Despite the Xbox's relatively short life, the console has now seen three Unreal titles. Unreal Championship 2, the latest of the three, is the first time the series has looked to offer console gamers a unique playing experience that has been tailored for their system. Unreal Championship was pretty much a port of Unreal Tournament 2003 on the PC, but Unreal Championship 2 has been custom built for the Xbox and some big changes have been made to the traditional formula.
The biggest and most obvious change is the introduction of a third-person viewpoint and its accompanying melee combat. Long time Unreal Tournament devotees will no doubt turn their noses up at the thought of their beloved franchise pandering to 'unskilled' console gamers, but those people aside, I suspect that the majority of gamers will enjoy the mix of gameplay styles that Epic has given them. The initial first hour's play will probably be pretty confusing, but you'll soon become accustomed to the controls and eventually learn how to best use the new melee combat skills you have available.
The new melee combat gives you a number of ways to attack your opponents. Locking onto your opponent will let you home in on them from the air, gutting them with a devastatingly fast flying attack. If you're under heavy fire you can use your sword to repel enemy fire, and even deflect fire back at them, before stunning them with your primary weapon and then performing a Mortal Kombat style finishing move. These finishing moves (or coup de grace, as the game calls them) are a little tricky to pull-off, requiring a perfectly timed button combination, but they are more than worth the effort.
The third-person view works surprisingly well, giving you far more peripheral vision than what you'd have with a first-person viewpoint. You are forced to use this when using melee combat, but it also works surprisingly well for gun-play. You do have the option to switch to a more traditional first-person view, but after a few matches you'll probably forget the option is even there. Before the start of each match you have to choose your weapons: A blaster and an energy weapon. These are added to your standard gun and melee weapon. Players who are used to picking and choosing weapons as they move around maps may find this rather limiting, but if anything, it makes things a little simpler, which - in a game this frantic - isn't a bad thing.
As was the case in UC1, adrenaline allows players to perform a number of special moves, ranging from the ability to jump and float in the air, to being able to freeze your opponent on the spot. While some moves are shared across the entire roster, a few are individual to each character and may influence your choice of character when you play online or against friends over system-link. Where UC2 differs from the original is in how easy it is to build up your adrenaline metre. You'll find that you're almost constantly able to use a power-up, and the matches are generally a lot more exciting because of it.
As you'd expect from an Unreal game, online play is the focus of the game. Building on their experience over many years and their previous Unreal Championship game, Epic have produced one of the most entertaining and addictive online games on the console. There are 50 maps to choose from, but some are designed entirely for use in certain game modes, such as the new overdose mode, which is Unreal Championship's attempt at a ball sport. A ball is randomly placed at a spawn point around the map and players have to pick it up and take it to the drop zone. All the standard game modes are here as well, and it would take the most hardened online gaming hater to fail to enjoy at least some of the modes on offer.
Lag is a big issue with online shooters and UC2 performs adequately, but is far from perfect. The game supports up to eight players in an online game, but to maintain lag-free games you're better off sticking to a maximum of four players, unless playing on one of the official dedicated servers. This is a little disappointing, but four-player games are pretty intense and this limited number of players only becomes a problem on the larger maps. The Xbox Live support even extends beyond the online matches. Each challenge in the single-player game has a time set by Epic and the best time achieved by anyone who was logged into Xbox Live. This is similar to what is found in Project Gotham Racing 2, and gives you some incentive to replay some of the single-player game once you have seen all it has to offer.
If you aren't able to take part in Xbox Live games there is still a lot for you to do in the game. Ascension Rites is the main Single-player game mode, where you battle in an assortment of game types which run alongside a pretty good storyline, backed up by numerous cutscenes that develop the story. You play as Anubis, a warrior who must take part in the tournament to stop his ex-girlfriend from becoming the new emperor. There's also a beat'em up style tournament mode that pits you against a series of combatants, and an 'against the odds' challenge mode, which gives you progressively harder challenges to overcome. The AI bots are more than good enough to take on the average gamer, and numerous difficulty levels make the game accessible to even the most novice players. In offline team games you can give orders to your team-mates, but they are more than capable of taking care of themselves. A single system allows for two players to play together, and there is support for up to eight players over system-link.
Players who don't like the standard game types can modify them using mutators, allowing for games to be tailored as you wish. If you want games that only allow for guns and the traditional first-person view, you can create that game. If you want everyone to have extra adrenaline and to only use melee weapons, you can have it. You'll unlock new mutators and new characters as you progress through the single-player game and if you're good enough you'll even get to play as Raiden, the Mortal Kombat Legend.
Unreal Championship was a nice looking game, but it had a number of problems, the most obvious being a fairly inconsistent framerate. Unreal Championship 2 uses an engine that has been designed specifically for the Xbox and it shows. The environments are stunning, character models are brilliantly detailed and the whole game has vibrant look, which when combined with a solid framerate makes for one of the best looking games on the console. The game also has widescreen support for those of you who have nice widescreen TVs. The game's audio matches the visuals, with great sound effects and taunts coming from each character. The announcer can become annoying, but you'll generally be too caught up in the action to notice.
Unreal Championship 2 has carved out a unique place amongst the Xbox's online games. The combination of gun-play and third-person melee-combat make this unlike any other game on the system, and even with heavy hitters such as Halo 2 dominating the online arena, UC2 should find a strong online following. If you want some frenzied action, online or offline, UC2 should make you more than happy.