Be it Battleborn, Agents of Mayhem, or even Overwatch’s dalliances with PvE content, the industry’s best studios have struggled with crafting a single-player hero shooter experience. Maybe it’s just not feasible for such an asymmetric subgenre to work in a solo context? Or maybe we’ve just been overthinking it; that’s certainly what Unreal Championship 2: The Liandri Conflict argues.
No, that’s not a typo — Unreal Championship. They reference “the Tournament” regularly, but these are the minor leagues. Like its namesake, Unreal Championship 2 is an arena shooter at heart, where a handful of skillful opponents bunny hop around surreal battlegrounds to pick up oversized weapons of destruction. This is the style of FPS that gave birth to Deathmatch and Capture the Flag. It’s also the closest any genre has come to matching fighting games in both complexity and elegance. Anyone can play, but masters make themselves known. It makes it all the more appropriate then that Championship 2 crafts one of the best hero shooters for solo players, by learning the lessons fighting game developers have years ago.
Where the first Championship was a glorified port of Unreal Tournament 2003, its successor is built from the ground up as an absurdly ambitious Xbox-exclusive title. It’s an Egypt-punk-future, platforming, brawling, hero shooter with a full single-player story campaign and an arcade mode like out of Mortal Kombat. As if this all weren’t enough, there are two different camera perspectives, Raiden and the announcer from Mortal Kombat appear, the game runs on a custom version of Unreal 2.5 built exclusively for the Xbox, there’s unique finishing moves for every character, and over 50 maps on the disc.
On paper, that’s a lot in of itself, but it’s how Unreal Championship 2 merges these elements that makes it worthwhile. You see, hero shooter characters are already built like fighting game characters, with unique builds and abilities rather than uniform traits; in Championship 2’s case, this comes in the form of both stats and Adrenaline powers.
Statistically speaking, if you’re a walking tank, you’ll take more damage but can barely keep up with a lighter character who skimped on armor so they buzz by with your team’s flag. Meanwhile, Adrenaline charges for every action, from the simple act of moving to killing an enemy, to grant you access to each character’s unique powers. Play as the frost queen Sapphire and you can either bolster your low health with ice armor or freeze enemies in an area of effect as you ice skate on by. Roll out as the android Raptor and summon repair drones or sacrifice health for a rocket barrage. If you’re feeling aggressive, you can leach enemy health and warp reality as the vampiric Lauren. Each character follows the same underlying rules and controls, but they play to inherently different play styles.
This is all enhanced thanks to Championship 2’s eight weapons. You select a pair to wield from two categories before each match, in addition to your melee weapon and pistols. This loadout system works considerably like the character variants of Mortal Kombat X, all while also allowing players to focus on collecting ammo and earning kills over hogging a weapon spawn like in most arena shooters. You’re always guaranteed to be properly armed and ready, but it’s up to you to make that rocket launcher sing.
On its own, this is a solid framework, but it all really shines in Unreal Championship 2’s campaign and arcade ladder. Instead of trying to reinvent the wheel, it capitalizes on familiar ideas. Championship 2 team emulates what every fighting game story mode has done for the last three decades, to great effect. Whether you’re reclaiming the Nahkti throne as Anubis in the main campaign or experiencing the stories of the other characters through arcade, you face a bevy of handcrafted gauntlets uniquely built to test each character’s ability set.
Anubis is easily the most accessible of the cast, with middling stats and easy-to-use powers, so it’s little surprise the campaign focuses on his story of redemption. What’s brilliant is how every story encounter throws new enemies, modes, and weapons at you. Rather than simply a series of tutorials, they’re genuine challenges that ease new players into Championship 2’s unconventional gameplay. It also helps that you actually learn who your opponents are and why you should care about winning or losing. Apophis is already an annoying ass with his mid-match taunts, but learning he’s your ex’s new boy toy that’s trying to sabotage you between matches ensures you’re ready to blast him to pieces.
Regardless of if it’s a cutscene, text, or a match mutator modifying the rules, Unreal Championship 2 harnesses the same sort of refreshing scenarios seen in Netherrealm’s latest hits. There’s both a solid motivation and the thrill of custom challenges meant just for this character. The arcade ladder hammers this home, like pitting Lauren against two rival suitors for her boyfriend Brock’s heart in a team deathmatch where Lauren has no teammates to rely on, or an alternate timeline where Selket defeats Anubis in ascending to her throne, reversing key main campaign encounters. It still plays like a normal match, but the contextual shifts matter.
It all weaves together like professional wrestling tales, just now you’re gibbing your opponent to bits instead of smashing them with a chair. There’s even scheming corporate sponsorship in the form of the titular Liandri, who desire a puppet to win the Championship grand prize of ruling the Nahkti empire. There’s enough to make you care, with solid gameplay ensuring you keep coming back.
Unreal Championship 2 goes so far as to offer truly challenging bots that engage you in serious duels, no matter the difficulty setting. There are so many parameters to be tweaked in custom matches that there’s a full suite of bonus challenge missions just to demonstrate the possibilities. Even the melee combat, while an odd addition to Unreal’s combat sandbox, works surprisingly well, with combo moves that double as additional platforming abilities.
At the end of the day, it’s astounding we haven’t seen a proper successor to Unreal Championship 2. Where so many other titles have failed to engage with single-player in this space, a game from 2005 shines. There’s a reason it was made backwards compatible on Xbox One, and it shows. Not only does it hold up today, a few questionable character models aside, but it retroactively raises the bar for modern hero shooters. If we could achieve this a decade and a half ago, why hasn’t anyone taken this approach since? Until then, at least we’ve got Unreal Championship 2 on Xbox.