"I hope you like our new direction" says Spinal Tap bassist Derek Smalls as he kicks off the band's new 'Jazz Odyssey' project. But a restless demin-clad crowd look on in disbelief and quickly turn on the hairy rockers, aiming a chorus of boos, unkind hand signals and probably phlegm at the humiliated Brits before storming out of the gig in disgust. Unreal Championship 2 is the Jazz Odyssey of the shooter world. A project borne out of the admirable sentiment of splicing various gaming ingredients into something new, but one that ultimately tastes like ice cream pizza to this old hack. I wanted the old hits given a new lease of life, not Unreal Mortal Kombat Championship.
I don't normally read what other people have to say about games I'm playing until well after I've written a review. People's opinions can easily sway your own, especially in a negative sense, but in this case my brain wasn't getting anywhere near the enjoyment from playing the game I expected to. I wanted to find out what it was that other people were getting so excited about in dishing out their high scores like so much confetti. What was I missing here?
Essentially, as someone who plays more games and more shooters than can be strictly healthy, I applaud Epic's attempts to not just take easy street like everyone else and churn out A.N.Other Unreal Tournament port for the consoles. Clearly we've been there and done that and doing the same thing again would have been a boring, pointless retread and more than a little exploitative. The idea of breaking away from the PC roots of the series and creating something uniquely console-focused is potentially an inspired one; mix up the third-person fighting genre with first-person shooting mechanics. For once we have a shooting-based game with a decent selection of acrobatics and melee moves. The lines are so blurred here it's neither one thing nor the other; it's just simply jump, dodge, slash and shoot combat by whatever means necessary. Why not indeed? Let's roll.
As you might already be expecting, it's a game best played with your mates, and unlike previous UT or UC titles, the need to play it multiplayer is probably even more marked here thanks to a fairly short single-player campaign that really knows how to bust your balls, despite being something of a glorified training ground
The story-lead Ascension Rites kicks off proceedings with a typically earnest sci-fi yarn that an equal number of people will get and the other half will be rolling their eyes between fits of giggles, so we'll leave it up to you to decide which 'camp' you're in. It's not really important why you're tasked with shooting people for sport; it's just more arena based combat, okay? Get over the fact that the protagonist Anubis wants to assert his masculinity and prove he's got the correct amount of testosterone pumping around his torso, or that his uber-breasted ex Selket is a bit of a sour puss. There's killing to be done. Flags to capture, heads to be sniped.
Off the ropes
Early on it's a case of simply learning the ropes, or more specifically learning how to bound around wall-jumping, traverse large gaps with your super jump, pull off deadly melee finishing moves, and learn how to access one of the six abilities you have available to you. In UC2 adrenaline is your friend as it allows you to gain access to the specials in your arsenal, such as heal, nimble (jump higher), speed, or a move that repels other enemy attacks, and while adrenaline regenerates over time, it's lying around all over the place for you to scoop up and plays a key part in the combat balance.
Although a selection of familiar weapons make their comeback (Stinger, Flak Cannon, Rocket Launcher, Sniper, etc.), they play an almost equal role. While, yes, it is possible to just play the game as a straight-down-the-line FPS, it's fair to say you won't be getting the most out of what there is to experience here - and besides, sometimes you won't even have a weapon at your disposal, so it's best to try and get on with the melee combat as early as possible for when it's the only thing available to you.
Soon enough you're engaging in a selection of familiar ladder matches, getting to grips with the third-person perspective, and working out whether it makes much difference to shoot in first-person or not. The choice is yours, and although you can switch between the two with the touch of a button, it's a little jarring to even have to think about it. Probably the game's central problem is that the learning curve is steep enough for it to be a tough game to learn to love. Regardless of whether you've played first person shooters for the last 13 years, this isn't a game you can just jump into and expect to gel with immediately - mainly because there's a lot more to it than meets the eye, and the game doesn't exactly make it easier for you by populating it with some impressively tough AI bots.
Journey to the centre of the hearth
The same problems await you in Tournament and Challenge modes, with the former no more than a quick Arcade mode allowing you to choose any of the 14 fighters (eight of which are locked), while the latter is an immensely tough journey through against-the-odds battles where, for example, you may join the match already several kills behind and have to make up the difference. The 15-level Challenge mode, though, is pretty insane at times and only for those players who really know their maps and have mastered the controls properly. Newbies need not apply.
