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Map Title: The Tower of Shrakith'a
The Tower of Shrakith'a has always been a highly regarded map pack and is arguably the best single player map pack released prior to Unreal Tournament. The pack was created by Geoffrey "MadMartigan" Field, who also promised to release a sequel that sadly never materialised. None the less, The Tower of Shrakith'a stands the test of time and remains head and shoulders above many of its competitors.
The Tower of Shrakith'a succeeds because of its blend of atmospheric design and dynamic, heavily scripted gameplay. Ask any seasoned Unreal SP player where their favourite custom map moments have occurred and it is likely that one or two will have come from this map pack. One particular incident involving a Nali and a tray of drinks springs to mind!
From its backing story and the design of its first couple of rooms, you might not have expected The Tower of Shrakith'a to be anything particularly special. The story in the readme is the standard "suddenly alone in an alien world" set-up, although presented with a slightly more imaginative twist than usual. However, the context of this alien world (which may or may not be intended to be Na Pali) is explored through translator messages as the game progresses, more effectively than in many similar sized map packs. We never get all the answers and the big picture is always somehow out of reach, but the storyline is none the less effective in leading the player towards his final showdown with the Guardian.
As stated, the first few rooms are nothing special; the game begins within a Nali house, and it is equipped with all the standard furnishings that you might expect to find, with a fairly even level of lighting. However, MadMartigan already begins to distinguish himself as a mapper by avoiding an over-reliance on Unreal's decorative mesh prefabs.
One the player gets outside into the Nali village in which the first map takes place, the imagination present in MadMartigan's designs begins to become apparent. This village is not just an array of boxes with smoking chimneys: each building is different, and the spaces between them are well-defined. Burning torches keep at bay a sinister, killer fog that is threatening to swamp the town. The lighting is dark, there is the occasional toll of a mournful bell and the atmosphere is foreboding. To add to the authenticity of the scene, MadMartigan also includes non-playing areas that are only visible through windows. The oppressed Nali of the town are seen to be coping any way that they can. The build of these first areas really cannot be faulted, barring a small number of poorly aligned textures and a few lanterns that appear darker than they should be.
But it is in and around the tower that MadMartigan's imagination really kicks off. The looming entrance to the the tower, topped with snipers, foreshadows the richly crafted environment that is to follow. Within, the tower is extensively furnished and, as the player climbs the interior of the building, views and forays into the rain-lashed ledges outside the building really convey a sense of altitude. The lighting of the building makes rich use of colour, light and shadow, and MadMartigan never seems to run out of ideas for imaginative light fixtures. The rooms of the interior vary in scale and decoration in a manner appropriate to the importance of their function.
The third playable map ventures into a more abstract form of design but does so very effectively, whilst the expansive and detailed extro map shows the hard work and time spent on crafting this creation. The dropship prefab is particularly impressive. Sound and music are well utilised throughout.
All of this design comes at no great cost: there was no noticeable drop in performance, and very few visual glitches were encountered.
Not content with just creating strong designs, MadMartigan ensures that his maps have a long playing time and that they continue to surprise and excite the player. As well as using scripted scenes to further the story and the player's physical progress through the game, MadMartigan is continuously placing the player into new combat situations, whether it be the snipers at the tower gates, sudden ambushes from dark corners, or noteworthy glass and pottery-shattering incidents. The mapper is also unafraid to make the player use his brain: the player sometimes has to jump from ledge to ledge to progress and, in the third map, a series of innovative mental challenges precedes the final showdown (which is itself far from conventional). The Nali also get up to some interesting things in this map pack, helping the locations to feel real. The ending sequence is, of course, excellent.
Amidst the dynamic environment of the map pack, MadMartigan introduces challenging but generally reasonable gameplay. Saving your game regularly is advisable as the individual situations can prove difficult, but adequate supplies are provided that they never become impossible. Unlike some map packs, it is impossible to rely heavily on the Flak Cannon, as it doesn't put in an appearance until a late stage of the game. Overall the gameplay is well balanced, never too difficult and never dull.
