Unreal Championship 2: The Liandri Conflict Hands-On

We try out a new build of Epic's upcoming Xbox Live action game--and come away decidedly impressed.

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Midway recently entered into what must be one extremely lucrative publishing deal with Epic Games to publish several upcoming games in the Unreal series. The first fruit of this union will be Unreal Championship 2, which we got a chance to try out for ourselves at a recent press event. Though the specter of Halo 2 looms large on the horizon, diehard Xbox Live players will have another fast-paced and complex online option come February of 2005.

Epic Games president Mike Capps fills you in on the newest Xbox-based Unreal. Click "Stream for Free" for higher resolution.

Frankly, we were blown away by just how deep Unreal Championship 2 appears to be. The game will certainly have its learning curve, one that we initially found daunting, but we soon realized that dedicated players who learn all of the game's nuances and tricks will have a considerable number of options for killing their opponents and avoiding death themselves. In fact, UC2 reminded us somewhat of a fighting game, what with the way you'll be able to evade and parry attacks, perform combos, and so on.

We played several matches on the included maps in the game, using several different characters. When you select your character from a fighting game-style select screen before a match, you'll be shown each character's power and agility ratings, so you'll know roughly what you're getting into. You'll then select one explosive and one energy weapon from the standard assortment of Unreal weaponry--the shock rifle, the flak cannon, the rocket launcher, and so on--and head into the fray. Only deathmatch and capture-the-flag modes were included in the demo we got to play, although a couple of other modes were said to be in the game (though what these modes are won't be revealed until later).

Unreal Championship 2 is the first game in the Unreal series to let you play from the third-person perspective, which we found to work pretty well even when using projectile weapons. But third-person will be a must when you're using melee attacks, which are an integral part of the gameplay and lend it a lot of its depth. You'll be able to do a lot more than just blindly flail at your opponents, thankfully. For instance, when in melee mode you'll be able to block for a limited amount of time, and more importantly, you'll be able to bat incoming projectiles back at your foes. This works for all projectiles, even a sniper rifle shot, and the returned fire is actually more powerful than when it's first shot. We weren't nearly skilled enough to pull this off during our quick turn with the game, but the best players will no doubt use this sort of move to their advantage all the time once the game goes live.

You'll also have an air dash and a pounce move that you can use while in melee mode to get you closer to opponents quickly so you can beat the hell out of them. If that weren't enough, we developed a rudimentary understanding of the game's combo system while we played, whereby you'll collect adrenaline and then access what basically amount to special abilities via a menu. There will be offensive and defensive abilities unique to each character that will do things like heal, grant extra speed, create a flashbang effect, or even cancel other players' own combo abilities. Between the parrying, the melee attacks (which draw from three different melee styles), the combos, and the ability to pull off some crazy weapon special moves--we saw how the shock rifle can now dispense stationary orbs for huge shock combo chain reactions--there will be an incredible amount of stuff to master in the game.

Here's a statement that will probably surprise nobody: Unreal Championship 2 is among the best-looking games we've seen on the Xbox. All of the roughly 40 maps in the game are entirely new, and they all have the extremely high-detailed look characteristic of later Unreal games. We were told the game is pushing a very high number of polygons relative to most console games, and we'd believe it after having played the game. Best of all, things moved at a smooth frame rate throughout our matches, even with several bots included. The character models look good and animate well, too--they're similar in design to those you've seen in recent Unreal Tournament games.

The new footage shown by Midway today for Unreal Championship 2 offered one new revelation that was unexpected but nonetheless makes a lot of sense: Mortal Kombat will somehow be involved in the game. Toward the end of the footage, the classic MK dragon logo was revealed, and a "Finish him!" was heard, so it's not too difficult to imagine what's going on here. Midway hasn't said specifically what will be in the game, but we expect to know more soon.

Epic is going all out with Unreal Championship 2. Whereas the first game was simply a port of Unreal Tournament 2003 to the Xbox, this sequel is designed as a console game from the ground up and is bringing some very interesting innovations to the established, competitive Unreal formula. We'll be very interested to see how the Xbox Live community responds to the game upon its February 2005 release, since it has the potential to be a mainstay on many gamers' now-playing lists for some time to come. If you're really burning to play Unreal Championship 2, take heart--a Live-enabled demo will be released in January so you can wet your whistle. Stay tuned for more.

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