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Map Title: Unreal: Forgotten
Unreal: Forgotten takes you back to Na Pali some time after the events of Unreal, during a period of time in which Earth is maintaining a military and scientific presence on the planet. The player and a comrade, who are based at Outpost One (an installation in the planet's hostile northern hemisphere), are sent out to survey the planet from orbit. Downed by enemy fire from an unknown ship, the player crash-lands back in the snowy wilderness. His comrade is killed, and he is unable to reach Outpost One on the radio. He must set out on foot across the wintry landscape to return to base and warn his people of an imminent attack.
Unreal: Forgotten is an ambitious release for a single mapper, clocking in at six playable maps (which are generally on the long side) plus intro and extro cinematics. It is also the first major single player release to make use of the extra features found in the unofficial Unreal 227 patch from OldUnreal, and said patch must therefore be installed before you can play the pack.
There is something decidedly old school about Unreal: Forgotten's build. Where shorter, highly detailed maps have tended to become the norm in recent years, Unreal: Forgotten takes us back to an earlier model of single player design, consisting of large and sprawling layouts in which the architecture is painted in broad strokes (much as in the case of Skaarj Tower: Shadow and Fire). There is little extraneous detail; instead, the maps rely on scale and form to make an impression in a manner akin the original Unreal, making for an enjoyably nostalgic experience. That's not to say that Unreal: Forgotten isn't original: Snowy landscapes on this scale have seldom been attempted, with the possible exception of Project Zephon, and towards the end of the pack we get a significant and noticeable change in theme as the action moves to Earth.
While the "less is more" style is a valid approach to single player design, the build isn't perfect. Most rooms and corridors have some interesting architectural features to draw their eye, but there are some internal areas, particularly in the third playable map (set in the extensive environs of a Skaarj prison and a castle occupied by the Krall), that could be described as plain or unadorned. Sinistral recycles his own brushes a lot, which is generally fine, but when his Nali villages consist of several houses of exactly the same design, credibility is stretched a little: it may have worked for Pancho's Nali huts in the original Unreal, but these houses have a much more complex and distinctive design, making the repetitious effect much more noticeable. On the plus side, however, most of the maps also feature one or more major architectural set pieces, whether it be the dynamic and carefully modelled exterior of Outpost One in the fourth playable map or the impressive control room of the Skaarj ship in the last map. High-tech locations include plenty of machinery, some of which moves, and the maps set on Na Pali have a strong and spacious terrain element.
Lighting could be better, but generally works for rather than against the theme. The lighting is always sourced, and various colours and effects are used, even if the brightness and radius of light emitted doesn't always correspond that well to the source and the lens flares are sometimes misaligned or oversized. The castle interior in the third playable map was the weakest area of the pack in this respect, with almost uniformly bright lighting from the various burning torches, to the extent that some visible "greenings" were experienced. Texturing is decent, with textures carefully and consistently chosen from sets that match the theme, but there were noticeable misalignments in places, particularly in the terrain, and repetitive alignment on some flights of stairs.
These minor complaints, however, aren't enough to undermine the very strong theme that Sinistral has created in many of his maps. The hostile, snowy landscape is carried off well by the harsh, rocky terrain, snowy textures, bleak lighting with gold highlights from campfires and torches, roaring wind that surrounds the player and dynamic weather effects. 227's snow generator isn't perfect, generating the snowflakes in noticeable sheets that sometimes creep through thin roof structures, but it gets the job done as long as you don't examine it too closely. The Skaarj prison and Krall castle make for imposing environments; the thunder and lighting that pervades the former is a great feature, too, but unfortunately appears either poorly configured or bugged, flickering and rumbling constantly rather than intermittently as it should do. When the action moves to Earth, the theme takes on a really grungy, heavy industrial feel, enhanced by the fact that parts of the environment are burning as the planet comes under attack by the Skaarj. The final playable map, set aboard the Skaarj ship, has one feature that I always felt Unreal's original Skaarj MotherShip lacked: the ability to look out through the windows to see the exterior of the hull, which definitely adds to the sense of place. Stock Unreal and Return to Na Pali music is used throughout the pack, generally to good effect, although the quality dips in the map set on Earth, in which the strident Warlord theme from Unreal is used for too long under normal combat conditions, and the use of the music from Unreal's ending sequence had me thinking that the pack was about to end when there was, in fact, still a map and a bit to go.
