Unreal Championship 2 has been in sole development for the Xbox, letting the developers take full advantage of working on a fixed hardware platform. Hoping to tailor the game to a console audience, the game - for the first time in the Unreal series - features an optional third person viewpoint and mélèe combat.
We were fortunate enough to be able to interview Dr. Michael Capps, Lead Designer on Unreal Championship 2 and President of Epic Games.
Pro-G: When it was announced Microsoft were no longer publishing the game, many people were pretty surprised, given that the title looked to be a sure-fire hit. Can you elaborate on the reasoning for this and how did Midway get involved?
Michael Capps: First of all, thanks for the kind words - not sure there's any such thing as a sure-fire hit these days! This was really a strategic decision. Microsoft was very supportive of UC2 from the beginning but as we were negotiating with Midway for rights on future Unreal games, it just made sense to all three parties that Midway took over UC2. From a designer's perspective, I've said this is like picking between two super-models for the prom. You can't go wrong.
Pro-G: The Unreal series has a very strong base on the PC under the guise of the Unreal Tournament series. Was your decision to create a very individual multiplayer Unreal motivated by tailoring it for the strengths of the Xbox, or more a desire to be counted apart from existing efforts?
MC: Great question! I think we all felt that Unreal Championship was limited, both in the engine and the gameplay, by being a cross-platform project. Some of the risks we've taken, like offering the option of third-person perspective, would never have fit for Unreal Tournament on the PC. We've also been able to really squeeze performance out of the Xbox now that we're focused on just the one platform - we're drawing on average 2.5 times more polygons than Unreal Championship, with the exact same hardware.
Pro-G: How do you feel hardcore Unreal Tournament fans will take to Unreal Championship 2? Are you hoping the game will appeal to console gamers as well as people more accustomed to how the series has traditionally played in the PC?
MC: That's the key question for us, really. We've kept faithful to 'what makes UT' but the gameplay and feel have evolved quite a bit. We think the end result will really resonate with the console gaming audience, better than a pure traditional FPS.
But we do have concerns about alienating our community, so we've done everything we can to make sure they'll be comfortable. For example, while the game encourages people to play mostly in third-person perspective, we've put a lot of effort in making some gorgeous first person weapon models and animations. If you want a classic UC-style game, without the melee, third-person perspective, target locking, and other new features... just turn them off with a mutator and have fun.
Pro-G: How hard was it to blend mélèe combat with traditional first-person gunplay? Does one style of play have the edge over the other?
MC: I'd say it's the biggest design challenge I've ever faced - so it was great to have so many smart folks around here to do all the hard work! We approached them separately at first, trying to make melee almost like a fun mini-game within a shooter. That went exactly nowhere, so we started focusing on ways to make the melee player competitive against the shooter, and vice versa. Shielding, reflecting shots, high-mobility jump attacks; all that came out of the interaction between shooting and swinging.
I hope there's no edge of one style over the other, or we haven't done a very good job at balance, have we! Honestly, we find people switching between them fluidly, based on the combat situation, the gametype, who they're fighting... just like you would switch between different rifles in a shooter.
Pro-G: Various trailers have seen some pretty impressive jumping. What made you take the game in this direction?
MC: We've gone through so much evolution over the life of the project, it's hard to remember just why we started down that path in the first place, other than that it was the most fun. Much of our game design is like that; we build a basic framework, and then start trying interesting ideas that fit within that framework, and keep iterating on the fun ones.
As far as I can recall, high-mobility aerial attacks were a way to help melee players close the distance on shooters quickly. We vastly simplified wall-dodging, because it was fun, and we wanted people to be able to do it more often. We let you dodge off walls at an angle, instead of only perpendicular to the wall, to make combat more interesting, and to make it possible to climb tight chimneys.
Pro-G: Visually Unreal Championship 2 looks pretty stunning. How has development of the first Unreal Championship helped you get the most out of the Xbox with Unreal Championship 2? Have you been surprised at what you can achieve with the Xbox hardware?
MC: Well, this was a whole new team for Unreal Championship 2, and we started with a different version of the Unreal Engine. So, while we learned a lot of lessons from the gameplay in the first UC, the engine is quite different.
We really got the chance to make the Xbox hardware sing. Making games for the Xbox is really fun as a designer, because you know that all of your players have sufficient hardware, and you can make something that looks great for everyone, not just people with high-end graphics cards. We have a distortion effect that applies to arbitrary geometry in the world, which makes for great explosions, especially for the shock combo. And there are no worries about one player not having distortion effects turned on, so that guy has an advantage because he can see better, etc., etc.
Pro-G: Halo 2 has just raised the bar for Xbox Live gaming. How has seeing the completed version affected your development? Are you confident enough in your own game to have not made any changes or did you see the positive feedback certain area's of Bungie's game were getting and try to incorporate them into yours?
MC: Halo 2 is out?
Pro-G: Unreal Championship on the Xbox was a popular first generation Xbox Live title, but it had a fair number of problems. Lag was a pretty big problem when player numbers increased. Has this issue been addressed in Unreal Championship 2?
MC: Lag is always a major issue for networked games. We've done everything we can to compensate for high lag situations, and we feel very good about the performance. We're maintaining a nice high frame rate, even with our max player count, which is the critical first step. The game runs butter smooth on a dedicated server, and we're just new tuning and tweaking listen servers (one machine running a client and server) to make sure that will give great performance all the time.
Pro-G: Being an unreal game I'm sure you have a lot of downloadable content planned. Can you give us any details on what you are creating for release after the game has been released?
MC: Unreal games are successful for one reason, and that's our incredible community. We've had a long standing tradition of thanking our customers by providing free bonus packs. With UC2 we don't have the capability for user-created material, so it's crucial that we keep providing new content to keep the game fresh. We're already finishing up a few levels that will be downloadable early on, and we have a few other tricks up our sleeves.
Pro-G: It was a surprise to see a mortal Kombat character included in the game. How many are in there and will any of their trademark moves make an appearance? Fatalities, Babalities etc? Can we expect any other surprises?
MC: I've been a huge Unreal fanboy since 98, but I've been a Mortal Kombat fan for even longer. That was the coolest thing ever; we needed to replace a character who wasn't working out, and we were nervously wondering if Midway might let us use an MK character, and they actually called us to suggest it before we asked! Raiden is a full character in the game, scouring the Liandri Tournament for warriors fit for his struggles defending the earthrealm. He does have a few of his signature moves, including the teleport and leaping attack. He's got his staff for melee fighting, and he does have a new fatality move. No Babalities, I'll leave that to the MK folks!
Pro-G: Is there anything else that you want to say to our readers about Unreal Championship 2?
MC: We're really excited about this project and can't wait to hear what everyone thinks. We've got a Live-enabled demo that's coming out pretty soon, so please give it a try!
We would like to thank Michael for his time and look forward to seeing how the game turns out when it is released in February 2005.