It would have been easy, and completely expected, for Epic Games and Midway to simply port Unreal Tournament 2004 to the Xbox. Unreal Championship, the original, had been a port and so had Unreal II: The Awakening. And although both those games felt rushed and lackluster on console, Unreal Tournament 2004 is one of the greatest multiplayer games of all times on the PC. What better way to show the Xbox community the true meaning of "It's Good To Play Together" than with Unreal Tournament 2004's massive maps, vehicular mayhem and extraordinary gameplay? But instead, Michael Capps (President of Epic Games and Lead Designer for Unreal Championship 2) and the folks at Epic decide to start over from scratch and build the new game from the ground up for the Xbox. They also decide to mess with the tried and true Unreal formula by adding a third person melee mode. And if that weren't blasphemous enough (Unreal fans have a tendency to think of these things as sacrilegious) they limit the number of players per map, make the maps a lot smaller and remove vehicles altogether. In the gaming industry, this is called madness. Anywhere else, it's referred to as suicide. So how bad is Unreal Championship 2 then?

Well, let me make a series of bold statements here (each followed by obligatory exclamation mark) which I believe to be 100% true:

  • Unreal Championship 2: The Liandri Conflict is without a doubt the best Unreal to date!
  • Third person Unreal is more fun than first person Unreal!
  • Guns are great, but melee weapons are so much more entertaining!
  • Selket rocks! (Personal plea to Epic Games: Please give us Necris Selket as DLC)
  • Michael Capps and the folks at Epic are ingenius! Mad, crazy geniuses with serious testicular fortitude.
  • Epic loves Xbox gamers!

While Unreal Tournament/Championship has (and will always be) a game to be played against others, a large portion of Championship 2 has been devoted to the lone player. The primary offering, and one that should be played through in its entirety to learn all the nuances of the new game, is The Ascension Rites campaign which revolves around the events of this year's Grand Tournament. While it may serve as a tutorial, it also offers up a fun story with amazing cutscenes that are both informative and a joy to watch. The Ascension Rites campaign follows the exploits of Anubis returning to fight in the Grand Tournament (to become Emperor and save his planet) and also settle some unfinished business with Selket and a few others. Longtime Unreal fans will be please to see some old friends like Malcom and Lauren along for the ride. And while the story may not be groundbreaking, this mode is a clever way to introduce (and unlock) the various new modes of Unreal Championship 2 as well as the new melee and third person action. Single players will also have the opportunity to take each unlocked combatant through their tournament ladders as well as attempt to beat the Challenge Modes.

A note on difficulty should be added here: Unreal Championship 2 is a game that should be learned on novice difficulty, but played (and enjoyed) on a higher level for a real challenge. And a challenge you shall get. The A.I. in Unreal Championship 2 is maddeningly ruthless, cunning and realistic. Even Unreal veterans will want to hurl controllers at their walls from time to time, but while the A.I. may seem "unreal" at times, it never feels cheap. The game is beatable on any difficulty and at worse, it's a great primer for playing against friends and online. The other good news is that the bots on your side are just as smart as the bots against you, so your skills are usually the determining factor in team games.

Quick, take everything you know about Unreal and forget it. Even if you know Unreal backwards and forwards, nothing will prepare you for this. Yes, the game lets you play using weapons in first person, but the real fun of Championship 2 comes from third person view. In this mode (which plays just as fast as the first person view) you now have more visibility, more mobility and more agility at your disposal. Your can jump, double-jump, reflect projectiles, perform combos and perfect your Coup De Gras (Championship 2's Mortal Kombat lineage). Adding melee weapons to the mix was a stroke of brilliance. And while the new view and new button layout will take some serious getting used to, the controls are spot on and play fast. Epic has also gone out of its way to balance the game perfectly, both with regards to weapons (energy, explosive, melee & race specific) and character/adrenaline skills. The difference between characters is instantly noticeable in terms of size, mobility and usable weapons, but never feels like there is one "all powerful" character or weapon for that matter. Also to note, while previous Unreal iterations have used adrenaline skills, they were used sparingly and generally signaled the end of a match. Now, adrenaline can be used over and over and is mandatory for success. Proper adrenaline management can sometimes be the key to turning the tide of a particularly close match. A clever balance between ranged attacks and close quarter (in-your-face) combat is the other. Many gamers will focus on the new melee weapons early on and completely forget about the rocket launchers and the shock riffles. To those, I wish good luck.

