Unreal Championship 2 The Liandri Conflict review

Xbox World checks out Epic's latest in the futuristic sports genre

Unreal is undoubtedly the campest game franchise ever. With spandex, crotchless chaps and shoulder pads (and that's just the male characters), this new Xbox version is the pinnacle of drag queen fashion.

What's hilarious is that the developers probably don't even realise it's as tasteless as Elton John's wardrobe. Still, if camp gladiators are your thing then you're going to simply adore this.

Luckily too, there's also a superb game trapped beneath the extravagance for those with more conservative sartorial tastes.

In truth, Unreal Championship 2 shouldn't really work. Previously famous for being the only brand to rival Quake in the arena combat genre, Epic has now added third-person melee to the battle moves.

It's been done to distinguish Unreal Championship 2 from the competition, but third-person melee combat in arena games rarely works. Go ahead and think of a good example... Exactly.

Arena games need to have speed and freneticism, but close quarters combat is often too random with targets moving quickly in and out of view, the player hitting buttons madly hoping for a decisive blow.

It can be an oddly frustrating affair - and that's why most developers tend to stick to the first-person elements, with a melee attack built in for the rare moments you actually get up close and personal.

So at quite a risk to the game (and, let's face it, their sizeable reputation too), Epic decided to shake up the genre and plump for both styles of combat.

It's clearly been a difficult balancing act but it's one that has paid off. A well-implemented lock-on feature ensures your view tracks a given enemy and makes melee attacks both workable and rewarding.

It never fully loses a slight feeling of capriciousness, especially when an enemy is powered up with speed and leaping around like a gazelle on hot coals, but it's the best system we've experienced in a game of this type.

UC2 is initially bewildering, but it thoroughly rewards those who persevere. At first you will find the number of attacks, weapons, special moves, power-ups and adrenaline abilities perplexing and confusing, but great credit must go to the designers: each has its place and usefulness, lending the game an impressive level of depth.

This isn't your average button-bashing brawler and to play the game expertly, honing your skills to their utmost could easily take months. That might sound daunting, but a basic tutorial and a single-player campaign eases you through some of the trickier combat techniques.

The learning curve is initially steep, but you feel an enormous sense of achievement when you start to master the controls and go from a humiliating loser to a killing spree maniac.

UC2 is a game you need to stick at or the skills and precise timing you've built up will start to erode.

There are no massive weapon surprises - flak cannons, sniper rifles, energy guns and rocket launchers. However, as this is a futuristic sports game, each has a unique, and often powerful, secondary function.

Holding down the left trigger enables you to fire three rockets at once, detonate an energy charge mid-flight and even stun an enemy, depending on the weapon you're carrying.

You begin each tournament (and extra life after a respawn) with a puny pistol so must search for item pick-ups around the arenas.

As well as big guns you get a number of special defensive moves that give combat another dimension missing from similar arena games. Pressing both triggers simultaneously forms a shield, and in melee mode it's possible to deflect shots by pressing the left stick forward, though this must be timed perfectly.

Playing defensively has benefits other than just protecting your health bar as your adrenaline meter can increase during these periods.

And using adrenaline is a neat way of getting an advantage over your foes. Press X and an on-screen menu succinctly indicates which are available (each character uses different ones).

These include Nimble (the ability to leap huge distances and scale structures), Warrior Spirit (a kind of hard-man berserk mode) and Heal (which tops up your health meter, obviously).

Even in the frenzy of a battle adrenaline abilities are simple to trigger and can be life-savers if used wisely. It really adds an extra tactical element.

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