The Unreal series has, so far, been a very PC-focused series of first-person shooters. While there have been some single-player adventures here and there, the series has been at its best as a multiplayer-focused game with extremely tight gameplay, great maps, interesting modes, and terrific postrelease support from Epic, the series' developer. To date, the Unreal series' console presence has been limited to versions of existing PC games. But the latest game to bear the name, Unreal Championship 2: The Liandri Conflict, has been designed from the ground up as a console game, and it shows. It feels perfectly tuned for the Xbox, right down to a surprising new camera perspective.
The big deal in Unreal Championship 2 is that it has an increased focus on up-close melee fighting. Plenty of first-person shooters have included a melee attack, but it's usually designed as a nearly useless last-ditch maneuver. In UC2, the melee attacks are given a great deal of priority--to the point where you can't even call this Unreal game a first-person shooter anymore. Unreal Championship 2 primarily takes place from a third-person perspective, which helps greatly with your sword and staff attacks, since you'll need to see the action going on around you to survive. This new perspective is the default for when you're rocking a gun, too, and it works just fine. If the shock of shooting a shock rifle from a behind-the-back perspective is too much to bear, you can drop back into a first-person view when you're firing guns, but the third-person view really does work great.
You're also much more maneuverable in Unreal Championship 2 than in a typical first-person shooter. While UT2004 let you double-jump, UC2 lets you get into all kinds of crazy wall jumping. You can repeatedly bounce from wall to wall, and this is a handy way to climb up to higher areas. Each character also has a set of special moves that require adrenaline to use. Fans of the series will remember how the previous Unreal Championship (and the last two Unreal Tournament games) used adrenaline as a slow build--you'd earn it for kills and by picking up pills, but it took a lot before you could unleash a special adrenaline power-up. In UC2, you're constantly earning adrenaline, and some moves don't require you to fill your entire meter. This means you'll be able to break out these moves more often, and now there are more moves to break out. Each character has six abilities. Many of these, like the ability to heal, are shared among the game's characters. You can also use a nimble power-up to jump higher and float in the air. Some characters have the ability to repel different types of weapon attacks. Still others can freeze you in your tracks or set off a flash bomb that blinds other players. That, combined with stamina and agility statistics for each character, makes your choice of combatant matter a great deal.
The maneuverability ties in well with the swords, axes, and staves. This is probably the most satisfying melee combat found in a tournament-style shooter, and little touches, like the ability to lock on to your opponents to help keep them onscreen, really helps make all this work. On top of that, the Unreal series' longtime Mortal Kombat influence is deeper than ever. If you can freeze or stun your opponent, you can bust out your sword, lock on, and input a quick button sequence to execute a coup de grace, which is really just the Unreal way of saying "fatality." These moves are fast and aren't terribly flashy, but it's a great way to finish off an opponent when he still has all of his health. However, these moves are fairly difficult, so they don't unbalance the game. The MK influence goes deeper due to Epic's new affiliation with Midway. You can opt to turn on "MK announcer" in the options, which replaces the Unreal announcer with the one used in Mortal Kombat: Deception. On top of all that, you'll probably notice fairly early on that one of the bots that the game randomly throws at you is Raiden, MK's thunder god. If you're very, very good at the game (or a dirty cheater), you can eventually unlock Raiden for your own use.
Choice seems to be the order of the day for Unreal Championship 2. In addition to choosing a character, you'll choose a weapon loadout before entering combat. Each character has a default gun and a melee weapon, but from there, you choose two more weapons. You'll get one explosive weapon, like the rocket launcher, grenade launcher, ripjack, or the ever-popular flak cannon. You'll also get one energy weapon, like a sniper rifle, shock rifle, an energy-based minigun called the stinger, or the bio rifle. We found we dealt the most death with the flak cannon and the stinger, but different maps may call for different loadouts. Some of the more vertical maps, for example, provide great spots for sniping.
The maps are widely varied, and there are 50 to choose from. With support for up to eight players, Unreal Championship 2 has a series of maps large enough to accommodate that many people, but it also has more-confined environments that are perfect for one-on-one duels. Some of the maps are broken out by mode, so you'll see a series of maps designed expressly for the new overdose game type, which tasks you with collecting a ball and delivering it to the same-colored goal to score points. You'll also see maps that are designed for capture-the-flag and some that are better suited for survival mode but that can also double as great deathmatch areas. With the large number of maps at your disposal, there's plenty to do and see.
