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Custom Map Reviews
Map Title: Spantobi - Unexpected Threat
Despite being a first time Single Player mapper the author of this level made several Deathmatch maps and therefore had previous experience, it shows. Unfortunately this seems to the author's only Single Player release.
A Human space ship equipped with a new "asteroid destroyer" has been hijacked by Skaarj. You dock on the ship to activate the communications array and work out what they plan to do with it. This part of the story is only relayed in the readme (although a note of what you must do is given in game) and other than some consoles that provoke some thoughts from the character you play as, the story doesn't really develop until you activate the relay (which provides a cool scripted sequence) and get in contact with your commander. From that point you are given directions of what to do and what is going on. It's simple but it provides some motivation and plot development. It also has a short ending sequence that gives a nice view of the ship's exterior.
The difficulty is tougher than your average Unreal map (and Unreal itself). But the first battle is the only one that seemed particularly unbalanced, as, depending on when you enter the first combat area (due to patrol routes), you can find yourself facing two Stinger wielding Troopers at once with nothing more than the Dispersion Pistol and an Automag with twenty bullets. After you get past this and get their weapons things balance out.
However, if you try to play the level like your usual Unreal map (e.g. Rambo style) you are likely to have problems. While the setting is quite the opposite (confined rather than very open and free roaming), the gameplay is akin to Déjà Vu's Palace of Chizra, in that it's better to take things slowly and search methodically (a lot of the ammo/health is a bit out of the way). It also pays to use the tight setting to your advantage by doing things like bouncing Eightball grenades around corners (especially helpful against the Eightball Troopers). Other than the first fight, ammo provision seemed near-perfect, I always had more than enough, yet I felt stretched at the same time (at the end the only weapon I had a lot of ammo for was the Eightball). Health isn't so balanced though, on Medium I spent a large portion of the level at less than forty health and with very little armour. I never found myself at a brick wall (I always seemed to have just enough), but I definitely felt there should have been some more health/armour lying around and things could get nasty if you don't conserve health earlier on. On Unreal difficulty it can get ugly as the difficulty is getting close to Xidia type levels, however, I was more conservative with health on that playthrough and, being more careful, got through with few problems. I didn't notice any major changes on the higher settings though (just the enemy stats).
Most of the time enemies are working at computer panels or patrolling, meaning you get the drop on them a lot of the time, because of this, despite being pretty tough "learning by dying" generally isn't an issue. The only exceptions are an Eightball trooper waiting around a tight corner as you backtrack to an earlier area (pretty much ensuring you'll get blown up if you don't know it's there) and a few Snipers, who are as annoying as usual. There aren't really any special sequences with enemies and it tails off a bit at the end, but some thought was put into their placement. It also sticks out for managing to make me a feel a little tense about what might be lurking around the next corner, something that very few maps manage to do.
Progression is quite linear, but the level interlinks a lot and involves breaking vents open etc., which adds to the interactivity and gives the impression you are doing more than just walking through it. There is some backtracking, but it's not too long, though if you have a bad memory you might have some problems remembering where to go. The author provides some hints in the readme file so even if you do get stuck you can always refer to that, but I had no problems other than a slightly obscure looking vent at the start that could be easily mistaken as nothing more than detail. When you do have to backtrack enemies spawn in and you can sometimes hear their weapons when they appear, this could technically be considered a problem, however, it actually added to the atmosphere for me. When you hear the "clunk" of the Eightball from around a corner you know it's time to prepare for a fight (as a side effect it also avoided potential "learn by dying" issues).
Sound use is generally just hums and other generic tech noises, however, good use is made of dynamic ambient sounds and the music fits well. After some silence "Queensong" starts, it sounds like a strange choice but it fits the stealthy infiltration feel of the level. After reactivating the relay you move on to a darker, creepier, part of the ship, and "Opal" plays, which fits the change in atmosphere. Then "Warlord" for the final, faster paced, segment of the level. The use of "Guardian" at the very end was the only choice that seemed spurious, as it only gets a chance to play for about thirty seconds, silence or sticking with "Warlord" would have worked better. The ending uses a new track made by the author, that works very well.
The architecture pulls off the tech theme well, with pipes, computers and other spaceship trappings. A few of the areas feel a little generic, but various movers and other details still give the level a style of its own and plenty of variety. It's not up with the best of the early packs like Hexephet and The Tower of Shrakith'a but there's still very little that's plain.
The textures used are a mix of Starship, PlayerShp, Mine and Skaarj. This sounds like a lot but, with the exception of the Skaarj textured doors, it's pulled off in a way that appears quite natural. The obviously Human textures are kept at the forefront in most areas, so it always gives off the impression of being designed by Humans. A few of the choices are odd though, like air duct textures that cover some walls, rather than being used as detail, and some of the more detailed wall textures tile a little too much. The Skaarj textures also failed to convince.
Lighting is more mixed. There's some use of contrast, but certain areas have a bit too much dull white lighting along with a few greenings (though they are rare). Thankfully, garishly oversized coronas are avoided (the view in the ending does have large coronas, but as a non-gameplay area it works) and it is all sourced. While there could be less white other colours are still used in various areas, including some decent use of reddish lighting in the gloomier areas and a few splashings of yellow/green. Fog was also used to good effect.
For some reason translator messages make no sound, so you have to keep your eye on the translator to make sure you don't miss anything, this could be a sound issue but I decided it was a technical one instead. Also, in a warehouse area you could climb over a machine and get to a corner it is impossible to escape from (outside of weapon jumps). I saw no HOMs or other BSP problems, so these are the only technical issues I experienced.
The map still seems to be very overlooked, but even today it holds up pretty well. Definitely recommended if you can deal with having to take a slightly slower paced approach to playing.
None to date.