Reviewed: July 1, 2005
Released: April 18, 2005
The Unreal franchise, whether it be the single-player story games or the incredibly intense Tournament editions, has enjoyed a long and successful run. Rather than simply recreate the gameplay from other legendary FPS titles, Epic Games took the genre someplace new, creating something not unlike a sporting event with all the flavor of todayís WWE, only with gunsÖlots of guns.
Unreal Championship 2: The Liandri Conflict is the latest installment in the Unreal universe and the first Unreal game to be launched since Midway acquired the publishing rights to the franchise. Adding a clever story mode, new weapons including an all-new melee system, and improved mobility taken right from Tribes, the Liandri Conflict is likely to replace your favorite single-player action game and easily secures the crown for best multiplayer game of 2005Öso far.
Unreal Championship 2 innovates the gameplay on several levels. First, it blends the FPS and third-person genres together by giving you the choice of which view you wish to play from, and this time itís not just a camera switch. Each view comes with its own pros and cons, although when you eventually engage in melee combat you are forced to a third-person view, but itís for your own good.
For those of you who are broadband challenged or just socially inept, Epic has tossed in a single-player story mode. Admittedly, the story is a bit light and merely in place to tie together a tournament ladder that could just as easily fly without the narrative. In essence, the Liandri corporation has invited the Nakhti to participate in this yearís Grand Tournament. It just so happens that this coincides with their annual Ascension Rites where all the best Nakhti warriors fight to the death with the winner becoming the new Emperor.
Naturally, a bit of corporate corruption sneaks into the game with the Liandri corporation rigging the tournament to put their own puppet ruler in place. As Anubis, a warrior in the elite Nakhti Imperial Legion, itís up to you to defeat the entire roster of combatants and make your way to the top of the ladder and assume your rightful place as heir to the throne of Nakhti.
Those going solo can also enjoy the traditional tournament ladders as well as a new Challenge mode that will put you in a variety of situations with defined goals and objectives, usually on a timer. If you manage to actually complete all 15 rounds of the Challenge mode you will unlock Midwayís signature character, Raiden, who comes complete with all his godlike powers. There is a lot of other content that is locked down until you earn the right to play it.
As has always been the case, the single-player modes of these types of games, whether they have a story or not, have always been more about training you for the online battles to come. Unreal Championship 2 serves up plenty of multiplayer goodness for up to eight warriors at a time via system link or sixteen on Xbox Live. With an amazing assortment of cleverly designed battle arenas, full of interactive elements and unique power-ups, plus a cast of more than a dozen characters, prepare to spend at least 100 hours or more playing this game.
To keep the gameplay fast and frantic the control scheme has become a polished work of art. You can easily toggle between first and third person views with a single button tap, and you can just as easily switch between melee and ranged weapon combat. All of the non-combat elements and controls have been simplified so you can just concentrate on killing.
With five levels of difficulty, you can easily tailor the game to your liking but be warned that the famed enemy AI is back and better than ever. Once you get to about the middle difficulty level you will be crying for human competition. The computer is merciless and brutal, but it can be beat. Itís just going to take a lot of practice.
No matter which mode you play or if you are going solo or up against a group of friends (or strangers) online, you have several battle styles to choose from. You have your traditional deathmatch and team deathmatch modes, survival, CTF, and others including two new modes, Overdose and Nali Slaughter, both incredibly fun and playable in solo and online modes.
Nali Slaughter is basically a turkey shoot where you are trying to kill as many Nali as you can in the given time limit. Of course your opponents are trying to do the same thing so you must outscore them. Overdose is an adrenalized version of capture the flag where you must race across the map retrieving and delivering these spheres.
You also have Mutators. These are game rules that can be as subtle as altering the gravity of a level to as severe as restricting weapons to melee only or perhaps sniper-only for some long distance loviní.
Melee combat is new to the mix and even though it has been greatly simplified, it still offers an entertaining diversion to the traditional gunfire and explosive combat. You basically have a normal and a strong attack and you can mix these up for a surprisingly variety of combat moves including a visually pleasing Coup de Grace finishing move. Those Midway guys just have to put a bit of Mortal Kombat into everything they do.
Slipping between melee and weapons is just as fluid as changing camera views and melee forces you into a third-person angle with a unique tethering system for the camera that always keeps you and your currently-selected target on the same screen. It might not help you hit them but at least you can find them.
A few other twists have been added including a revamped adrenaline system whereby you can now collect the precious "battle juice" as a power-up or build it up slowly by blocking and attacking opponents. Each character has six impressive adrenaline powers that can easily be selected with a quick pop-up menu during combat. The entire system is fast and fluid and will quickly become second nature.
Blocking and reflecting attacks just isnít a great way to build up adrenaline. If used properly you can often win against heavily outmatched odds, especially if you want to automatically send a sniper bullet right back at the guy who shot it. Reflecting works at both long and close range but it does require precise timing.
Epic has increased the mobility of the combatants for this yearís tournament. You now have the ability to quickly dodge, jump, double-jump, bound up walls, and even hover. Itís still not as aerial intense as Tribes but itís getting close. The levels are designed with plenty of locations and structures like chimneys to encourage the use of your new mobility, not only for special sniper vantage points, but to reach the more elusive power-ups.
