Epic Games' Unreal franchise has covered a lot of territory since its introduction in 1998, evolving from a linear, story-driven shooter into a series of competitive twitch-action games that are even played professionally by the most skilled hardcore gamers. Unreal's initial Xbox outing, 2002's Unreal Championship, was a functional but admittedly bare-bones port of its PC-based contemporary, Unreal Tournament 2003. But Epic has taken a more proactive approach in crafting the follow-up, Unreal Championship 2: The Liandri Conflict. We recently visited Epic's Raleigh, North Carolina-based development studio and discovered that while UC2 definitely isn't your daddy's Unreal, it does look like one of the most complex and feature-packed Xbox Live games on the block.
Microsoft initially requested that Epic produce another quick Xbox port of its latest PC-based Unreal, but Epic president Mike Capps says the team felt compelled to go the extra mile and make Unreal Championship 2 a unique game with design aspects that would appeal to console-specific gamers. With that goal in mind, Epic has taken some of the most fundamental elements from Unreal Tournament--basic weapons and characters, mechanics, and the prevailing aesthetic--and made some considerable additions and tweaks that have significantly altered the feel of the game. The result, in our experience so far, feels almost as much like a fighting game as it does a traditional shooter.
Up to this point, Unreal has been strictly first-person fare, so the biggest and most obvious addition to The Liandri Conflict is the option of a third-person perspective. Capps says this feature initially grew out of some Asian territories' dislike for first-person-only console games; ironically, UC2 isn't currently slated to ship in Asia. Regardless, the new perspective has allowed the designers to implement a melee combat feature that will radically change the feel of the gameplay. At any time during a match, you'll be able to switch from your guns to your default melee weapon and perform light and heavy attacks that deal substantial damage to your opponent. The melee attacks will have to be used strategically, since skilled ranged players will still be able to pick you off from a distance.
UC2's new melee feature will come in handy for more than just dealing direct damage. While in melee mode, you'll be able to erect a front energy shield that will block any incoming fire or melee hits for a short period. This shield has a finite reserve of energy, though, so you can't run around blocking all the time; you'll have to use it strategically. More interestingly, you'll be able to deflect any projectile attacks with your melee weapon--with the proper timing, that is. If your timing is close, you'll bat incoming fire off to the side. But if you hit the deflect button at precisely the right moment, you'll send it straight back at the source with a little bit of extra damage as a nice bonus. This deflect move works for all projectiles--rockets, energy fire, and even sniper shots--and two skilled players can even get into a back-and-forth deflection match where the projectile will pick up more and more damage until it finally splatters the unfortunate soul who doesn't hit the right timing.
The third-person perspective has made the standard Unreal gameplay feel a lot more, well, acrobatic. Dodging and wall-jumping have long been an important part of playing Unreal Tournament competitively, but UC2 takes these moves to a new level. A skilled player will be able to double-jump toward a wall, then wall-jump to an even greater height, then enact a special power to catch even more air and escape pursuers. The level designers have built more-vertical levels this time around so players can take advantage of these jumping abilities, and many maps will have secret areas that you can reach only through a combination of properly timed jumps.
There will even be a basic lock-on feature that you can use to help manage the action in third-person. This will by no means help direct your shots; rather, it will keep your targets from moving offscreen by having the camera loosely track them whenever they move to the edges. We found the lock-on to be essential in any melee fight, and it will be one of the features that skilled UC2 players will pick up on immediately. You'll be able to switch back to first-person to use your guns whenever you want, but even the ranged combat feels natural in third-person. Considering also the increased jumping abilities, we'd wager many players will be happy to just leave the game in third-person at all times.
A lot of UC2's fighting-game feel comes from what goes on not during the match, but before it. You'll begin every match by selecting from a stable of characters that begins with seven and will total 14 once you've unlocked everything. Each character has distinctive attributes in terms of strength and agility, as well as unique racial traits that can help or hinder you during battle. (Robotic characters will be more affected by electricity-based attacks, for instance.) These aren't just superficial differences; your choice of character makes a huge difference in the feel of the gameplay. Faster characters will have to rely more on evading attacks while making quick strikes, while the bruisers are able to wade in and withstand more damage while delivering punishing melee attacks. Players who get serious about competing in the game online will quickly identify their favorite characters, and they'll certainly learn to exploit the weaknesses of other characters to win.
