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Unreal Championship 2 The Liandri Conflict review

Excellent

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.

So, as you can tell, this is not your average fire-and-forget arena game and that it all hangs together so well shows what a good job Epic has done to balance the various weapons and tactical components. For our money there are just two flawed features in the game.

The first is your piddly default pistol - it's not powerful enough to kill an anaemic ant. Although it does have a stun mode, it takes too long to power up in the heat of battle.

The second is the heavy melee attack, which, when triggered, pauses horribly before sending your character on a set path forwards. This brief pause telegraphs the move to opponents and they almost always get out of the way before you can inflict damage.

Midway is no stranger to the finishing move and Epic has integrated its own version here. Whup an enemy to within an inch of his or her life and they'll be frozen for a brief moment.

During this time you get a chance to enter a button combination and administer a gruesome coup de grace. There's nothing quite like finishing off a vulnerable opponent then gloating over the chunks of meat that were them left on the floor.

UC2 may be all spangle and glitz but the arenas and vistas can be stunningly beautiful. Although there are many incidental details, like gorgeous blurring effects and sumptuous reflection maps across water, you'll hardly have time to notice them in the thick of combat.

Make no mistake, this is one of the prettiest games on Xbox and makes the last version look positively retro.

Both outdoor and indoor arenas can be selected and they're superbly designed with some vast open-plan spaces and a few with tunnel complexes.

Because of the added speed and manoeuvrability of characters there's also a greater need for elevation and in some maps the importance of height advantage cannot be underestimated.

Camping is discouraged and you'll find few places to hide away as this game is all about speed, movement and quick reflexes.

You don't need to worry if you haven't yet got Xbox Live because the bots are extraordinarily competitive. There are five difficulty settings, so it's going to be some time before you cane it offline.

There's also a single-player story in which you play Anubis, a warrior out to claim back the Rite of Ascension from the omnipotent Liandri Corporation. The plot is pure claptrap but it's the best way into the game, bringing you up through tournament ladders.

One irritating flaw is that you can't skip the cut-scenes if you forfeit a tournament, so you have to sit through them again as they gnaw slowly at your will to live.

Tournament games include Deathmatch, Capture the Flag and Team Deathmatch bouts but there are a few new ones thrown in.

In Overdose you must pick up glowing spheres and take them to the appropriate 'basket' to score, the twist being that a radiation overdose can send you on a killing spree.

Survival is a one-on-one tournament in which players take turns challenging the winner and Nali Slaughter is a kind of macabre ethnic cleansing mini-game where each player must wipe out as many of the meek Nali as possible within a time limit.

The off- and online multiplayer customisation possibilities are impressive so there's little chance of getting bored of one game style.

Nearly all the special powers and abilities can be toggled, tailoring the game to your preference. You can even lose the melee combat entirely if you specifically want a shoot-to-kill game.

With 14 characters, each with different strengths and weaknesses, up to eight players online and impressive league ladders we fully expect Unreal Championship 2 to be one of the most popular Xbox Live games around.

It's not good enough to knock Halo 2 off its lofty pedestal, but it certainly has the depth to keep the servers busy for a year or two.

Be warned, though: Unreal Championship 2 is a bit like riding one of those bicycles with the steering plumbed in the opposite direction.

At first, flicking between shooting and melee combat will feel clumsy and disorienting and there's a steep learning curve to tackle before everything clicks into place.

Persevere, however, and once the kills start to accumulate and your reflexes become lightning fast you'll forget you ever struggled. An acquired taste, perhaps, but this game is sure to mature very well indeed.

Unreal Championship 2 The Liandri Conflict is out for Xbox on 22 April

It won't be for everyone - but the melee combat brings something fresh to the genre and the online games are absolutely cracking

More Info

Available Platforms: Xbox

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