Gamers are anti-social for a reason " someone is usually trying to kill us. If we don't seem to care about the weather, traffic or New Pope, it's because in our world, demonic priests are backflipping over rocket-mounted cars while blood rains from the sky. The Pope isn't trying to kill you? Then why does he matter?
This is especially poignant when you consider that a little developer named Epic has figured out new and ultra-violent ways for you to kill and be killed in the new Unreal Championship 2: The Liandri Conflict. No more will your virtual foes run at you launching rockets and firing sidearms, now they will flip around the environment hurling death down from above and finishing you off in sassy, gruesome ways.
Sound exciting? It is, provided you're online. While the single-player mode is just a glorified collection of bot-battles, UC 2's awesome implementation of melee weapons makes it one of the deepest, most playable online fragfests to include a rocket-launcher.
When you begin a game, Unreal Championship 2 looks like a typical first-person shooter " your hands stick up from the bottom of the screen holding a couple guns, and a crosshair somewhere in the middle guides your aim. You can run around, jump or double-jump, bounce off walls and fire your weapon.
But with a tap of the B button, the camera pulls out to an elevated third-person perspective, your character brandishes his or her melee weapon, and the play dynamics completely change. You can still jump and run around, but holding the L and R triggers generates a barrier similar to a riot shield, and tapping the L trigger can deflect incoming projectiles back to their owner.
You can execute quick, light attacks as well as slow, heavy attacks, and whacking your opponent, if it not fatal, will encase them in ice. When this happens you have a few seconds to lock on and enter a simple button combo for a fatal finishing move. While the animation is the same every time, forcing your opponent to watch a silly cut-scene of you chopping them into a million pieces is always worth your while.
Your melee weapon is also an excellent mode of transportation. By leaping into the air and pressing the R trigger, you will streak in whatever direction you are facing for about a hundred yards, as long as nothing gets in your way. This is an efficient means of crossing chasms and pursuing enemies. Once you catch them, the streaking attack is also an efficient means of putting them away. If you lock-on to an opponent with the R3 button, you can jump and streak directly at them. You can hold the R-trigger in mid-air to charge up a really powerful attack, although you'll be a sitting, er, hovering duck until you decide to let loose.
While such attacks are extremely powerful, they're also well-balanced. You're never easier to shoot than when you're hanging in mid-air, so you can't get too complacent just levitating like a bad magician. Also, rival players can switch to their melee weapons, block your incoming attack, and then counter with one of their own. After getting ripped to bits enough times, you'll begin to develop techniques.
One of my favorites is streaking in with a regular attack, immediately jumping back into the air, and then using an adrenaline consuming power-streak. The power-streak is just like the regular attack, but can pass through melee-shields and inflict serious damage.
Adrenaline is represented by twin bars beneath your health, and provides the juice consumed by your power-streaks and player-specific adrenaline fueled abilities. For example, every character has the abilities "Nimble" and "Speed." Each of these can be accessed when only one adrenaline bar is full, although some require both. Accessing these powers requires a somewhat tedious menu system, but while at first it seems cumbersome, the system works flawlessly once you memorize the button sequences for your favorite powers. Speed, for example, can be activated by quickly tapping X, X, A.
While all characters share some abilities, each has their own, unique assortment of six. This definitely adds some depth to Unreal Championship 2, although certain skills are absolutely more useful than others, which creates some character imbalance. Sobek gets a pretty weak assortment of abilities compared to Sapphire, who can freeze any nearby enemy to set up a coup de grace. A solution would have been to allow players to pick their abilities before a round the same way they pick their weapons, but unfortunately, this isn't the case. Still, the abilities add yet another dimension to the delightfully complex gameplay.
For all the exciting melee dynamics, you might almost forget that the game has guns. That is, you would until you were wiped out by a big, green gob of biological goo. Instead of running around grabbing weapons from the environment, the game lets you choose one energy weapon and one explosive weapon before the start of each round. Sensibly, there are only two types of ammunition, which is spread liberally throughout the level.
All weapons have regular and alternate fire modes, and these can occasionally be used together to create a third mode. The rocket launcher fires one rocket normally or can load up to three to fire at once with the alt fire. If you load and fire multiple rockets, you can then press the R trigger while they're in flight, and each will split into two cork-screwing rockets for a greater damage area. The energy weapons can be lethal, although they're generally less damaging and less useful than the explosive weapons thanks to the newfound mobility of the combatants.
