We are the champions, my frags.
Some things never go out of fashion. A nip here, a tuck there, some spit shine and voila - what was once losing touch is now at the top of the chart. Just look at retro clothes, or special edition edits of movies, or even Cher.
Or video games. Like some re-mastered director's cut, Unreal Championship is here to breathe new life into Unreal Tournament, the fast-paced first-person shooter that matched odds against the Quake juggernaut. With the advent of Xbox Live!, Unreal Championship proves to still be good fun for a solid frag frenzy, despite occasional framerate and lag woes.
Unreal Championship begins with the creation of your character from a wide range of choices; everything from chunky men in metal to angry spiky aliens and Egyptians are represented. From there, though, it's all about the fragging.
And if it's all about the fragging on a console, then the first concern I have is with the controls. Thankfully, these default to the dual-stick Halo style that works comfortably well despite Unreal's faster pace.
Two lesser issues with controls are that your left hand has to switch between the analog stick and the D-pad to execute dashes via double taps, and the crosshairs should turn red when an enemy is in sight. Nonetheless, with steady play, precise aiming becomes second nature.
Most of the classic Unreal weapons are here and each gun has two modes of fire. For example, the flak cannon shoots out a blast of shrapnel, or alternatively, chucks a grenade. The initial weapon is a combination of the traditional pistol and a plasma rifle; primary fire shoots pellets while the secondary fire blasts a straight beam of energy.
The shock hammer has been replaced with a shield weapon, which can be used for defensive shielding and an offensive melee attack. Like the shock hammer, the difficulty lies in getting close enough to your enemies to use it, but hen you connect, it's quite a rush.
While there have been many changes in the artillery lineup, the two most popular weapons, rocket launchers and sniper rifles, have received the biggest overhauls. In Unreal Tournament, the rocket launcher was able to lob explosives and shoot up to six rockets at once. It is now limited to only three and no grenade lobs.
Considering all the futuristic weapons in Unreal Tournament, the sniper rifle always seemed a little too 20th century. Unreal Championship swaps out the rifle in favor of a lightning gun, a visual and gameplay update. The secondary fire works to zoom in on distant enemies.
Another change can be found in the collectable Adrenaline vials. Button tap combinations with the D-pad kicks the character into high gear, with such boosts as agility, health, and berserking. It's a small addition that doesn't do much to change the game, though it does add a little more depth.
The 30+ maps are well designed, hearkening back to the basics of Unreal Tournament. The smaller arenas are usually multi-tiered, the medium sized maps snake around circularly and the largest maps often feature an expansive center area to run about. None are particularly memorable, but none are particularly horrible, either.
There are several gameplay modes, from the classic Deathmatch, Team Deathmatch, Survival and Capture the Flag to new additions like Double Domination and Ball Run. Double Domination involves controlling two points on a smaller map. Once your team has secured both points, a countdown of 10 seconds will commence. Keep your points secure by the time it passes and you'll score.
Ball Run is an odd mixture of football and Unreal. Grab the ball and run it into the opposing team's base through their goal. Simple enough on paper, but you'll need your team to back you up or you'll quickly become dead meat. The ball can be tough to spot when no one is carrying it, but hey, the interesting mode is still good fun.
The single-player will take you on a whirlwind tour of these gameplay styles, pitting you and your team of bots against even more bots. All the bots have statistical variations in categories like accuracy and agility, but this isn't noticeable or even a part of the strategy. Plus, there's no story to speak of outside of some character descriptions. The real game is found online.
When you get on a good server, Unreal Championship online is terrific. The Xbox Live! service include full rankings, a tally of friends and the promise of future downloadable content. Just the fact that everyone is on the same console means a more level playing field - it's not like the PC, where one guy is on some 2 Ghz monster while you're chugging at minimum specs. But even on a recommended server, lags can hit pretty hard, faltering precision and dropping frames.
Even when you aren't online, the framerate is still far from a silky sixty. It's the most glaring graphical grievance, but the game looks sharp in all its futuristic glamour and is still greatly improved over the worthy yet dated original.
The guns and powerups have been given a visual overhaul. It's almost like hearing a familiar language, only with a strange accent. For example, the health kits are now floating icons, Quake 3 style. The rocket launcher is now shaped like an old school Nerf Ball shooter. Just switching through the weapons and knowing which one does what requires some reeducation.
The explosions and sound effects are the familiar futuristic hums and motors with blaring rock music to get you going. Most of the classic taunts and some more severe entries make their way in, but then again, you'll be making your own taunts via the Xbox Live! headset.
I'm happy to see an Unreal game in the Xbox Live! lineup, but to be frank, this is still just basically Unreal. Lag will still rock the boat and a smoother framerate would have added beautifully. Unreal Championship is like a well-worn pair of sneakers that you threw in the wash - underneath the fresh polish is a comfortable fit, but it's just the same old pair of shoes. Lucky for us, these shoes still fit.