• Unreal Championship Review - Microsoft Xbox

    Running as fast as is humanly possible, the relative safety of Red teams base lies just up ahead. The sounds of gunfire, ricochets and explosions are only barely audible over the chattering, shouting and cursing of players engaged in battle.

    Its deceptively difficult carrying the flag, at first it seems as easy as running in, snatching the flag from the opponents grasp and then running back. Of course when first thought about it was dismissed out of hand that the other team were even remotely accurate with their toy blasters. A rocket flies by. They’re closing. Quickly. Close off the chatter and talk on a team channel. Call for help.

    Sounds of gunfire from behind are swiftly silenced by a team-mate. Just round this corner………

    An unexpected glimpse of a player.

    Stop. Think. They’re not on the same side.

    One taunt, a large explosion later and an impressive animation of a limp body bounced around by the force of nearby explosions emerges on screen along with the message “Blue team have retrieved their flag.” Switching back to a team chat channel words intended for consolidation and morale boosting are heard amongst the background of team chatter and gunfire.

    Start again.

    Welcome to the sport of the future. A sport where the only spherical object available is propelled from a gun, and winning a game is determined by how many of your opponents you can eliminate rather than your ability to control a ball. Life for all participants is grim. Spawn. Shoot. Frag. Get shot. Die. Respawn. And so on. But whilst it may be repetitive for the poor characters involved, such combat has provided the mainstay for two of the most popular online titles Unreal Tournament and Quake 3.

    The rivalry between Unreal Tournament and Quake 3 formed thorough key differences in game-play between the two titles. Gamers preferred either Quake 3’s main focus of fast paced everyone-for-themselves deathmatches or Unreal Tournament’s long-term team matches.

    Fans of the previous incarnation will notice that Unreal Championship now plays more like its predecessors rival, Quake 3. This time around, combat has a much faster pace, partly due to the generally smaller arenas available to fight in, creating more close encounters which inevitably result in intense fire fights. Instead of competing with Quake 3 ‘s astounding gameplay UC is fighting fire with fire providing, fast frantic action coupled with the team bias it had previously.

    Unreal Championship represents deathmatching with a twist. Unlike its predecessors (UT2003 included) where the choice of character is merely for aesthetic purposes, in UC, the character a player chooses to represent them has a direct affect upon gameplay. There are six different species available, each with their own different playing style; Health, agility, jumping distance and adrenaline potency all vary from species to species. Each character also has a favourite weapon, the use of which will award them with bonuses in terms of ammo capacity, fire rate or damage dealt.

    The addition of ‘moves’ has altered the combat dynamic to reward those who slay their opponents mercilessly and to provide a desperate assist to those in trouble. Moves are made possible by the collection of adrenaline ampoules or by killing others. Once maxed at 100 a combination of taps on the direction pad will allow a player to go berserk - increasing their fire rate, turn invisible, move faster or regenerate lost health. It’s also possible to double jump by tapping jump twice, jump off walls and dodge by tapping in any direction twice. Each of these additions attempt to out-Quake its main rival and those who can master their new abilities will find the game opens up with much more fun and varied ways of killing the other players.

    Several game types are available for online and offline play. Each of which has a set of maps designed with that game mode in mind specifically. In keeping with its teamplay bias, Deathmatch and Survival are the only modes without team involvement. Whereas Team Deathmatch, Capture the Flag, Double Domination and Bombing Run each demand more than a solo effort. Bombing Run is an interesting development upon TDM and can best be described as American football with guns. Here teams attempt to wrestle a ball from each other in a no holds barred battle as they attempt to score a goal.

    Playing Unreal Championship, the flaws in what is at first a promising title become all too evident. Those who have seen UT2k3 running on a decent PC and expecting the same will be disappointed. The game is pleasant to look at and quite detailed, which perhaps is part of its problem. Textures are well detailed, surfaces on weapons and guns have reflective tints to them, rockets give off smoke trails, vents release vapours into the surroundings and guns become shaded as players move into shadow. The water when it makes an appearance, ripples slightly and ripples further when disturbed (fire bullets at it and you’ll see what I mean) and weapons fire lights up the surroundings. But whilst this is all well and good running on a Ninja PC, running in an unoptimised game the results are terrible. Move around a level without other players and it is evident that even though almost nothing is happening to cause dips in framerate, they are in indeed present if only slightly noticeable. Add more players to the mix and these slight dips become more profound. Just watch the demos and the troughs and peaks in framerate are clear. This game simply doesn’t appear to have been tweaked or optimised, and for a product that was apparently finished a couple of months ago that is quite a feat.

