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Map Title: The Tower of Zi' Ki'
Other than this map I haven't heard of the author "Razman", so I'm guessing he dissapeared after this map was done, a shame as this map shows a lot of potential for excellent future works.
The readme contains the story, which casts you as a soldier involved in an attack on an alien planet called TR_027 (the alien race's name is not given so the author may not have intended it to be the Skaarj). You were behind your team as you had to get healed after a battle on the planet, but as you try and return to your group you find an outpost in the way and none of your team in sight. Checking a computer console you find that the outpost is a religious structure called the Tower of Zi' Ki' that has been converted into a communications tower. And to deactivate it you have to activate four back-up systems to overpower the tower, which will deactivate it. This story is not really elaborabated on and you simply carry out the task, although there are a few translator messages around. If you don't read the readme you won't even know what you are supposed to be doing.
The theme of an ancient religious structure converted into a high tech building could have been interesting, but unfortunately the basic skills of the author means it can best be described as "ecletic", one minute you are in a high-tech base, the next you are in a more ancient textured area. The main building in the level looks relatively impressive, but most of the architecture is made out of basic shapes, there isn't even a skybox (admittably it took me till the end of the level to notice this)! Yet the author also tries to hide most of the simple architecture with trim and details; The author's mapping skills seem almost as ecletic as the theme of the level! In general the author does a decent job of hiding the simple architecture, but there are "holes" in it, like how the rails a tram type mover goes along aren't linked very well at all. Because of the simple architecture the textures are mainly used to carry the theme, but they are also what make it so ecletic, for example, there are areas with a Nalicastle texture on the walls, but a high-tech texture on the floor and they don't really carry the theme at all; It feels like some odd mix of ancient and high-tech textures, like it was built like that, rather than a high-tech base recently built into an ancient structure.
The lighting is mostly sourced, but rather than it looking like the light came from the sources it seems like the author threw in the lighting then added a source to make it look like it at least came from somewhere, although again this is pretty inconsitent, there is one area where a flame threw out some decent shadows, and the "light posts" outside at least looked like they were the things causing the light. The author uses coloured lighting in the "base" sections" but most of it is white, making it feel dead at times, like the start flames, which could have done with a more orange or reddish colour (and they could have lit a smaller area). The map does use shadow in some areas, like a cave tunnel you explore with with just your flashlight and it hides some monsters in darkness.
The bare minimum of sound is used, with only three ambient sounds used, two of these in the same place, and all of them are for flames. Considering how huge this level is three sounds is hardly anything, and places like the dark cave would have been much more atmospheric with some creepy sounds to go with it. Music changes a lot as well, the first music after silence is "Isotoxin", and after the start it changes to "Eversmoke", "Isotoxin" does not fit AT ALL, and I think it would have been better if the first track was "Eversmoke". Other tracks are used, including "Fourth", "K_vision" and others, and these do not cut out at a good time. For instance, "K_vision" stays playing after you leave the high-tech area and return to a more ancient environment. All this also isn't helped by the fact you can retrigger music actors, so if you go to certain earlier areas after a music change it will go back to the old track.
For such a huge level made by a beginner there are suprisingly no noticable huge BSP holes, and it never ran slow, although the main area may cause problems on a slower computer. Also at one point there are masked grates that cut into a wall, letting you see "The Void" through the texture. This could have been fixed easily by making the sides of the grate unmasked (or just not make them cut into a wall). It is also VERY hard to work out how to get further at times, like in a kind of maze area *hint* look behind the two elevators! *hint* . There is also a bit where you have to shoot two crates that block the entrance to switches but there is very little indication that these crates can be shot, and it can't seem to be done with the DP, making it even harder to work out and if you don't have "heavier" ammo you are stuck (I had to ghost to work out both the maze and the crates), also, when the crates are destroyed (I used the eightball), they seem to freeze the game a few seconds; weird as they have hardly any debris. There are also identical crates around the room that can't be shot, just to make this puzzle even more inconsistent. Some switches didn't work the first time you pressed them and some that should be one time only could be used several times making some of the elevators quite aggravating to go up and it could confuse you at times, some movers kept repeating their sounds when they got into a "snag" which led to some pretty teeth grinding sounds at times (especially on the tram, which does not seem to work the first time it is triggered). It also meant some door triggers might be used more than once, making you think you are stuck. The end mover had problems too, where it moved completely the wrong way. The fact you got some weapons off enemies and ONLY off enemies was also flawed, like how a merc that drops the minigun at the start might get knocked into the lava so you can't get it. A door you shoot the lock off at the start was also odd in that the lock flies back if you shoot it again, and it floats even when it is shot off!
As mentioned earlier, while the story in the readme is relatively in-depth, it not advanced in any way as you play the level and the messages in the level do little for the story. There are no subplots either. The size of the level means the author could have made some interesting subplots to suck you in, but the messages pretty much dry up after the first 10 minutes or so. But what you do in the map does link to the readme story, as you go around and activate the four back-up systems. Although when you first see the outpost it looks like the level will be very nonlinear you are led along a linear path as further routes from the main area open as you progress.
The level has some scripted sequences like when you enter a room and suddenly the floor cracks apart and you are going along a lava flow, and when you are in the dark cave and the floor collapses, but their happening doesn't make any sense at all (for instance, the collapsing floor is at a dead end). The map also hides a few enemies in shadows, like when you enter a large room and suddenly realise an oversized brute is shooting at you from a dark corner, the inclusion of the massive brute makes no sense at all, but it is kind of cool! There is also the odd inclusion of a normal gasbag made the size of a giant gasbag, which seemed a bit weird (especially as it only takes about four flakshells to kill). The end boss fight against a titan also made no sense, a Warlord or something would have fit much better, the fact it spawned out of nowhere added to it's weirdness. There were mercs and Skaarj used in the same area at times, although the aliens were never mentioned as Skaarj most people will find this weird (although in this case I personally found it acceptable). There was maybe too much ammo and health on "Unreal" difficulty, making it pretty easy to finish, although the "gatehouse" before you get into the main area was quite unfair as there were enemies like brutes in a very confined space. also, two Skaarj were frozen in place because their "orders" had been set wrong. There is no real ending, a transport platform just took you to a high cliff (with a view of the level), this is where I spotted that the sky is not a skybox.
You can tell the author had a grand concept in mind when he made the level, and if the author was more experienced this could really have been something special, but as it is the author gets some credit for managing to pull off his idea the best he could. The main area has some good forshadowing, and you get peeks into later areas at some parts in the level. Some of the sequences mentioned earlier create some interest. But the fact it doesn't feel like a religious structure converted into a base and lack of really interesting situations and story progression lowers the CG.
So all-in-all, this is a map where the author has tried to make a map with a concept beyond his skills at the time, but it's probably still worth a try, as there is the odd interesting surprise or two thrown in at times, and gameplay wise it tends to keep interesting throughout (if you can look past the poor build).
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