Saturday, December 28, 2013

A Second Look @ Unreal Championship 2: The Liandri Conflict

I'm admittedly cheating a bit by reviewing UC2, since it features a third-person camera, but since it is part of the Unreal franchise and its billed as an FPS, it counts. Deal with it.


Arriving a mere months before the release of the Xbox 360 and launching exclusively for the original Xbox, Unreal Championship 2 was once cited by one of the creators as "pushing polygons like crazy." That statement is held true as UC2 is probably one of the best-looking original Xbox games you could ever find. Epic Games made the most of it and created one of the franchise' best by taking things in a different direction with the addition of a third-person camera and melee weapons. If it doesn't sound like an Unreal Tournament game that's because its not; this offering is more balanced between the single player story and the multiplayer action by using all the content within for both sides. So much has been put into Unreal Championship 2 that its a wonder why Epic Games didn't just make it an Xbox 360 launch title. Understandably it would have been a gamble going against Call of Duty 2 in the FPS category, and by then the original Xbox was already in enough homes, so possibly sticking to the first console was a wise business decision.

This time around the single player campaign features a new tournament known as Ascension Rites. Liandri Corporation has gotten it's greedy paws into a Nakhti ritual that determines who the next king or queen will be. Enter Anubis, a warrior who gave up the princely lifestyle to fight in a far-off war which earned him the disdain of his people. He returns with the belief that the Liandri Corp has tainted the Ascension Rites through televising, marketing, and adding their own combatants into the fray. As Anubis you face your ex-betrothed Selket, her minions, and others vying for the crown through thirteen battles with various modes of play. There are four training sessions at the beginning to make sure you've got the game well understood and its easy to pick up and play by the end of them. While there are only five levels of difficulty it becomes a challenge to better yourself in the harder ones. Ascension Rites is played with Anubis only and by the end of it you feel most comfortable playing as him or someone of equal strength. Throughtout the Ascension Rites, Liandri is interfering by adding their own competitors and tipping the scales against you, including bot combatants and attacks outside of the arena, although the Ascension Rites do say that anyone can enter and win.
During the Ascension Rites ladder, Tournament legend Malcolm offers you to join the famous Thunder Crash team, and once its completed the real Tournament begins. While there are only 10 tiers with varying rules to play through, each of the fourteen characters has a tournament ladder for themselves. There's a special appearance by Raiden from the Mortal Kombat series as a tie-in with being published by Midway as well as the option to use the MK announcer.
In addition to the Ascension and Tournament modes, Challenges mode makes an appearance by offering trials wherein the player goes against several opponents on a team alone or must face off against new opponents, such as Raiden who is unlocked upon completion of all the challenges. Mods, known as mutators this time, make a comeback and take part in each of the game's modes with the series staples of Instagib, LowGrav, Speed Match, and others returning. Some new and exclusive mutators like Looting, Melee Only, and Camp Fire can make things a bit more interesting. Mutators add a level of fun and challenge that, even after many hours of normal play, can change the game in new and better ways.
DeathMatch, Team DeathMatch, and Capture the Flag being the usual Unreal game modes are present, while new modes Nali Slaughter, Overdose, and Survival make an appearance. Nali Slaughter has several competitors racing to kill as many Nali as they can while also killing or avoiding each other; its mindless fun at first but does feel like a real challenge. Overdose has players attempting to take control of an energy ball and hold it as long as they can without dying while attempting to reach a goal. More points are scored the longer the player holds onto the ball by the time they reach the goal. At the maximum dosage, the player reaches a godlike status with invulnerability, speed, and other temporary boosts. Survival pits the player or players in a one-on-one deathmatch against bots or a human opponent with the winner advancing to the next round.
Each character has their own strengths and weaknesses in regards to health and agility with four points split among the two. Those who are more agile have less health and vice-versa. Some characters, such as Anubis, are balanced. Aside from character traits, unique adrenaline power-ups can turn the tide of a fight with things like Repluse, which can shrug off some damage; Heal, which will refill a portion of the player's life bar; and Nimble, which allows the player to make several mid-air jumps in a row. Everyone has a set of temporary boosts that come at the cost of adrenaline, which is refilled slowly either automatically or via level pick-ups.
A big change for the franchise comes just before going into battle, this time the player is given a choice of only two weapons to choose from. One weapon that uses explosive ammo and the other that uses energy ammo. This forces the player to think ahead in terms of play style since the maps are too small to fit so many weapons, instead they're littered with ammo pickups of each type. The usual amount of Unreal weapons has been reduced down to eight, with series staples of Flak Cannon, Ripjack, Shock Rifle, BioRifle, and Stinger making a return. Each weapon also has they're famous alt-fire attacks to make combat more interesting.
The addition of a third-person camera adds a new depth to the playing field and allows you to see more of the action as well as a better view of the melee combat. "Bringing a knife to a gunfight" adds a whole new side to the Unreal franchise but don't think that the melee is a last resort when out of ammo. It can give you a definite upperhand in battle with the ability to charge weapons, dash through the air, shield your character, and reflect projectiles, which can add insult to injury. Along with each character having a melee weapon they also have two pistols in their arsenal with recharging ammo. When charged and released they can freeze a target in place for a short period of time, giving the player (or a bot) a few precious seconds to execute a Coup de Grace attack. These are stlyish one-hit kills with the melee weapon that are activated by pressing a button combination that's displayed.

