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Map Title: Tashara's Cove
The great thing about Unreal single player is that, as a game, Unreal allows for an unlimited number of stories to be told from an unlimited number of perspectives. The mother game and its mission pack was all just one story that took place on a world called Na Pali. When Prisoner 849 broke the Na Pali atmosphere for the second time in Return to Na Pali, it was just the end of one chapter. Over the years various community mappers and mod teams have used Na Pali as a source for new chapters waiting to be told from other perspectives. Whether they were other marooned humans lost on an unusual alien world or other members of the turbulent population seeking sanctuary, freedom, or just a means to leave the planet... the fact remains that there has always been a basis for community maps about a character trapped on Na Pali. It's a rich dipping well and it has continued to be milked all the way into 2007. As long as enthusiasm for this game persists, so will the maps.
Hellscrag's Tashara's Cove is such a story. It is one that is familiar and simple in its nature. You play as a Terran who has survived the crash landing of the ISV-Kran and after an unknown amount of time following the wreck has made his way to a modest stronghold known as Tashara's Cove. Aside from the fact that the readme suggests that your character is male, you are left with the Unreal-esque tradition of the unspoken, mysterious protagonist. Awakening in a cave after falling through a hole, you emerge from your haze injured and stripped of all your gear. You learn right away that the Nali who cared for you has been killed by a pupae and your meager supplies (a Translator and a plucky Dispersion Pistol) are all you have to fend with as you set out for the dangerous stronghold. This is about all you have to go on at the outset of the small pack and the story unfolds through the standard use of translator logs. Hellscrag does not deviate from this Unreal standard of story telling, but the progression of log entries is well written and keeps the mood persistent all the way to the closing cinematic. While the logs are solid, the tale itself is standard issue. You'll read logs from troubled Nali slaves who speak of their woes and wish for a savior and Skaarj lackeys doing their usual grunt work. It should be noted that Hellscrag does a nice job with certain enemy log entries that depict a faithful continuation of Krall frustration with their Skaarj captors, a trend that was started very carefully in latter Unreal maps and gradually intensified as more packs were made (even reaching a breaking point in some map packs, such as Déjà Vu - Gryphon Revisited). Otherwise, nothing terribly eventful or canon challenging takes place in Cove. Right off the bat you get the distinct impression you're just playing through another guy's attempt to get the hell of the planet.
And that's not a very difficult attempt. Tashara's Cove is not a hard pack to complete by any means, and your romp through interconnecting environments over a very small radius of locations will pit you against just under sixty easily beatable enemies. You'll take on Krall, Skaarj, and Slith as the main enemy populace along with the usual horde of annoying critters. The most dangerous moment is early in the game when you first emerge from your entry cave with Dispersion Pistol in hand as a few patrolling Krall catch your scent and move in for the kill. Taking on some Krall with a DP might not seem all that challenging for veterans, even with the low entry level health. In fact it isn't, since the Krall can easily be shot off the plank leading to the starting location only to die in the icy waters below. From there you just need to grab a few guns and health and you are ok to go. That's not to say Hellscrag doesn't try. The map set is wealthy with spawning and ambushing enemies that can take a surprise jab at you if you don't mind your surroundings... but overall this pack is very tame on combat and general difficulty. It can be beaten in about fifteen to twenty minutes if you take your time. Even though it is short, Hellscrag manages to stuff the entire Unreal arsenal in this one. This fact greatly increases the player's chances of making it out with full vital and armor stats. I would say that the whole weapon load may be a bit unnecessary for a pack this size. I didn't really need the Flak Cannon, Eightball, or Minigun and managed to get through it simply by relying on the lesser weapons. Some weapons, like the addition of the Rifle, were a little overly generous. I think the pack may have been more engaging from a combat perspective with weapon slots one through four as the main gun count with the Eightball being the big addition.