Fight for the Throne
Unreal Championship 2 is clearly geared toward the Xbox Live experience, but Epic wanted it to have strong hooks for gamers who like to play offline, too. The game thus has a significant single-player campaign titled Ascension Rites, which will cast you as one of the main characters, an Egyptian-styled warrior named Anubis. The story goes that the emperor is ailing and must step down, and to choose a successor he will hold a tournament to determine the mightiest combatant and name him or her the new ruler. Anubis enters the tournament to thwart the designs of the sensual but malicious Selket, a woman with whom he appears to have some kind of sordid past. Of course, that old troublemaker the Liandri Corporation has gotten involved and started mucking things up for everyone, further complicating matters.
You'll guide Anubis through a series of matches in an attempt to win the tournament and wrest control of the empire away from Selket and the Liandris. But in dramatic terms, UC2's story mode is a far cry from the glorified challenge ladders found in Unreal Tournament. The matches in Ascension Rites are prefaced by cutscenes (prerendered in the game's engine) that set the stage for the action, and midmatch you'll encounter other friendly warriors who will fight alongside you, as well as dramatic events and voice communications that, from what we saw, will enhance the narrative flow of the campaign and make it worth playing through just for the story alone.
Ascension Rites will be a good place for all new UC2 players to start, as its initial missions walk you through the basics of the game's new combat features. You'll also want to play it simply to unlock new content, which will become available regularly as you complete each match. After you've cleared Anubis' story mode, you'll be able to play through unique tournament ladders with each of the other available characters to continue unlocking more maps, characters, and so on. These tournaments will feature a series of matches with specific setups that are tailored for the character you're playing. Finally, you'll have access to the challenge mode, in which you'll have to really prove your mettle as a UC2 player by knocking out 15 matches of the utmost difficulty. You'll have to prevail in a four-on-one capture-the-flag game, for instance, or be the first to hit the frag limit in a game where the odds are stacked heavily against you.
Once you've bested the challenge mode, you'll have basically plowed through the bulk of the regimented offline content, and not coincidentally you'll likely be extremely skilled when you take your skills online. If you do manage to finish the challenge mode in its entirety--which, we're told, is an extremely difficult feat--you'll unlock the product of Epic's new partnership with publisher Midway: the thunder god Raiden, of Mortal Kombat fame. Raiden won't be able to easily overpower lesser characters; the game has to stay balanced for competitive play, after all. But if you see someone using him in online matches, you'll know that player has put in serious time with the offline component of the game. For MK fans, Raiden has an impressive collection of his old moves at his disposal, from the lightning and torpedo to the teleport and even his electrocution fatality.
Wait, fatality? Yes, the characters in UC2 can perform instant-kill finishing moves at any time during a match, though this ability will be more balanced than you might think. To do a finisher, you'll have to stun your opponent with the proper charged projectile or melee attack, and then approach your opponent, go into third-person with melee equipped, and input an MK-style series of buttons to pull off the move. The catch is, the stunned player can wildly move the stick and hit the A button to break out of the stun--and if you're in the middle of putting in the finisher combo when that happens, you'll essentially be caught with your pants down. Stunned players are also freed when hit by any attack, so don't think you'll be able to run around matches doing fatalities on everybody you see.
Don't think we've been skimping on weapons details because weapons combat is no longer a big part of the game--it wouldn't be Unreal if it didn't offer a host of destructive weaponry. You'll see all the old favorites, such as the rocket launcher, flak cannon, stinger, shock rifle, and ripjack, plus a new grenade launcher. UC2's arsenal has some interesting new upgrades, though your access to it has been limited somewhat in the interest of play balance. Weapons now fall into two categories--energy and explosive--and you'll select one from each category before a given match. Thus, you'll only have these two weapons (plus a basic projectile weapon and your melee attack) to work with in a match, again making your choice a strategic one.
To offset the two-weapon limitation, some of the game's weapons now have three or even four alt-fire modes. The bio-rifle now fires sentient blobs that will hop around the map toward random enemies (or a specific enemy, if you target one). The ripjack's blade can be charged and then fired like a rocket, and at full charge, it's one of the most powerful explosives in the game. Even the old Unreal 1 stinger gets an upgrade--you can now fire homing shots that will zero in on your target. Two weapons might not sound like much, but there's a lot of flexibility in the tools you have to work with.