According to Wikipedia: "A specialized version of Unreal Engine 2.5 called UE2X was used for UC2 on the original Xbox platform. It featured optimizations specific to that console." While it does feel like a true Unreal game, it seems to have lost the brooding of past titles and replaced it with a more technological look with glowing surfaces, water distortion, distance fog, and lights creating shadows and colors on the characters like crazy. It must have pushed the original Xbox to its graphical limits.
The level design is varied throughout the 40+ maps with none of the old Unreal maps making a return. This is all new stuff for a new game and the hard work shows throughout each design with amazing detail in each expertly crafted map. Distant mountains and structures look pixelated due to the technical limitations but the feeling of size and scale that's presented is mind-blowing for the console time.
The cutscenes in the Ascension Rites mode leave something to be desired in that the faces don't appear to be animated right while some textures seem to have lost a little shine that's present during play. Lighting looks good for the most part but the old FMV pixelation curse is still there. The videos do a good job of unfolding the story by introducing characters and driving the plot forward, but for those who are only caring about the action the story can be ignored.
While character diversity is a bit bland, the characters and armor designs are what you'd expect in the Unreal universe with the beefiness of the armor now becoming a mainstay in whatever Epic Games makes. Armors on Anubis, Selket, and the other Nakhti are heavily influenced by ancient Egyptian culture and look the best. All others, not so much. Besides the robots that are more appealing than previous franchise entries, the rest leave little to talk about. Regardless of that, each character design is considerably better than what was used in prior games, which they used to be recycled bodies with differing heads and colors.

The music is as dark and adrenaline-filled as you would expect from an Unreal game with techno beats, rock guitars, and orchestral instruments giving off vibes of urgency with a touch of old-school Egyptian mummy movies mixed in. While it is in tone with the Unreal universe, it feels somewhat lacking in edge and excitement as though the music is afraid to be anything less than empirical.
Voice-acting is superb with each character having several taunts, cheers, or orders when called for during gameplay while the Ascension Rites cutscenes are never too dry or phoned in. They inject a little bit of humor to keep things light-hearted and thankfully it never feels forced.
Sound effects are plentiful with grunts from the characters, distance explosions, pick-ups, gunfire everywhere, and sound distortion during a few of the adrenaline power-ups. Often times you can hunt down an elusive bot or player by following their grunts. The levels themselves never feel lifeless because there's always an environment sound happening nearby: birds chirping in open areas, the wind blowing by, footsteps through water, flames crackling, machinery motors whirring, water moving, and many other sounds give life to even the most mechanical-themed maps.

If there is a downside to Unreal Championship 2 its that it feels like just a one-trick pony. The possibility of a franchise here has flexed all its muscles with the ideas presented and for a sequel to be bigger would have to include some new and outrageous things. It would be hard to follow up and doing the next game in the same style would cause Epic Games to cement its feet and prepare to throw it in shark-infested waters. Its a conundrum: if they change it completely for a sequel then they'll be expected to keep changing with new ideas. If they keep it the same, they risk making the Championship name into a repeat offender.

I will freely admit that I have been biased in this review since UC2 is my second favorite game of all-time. Every time I put it in, even just to jump around the levels, I notice a new detail I hadn't seen before. Its easy to see why its my favorite with the amount of things to do and ways to play that make me want to play it more. The replay value is practically immeasurable if you have three friends willing to make a party of it. While the original Xbox Live may be dead, the Unreal franchise has always had bots and adjusting the difficulty feels like you'll want to better yourself. Unreal Championship 2 is only available for the original Xbox but is backwards compatible with the 360 and looks and plays best on it. You can find it incredibly cheap these days and its so very worth it to play it.
You need Unreal Championship 2 on your shelf and you need to experience this game. The ideas feel refreshing to a genre that was soon to be saturated with copy paste clones and even now it has aged well with the melee combat and character traits keeping things in a good balance with an ease of access that any FPS fan can comes to grips with.
We need to see an Unreal Championship 3 only to see more of the fresh ideas that 2 breathed into the franchise and the FPS genre in general. For it to be a follow-up to just a port of Unreal Tournament 2004 is a big deal since UC2 showed that the genre doesn't have to be stale if the developers are willing to push the limits and add new ways to play instead of how to play.

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