My introduction to online gaming came by way of Quake III: Arena for the PC, which a few summers ago mercilessly drained a ludicrous amount of time from what might have been a productive three months. Online deathmatch games are a genre whose visceral nature belies their nuanced gameplay and dooms curious gamers to hours of addicting repetition-qualities that lead to a boom in their popularity on the PC. But despite decent online-ready iterations of the Quake and Unreal franchise on the Dreamcast and an offline version of Quake III on the PlayStation 2, the genre hasn't made waves on consoles with remotely the magnitude of their PC cousins.
But while the genre fades from popularity somewhat on the PC, Infogrames (now called Atari) releases Unreal Championship (a console version of Unreal Tournament 2003) packed with not only respectable single-player and offline multiplayer, but online play that actually surpasses its PC counterpart.
Although the core gameplay remains identical and little has been added in gameplay modes since the original Unreal Tournament, there are a number of bells and whistles that open the game up a little and allow for a little more flexibility in the experience as well as providing the gamer with a wealth of options to tweak and tinker with. There are now separate "races" from which to choose, each with varying levels of health, speed, and agility. Each character also specializes in a given weapon that he or she will start every match with. The character's specialty weapon will have either a faster rate of fire, do more damage, or have extra ammunition. It's worth noting that both the special abilities of each race (such as high jumping or absorbing health) and the weapon specialties can be turned off, making the gameplay more or less identical to that of the first Unreal Tournament. Notably however, I was disappointed that the game doesn't allow you create your own character, and so far Atari has not made good on their promise to provide new characters to download via Xbox Live.
The weapons have also been modified to be less lopsided. They are all satisfyingly different from each other, enough so that each weapon takes a bit of practice to apply effectively. The only real disappointment is that the weapons are nothing really unique or outstanding. They're mostly recycled from the first game with a few modifications. The two most notable exceptions are the link gun, which in team play can be used to boost the health of teammates; and a gun that sends coordinates to a laser-blasting satellite, which although relatively useless is entertaining when it does the job.
The last notable addition is that of "adrenaline," which is like a power meter that can be built up by amassing kills or collecting pills scattered around the levels. When the meter is full, players can enter short codes using either the left analog stick or the D-pad that activate one of four powers: agility, invisibility, berserk (improved offense), and regeneration. It's not always a positive addition, though, because it often enables players who are dominating to effortlessly cement their lead.
The gameplay is provided in the same types of games that were present in the first iteration. In addition to the usual deathmatch and capture the flag games, there is an upgrade to the "domination" game from the first called "double domination," in which a team scores points by controlling two points on the map; additionally, there is an excellent new game called "bombing run" in which players pass a ball from one teammate to another while attempting to run or shoot the ball through a goal for points.
Unreal Championship was actually the first game to take advantage of Xbox Live, and it proves a good showcase for the service. Searching for a match was easy, as was customizing my own. Average player skill is indicated, making it easy to meet your match. Once online, the gameplay was usually smooth (server speed is indicated in the query), although lag did bite from time to time. Overall though, the wisdom of keeping Xbox Live broadband-only is readily apparent as lag never becomes a crippling problem. However, I actually left with the feeling that in a minor way, the experience of the game was diluted online. This is because I'm not a believer in the "auto-aim" function that is the default aiming option in the game. I feel it cheapens the experiences and renders some weapons, like the powerful lighting gun, unfairly easy to use. So when playing offline with buddies or against the impressively intelligent bots, I always turned the feature off. But online, there is no way to tell whether the auto-aim is enabled. As far as I could tell, it defaults to the host's settings—meaning that even if I turned off auto-aim in my profile, it would be active during gameplay on other players' servers. And despite playing match after match, I've yet to find anyone else who plays with the auto-aim off.
So despite the voice chat (which is a real plus in team games), plenty of great maps and multiple game types, the combination of occasional lag and auto-aim left me enjoying the game as much offline as I did online. There is a substantial single-player game offered that runs players through a multi-tiered progression that introduces them to each major gameplay mode. But it's undeniable that even the smartest bots are no match for the wits of another player, so online play will remain a strong draw for most players.
Even with some new bells and whistles, lots of options and solid online play, this is still basically just a visceral shooter that is in many ways identical to its predecessor. In fact, there isn't quite enough new here to make the game a compelling time drainer for those who played the original through and through. But for Xbox owners who are new to the genre (or, like me, just big fans) and especially for those who have Xbox Live, Unreal Championship is a strong shooter with enough depth and variety to stay addicting for a criminally long time.