The variety goes another level or two deeper with something that has become a staple of the Unreal world: mutators. These mutators let you put a new spin on an existing mode. You can disable adrenaline for a more conventional battle. Or you can double the amount of adrenaline everyone earns for more special attacks. You can disable melee weapons and force first-person cameras for a "classic" first-person shooter battle. Or you can go melee-only for a hectic sword clash. You can also throw computer-controlled characters into any battle, online or off. The artificial intelligence for the game's bots is great. Most Xbox Live games don't even offer bots of any kind, so it's especially great to have bots that are good enough to use for offline practice sessions. You can order them around in team games, but when left to their own devices, they know how to kill. If they're too good at putting you down, you can adjust the game's difficulty setting. You'll unlock more bots and mutators as you play through the game's single-player modes.
While the main focus in Unreal Championship 2 has to be its terrific Xbox Live support, there's a hefty chunk of single-player action as well. There's a short, story-driven campaign that puts you in the role of Anubis, who enters the tournament to stop his ex-girlfriend from becoming the emperor. The campaign includes some cutscenes, has some good dialogue, and is an interesting component of the game. Like in a fighting game, you can also choose any character and go through a tournament mode. There's a bit of story in the tournament matches, but it's all conveyed through the short descriptions of each match. Finally, there's the challenge mode. In this section, you'll be faced with a series of very, very difficult challenges, like entering a two-on-two team deathmatch down by nine kills. They just get harder as you work your way down the list, too, so you'll need to be on your game--and perhaps a little lucky--to come out on top.
The game supports split-screen play for two players, and system link is in there also. But the real action is destined to be on Xbox Live. You can have up to eight players in a match, and all of the mutators and other configuration options that you'd have offline are available online as well. The game functions well over Xbox Live, and you can inject a mix of bots into games, too, if you so desire. UC2 keeps fairly detailed stats, letting you see your weapon preference, most-used adrenaline powers, and so on. The stats aren't exhaustive, but there are enough there to be interesting. The game uses Xbox Live for more than just multiplayer games. The scoreboard feature applies to almost every single-player challenge, so you can compare your times with the rest of the world. There are also hooks for downloadable content, such as alternate character skins and new maps.
All of these options and modes are great, but they would be all for naught if the game weren't any fun. Fortunately, that isn't the case. While stripping the Unreal-style shooting down to three different guns and one sword per character might sound like a step backward from the "hoard every gun on the map" style of the previous games, forcing players to choose gives the game another level of strategy and also contributes to the fighting-game-like mentality at work here. Also, the game's movement is rock solid. You always feel like you have complete control over your character whether you're lashing out with an airborne sword attack or sniping from a distance. In short, the gameplay is absolutely superb.
The graphical presentation's no slouch, either. Everything, from the environments to the characters that kill each other inside those environments, looks impressive. There's a real variety to the maps, and whether they're indoors, outdoors, open, or confined, they all fit together with the visual theme of the game. There are some good explosions and particle effects, too. The game runs smoothly, which is totally key in a game that moves this fast. About the only thing that sticks out is that the gibs--that is, the chunks of body that fly everywhere when a player gets blown up--don't look so great. It would have been nice to see the Mortal Kombat theme played up a bit in this area, too. Maybe give each character nine femurs and two skulls or something.
The music in the recent Unreal games has sort of followed a militaristic sports motif. It's as if ESPN bought the History Channel and needed new music for every show. That theme carries on in Unreal Championship 2, and it fits with the action nicely. Each of the game's characters has a unique voice for taunts, grunts, and so on, and you'll also hear voice acting in the single-player story mode. The voice work in the game isn't overwhelming, but it's strong and well written. The taunts for the robot characters and the SportsCenter-like show in the story mode, in particular, are amusing.
Unreal Championship 2 is an easy game to like. Its multiplayer focus means it'll be at its best if you're an Xbox Live player, but at the same time, the bots are good enough and the game is configurable enough to make it a worthwhile purchase for solo players, too. While the concept of a first-person shooter going behind the back may sound a little strange at first, Unreal Championship 2 pulls it off with ease and, at the same time, provides a fantastic new twist on an old favorite.