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Map Title: Invasion (Xerania's Fall 2)
Like his larger, more epic Legacy before it, EZkeel's Invasion was a subject of controversy. In regards to Invasion, this controversy resides with its original high praise score on the old UnrealSP scoring schema while second opinion reviews were harsh on its below average appearance. Both accounts can now be considered aged as Invasion is examined under a more precise microscope called the new schema. Much of my original distaste seen in my brief second opinion under Techno's old review was in direct response to what I felt was a vast over-exaggeration of the small pack's merit. To be fair to EZkeel's predecessor to Legacy, I'll now give Invasion a more sincere moment in the spotlight.
Opening in an explosive, scripted title sequence room with full mobility and twelve health, the player finds themselves standing before a translator and a superhealth (which, when played on UT's oldskool, I was unable to acquire the health) with a pair of docile Behemoths guarding the portal that will take the player into the story. After the title sequence plays its course, you'll step through the portal onto a starship rank with the familiar scent of danger. Bodies of crewmates are found littering the floor as pupae and Skaarj wait to ambush you in tight hallways. Told that you have to retrieve some scriptures that will apparently convince the race known as the Krall that the Skaarj should be rebelled against (the context and effectiveness of such an endeavor is not explained, but you are generally given the impression that finding these scriptures will be a big deal), you make off to an alien planet in search of this objective. While the story leaves a lot to be desired, the plot does move with you as you play the game and the tale told is refreshing compared to the standard fare an Unreal Sp'er is likely to encounter. The look and feel of the pack just doesn't exactly make it exciting.
As I said earlier, you begin with meager equipment and like Legacy you have to make it through your first combat situations with basically your dick in your hands. However, there is an interesting, and risky, surprise at the end of the first map; You raid your starship's armory as a trap sequence begins to follow you, floor by floor. If you're fast on your feet you can make it off the ship with all the game's weapons and a full stock of armor and health power-ups. If you avoid the lockers and go straight for the exit in fear of the trap, the penalty will be that you will be deployed on the planet with just your dispersion pistol. It's a very dangerous way to start the pack; EZkeel definitely knows how to defy convention. If you do take the gamble, you'll probably have no problem beating Invasion since you will have all the game's weapons at the very start and no combat situation in the pack is remotely difficult.
The planet environments are of generic Unreal stock, as are the enemies (with some rare variations).Some of the altered enemies don't exactly transition well. One is the Guardian (a popular boss name among Unreal packs it seems) which is essentially a Titan with a bizarre skin. When you inspect it you realize that EZkeel put a squid skin on the model, which looks downright retarded ingame. Another attempt is the Massagula defense weapon. While it has some of the best visual design of the entire pack, the "enemy" completely fails to provide danger. The static architectural piece acting as an enemy simply spawns easily avoidable projectiles in a uniform pattern. Since Invasion really is set inside its own universe, the relation to Unreal is all but abandoned. This hurts story cohesion to a degree, but it will be a point quickly forgotten as you start playing and the story becomes more of a guideline or a reminder rather than a motivating element. The pack fails to keep you interested in the objective and before long the driving factor will simply be fun factor (of which there is ample amount).
Puzzles and thinking challenges are where the pack offers the most difficulty. It's also an area where EZkeel provides better than most. Areas like the temple put the player in situations where they have to use problem solving to bypass obstruction, like following scriptures to find a clue how to precede to a hidden area or setting up platforms using button sequences to create a bridge. What didn't work for me was a confusing chess board puzzle where stepping on the wrong tile drops you into a pool of liquid hot magma. Since I'm not a chess player, the clue fell on deaf ears and I bypassed the area by "breaking" the puzzle. Not by cheating mind you, but simply by walking along the edges of the outer squares. Also, it should be noted that a lot of the pack's blocked areas can be bypassed by conventional methods. Hint; when in doubt... shoot everything until something breaks.
For an EZkeel pack... the story, how it is told, and the levels you traverse are par for the course. Like other packs from this author you are subjected to simplistic level design with moments of complexity in regards to things like effects and puzzles. The generally basic level design is where I have most of my criticisms. Areas like the Skaarj base and Terran locations are often carved out with featureless squares and cylinders. Terrain, with the exception of one open exterior section, seems to be constructed using primitives. What this means that you'll see a lot of rough, angular terrain with very unpersuasive texture misalignments. To compliment the dodgy build quality is a general sub-par usage of lighting, which is almost always over-sourced. Also getting the shaft is how EZkeel utilizes skybox use, more directly in regards to space. Looking out a window in the starship will allow one to see clearly the corners of a box painted with stars. During an early escape pod ejection sequence you will even see a very noticeable planet texture move close to a window in an attempt to simulate the shuttle breaching the atmosphere. Like a lot of similar scenarios seen in the pack, it doesn't work at convincing but the gesture is acknowledged. My biggest gripe with the level design has to do with when it actually impedes your ability to play the game. There were numerous times where I got snagged on architecture and even simple imperfections often got in my way. An example would be one area where I was swimming to break the surface of devil fish infested water and had a brief moment of trouble trying to "jump out" onto dry land because the waterline was a bit too low. This cost me some damage when the devil fish caught up. Things like this are hardly life-threatening, but whenever a player loses health due to problems with structural design it is a big problem. Much of these little problems had to do with mover design. Many doors and lifts needed some refinement. One disastrous moment came late in the game when several Cryo Skaarj were accessing panels with floor mounted switches behind them. Killing these guys was easy because once you start shooting them, they would get stuck on the flip-switches and you simply had to take them out.