Unreal: Forgotten's story isn't, in itself, a great departure from the norm. The "player crash lands and has to survive a journey across the planet" structure has been followed a hundred times before, even though this pack has the distinction of having the player already being a resident of the planet prior to the crash. For the first few maps, the plot is explored by the usual translator messages attached to dead bodies and the musings of tormented Nali and, other than an unusual dynamic between the main races (here, the Krall are natives of Na Pali who are, themselves, resisting incursions by the Skaarj, although the use of Brutes in both camps seems odd), it isn't until the player returns to Outpost One (which has already come under attack) that things start to get more interesting. Unfortunately, the translator messages disappear entirely by the time the player gets to the final playable map, leaving the player to undertake the final part of his mission without any particular background or guidance. The motives of the Skaarj are left unexplored, and the player's story slightly lacks closure.
However, Sinistral is much more effective at delivering the story through the events of the levels. As well as the intro and extro cinematics, the pack makes effective use of small in-game scripted sequences, such as a Skaarj shuttle dropping off additional enemies in the last playable map; while, in the case of the map set on Earth, the build itself takes forward the story. The Skaarj ship that the player must board and destroy is seen hanging in the air over the burning base, making the threat to Earth seem very real.
This brings me, finally, to gameplay, which is one of the pack's slightly weaker areas. Generally, the gameplay increases in intensity and challenge throughout the pack, often leading to combats with multiple enemies, but not in a way that I would describe as inappropriate or unbalanced. Enemies are placed in varied ways, sometimes patrolling, sometimes operating control panels, sometimes ambushing, and every map has some kind of boss or mini-boss. There's usually enough health and sufficient ammo to go around (probably too much, in fact, as most of my weapons were generally pretty full), at least for the first five maps.
However, there are also noticeable "spikes" in difficulty along the way, where fights are included that fail to offer reasonable odds / reasonable entertainment / appropriate levels of intensity. Typically, these consist of fights with single enemies that have been given implausible amounts of health, or fights with unduly large groups of heavily armed trooper Skaarj. The first combat with a Skaarj is one such fight - a Skaarj Warrior that seems to take a very long time to drop - and there is a boss towards the end of the map set on Earth that takes absolutely forever to kill; it's beyond the realms of believability, and ends up being rather tedious. Thankfully, the final boss hasn't been beefed up to quite the same extent, making for a shorter and more enjoyable fight overall (with certain caveats; see below).
There is also a more general problem with gameplay in the final playable map. The map, which is set on board the Skaarj ship, is very heavily defended, as you might expect. However, there is ammo around the place, and the surplus that the player has collected over the first five maps means that you are very unlikely to run out of ammo for all but the most powerful weapons. Unfortunately, in the midst of all this, there is no armour and virtually no health, not even in the run-up to the final boss fight. Playing on Hard difficulty, I managed to make my way through the environment without too much frustration, but towards the end my health was fairly depleted and I was offered no opportunity to recharge it before stepping into the final arena (other than a "secret" Super Health Pack, which I spotted but didn't work out how to access). In the end I had to summon some health to make the final combat, in which the final boss is surrounded by smaller enemies that can easily erode your health, more enjoyable. Another point of frustration in the same map was that none of the enemies were able to open the numerous slow-moving doors, often forcing the player to put themselves at risk to re-engage with active enemies after making a tactical withdrawal... having said that, when my arrival on the control deck attracted the attention of at least eight trooper Skaarj in an unfavourable environment, their inability to open the doors as I retreated was probably the only thing that kept me alive. The map also makes somewhat unfair use of creature factories, spawning heavily armed Skaarj (including Snipers) in the vicinity of teleporters linking different parts of the confusing symmetrical layout, whose dazzling coronas make the newly spawned enemies virtually impossible to see.
Technically, the pack is reasonably robust, with comparatively few HOMs or other visual glitches. However, some of the geometry caused enemy pawns to be destroyed when they came into contact with it, and there were a number of locations where it was possible to fall into a recessed area and become stuck, such as under a lift in the second playable map, a pool towards the end of the third map and a prison area in the last playable map. There are the aforementioned issues with the weather generator, and at the start of the fourth playable map, I spotted several trooper Skaarj floating high up in the sky.
The nostalgic feeling and evocative winter landscapes make playing Unreal: Forgotten a genuine pleasure, despite the issues with its gameplay, which don't really make their presence felt until the late stages of the game.
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