Midway and developers Epic Games recently threw down the gauntlet in Madrid for all would-be kings of the arena as they presented for hands-on gladiatorial delectation the latest build of Unreal Championship 2: The Liandri Conflict. We experienced full-on system-linked multiplayer sessions and a bout of Capture The Flag of the Xbox-exclusive Unreal title that aims to push the genre in a refreshingly new direction.
UC2's introduction of a complementary third-person perspective to the traditional territory of first-person arena fragging was for one reason alone - melee. Anyone who has had the clumsy experience of trying hand-combat in first-person will be well aware of one all-important fact - it doesn't work. It's hit-and-miss, ugly, frustrating and never does it enhance the game. Epic rightly went the way of third-person and the result clearly demonstrates the wisdom of their chosen route.
We jumped in the hot seat, took control of a sassy killing machine and immediately went into two-handed melee action. Immediate impressions centred on the swiftness and agility of our character and the brutally violent power of the melee attacks - which usually leaves the opponent reduced to chunks of meat as a wash of blood spurts across the screen.
We were initially concerned that the melee attacks were so powerful they would make the first-person shooting side of UC2 redundant and that we'd effectively be left with half a game. However, coming up against characters that were built like tanks soon put those initial doubts to rest. Our mercurial, but relatively fragile, female couldn't hope to compete in head-to-head melee attacks with the brutish nature of these hulks. Hence, a quick switch to first-person, some picking off of the enemy, another quick switch to third-person so our nimble lass could easily evade the lumbering tank players, and repeat as necessary, started to even things out.
In general, your tactical approach will be greatly influenced by the kind of character you're controlling. But the Adrenaline power-up system throws in a whole new bunch of variables, with offensive and defensive attributes enabling you to turn the tables when all seems lost. The interface is a little fiddly and not particularly intuitive at first, especially in the heat of battle with all and sundry baying for your blood. But a decent session will result in second-nature reflexes kicking in and you'll soon know exactly what you want, when you want it, and a simple jab of the X button will see you on your way. And that's the beauty of UC2: it's a frenetically intense frag-fest that has ample tools to cater for a variety of tactical approaches while never letting up on the action.
The suitably futuristic arenas we were privy to have been designed to cater for the acrobatic skills that characters possess in third-person (although some are more agile than others). The environments are decked out with multiple paths and tiers, so throwing double-loops up to the next tier to evade pursuing characters is a cinch, putting you at a distinct advantage against the slower characters. If you have a nimble beast shadowing your every move, then a fake-out jump and a reverse into a double-handed melee blade to the face would serve you better. And that's the beauty of UC2 - it's a frenetically intense frag-fest that has ample tools to cater for a variety of tactical approaches while never letting up on the action.
Set for a worldwide release on 25 February, UC2 is looking every bit the new-style arena kill-'em-up Epic promised from the outset - quick, fluid, smooth as you like and brutally violent with a third-person twist. However, the most positive sign of all was watching fourteen journalists get caught up in the frag party. It's not every day that game-hardened and a (dare we say) sometimes cynical group of gamers care so much about winning and losing.
After wiping the blood from our brow and reflecting on the glory of the wins and the humiliation of the losses, we spoke to Jay Wilbur, vice president of Business Development at Epic Games, and you can read our exclusive interview with him later this week.
Unreal Championship 2: The Liandri Conflict will be released for Xbox in February