E3 2001 Hands-onUnreal Championship

Digital Extremes and Infogrames show off Unreal Championship, their multiplayer killing extravaganza.

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To the delight of first-person shooter fans everywhere, Infogrames and Digital Extremes brought a 35 percent complete version of Unreal Championship to the E3 show. The game, slated for a 2002 release on Microsoft's Xbox console, is already looking amazing and showing great promise in terms of gameplay.

Unreal Championship Xbox will feature a minimum of 24 playable characters and at least 48 levels drawn from six unique environments. Some of the more popular character types, such as the Skaarj, will make the cut from Unreal Tournament, but the game will also feature many new additions, such as Prism - a green-haired Nubian warrior princess and THX-1138 - a totally jacked up brawler with a thick exoskeleton.

Despite the new cast list, Unreal Championship feels just like Unreal Tournament - at least in terms of the basics. Movement and weapon selection are bonded to the XBox controller's left and right analog sticks, jumping has been enhanced with an arcade-style double jump, and the firing of weapons is stuck to the controller's A button. Speaking of weapons, the team at Digital Extremes has left in such favorites as the Flak Cannon and SMD Shock Rifle, but others, such as the Enforcer and Redeemer, are gone. New weapons include a FA-MAS style machine gun and an updated, tri-barreled rocket launcher. Each of the game's 11 weapons also has an alternate firing mode. One major change pertaining to weapons is the Flak Cannon's updated range and spread capabilities. Shots no longer bounce and the distance you are from a target greatly affects how much damage you dole.

Although the basic gameplay reflects the classic Unreal formula, Unreal Championship builds upon and evolves the franchise in many ways. In essence, Unreal Championship is a first-person shooter that's all about detail - graphical, hands on, or otherwise.

Unlike Unreal Tournament, where character choice has no impact on defensive skills or speed, the characters in Unreal Championship each feature their own vital skills based upon the armor and outfitting they wear. For example, a character with protrusions from their arms can use them as shields, while an opponent with heavy battle armor is able laugh off small weapons fire, at a cost of slow movement and poor jump range. Playing the game at the show, it's apparent that the developers are having a fun time with this feature. Time and time again I was able to bat away Flak Cannon shots with THX-1138's forearms, but also quite vulnerable to close-range rocket fire thanks to the character's thickly armored legs.

In addition to utilizing a character's armor for defensive purposes, the game also includes the option to duck down and block. If you're the type of person who doesn't mind taking minor damage, you can block incoming fire, switch weapons, and target overly aggressive opponents as they approach. The implementation of this aspect at the show was minimal, but still plenty enough to make for some wacky retribution style duels.

Another innovation to be included in Unreal Championship is vehicular combat, a feature that PC game players are quite familiar with, but one that has yet to manifest itself in console FPS games. The E3 version of the game only had a single hover-cycle to toy with, but swooping around the Kelendra Icefield at 200MPH and knocking over CPU controlled bots made for minutes of hilarious fun. The developers suggest that the final version of the game will have at least ten different vehicles, including two-person jeeps and personnel carriers.

While putting all of this new gameplay to test was enjoyable, it was watching the whole experience that blew us away. The folks at DE are simply infatuated with smoke, shadows, and lighting. As we sauntered around a temple area, torches cast my character's shadow on the floors and walls. When rockets or plasma bursts were fired, the resulting fire and shells cast their own shadows. Sparks from close range machine gun fire also brighten and darken an area's ambient light.

Smoke effects take the focus on detail to further extremes. Animated windmills and falling rocks can brush smoke plumes aside as they move. When a rocket was launched through a plume of smoke, it dissipated - an event that caused other show goers in the room to exclaim an awestruck "Oh my." Each weapon or character movement interacts with smoke and lighting sources with realistic clarity - so much so that one rocket can even adjust another rocket's smoke trail.

As far as environments themselves, each of the game's themed levels is large and multifaceted. Jungle levels feature plenty of foliage to hide behind or short hills to climb; Temple levels are dotted with pharaoh statues, traps, and aquatic pools; Arctic areas feature blowing snow, tumbling rocks, and ice-borne structures; and Volcanic levels actually have flowing lava beds and violently erupting volcanoes - complete with dangerous flying rocks. To date, no console FPS game has contained such large environments. For PC gaming fans looking for an analogue, Unreal Championship's stages make those in Delta Force look like cooped up meadows. Since the game was so unfinished, most stages were missing the majority of the background environment effects. By the time the game is complete sometime in 2002, clouds, weather, rockslides, rivers, and blizzards will be fully implemented.

When Unreal Championship is released in 2002, it will contain a number of traditional deathmatch, capture the flag, and assault style missions, as well as a few new missions types not currently in evidence by other FPS games. Sadly, none of these "new ideas" were implemented in the E3 version of the game. Another aspect that was notable absent was linked multiplayer. However, Infogrames is promising that the final version of the game will support at least 16 simultaneous players once all is said and done. There is one caveat though - the game will not be released until the XBox's broadband adapter is made available.

No matter the wait, fans of the Unreal series or those looking for a killer console FPS should look forward to the Xbox version of Unreal Championship. At 35 percent, it's already playing and looking better than both Quake 3 and Tribes 2.

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