I Fought the Bot... and the Bot Won
“Are you camping?”
I nearly laughed out loud when I first heard this scornful question from an opponent, about half an hour after I started playing Unreal Championship 2: The Liandri Conflict on my Xbox. What made this taunt even more chuckle-worthy was not only because I felt sheepish because I suddenly realized I was starting to camp in that particular match, but more so because it was a bot uttering that all-too-familiar gamer complaint in an all-too-human manner.
Nor does it end there, as each bot in UC2 has its own unique taunts, with my favorites being these two gems from the voluptuous Nakhti princess Selket, who mocks you after a kill by saying “Distracted by my beauty?” or, in an even more sneering tone, “Beaten by a girl.”
For a game whose real meat is supposed to be multiplayer madness via split-screen, system link, or Xbox Live, it’s gratifying to see that developer Epic Games took the time to give us an entertaining single-player campaign. While the storyline won’t win awards, it’s interesting enough and the impressive cutscenes serve well to advance the plot. This game also showcases the excellent bot AI that we’ve come to expect from Epic throughout the years, complemented by competent voice acting.
While Unreal Tournament 2004 was a hit on the PC, the developer did not take the easy route of simply porting it to the Xbox. If you’re one of those people who love engaging in “the PC rocks; Xbox sucks” fanboy rants, then it was so easy to mock the first Unreal Championship as a watered-down version of what PC gamers enjoy on their rigs.
UC2, however, was built from the ground up as a console game. Not only that, but Epic decided to redefine what a first-person shooter arena game should be—by veering away from a pure FPS.
The most innovative—or controversial—feature of UC2 is that it has added melee combat into the mix, with the third-person perspective you associate with fighting games such as the Mortal Kombat series of Midway, which is also the publisher of UC2. It’s still unclear why original publisher Microsoft Game Studios decided to let go of the rights to Epic’s shooter, but Midway definitely gained a lot by picking up this high profile title, which in turn has incorporated MK elements. I’m not just talking about longtime Kombat character Raiden being unlockable, but also the fact that you can toggle the settings to have the Mortal Kombat: Deception announcer giving the blow-by-blow, and that you can execute a Fatality (here called a coup de grâce) when in melee mode. And yes, the announcer will egg you on in classic MK fashion: “Finish him!”
Admittedly, the MK elements are cheesy, but then again when Epic first introduced Unreal Tournament as a direct competitor to Quake III: Arena (just as the original Unreal and its graphics engine challenged the hegemony of id Software’s Quake), it brought an over-the-top, World Wrestling Entertainment approach to arena FPS combat.
The same entertaining WWE-style presentation can be seen in the Ascension Rites single-player campaign of UC2. You play Anubis, a Nakhti prince who 10 years ago had been favored to win the tournament that would have crowned him emperor, but who left on the eve of the competition. The Ascension Rites tournament is actually a sacred Nakhti tradition, but this year it has become a commercialized event sponsored by the Liandri Mining Corporation. As Anubis enters the tournament, he learns to his dismay that the favorite to win the Ascension Rites is his former betrothed Selket, who is conniving with the Liandri.
For a game overflowing with testosterone and a “frag or be fragged” mentality, UC2 sure has more than its fair share of soap opera elements. This again brings to mind the oftentimes risqué storylines of the WWE that serve to spice up the action and present the wrestlers not just as athletes, but as characters you can either love or hate. In UC2, you not only have the star-crossed lovers Anubis and Selket, but also the tragic Lauren, who killed herself after her lover Brock was slain while trying to avenge Malcolm, whose career was ended by Gorge. The Necris Process brought both Brock and Lauren back to life. Brock did not retain his original memories and so is unaware of the feelings he had for Lauren. Lauren, however, remembers everything, and the Necris Process has left her mostly insane.
As I’ve already mentioned, the Liandri Corporation has made a travesty of the traditions of the Nakhti (a race patterned after the ancient Egyptians). The tournament itself is run with an eye toward the ratings—in fact, in some matches, even winning teams will be broken up because they aren’t getting good ratings. Malcolm, the champion whose long winning streak (as well as his spine) was broken by Gorge, was popular not only because of his combat abilities but also because of his charisma which translated into high ratings. In fact, while Malcolm can no longer compete, he’s returned to this tournament as a color commentator. Kind of reminds you of how excellent mic work is often more crucial to the success of a WWE superstar than actual wrestling ability. Otherwise, the unquestionably charismatic Hulk Hogan wouldn’t have reaped tremendous success in spite of his relatively limited wrestling ability.
Our own society’s obsession with physical appearance is satirized through characters like Apophis, who is supposedly so handsome that the insurance company requires him to wear a full-face helmet. You also have the Liandri entering a modified home service android in the tournament to prove how intelligent their creations are, while modeling her body after a popular adult holo actress to ensure high ratings.
The sheer number of things you can do in UC2 can prove intimidating at first, because while your fighting moves are limited, your maneuverability is something that other FPS games can only dream about. I’m talking adrenaline-laced combat with you temporarily negating the effects of gravity, twisting while firing your rocket launcher in mid-air, then landing in front of your foe to switch to melee mode, and finishing him off with your sword.
I won’t go into fanboy mode waxing eloquent over the game’s sweet graphics, particle effects, fast and smooth frame rate, and, what the heck, I can’t resist, the gorgeous babes like Selket and her jaw-dropping pair of lethal weapons (the swords, I’m talking about her twin Nakhti swords). UC2, however, is much more than skin-deep, because what will truly impress you is not just the beautiful environments, but the well-designed maps.
Of course, the game isn’t perfect. One of the most annoying things for me is how stupid the strong melee attack is. When you execute it, you experience such a long pause that more often than not, your opponent has already evaded you or launched a counter-attack. Talk about telegraphing your moves. Sometimes the announcer can be very irritating—wait till you hear him say, “Lauren!”
In a world where massively multiplayer online games are taking over PCs and console makers also have ambitious plans for online gaming, it’s useful to remember that we don’t always want (or can afford) to spend time and money on multiplayer games. And I’m not just talking about anti-social gamers, but those who have jobs and families and can’t always get together with their pals to play games, or who don’t have a broadband connection for Xbox Live. Or, in my case, who do have a broadband connection at home, but live in a country where Xbox Live isn’t available (Xbox Live was never officially launched in the Philippines, though that hasn’t stopped a number of gamers here from playing on Live). Sometimes multiplayer has become a convenient excuse for developers to foist a crappy or incomplete single-player game on the buying public, leaving it up to them to find fun in the multiplayer modes with their pals. UC2, however, shows that single-player/multiplayer fun doesn’t always have to be either/or, just as Epic has proven over the years that bot isn’t synonymous to dumb.
If you don’t believe that, try playing UC2 on the tougher settings. Too bad this taunt isn’t available: “Beaten by a bot.”