Certainly, the central problem for the newcomer in any of the single-player modes will be having to deal with a certain amount of 'cheating' prior knowledge from the AI - in terms of the fact that to begin with you'll have the massive double disadvantage of not knowing the map layout, nor where the power-ups are. It took quite a while to even realise the reason I was getting my arse kicked was because the sodding AI kept nicking them (especially Unreal Damage) and blasting me to kingdom come; but of course while the AI has a power-up you don't even know where it respawns, so frustration abounds. Of course, things get better the more you play it, but you're going to require a degree of persistence and patience to ever hope to get the most out of the game.
Such problems, of course, don't exist as such in the multiplayer mode and as a consequence is arguably the best way to experience the game, as was no doubt the intention all along. Whether via two-player split-screen, system link or over Live, the beauty of it is, as ever, that you can't blame the AI and can customise it exactly how you want it. If you want to play a traditional first-person match, then configure it that way and off you go; if you want a no-weapons melee match, then, again, that's up to you, but the real difference isn't so much the whole melee combat versus projectiles conundrum, but the degree of manoeuvrability available to you. You'll either love how different it feels or loathe the flea-match spectacle of what plays out. It certainly makes a change, but is that really enough?
The problem for me wasn't anything to do with the standard of the game. Anyone with even a vague comprehension of gaming quality can appreciate there's plenty to admire here, and it's easy to understand why plenty of people will like it for many sound reasons. Bring on the but. But, without wishing to be vague, it wasn't for me. I just didn't get hooked in at any point, the whole single-player experience felt laboured and hard to get into (a major sin for any videogame, I would argue) the weapons didn't feel as rounded, as effective or as exciting as before, and the balance just felt unsatisfying, with players simply too nimble and too fast to make many of the weapons all that useful. It's all very well having powerful weapons, but getting some of them on target is like nailing jelly to a wall. It's a different kind of experience, but not necessarily different in a way that adds up to a more compelling game. Multiplayer does make up for a lot of the issues, but it still requires a hefty investment of time to get into - time that, in the context of a mere review, wasn't a luxury available to me.
There's a deeper issue, too, and again it's one of personal taste: with the exception of probably Soul Calibur I've never been the world's biggest beat-'em-up fan. Partly because I'm not especially good at them, but mainly because I find the whole idea of combos in gaming an instant turn-off. Up, Up, Left, R, Y, X, Touch your nose, belch, and R3 to finish your opponent by Death Breath. Rot. In. Hell. That Unreal Championship 2 wants to borrow them from its Midway chum Mortal Kombat might impress those looking to fuse their fighting skills with their shooting prowess, but me? The only finishing move I wanted to perform was the eye gouge on the person responsible for cross breeding one of my all-time favourite franchises with one of my least favourite. The bottom line? I simply don't want to flick to third-person view to perform twizzle stick Jedi moves when I have a Flak Cannon in my pocket.
Although we're dealing with an Xbox-only title here, the visuals aren't actually anything out of the ordinary for the platform at this stage. You certainly couldn't call it ugly in any way or bleat on about poor animation or bland environments. There's plenty to see of high quality; with 50 maps to work your way through it's not lacking in variety. I'd probably call it Generation Fatigue. We're on the very cusp of the next-gen consoles, we're already being spoiled by the current crop of PC shooters, and we're admittedly asking for miracles for console games to wow us with anything new right now. You could say the style's a bit done to death, and that the game's starting to look generic for all sorts of reasons, but looking at it objectively my lack of enthusiasm is rooted in the well worn feeling of having seen it all before rather than any issues of quality.
Different to be daring
Ironically, for a game that's evidently trying hard to be different, it's actually its decision to morph into something else that I didn't get on with. At my most charitable I felt like I was playing an experimental mod of a game I really love. All the time you're thinking 'well done chaps, nice work', but at the same time wanting to get back to the game you love. You want the hits. But what the hell; try it for yourself, rent it, you might like it. I just can't pretend I did, no matter the weight of the consensus.