While the single player modes will keep you busy for hours, the true beauty of Unreal Championship 2 is getting good enough to unleash your skills upon the world. In this respect, you can play in split-screen mode, system link (2 to 8 players) or online using Xbox Live (up to 8 players per game). While the 8 player limit may seem small, the insanely large number of maps are all geared towards close quarter (interior and exterior) carnage. Rest assured that 7 other players is more than enough to handle in all modes of play. And as for modes, Unreal gives us the classics like Deathmatch, Team Deathmatch, Capture The Flag and Survival, but also adds a few new entries to the mix; Nali Slaughter, in which you must kill off peaceful Nali characters faster than your opponents and Overdose, in which you must grab orbs of radiation and return them to specific locations to score points. All modes (also playable offline with bots) play fast and all the rules can be changed or modified to suit your tastes. Mutators (special game modifications like gravity, instant kills, etc) can also be used in all modes, as well as bots of varying skill. There are even modes that the developers couldn't possibly have imagined that are being played online; rocket tennis is a popular one where players pick a large open map, equip rocket launchers, stand far apart from each other and fire. They then quickly switch to melee weapons mode and try to reflect the rocket back to their opponent. Whoever misses dies. Lots of fun for the whole family.

The online portion of the game plays well and lag is rarely evident. The maps are varied and so many are included that it will take avid players a long time to figure out the idiosyncrasies of each ones. On top of that, Epic has already announced plans for downloadable content and if the buzz is true, they will lavish us with new maps and new characters and perhaps even new modes of play. And all this has been promised at no additional cost. In a time when more and more companies understand the concept of milking gamers dry for additional content to a successful game, it's refreshing to see a company so willing to please and reward its loyal fans. But then again, if the PC support for Unreal games is any indication, Epic always knows how to treat its fans correctly.

This Unreal looks good. No, make that; this Unreal looks damn good. The maps, much like the characters, are each very distinct and well animated. And while you may not always have the time to stop and stare at the pretty sights, there are certain images that will stay ingrained in your mind long after you stop playing. The soldiers encased in tombs on an early level is one such sight. The characters, for their part, are nothing if not memorable and unique. Special care has been taken to make each one different and you will come to know and appreciate (or despise) each one for a particular reason. The visuals are so well done that a simple thing like having Necris Selket as a playable character will keep you up at night. Yes, I understand it's just a skin, but I want it. The weapons are well animated and produce wonderful explosions. The graphics are fast (like everything else in the game) and fluid. The load times, however, are short and unobtrusive. Mad geniuses I tell you.…

While many will sulk at the fact that custom soundtracks are not supported in this game, they are hardly needed. The game's music is dead on and if nothing else, it does a great job at keeping your blood pumping. You may in fact not even hear it during matches with all that adrenaline and trash-talk flowing (even though it's exceptionally loud in crystal clear Dolby Digital), but you will at least notice it once during the "Selket Strut" towards the end of The Ascension Rites campaign (you'll know when you see it). For this alone, I thank Kevin Riepl for giving the audio as much personality as any line of dialog. And the dialog is pretty clever too. Malcom may have quite a future in sports commentary.

A few things do keep Unreal Championship 2 from being the greatest game ever made though. The learning curve for one is not only steep, but many may simply give up out of sheer frustration early on. This game plays a lot like a fighting game in the simple fact that mashing buttons may take you a little ways, but mastering the controls and the adrenaline sub-menus (and the Coup De Gras) will make you an Unreal Master. Aside from that, when playing any type of game, you need to forfeit out of matches to actually quit them. While this isn't a big deal since the stat isn't tracked, it would have been nice to have had an option after each match: retry or quit. The only other nit-pick is one that is befalls all fighting and racing games: How long your enjoyment for the game lasts is entirely based upon the amount of time you are willing to put into it. It's as shallow an experience as you make it, or as deep as you'd like. You could technically rent this game and finish the Ascension Rites Campaign in a day or two and believe that the game is over (you'd be a fool, but it's possible) while the game is really just beginning.

While I still think that the idea to scrap Unreal Tournament 2004 was sheer lunacy, it's nice to see that Unreal Championship 2 is in every way as good a game, if not leaps and bounds better. Rabid Unreal fans may still believe this to be blasphemy, but they are simply missing out on the Evolution of the Unreal Concept. It will be interesting to note where Epic takes the franchise from this point on, but it would be a mistake for them not to build upon this massive new step. Unreal Championship 2 is a game that feels almost like a guilty pleasure. The movement is so fluid, the colors so crisp and the entire package so slick that you wonder when someone will yell at you to stop playing. Games this addictive don't come around very often and the mere promise of downloadable content to extend its grip on my free time (please Necris Selket, please) is enough to keep me playing again and again. If you want a break from your standard FPS fare on Xbox Live, you owe yourself to try this quiet and clever masterpiece.