Unreal Championship Preview

We go hands-on with this upcoming multiplayer shooter for the Xbox.

Infogrames, Epic Games, and Digital Extremes all hope that the popularity of Unreal and its successors in the Unreal Tournament series will carry over to the Xbox with Unreal Championship, a new entry in the series that has quite a bit in common with the recently released Unreal Tournament 2003 for the PC. Unreal Championship also has the distinction of being one of the first games to support Microsoft's upcoming Xbox Live online gaming service, complete with voice masking, and even downloadable content later on. Unfortunately, we haven't been able to try a fully functional Xbox Live version of the game yet, though we have had an opportunity to play the game via system link, and we've also had a chance to play through the single-player campaign. From what we can tell, those looking for a fast-paced first-person shooter with plenty of firepower and clever level design probably won't be disappointed.

Unreal Championship shares many features with Unreal Tournament 2003.

Though Unreal Championship is a highly anticipated game because of its multiplayer options, the game will actually feature an entertaining single-player experience that sets out to replicate nearly every facet of the multiplayer game. Upon starting a single-player game, you'll have the chance to name your team, select from one of several different team emblems, and pick five teammates from a roster of 40 characters spread over several themed groups (such as ancient Egyptian players or a strange group of circus freaks). If you're so inclined, you can access information on the individual abilities of these characters and find out how proficient they are on offense and defense, which can be helpful when putting together a team for matches that place a strong emphasis on coordinating team attacks and defenses.

When you're done putting your team together, you'll see a screen showing the type of match coming up and the team you'll be playing against. The match types range from team deathmatch and capture the flag to double domination and bombing run. You'll have to win three battles in a row in order to move from one match type to another, but each type has up to seven maps to unlock, so, for example, you can continue to play team deathmatch and unlock all the maps before progressing into capture the flag.

There are several modes of play, ranging from traditional deathmatch to bombing run.

If you're completely new to the Unreal series or just unfamiliar with first-person shooters in general, the game also offers a tutorial mode that will take you through all the basics and help you adjust to the control scheme, which basically resembles the one used in Halo, where the left analog stick moves your character, the right analog stick controls where your character is looking, and your weapon's primary and secondary firing modes are mapped to the right and left triggers, respectively. Of course, another way to learn how to play the game is simply to jump right into one of the several different modes of play that Unreal Championship has to offer. Unreal Championship has an instant-action mode that features traditional deathmatch, team deathmatch, survival, capture the flag, bombing run, and double domination. Each of these matches also has various parameters that can be configured such as the time limit, score limit, whether or not a match will have bots (and if so, what their skill level will be), whether or not you can inflict damage upon teammates with friendly fire, and game speed.

Without question, these different match types are what helped make Unreal Tournament popular on the PC, but console fans may not be entirely familiar with the basics, other than deathmatch and team deathmatch, which are simply a free-for-all and a match pitting two teams against each other to see which one can score the most kills, respectively. The survival mode is somewhat similar to deathmatch, only it's executed in more of a tournament style, where you can stay in the match as long as you stay alive. If the computer or a human opponent defeats you, you'll have to sit out until the next round.

Dropping Bombs

The game features detailed environments and some spectacular special effects.

Capture the flag should also be familiar to most first-person shooter fans, but like some of the other team-based modes, it can require a lot of coordination between teammates. Naturally, when you have human teammates, you can simply order them to defend the home base or attack the enemy installation. When you're playing with bots, you can issue similar orders, as well as a freelance order that basically tells the bots to do whatever they want, though at times, it can seem like they do what they want regardless of your orders.

The two other team-oriented modes in Unreal Championship play quite differently from capture the flag. In bombing run, a ball is placed in the middle of a level. When someone picks up the ball, he or she must run to the opponent's goal and either jump through it to score seven points or simply shoot it through the goal to score three points. You can also pass the ball off to a teammate by shooting it in his or her direction, which can be helpful if you're getting a little too low on life and there's someone trailing you. In double domination, you have to control two points on a map for 10 seconds to score. Though, defending your control points can be difficult, since double domination maps tend to be smaller and more conducive to conflict.

However, if you have the right weapon, you'll be much better equipped to defend control points, secure the flag, or score more kills against an opponent. Unreal Championship has several different weapons to choose from, including the assault rifle, the link gun, the rocket launcher, the minigun, the lightning gun, the shock rifle, the biorifle, the flak cannon, the shield gun, and the translocator. As mentioned above, each weapon has a primary firing mode and a secondary firing mode. For example, the assault rifle also shoots grenades, and the link gun also shoots a stream of energy that can be used to fry your enemies or to increase the attack power of another player using a link gun. The lightning gun lets you use a scope to zoom in to take more-accurate shots, and if you hit another player directly in the head, you'll get an instant kill. It's worth noting that the translocator isn't really a weapon since it's used to teleport you to difficult-to-reach areas (which is accomplished by launching a projectile and then pressing the left trigger to teleport yourself to wherever the projectile lands), but more skilled players will find that it can be used to kill opponents by telefragging them--that is, waiting until another player walks over a translocator and then teleporting quickly to the same spot. Unfortunately, there are no signs of vehicles in any of the match types at the moment, but the last time we spoke with the developers, vehicles were being planned as a future downloadable option for the game.

Unreal Championship supports up to four players on a split screen and 16 players on Xbox Live.

One aspect of the gameplay in Unreal Championship that can really help you in a close match is adrenaline. In various locations around a map, you'll find white and orange capsules, and when you collect 100 adrenaline points, you can activate an adrenaline power-up by executing certain combinations using the analog stick, as you would in a fighting game. Adrenaline can give you a boost in speed, extra armor, or a variety of other bonuses that can help you out in a close fight.

Visually, Unreal Championship bears a strong resemblance to the recently released PC shooter Unreal Tournament 2003. In fact, fans of UT2003 will more than likely recognize several maps in Unreal Championship, such as Asbestos, although some seem to have been slightly modified. Also, the weapon models in Unreal Championship look different from those in UT 2003, but they function pretty similarly. Unreal Championship's texture detail is incredibly high, and it features plenty of spectacular special effects, some of which are subtle, like the reflective surfaces on steel pipes, and some of which are very noticeable, like the sand particle effects on the Osiris-2 map. In the version we've been playing, the frame rate tends to stagger a bit when there are a few enemies on the screen at once, but it never drops to down to a point where the game becomes unplayable--even in split-screen multiplayer. In fact, the multiplayer games we played via system link were problem-free, and you'll be able to play with up to 15 other players on Xbox Live when the game is released on November 12. We'll have more on Unreal Championship in the days leading up to its release.

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