First things first: Forget all about Unreal II: The Awakening, an underwhelming Xbox port of a disappointing PC game. For the next Xbox Unreal title, Epic Games is working on Unreal Championship 2: The Liandri Conflict, and this time, they've started from scratch to deliver a game created specifically for the platform. Cliff Bleszinski, Epic's lead designer and overlord of all things Unreal, paid GameSpot a visit this week to give us a look at what they've got in store.
Unreal Championship 2 is slated to include two single-player modes: campaign and tournament. In campaign, you'll travel through new cities and arenas as you take on the role of Anubis in his attempt to retake his peoples Nakhti Rite of Ascension Tournament from the machinations of the omnipresent Liandri Corporation. Meanwhile, tournament mode will have you fighting through a challenge ladder as one of the many unlockable characters in the game. You'll find that each of the 15 characters you'll eventually access has a unique melee weapon and attack style, in addition to having different stats and capabilities. For example, Zalor, a slow, heavily built Skaarj character, has Wolverine-like blades that are attached to his forearms. Meanwhile, Anubis is a faster, Egyptian-themed character who carries a powerful staff that glows at both ends. And Lauren, a quick and nimble human character, carries a pair of mystical blades. In addition to the single-player experience, you'll find a meaty multiplayer game that gives you the chance to fight head-to-head in eight-player tournaments over Xbox Live or system link. The game will take advantage of Xbox Live's leaderboards to let you make players far and wide aware of your mad skills.
Speaking of skills, Unreal Championship 2 will pose a unique challenge for even seasoned Unreal players, thanks to the introduction of some new mechanics. The biggest new feature is melee combat--Unreal Championship 2 will be the first Unreal game to introduce melee weapons, and they'll have a huge impact on how the game is played. "It's guns versus swords," according to Bleszinski's description. With a flick of a button, players can switch from the traditional first-person shooter perspective to a third-person camera view. From this view, you'll have greater peripheral vision, and you'll be able to execute offensive and defensive moves, as well as complex acrobatic moves.
Bleszinski explained that they're balancing the game so melee fighters have a sporting chance. Melee attacks will come in a wide range of flavors, including special combos and even finishing moves, à la Mortal Kombat. Adrenaline combos will yield a variety of different effects, many of which are unique to specific characters, and they will let you enhance your attack, mobility, or speed. In the case of the vampiric Lauren, you'll even be able to drain the life from your enemies.
Now, while there's obviously a rather heavy emphasis on melee combat, weapons haven't been neglected in the game, although their use has been modified a bit. You'll go into battle with a handful of ranged weapons, some of which are actually unique to your character's race (the rest you'll pick from a common pool of weapons). At the start of a battle you'll be able to pick from ballistic and energy weapons, though your melee weapon and race-specific weapon will obviously be predetermined based on the character you choose.
Of course, the best defense against getting shot is mobility, and the already-impressive repertoire of acrobatic moves in the previous game has been improved in Unreal Championship 2. While you could lift-jump and wall-jump in Unreal Championship, you'll now be able to chimney-jump (that is, bounce between two facing surfaces to get to a higher position) and float your way to safety.
Attacking in melee mode is as simple as getting close and hitting the right trigger. If you hold down the right trigger, you'll execute a heavier attack. And if you jump and hold down the right trigger, you'll hang suspended in the air. The longer you hang there, the more power is built up, and your controller will start to vibrate. When you release, you'll unleash all that power directly at your target. However, while you're hanging in the air, you're a sitting duck for anyone to shoot at.
Thankfully, players who choose to stick to melee attacks won't be helpless against the ranged attacks of those who prefer firearms. Pressing the left trigger at the correct moment will allow a melee-weapon-wielding character to deflect an incoming round or energy attack. And if you get the timing down, you can even reflect the shot directly back at the player who fired it. If you mash both triggers, your melee weapon will create a shield that will absorb most of the damage of an attack. The shield is short-lived, so you won't be able to keep it active all the time, but it will certainly help you close the distance with an opponent to get into melee range. Further aiding your melee effort is a new targeting system. Pressing down on the right thumbstick will lock onto an opponent, keeping the camera fixed on the opponent while you dance around him. Locking on will also work when you're using ranged weapons, though it won't be as flexible as it is in melee mode.
Epic says that it has learned quite a bit from the first Unreal Championship, particularly in terms of multiplayer. One of the biggest lessons is that bigger is not necessarily better; most Unreal Championship players on Xbox Live preferred the smaller matches, such as round robin, rather than the big 10-player battles. As a result, Epic is focusing on making multiplayer in the sequel a bit more intimate. It's planning to support two to eight players on Xbox Live, with modes like deathmatch, team deathmatch, capture the flag, and variations of those games. The plan is to have split-screen support for two players, though Epic is experimenting with four; the big issue, however, is making sure that each player has a sufficient view of the environment in order to accommodate the melee combat and acrobatic jumping moves.
It took us less than 15 minutes to become familiar with the new melee controls, and it wasn't long before we were racking up the kills in multiplay. The new third-person perspective actually works quite well, not just for melee but for regular weapons as well. In fact, we preferred third-person over first-person, mainly because it's easier to execute jump moves with this viewpoint. And the third-person view offers greater peripheral vision, so we had a better sense of everything going on around us.
Most single-player maps in Unreal Championship 2 will be playable in multiplay, and Epic is currently planning to have about four dozen maps when the game ships. The maps that we were shown were nicely balanced for multiplayer. There are plenty of locations on the maps designed to give beginning players obvious places to execute jump moves, though advanced players will certainly figure out how to get to seemingly inaccessible areas.
We couldn't help but be impressed at the state of the game this early in development. The network code was fairly stable, save for a few slight pauses when players joined the server. The game also looks quite impressive, since the programmers have learned to take advantage of the Xbox's graphical capabilities. The frame rate seems higher than in the first Unreal Championship, and as you'd expect from a game with the Unreal name, there are all sorts of gorgeous graphical effects on offer as well.
It's too early to commit to a release date, but Epic strongly believes it will get the game out by year's end. Judging from what we saw, it's clear that the Energizer Bunny of first-person shooter franchises shows no sign of slowing down anytime soon. Check back with us for updates later, and make sure to check out the first trailer and our exclusive video interview with Cliff Bleszinski on the game's media page.