The Tower of Shrakith'a is a map pack of enduring quality that is well deserving of its reputation as a classic. If you have yet to play it then now's the time - it will be an hour or two well-spent.
Second Opinions - Naveed
The original review, based on the old review schema:
While on an archaeological expedition on an alien planet you discover a medallion. Suddenly you are taken to a mysterious alien world on some distant planet. After crashing through the wall of a Nali house you are taken to a bedchamber after a five hour nap you are told by the Nali living in the house how you may get back to your world. This is where the Tower of Shrakith'a starts off.
Geoff has done an excellent job on this pack. It just pours on atmosphere with well chosen music, great eye candy (architechture is better than Unreals in most spots), lots of Krall to kill (my favorite part), ambient rain and nature sounds, perfectly balanced enemies and items, a decent cutscene at the end, and no apparent visual glitches and a nice and smooth framerate.
The storyline is basically what is written in the first paragraph. As you play through the maps it really doesn't deviate much from it and translator messages are used to give hints and some details enhancing certain aspects of the storyline. The storyline overall is good but could have been better.
Housing structures in the town are original and each one looks unique when compared to each other.The texturing is done excellently. Buildings have similar texture schemes, but are each done differently going back to each fact each building is unique.
Another cool feature is the deadly fog which inhabits a quarantined area of the map. To make it to the outskirts of the town you have to jump from rooftop to rooftop of this treacherous area. Save often because it can be a pain in the a** for those who are not used to jumping a lot. Explore the town and it's outskirts fully, if not you may miss out on some of the good weapons and great architechture. Lighting in the town is good, but could have been a bit better; some areas were a little to dark. The gameplay here is right on the button. Not too tough and not too easy. Most combat revolves around Krall except for some small segments which can be really nasty if you haven't found any weapons besides the stinger and automag.
The castle is original in the fact it is built into the walls of a cavern that appears to be floating in the air. Towers are in every outdoor segement of the castle giving Skaarj snipers great oppurtunities at an inexperienced players head. As for the inside of the castle it is as you would expect from such a good map. Mediaeval architechure styles are throughout giving it a true mediaeval feel. The texturing follows the castle theme with a combination of Nali Castle and Chizra textures. No texture missalignments were apparent and it is varied so it doesn't feel plain.One feature of the castle that adds a lot of atmosphere is the thunderstorm complete with rain (crucial to the storyline and gameplay). Lighting in the castle is an improvement over the lighting in the town. The best lighting in my opinion is in the sewer like area in the beginning of this map. By the end of this map you should have all of the weapons except the minigun which does not appear in the pack.
The enemies are various Skaarj and Krall. Some of the Skaarj have some nice scripted sequences such as a sniper giving itself away. Save often in this map because the enemy placement puts you in some tight spots.
The tower is your main goal. The architecture is great and is a cross between soemthing out of Indiana Jones (as are some of the obsticles you must face) and in some spots and more castle or temple like in others. No matter what style it resembles the layout flows nicley with a unique feel. The enemies are a change from the Skaarj and Krall and overall gamepaly has a emphasis on supernatural aspects. The majority of the map flows around to challenges of might and mind. The challenges of the mind focuses around the Indiana Jones style obsticles mentioned earlier. There are two obstacles total one focusing on memory and the other focusing on jumping and observation. The challenge of might has two obstacles as well. One volcanic cave with a Titan, Gasbags, and a Stone Titan. These are followed by two tough gold Skaarj. At the end of each challenge you are rewarded with a ruby to place in the eye socket of a big stone Skaarj face. Once you have completed the challenges and retrieved the rubies you continue on to defeat the Guardian of the tower. Basically a super Skaarj the only problem is you can't kill it with conventional weapons. You need to jump from stone to stone in two areas containing some sort of activators for the seal that will kill the super Skaarj. After you have defeated him you return back to the archaeological site and are treated to a cutscene that leaves the story open for a possible sequel and after playing this map pack I can say I want one.