One particularly useful offspring from this new mobility is the Jump Attack and Pounce. By combining the jump and attack buttons you can literally slingshot across levels, making a quick escape or better yet, a surprise and damaging attack if timed properly.
Even with all the added mobility and melee combat Unreal Championship 2 is still about the weapons and Epic delivers an arsenal ofÖahemÖepic proportions. With more than a dozen staffs, swords, and other melee weapons, plus race-specific weapons, not to mention even more devastating firepower divided into energy and explosive weapons categories, your choices are limited only by your imagination and your ammo counter.
Weapons are incredibly balanced so no matter who has what nobody has a defined advantage. This game is more about the player's skill and not about which weapons you manage to acquire early in the match. Most weapons have alternate fire modes and enemies can now be stunned, which sets them up for a strong attack or a Coup de Grace if you can move in and perform the scripted sequence of attacks.
There are more than 40 visually stunning and architecturally engaging levels to master in Unreal Championship 2 and more are promised via Xbox Live content download. These levels are smaller than you might expect but they are intricately complex and often very vertical. Thereís plenty of space to mix it up in large numbers or engage in some more personal combat.
Surprisingly enough, most of these play out well with a wide range of combatants, but the ideal matches seem to be with eight or more people. If you are short on humans then Epicís awesome Bot AI is back to rip you to shreds.
Online play is solid with very minor lag, usually because of one or two people with a poor connection. If everyone has a good ping you are in for a real treat. Xbox Live scoreboards are also put to great use with a sensible ranking system that encourages and rewards players for picking and choosing their matches wisely.
The Liandri Conflict is easily one of the prettiest games currently on the Xbox. The level designs are simply inspired, by what, Iím not entirely sure, but most levels took by breath away the first time I gazed upon them. With a subtle mix of Greek, Roman, and Egyptian influence, you might think you are getting a sneak peek at the new Stargate game. This game is built using nearly four times the geometrical detail of anything that has come before it.
The framerate is blistering which just boggles my mind considering the insane amount of detail and texturing, not only in the environments, but in the characters as well. Lighting and shadows are flawless and through the use of special shaders on the character models, these fighters will literally pop off the screen.
Special effects are used in abundance but also appropriately, with transparent shields, showering particle effects, fiery explosions, wonderful water effects and animation, and bloody chunks of enemies flying all over the place. Itís like visual crack; youíll keep playing just to see whatís next. And with HDTV support the game is free from jaggies and shimmering.
I was worried at first about the whole first-person, third-person conflict as well as trying to engage in melee combat in what is traditionally a rapid dodge, jump, and fire game, but the intuitive lock-on system keeps the camera angle just right. I never got blindsided by a poor angle or architectural obstruction.
In keeping with the sporting event, WWE style of presentation our booming announcer is back. His introductions and infrequent single-word commentary on the matches is a shining star in the audio presentation. Naturally, being a Midway production, you have the option to toggle in the Mortal Kombat announcer. This is a nice treat for MK fans but I found it a bit unsettling to hear his voice outside an MK game.
The rest of the speech is accentuated with minor quips and taunts during combat and the conversations during the game-engine cutscenes in the story mode. All of the acting is a bit over-the-top, but in a WWE kind of way, so itís all good. These guys are the sports celebs of the future and they know it. Malcolm turns in an especially convincing performance as the broadcast color-commentator.
The music is powerful with an orchestral score fused with heavy percussion and synthesized techno beats that fuel the adrenaline required to play this game for 8-12 hours at a time. It not only fits with the action, it actually enhances it.
Sound effects are outstanding, both in originality and quality. The Dolby Digital mix surrounds you in pristine futuristic firepower. Iíve never heard a Shock Rifle or Ripjack in real life but I bet they sound like they do in this game. The range of sound is also impressive from the subtlest splash of a giblet landing in water to the most thunderous of explosions.
Okay, letís do some math. We have a 17-level story mode combined with 40+ multiplayer maps, three variations of solo play, numerous online modes, five skill levels, 15 challenge stages, dozens of mutators, and hundreds of tournament ladders, PLUS new content coming soon. This might very well be the last Xbox game you need to buy for the rest of the summer.
But if for some perverse reason you are in this only for the solo experience youíll still be glad to know there is easily upwards of 20-30 hours of solid gaming waiting for you with the story mode plus all the challenges and arcade-style tourneys.
Unreal Championship 2: The Liandri Conflict not only redefines our perception of multiplayer games, it raises the bar of the deathmatch genre to new heights and will become the benchmark by which all future online combat games are measured.
It caters to both the solo and the online gamer, it blurs the third and first-person genres and even manages to mix in a bit of fisticuffs action. This is one of those games that keeps getting better the more you play, probably because you keep getting better the more you play.
In a world where game design seems to rely more and more on Hollywood style scripts, intricate stories, and name-dropping voice talent, Epic proves once again that all you need to make a great game is great gameplay, and Unreal Championship 2 is the very definition of a great game, both online and off.