One of the biggest criticisms levelled at the first Unreal Championship was that it was merely an average-at-best port of UT 2003 for PC that wasn't adequately optimised and didn't play to the strengths of the Xbox console. The anti-aliasing patch released shortly afterwards only confirmed the feeling that UC was rushed, not really designed for the Xbox and probably not worth bothering with. Epic got the message and has done everything in its power to make Unreal Championship 2 all about Xbox.
To that end Epic has created a chimera of a videogame that refuses to be labelled simply 'shooter'. Whatever you may have heard about the melee aspect of UC2 it can't have conveyed just how big a part this new feature plays and just how much it has changed the fundamental nature of the game. Through an ingenious collection of inventions Epic really does allow you to bring a knife to a gunfight and come away victorious.
"It started out as a simple idea to change the Impact Hammer (the basic hand to hand weapon in UC1) to something unique for each character type in the game, so Skarjj could have Skarjj blades and so on," says Mike Capps, lead designer on UC2. "It [hand to hand] was fun until someone else came along with a Rocket Launcher and blew you both up, so the idea of melee combat that could compete with ranged weapons came from there." In fact that idea has come so far that it almost blots out the shooter underneath...
Taking the flak
There are two major problems with melee combat in shooters: a) how do you get close enough to a Flak Cannon-wielding Necris to stick him in the belly without being blown apart? And b) how do you keep the twitchy beggar in sight when he's bouncing around like a kitten in a washing machine, especially when you're using a joypad? Epic has tackled these problems with elegant efficiency. Adrenaline-powered, ground-eating lunges that catapult you across the arena sort out the first problem (we'll talk more about Adrenaline in a bit), and as for keeping the enemy in sight, Epic has taken a brave step of kill or cure design.
In UC2 you can place a targeting reticule around any enemy in sight and the game will keep you facing this character until one of you is killed, you break the lock off, or you lose sight of the enemy for a few seconds (behind a wall say). In gun mode the lock merely keeps an enemy on screen (you do still have to aim thank god), but in melee mode the lock is dead accurate. Any lunges or Adrenal attacks you perform will be directed straight at the target. Both these lock types allow you to concentrate more on fighting than on keeping the enemy in view. At first you may think this removes half the skill of playing but if anything it adds an impressive fluidity to encounters, turning clunky engagements into deadly ballets.
Encounters now run as follows. You see an enemy, maybe fire off a few rounds to get their attention, then place a lock on them. After some bouncing around, exchanging a few more rounds, you switch over to melee mode and the camera changes to a third-person view. In melee mode you have the ability to reflect incoming fire back at the shooter with well-timed left-trigger presses. This 'Reflect' ability allows you to close the gap to the enemy without taking too many hits and encourages him to put his guns away and get the knives out. You then make a quick Adrenaline-powered lunge and start smacking away face-to-face, using various button combos to pull off different attacks. The lock keeps you facing your opponent and you both bounce around trying slice each other up. Flicking back to guns is only a button-press away so engagements become highly mobile hit-and-run affairs, especially when a slighter character takes on a heavy.
Give and take
Characters play very differently in UC2. It's not simply a case of a touch more speed or health. A Skarjj has two and a half times the armour of a Necris, for example, and is 30 per cent slower. Those are big differences and they have a huge impact on the way you play each character. You can only hold four weapons and must select them before you enter an arena, there are no weapon pick-ups during play, only ammo energy and bonuses. This combined with the wildly different character stats creates specific types of opponent in-game and you must learn how to tackle and play each type.
Then there are the Adrenaline moves. In the first UC Adrenaline power built up slowly with a player amassing enough to pull off a special move once every five-to-ten minutes, say. In UC2 you're gaining Adrenaline all the time, enough to be pulling off moves every five-to-ten seconds. Adrenaline lets you lunge into melee and perform high-powered melee attacks, but it also gives each character six special abilities that add a new level of tactical depth. Every character gets a Speed Boost and Nimble ability (the latter allowing you to perform vast jumps, wall flips and bullet dodges). The remaining four moves are slightly different for each race, although they all have similar results. The Necris for example have a vampiric health-draining/replenishing move whereas humans simply have a health-booster. Likewise there are themed stun abilities, protective shields and so on. Learning to use these moves at the right time and remembering to use them in the heat of battle is vital.
Because of all this the fighting is now much more tactical. Less all-out chaos, more thoughtful duelling. Although the engine is more than capable of handling it, matches are now limited to eight players. This gives you just enough breathing space to enjoy melee combat in maps that are also large enough to accommodate traditional gunplay.
And what gorgeous maps they are too. The polycount is twice that of the first UC, though the game runs far smoother. Even at this unfinished stage UC2 is one of the best-looking games on Xbox. Despite the radical changes that have been made to the game, it's still very much the Unreal universe and all the visual splendour that implies. It's Unreal all right, but it's also Mortal Kombat...
Yes it's horribly gimmicky, but the rumours are true, UC2 will feature a MK character, but only as an unlockable bonus, activated by playing though the single-player tournament modes. We don't want to dwell on it as it's the kind of thing people remember and there's a danger they'll talk about that rather than all the other stuff Epic has crammed in. As far as Mike Capps is concerned it's just another way to get across how large a role melee combat plays in UC2. "If it's got a Mortal Kombat character in it, it's gotta be part fighter, right?"
It certainly is that. Judging by what we've seen Epic has something really exciting on its hands. It has successfully blended two very different gaming tastes without losing either flavour. An impressive balancing act. It still feels like an Unreal shooter, but melee has added so much more tactical depth and possibility that it's a far richer experience because of it - and there's more to come. Epic is sticking to an amusing "done when it's fun" line but an early February 2005 release looks likely. We've only seen six of the promised 40 maps and two of the multiplayer modes (Deathmatch and a superb CTF), but it's already pushing boundaries, doing it with style, and it's definitely won us over. Bring a knife to the gunfight eh? Where's my whetstone...