Without crazy, vertical environments, much of Unreal Championship 2's mobile aptitude would have been wasted. Fortunately, most levels are as tall as they are broad and packed with layers upon layers of walkways for players to jump between and huge chasms for them to rocket over. Even though there are about fifty levels in which to run around get violent, many of them are difficult to distinguish from the others, as each level seems to follow one of two aesthetic schemes: Temple or Space Station.
This doesn't matter much, though, as the types of matches you'll be playing aren't heavily dependent on the environmental style. This may also be the reason the environments don't contain any interactive elements or meaningful set pieces. For a series that pioneered Assault-style multiplayer matches, any sort of environmental objectives are oddly lacking from Unreal Championship 2. You won't have to access any computer terminals, blow up any barriers, or storm any beaches.
Instead, you'll be limited to a somewhat depressing assortment of generic match types including Deathmatch, Team Deathmatch, Capture the Flag, Nali Slaughter, Survival and Overdose. Deathmatch, Team Deathmatch, and Survival are all variations on a theme, while Overdose is just a free-for-all variety of Capture the Flag that uses balls instead of flags. Nali Slaughter is a lame, irritating game where you compete against another player to kill as many helpless bots as you can before time expires. For a game with such incredibly innovative gameplay mechanics, such ubiquitous match-types are a crime. As a result, Unreal Championship 2 gets old way before it should thanks to the fact that all you really have to play are Capture the Flag and Deathmatches.
In an effort to add some variety, there is a pretty substantial list of mutators that can be applied to any given match. Still, a Deathmatch with low gravity and one-hit kills is still a Deathmatch. We expect more, especially from the people who essentially invented objective-based match-types.
Despite its lack of compelling multiplayer modes, Unreal Championship 2 is not a single-player game. There are three offline, single-player modes and none of them is worth the price of admission. The main "campaign" is called Ascension Rites and casts you as Anubis. You enter the tournament because your crazy ex-girlfriend entered and if she wins she'll become Emperor. And so you embark on a humbling series of encounters with some truly bad-ass bots.
Even though Ascension Rites is billed as a Story mode and does have some humorous cut-scenes, it boils down to a lot of Capture the Flag and Deathmatches against bots with really good aim. In a sick joke, the third match pits you in a one-hit kill sniper battle against two bots who decide to gang up on you. The suckers are dead accurate from a mile away while flipping upside down through the air. But for some reason, the game stops counting their kills, handing you a cheaply-earned, impossible victory.
In most cases the bots aren't impossible, just really tough. They all follow the same patterns that can be endlessly exploited, and most of them have a lot of trouble with elevators. They're aggressive, effective, and great for filling spots in multiplayer games, but playing against them exclusively is not worth your time.
The other single-player modes, Tournament and Challenge, are also sequences of Capture the Flag and Deathmatch played against vicious bots. In Tournament mode you choose a player and battle through a series of matches until you win the championship. Challenge mode is more of the same, except each match handicaps you in some way, like plopping you into a Nali Slaughter match down 10 kills with a minute to go. This may have something to do with Midway's influence, as each mode plays out match by match like a fighting game. This is too bad, because Unreal Championship 2 isn't competing against Tekken 5 - it's competing against shooters, the best of which have legitimate single-player campaigns.
Aside from an occasionally unsteady framerate and some camera issues, Unreal Championship 2 looks very good. Most environments employ shiny, reflective surfaces, the characters are well-animated and some of the lighting effects are outstanding. The fitting score is militant and futuristic, the announcer makes you feel like a stud when he says things like "Cavalier!" and the voice-acting in the Story mode is predictably terrible. Then again, you shouldn't be playing the Story mode, right?
Right, because the single-player game feels like a placeholder, as does Unreal Championship 2's paltry selection of play modes. The only thing that really feels finished is the gameplay, and this is never more evident than when, during the "Preparing match" screen, the game completely stalls out, or when all of your foes become invisible, or when you get stuck in Spectator mode. If ever a game could use some extra development time, this is it.
Unreal Championship 2: The Liandri Conflict is a study in both brilliant design and boring implementation. It's just as much a fighter as a shooter, and in turn its gameplay is deeper and more kinetically satisfying than anything else you'll find on the market. So it's a shame that every other aspect indicates a premature release. Without a real single-player campaign and some equally progressive, detailed match types, this conflict is destined to be the biggest thing to almost happen to online gaming.