    Split screen games can not be configured properly with player one having to setup and start the game, all other players then join by pushing the start button. Whilst this works fine for games with human only opponents, any games involving bots become uneven, because the player is unable to choose how many bots they want on a particular map. A single player starting a game on Antalus will find himself and seven bots on an eight player map, if his friend then joins there will be nine players on the map resulting in an unbalanced team game. For a game based solely around the multiplayer experience and more importantly the team ethic this is a gross oversight on Epic’s part.

    With only four levels of skills; novice, skilled, masterful and godlike, the bots are quite easy to beat even on Masterful. This isn’t helped by the fact that the single player game defaults to ‘weapons stay’ meaning weapons don’t disappear for a brief period when collected, making bot elimination that much easier.

    The default control configuration will not suit everyone and most will find it requires tweaking in order to make the most out of UC. All of the buttons are customizable although it is worth noting not all functions can be mapped to all buttons. Without tweaking, the aiming didn’t feel sensitive enough and the jump button was in them wrong place to make the most of it.

    The ability to crouch is missing, this isn’t a severe drawback, there is little use for crouching in a normal deathmatch as it will provide little defensive or offensive advantage. It would however be useful during slower paced team games where snipers will want every ounce of cover they can get.

    UC also lacks the useful function of deciding which weapon pickups should take the highest priority. The normal rule of pickups here is bigger is better, but this isn’t always useful and collecting a slow firing TAG rifle during a fire fight is the kind of problem that will irritate some.

    If this game has one saving grace it appears in the form of X-box Live. Despite its flaws this trump card just might make a purchase worthwhile. It has to be said that Online multiplayer with UC is one of the most compelling experiences this reviewer has felt for a long time. Those fortunate enough to have opted to take part in X-box Live will find the appeal of this game is increased dramatically whilst playing online.

    The headset is compelling but at the same time strange, some people seem to have no inhibitions and want to chatter straight away, whereas others, despite having the headphones on have the speakers muted. Voice masking is all well and good, but after talking to a “Dark Master” for half an hour gamers will be tearing their hair out or laughing so hard that they can’t aim properly.

    Ignore the Darth Vader wannabes and merely being able talk with other players will transform the way in which a simple Deathmatch game is enjoyed. From the moment you step foot into a match its possible to hear the taunts, complements, shouts, cries and whoops of gamers from all over the globe.

    What appears to be but a toy on surface becomes the winning element of a team game. Any team with a larger majority of its players with headsets will find itself with a tactical advantage, especially when gamers are prepared to take full advantage of this new function. Passing on information such as enemy positioning, who has what weapon and who is headed where is easy, gamers simply talk to their comrades. Its in games such as this that the idea of a Team game is realised with players actually able to work effectively as a unit.

    Games made for Live tend to share similar features and UC is no exception. Quickmatch allows a player to jump into the first available match, whereas Optimatch allows players to search available games for a particular game they would like to join through the use of filters. The quality of connection between player and game host is indicated by a stars rating. Ranging from one star to four stars; one star is a bad connection to be avoided whereas four stars represent the best connections. Once more through lack of insight games are not listed by connection rating but this is a small flaw and easily ignored.

    The ingame Friends menu allows invitations to be sent, accepted or declined and the Players menu offers the option to mute the voices of players in your current match (for ol’ Darth) and to provide feedback upon your gaming experience with them.

    Opt to create a game and Unreal Championship will warn you if you set the player limit to high. Here you can set up what game type you would like to host, if you would like to use only private slots i.e. players join by invite only and which maps you want to play upon. Not only that, but up to four players can participate on the console that is used to create the game. There is also the option to setup a dedicated server – this is allows other gamers to use your console as a host for several matches in which you are unable to participate. Dedicated servers offer other players better connections with less lag, and the ability to host more players. However, since the primary owner is unable to play, most gamers will discount this function out of hand.

    Lag is present playing between UK based gamers and the US dedicated and non-dedicated servers but this should improve once more European players have access to Live.

    Is Unreal Championship only worth buying if you have Live? Unfortunately yes, UC is an enjoyable romp and a good way to start your Live gaming. But as a stand alone product the game has too many flaws over its PC incarnation to make it any more than reasonable. That said, the whole impetus around Unreal Championship is that you play it online with other people. Do this, and some of its flaws are easily forgotten. Epic have made mistakes on this title, some of which are quite basic and inexcusable. A game for fans of the FPS genre and those with Live, but anyone else should rent or avoid. Average and in many respects disappointing.

    A review by Robert Faulks