiliating if you can deliver one), but you can even turn on the announcer's voice from MK. Finally, one of the playable characters is the thunder god himself, Raiden. With a few of his signature moves and even a classic fatality he can use, it's really a pretty interesting crossover. At first I thought it'd be just stupid to have him in the game, but he honestly works pretty well alongside the huge range of characters you meet in the Unreal games.
The character you pick this time around also affects your gameplay. You'll have access to different Adrenaline moves in playing as certain characters, and they also have differing amounts of health and speed. This is very important as the game's much more acrobatic than previous titles: you can double-jump, wall-jump, and do aerial melee attacks all seamlessly.
Each playable character has his or her own melee weapon which you'll come equipped with. You'll also have a predetermined loadout of three guns out of about ten which you can configure how you want. Note that you won't be picking up weapons in mid-game - just ammo. This system seems like a step backwards for the Unreal franchise, but they've replaced this functionality with a truly unique and very useful melee system. Those who are scoffing should un-scoff and give it a shot, as I think it's really a great combat system that will stand up against the best other console titles have to offer.
Many classic Unreal Tournament gameplay modes are here, and the new ones they've included are called Nali Slaughter, where you must kill as many of those annoying pacifist aliens as possible, and Overdose, their new teamplay mode where you must take colored spheres and deliver them to the goals on the opposite sides of the map.
This brings me to the perspective. While UC2 can be played exclusively as a first person shooter, you really shouldn't. The third person view in this game is just about perfect, where the aiming reticle works nicely for precise shooting, and the extra peripheral vision you gain is invaluable - especially when you need to pull out the melee weapon. The game allows you to configure exactly what weapons you want for first- or third-person modes, so you can tailor it just how you like it. And if that's not enough, there's also a button set up to switch between modes whenever you want.
Those who have played a fast-action game on a console know that all the spinning around to put your crosshair on your enemy is a pain. Epic's made some effort here to fix this by allowing you to lock on to an enemy and track him as he zooms by. In melee mode, this basically sets up an auto-aim situation where you are always pointed directly at your opponent. But if you're using guns, that would just be way too easy, so instead the game will only point you in the general direction of your enemy and you'll need to do the aiming yourself. This works pretty well, as it still lets you quickly turn around, but doesn't make it too easy to use ranged weapons to kill people.
I'd like to stress that this game has tons upon tons of options. You can set up a game to play against AI-controlled players with a range of difficulties, and you can even use them online with Xbox Live!. On top of the story mode, there's a classic UT-style tournament mode with tons of matches, and even a challenge mode with a series of very specific situations you'll have to survive though. Throw in the classic Mutators which are available in all of the multiplayer modes, as well as the huge range of playable characters and dozens of maps, and this one just oozes replayability.
The only thing I really find missing in Unreal Championship 2 is some sort of coherent, consistent style. This is a complaint I've always had with the Unreal Tournament games, where there are just too many visual styles and crazy characters running around, and it always gave the series a sort of multiple personality disorder feel in my opinion. If I didn't know any better, I'd say that several small development teams did their own thing on all of the UT and UC games for a while and then smushed it all together a month from release, and while it doesn't really bother a lot of players, it just feels like a big mish-mash of action game-oriented stuff. Even if it's good stuff, I wonder if this game would be better with one dominant art style to go with its wide range of combat you can take place in.
The Unreal games have always had tons of great sound effects, and UC2 is no exception. Kick in some cool-sounding announcers, some appropriately military-ish music, and some decent voice acting for the game's story mode, and it adds up to something that goes a little beyond what you'd expect from an Xbox Live!-oriented action game.
With Unreal Championship 2, Epic's latest entry into the console action genre is a huge effort on their part. With the new melee action gameplay and a brute-force approach with dozens of arenas, characters, mutators, and options, there should be enough here for any online gunslingers to just go crazy with. The new gameplay stays true to the Unreal name, and the visuals are among the best you'll find on the Xbox. UC2 is a sure winner.