Play It Your Way
If it seems like there's an awful lot of new gameplay to catch up on in UC2, guess what--we're not done yet. Unreal Tournament players will be familiar with the adrenaline combos that give you upgrades like a speed boost, invisibility, and so on, and the adrenaline system is even more important in UC2. This time around, you won't just pick up adrenaline items; you'll also regenerate adrenaline slowly over time. This is fortunate, since each character has six different adrenaline powers--some unique to each character--that you can use to turn the tide of a match. Unlike in the UT games, you won't have to input complex controller combinations to pull them off; you can simply pull up a menu with one button and then hit another to do the move, which comes in handy in heated situations.
Some adrenaline combos will give you enhancements to basic abilities and attributes, and these combos will be common across most or all of the characters. Nimble, for instance, reduces gravity so you can jump much higher and evade attacks more easily. All of the characters will have a heal ability of some kind, though they work in different ways. Some will receive a quick boost to health, while others will regenerate slowly over time, and still others will have a vampirelike ability that siphons health away from other players. Many adrenaline abilities will give you combat enhancements, such as Anubis' warrior spirit, which causes your targets to show up more brightly and boosts your speed and damage potential. Finally, you'll have an array of direct offensive abilities, such as an area-of-effect energy burst or small hovering turrets that fire at your targets.
In terms of gameplay modes, UC2 for the most part sticks to tradition with deathmatch, team deathmatch, survival, and capture-the-flag modes. The two new additions are overdose and nali slaughter. Capps described overdose to us as "bombing run for one," referring to the sportslike UT mode that requires exceptional team coordination. In overdose, color-coded balls will spawn at various places on the map, and you'll score a varying number of points based on which goal you dump the ball into. While you're holding the ball, you'll accumulate radiation, and if you drop it into a goal when you're maxed out, you'll "overdose" and be granted every conceivable power-up--speed, invisibility, and u-damage among them--all at once, making you a veritable killing machine.
Nali slaughter seems like a good mode for stress relief. It's a melee-only game type in which you and your opponents compete to see who can kill the most poor, hapless nali the quickest. Some of the nali have a speed boost, however, while some are almost invisible. The only ones capable of fighting back are equipped with a self-destruct ability and will charge right at you, though you get more points if you take them out before you get blown up. This all might sound a little silly, but it's surprisingly fun at the same time.
Gamers are serious about online competition these days--Xbox Live gamers especially--and Epic is building significant stat-tracking hooks into Unreal Championship 2 to provide matching and ranking features. There will be five levels of skill, and you'll be automatically matched against similar players online (unless you specify otherwise). You'll receive no credit for killing lower-ranked players, though, and you'll lose standing if you're killed by them, so there will always be incentive to play against tougher players.
The Unreal games are consistently among the best looking on the PC, so the high visual fidelity of Unreal Championship 2 isn't very surprising. Stylistically, the game looks very similar to Unreal Tournament 2004--fans will recognize the same cultural and architectural influences in the game's close to 50 maps. Epic has gone to great lengths to enhance the particulars of the graphics, however. The game is purportedly pushing three to four times the geometry of UT2K4, and it boasts more complicated shaders as well. There are more specific special effects on offer than in the past, from emissive character skins that give off a team-colored glow to a nice refraction effect when looking through glass and water. Epic says all these extras owe to the fact that it can implement more detail while working on a fixed platform rather than the widely ranging configurations seen on the PC side. In any event, the game is looking like a nice graphical showcase for the Xbox and shouldn't disappoint anyone looking for the latest game to take full advantage of the console.
Based on our look at Unreal Championship 2, there seems to be a truly extensive amount of content crammed into the game, from the vast number of new game mechanics to the multiple playable characters, new weapon functions, and gameplay modes. When it comes to supporting previously released products, Epic has perhaps the best track record of any developer in the industry. It has put out massive amounts of new (and free) content for the Unreal Tournament games, and it says new maps and characters for UC2 are already slated for download at some point in the future. Anyone who's looking for a new online shooter with some truly unique gameplay elements would do well to keep an eye out for Unreal Championship 2 when it ships in mid-April. Stay tuned for more before then.