In the area of sound, Invasion is mostly average with the rare use of custom noises and music. Sound effects are as fitting to the environments as the visuals and don't help carry the bland visuals any further than expected. There are a few interesting vocal noises EZkeel adds to the pack for certain spots that grabbed my attention. The one that stood out was an eerie whisper loop when I entered the chamber prior to Massgula. Sadly, the effect was simply atmospheric... but it was the only moment in the pack where I paused and got a sense of genuine alert, like some crazy thing was about to happen.
Overall, the pack delivers a casual and effective romp with some irritating glitches here and there. The visuals just don't live up to Unreal's standards, let alone the standards of today. The gameplay fares better but doesn't dominate or truly provide a serious challenge. What can be said about the gameplay is that it doesn't get boring and your interest is maintained from beginning to end... and really, that's all that matters to most players. Just don't expect to get immersed in the story.
Second Opinions - Techno_JF
The original review, based on the old review schema:
This is one of the best SP map packs I have played. It contains five maps and a final movie, which links back to the first map in the pack when it's finished. The story is quite detailed, but here's the basic idea: you have been sent to a Nali colony on Sirius 9c to retrieve some scriptures that will prove that the Skaarj have been lying to the Krall about the Human race. The information must then be transmitted to Krallous, and hopefully the Krall will begin to take action against the Skaarj for their deception.
The first map, which takes place on the ship heading for the colony, is quite unexpected in nature. The Skaarj have boarded the ship and are trying to destroy it. You have to get to an escape pod and abandon ship. Combat is difficult, since your only weapon against Pupae and Skaarj Scouts is a dispersion pistol. This is balanced by an abundance of health and a few scenarios that are designed to be difficult for the enemies to deal with, like a zero-gravity area. The map then switches gears dramatically by giving you the option to take lots of supplies on your way out, but not without risk. Finally, in the escape pod, the appearance of actually flying towards the nearby moon is an excellent effect.
The second map is set in a temple located on the moon. The map has some pretty good fights, and items are placed nicely. You can pick up a searchlight if you finished the last level without it, for example. As far as fights go, the highlight of the map has to be the fight against the Guardian. The Guardian is basically a Titan with a different skin and some custom sounds that are really cool. EZkeel also thought of darkening the skybox to intensify the mood here. Afterwards, there are some underwater Sliths that you might not even encounter, and there are a few Mercenaries, which is interesting because Skaarj and Mercenaries usually don't mix.
The third map is at a Nali outpost fitted with Terran technology. In this map, you have a good supply of creatures to fight, and a nice, healthy dose of puzzles. However, you can get stuck if you never realize that you have to swim through the slime at one point. Also, the puzzle about moving like a chess knight didn't seem to make any sense to me; I just found three or four safe squares on the floor and played leapfrog to the other end of the room. The area just before you find the scriptures is decorated quite nicely, and the translator messages here really give the room good atmosphere. The detention areas past the scriptures had questionable texture choices, and the act of removing the captives' ranged attacks also had problems. The creatures all seem to think that they still have ranged attacks, and a captive Skaarj Gunner still has a rocket launcher. Also, the captive Mercenary is prevented from shooting rockets, but its machine gun still works. The two large battles near the end of the level were easy to expect but were still quite fun. However, the shuttle ride between them was a really clever twist.
The fourth map starts out in an underground Skaarj base. The Skaarj theme is kept throughout the first half of the level until the map switches themes to an extradimensional area with a very inventive idea for a skybox. The Skaarj base has a few good battles with brightly-colored Skaarj Berserkers, and the battle with the Giant Gasbag in a room full of Terran carcasses was rather interesting. The rest of the level is populated with a plentiful supply of Skaarj Troopers and Behemoths, and the second half of the level features Massagula, an automated defense system that looks cool, but doesn't do a very good job of defending. This level is rather straightforward, but it has a lot of interesting effects that add to the atmosphere.
The final map is a rehash of the ship at the beginning. The lighting is different, and it's a little quieter, but it's still a good map as far as atmosphere is concerned. The only fight is a cleverly hidden ambush of Skaarj Officers, but this is a surprisingly difficult battle. Afterwards, the map plays out like the first map does, and the movie at the end is a rather gratifying site. This movie isn't spectacular, but it is well-made, and it gives this set of maps an excellent finish.
In conclusion, I think that this is a good set of maps to hold on to. Its main strength is that it has a complex and attentive story holding it together. Unfortunately, this is also its weakness, since there isn't really a lot of room to explore, and there are very few secrets to find. However, this map pack really pulls through with exciting combat and impressive scenery. The maps seem to change themes a little often, but they still manage to weave it all into the plot. I really like this map pack, and I think that it sells itself extremely well as both a combat-intensive experience and an interactive short story.