Thursday, 28 April 2005
Ben can hardly believe his eyes. Another futuristic FPS on Xbox? That, if anything, is truly unreal.
While Xbox Live is still in relative infancy, online gaming has been kicking around for decades—with franchises like Quake, Doom, Half-Life and indeed, Unreal, laying down the groundwork for what is now an integral part of PC and console gaming. Whilst Microsoft’s service clearly has an iconic franchise in Halo, the titles that provided the brick and mortar that made up the foundations of online PC gaming have yet to transcend successfully over to the Xbox in an online environment—although both the torch-wielding Doom 3 and UT2003-conversion Unreal Championship certainly had a decent stab at it. Enter Unreal Championship 2: The Liandri Conflict, the first member of the Unreal family to be built from the ground up as a console title. Swathed in mythology, Midway’s live-enabled Unreal Championship 2 takes the rich, vibrant charisma and hi-tech blood-drenched thrills and spills of both the PC iterations and the Xbox original and throws spirited third-person close-quarters melee combat into the mix, borrowing heavily from its beat-’em up stablemate Mortal Kombat. The result, we’re promised, is a heady mish-mash of Jedi-Knight sword buckling and traditional spray’n’pray Unreal blasting—but have Midway sacrificed Unreal’s renown accessibility for potentially-alienating innovation?
Traditionally, Unreal titles have been arcadey first-person-shooter affairs—with ridiculously over-sized weaponry, ker-azy over-the-top power-ups and a firm emphasis on multiplayer fragfests—a form that the original Unreal Championship didn’t break away from. The Liandri Conflict is the first Unreal iteration to break the mould, introducing third-person melee combat tailored to console play, although The Liandri Conflict boasts traditional Unreal gameplay to boot. The classic Unreal first-person set-up is present and correct and plays a lot like you’d expect an Unreal title to play, with rocket launchers, bio-rifles and stingers at your disposal (It’s worth noting that the shooting mechanic won’t be for everyone—there’s little precision and it’s all a bit spray’n’pray, so if simulation’s your bag, stay away). The twist with The Liandri Conflict is that at any time you can hit the white button and switch to a third-person perspective—where you can either carry on blasting away with your firearm, or hit ‘B’ and whip out your melee weapon. These range from what George Lucas would tell us not to call a lightsaber to what we can only describe as dual knife-thingys.
As a mechanic, the melee combat works surprisingly well, and while the camera will sometimes decide to misbehave at the most inappropriate moments—the various attacks on offer are both satisfying and enjoyable. There’s an increased emphasis on jumping and darting around, with the introduction of Super Mario-esque wall jumps and Dragonball Z-style flying, while Midway have implemented some elements of their Mortal Kombat franchise into the title, with combos and hidden characters at your disposal. You’ll soon find yourself slashing and dashing around with ease and it all hangs together really rather well. The negative aspect to all this madness is that things often get a little too hectic, and you can’t help but feel that there should be a little more structure to the whole affair, as things soon descend into a confusing brouhaha of flying bodies, rockets and melee attacks—which, fair enough, might be what you’re looking for, but it becomes quite inaccessible for someone new to the arena.
This isn’t helped by the controls. With the addition of the adrenaline menu, which gives the player abilities in return for their ‘adrenaline’—something that comes in the form of power-ups littered around the map— such as invincibility or an increase in speed, the amount of commands spread across the pad is unbelievable, and once again, to someone new to the arena—the controls are entirely inaccessible and with Unreal Championship 2 being such an intense, fast-paced experience, you can’t afford to be looking down at your pad. That said, the aforementioned maps are plentiful in quantity, and ooze that Unreal spirit with their enchanting aesthetics and spirited design. In fact, the whole game oozes that Unreal spirit. As an experience, you can’t fault it, and Midway succeed in absorbing you into their fantasy.
The single-player campaign is pretty much an extended tutorial for the multiplayer matchups. Midway have attempted to a craft a narrative to swathe the single-player ladder with Ascension Rites, and the smooth animation and enjoyable FMV certainly make the experience worthwhile, if not groundbreaking. If that’s not your bag, you can partake in single-player tournaments—but Xbox Live is certainly where the meaty stuff lies. Everything you’d expect from an online FPS is there, from Capture the Flag to Team Deathmatch, complete with bots and mutators, and it’s fair to say that The Liandri Conflict is pretty much the ultimate deathmatch tool if you’re looking for arcadey kicks. It isn’t without niggles, mind. Lag can be a problem, and our review copy froze on multiple occasions—while the fact that games are limited to eight players diminishes the experience somewhat, especially bearing in mind the size of some of the maps.
The Liandri Conflict is certainly a title that’s hard to conclude. There’s no denying the quality of the title, the attention to detail is magnificent and as an all-round package, you won’t find much better. Midway have succeeded in updating a tired classic, and everything gels rather nicely. That said, The Liandri Conflict is often inaccessible and succeeds in alienating both hardcore fans and newcomers. The melee combat works well, and we’re sure any future Unreal titles will feel lightweight without it—but as an experience, The Liandri Conflict is often a little too overwhelming and therefore it’s hard to recommend as a game that you’ll definitely get on with. You’ll either love it or you’ll hate it—we’re a little in between. Blockbuster will provide you with answers. The accessibility of the older iterations has clearly been sacrificed in favour of innovation, and it’s pleasant to see a developer be so bold. Here’s hoping that Unreal Championship 3 doesn’t have to make that sacrifice.