The best part of the pack is map progression. Speaking of intersecting locations earlier, that's what Tashara's Cove's game layout is all about. Taking a cue from RtNP's Nagomi Passage, Tashara's Cove will have you return to the entry stronghold after a visit to a Nali holy site I'll dub "Little Chizra". The temple bears the texture set and musical score of Unreal's early Nali structure and many of the water threats and section-by-section uncovering seem to be lifted directly from its predecessor. Conceptual Grandness is a high-point in Tashara's Cove. A barred perch seen from the first map is your destination in the temple and in a nice use of a backtracking layout has you leave the same way you came in only to arrive to a re-populated night time version of the first map. The final trek has you opening gates between passages in an exterior terrain zone with a final climax at a shuttle landing zone. Like I said, you really don't go a long distance in this pack and basically you're flipping switches to open a direct route to the shuttle. Still, there manages to be a couple of "leader" type fights, even if they are a little relaxed. Little Chizra's biggest fight is against a strangely placed Ice Skaarj (the stock version, not the big blue bastard from Unreal's The Darkening) and a good amount of enemies spawn in areas you have to backtrack to. The spawning baddies are the one part of a pack that is peculiar when compared to an otherwise admirable use of enemy placement. Some of them can make you ask "How? From where?" and the most obvious example is the sudden appearance of a Titan in an area that lacks any feasible explanation as to how the hell he got there. His presence is very reminiscent of the Titan fights in Spire Village where you can easily use Nali huts to keep the big guy away while at the same time thinking "how the hell did he get in here?"
Level design is sufficient with no area being awe inspiring or overly simplistic. The weakest link in this area is the terrain segments, most directly the entry cave and the exterior canyons. They aren't primitives, mind you, but they might be a tad under the quality of Unreal's rocks and the texture misalignments really stand out in some areas. Other structures are put together in true-to-form Unreal fashion and are on par with Dasa Pass in structural design. Nothing really looks ugly, but nothing is memorable. It's generic Unreal fare all around and it serves its purpose. Sound usage is acceptable. Water flows, fire burns, and wind blows. Several Unreal music tracks are used as per usual with no custom content to make anything stand out.
Overall, Tashara's Cove is an enjoyable romp through familiar Na Pali territory with a predictable motivating plot and ending. It's a relaxed experience without the threat of any true difficulty. At the very least the conceptually grand passage of movement makes the pack stand out and on this basis alone deserves to be played. It may have been over quickly and it may not offer anything terribly exciting or new, but it's a casual Unreal experience that's solid from beginning to end.
Second Opinions - Techno_JF
The original review, based on the old review schema:
This is a well-built pack of three maps complete with a final movie to wrap up the story. The basic plot of these maps is that you have stumbled upon this cove after wandering far from the wreck of the ISV-Kran, and you have to deal with the Skaarj and other threats to your life that now inhabit this cove as you look for a way to safety.
In the first map, you have very little to arm yourself with, but there are only a few enemies around. Combat is light, and you typically only have to fight one or two creatures at a time in the open areas of this level. However, with your severely limited weaponry, it does keep the fighting from being too easy. I believe that the main point of this level is to introduce the player to a large portion of the world and to provide a feeling of being somewhere. Despite the openness of this level, there are still some interesting things to see and to look for. The cove has plenty of eye candy, and when looking down the length of it, I was surprised that the framerate didn't drop any lower than it did. The story is seen to a decent degree of detail in the journals and signs located in various places, and the goals to accomplish in the level are straightforward and have clear effects.
The second map is set in a Nali water temple bearing a few similarities to Chizra, but having a truly unique atmosphere of its own. Combat gets slightly tougher, being mostly against Sliths and a few types of Skaarj, but it doesn't seem to get tough enough to justify all of the weaponry available to the player. The map is semi-linear, and its architectural nuances show that a significant amount of thought was put into its layout. There are a few rooms and areas where I couldn't figure out why the framerate dropped so much, but it still stayed at a level that was more than acceptable for gameplay. Also, even though the general texturing seemed a bit too plain and uniform to me, the well-placed lighting and the additional decorations were a good way to spice up the map. The skybox as seen through open areas in the temple also provides a nice effect, as Hellscrag decided to account for the passage of time in the overall theme. As a result, it is most definitely dusk outside while the player is going through this level. It was also an excellent touch to be able to see most of the cove from the balcony at the far end of the temple. Finally, the map is far from audibly dead, as there are plenty of ambient sounds throughout it, particularly around the fire and the watery areas.
The last map is a return to the cove itself, where by now, it has had time to get dark. Much of the cove can be explored all over again to find additional items and another round of enemies to fight. The badlands, the canyon-like area behind the cove, are now available to be explored as well, since the trip through the temple before made it possible to enter this area. This region bears many favorable similarities to Noork's Elbow, except that it isn't as open, but that isn't necessarily a bad thing anyway. Also, there are a few more translator messages to add some extra facets to the story. I really like how Hellscrag didn't neglect the storyline even though he is showing signs of wrapping things up. The combat in this final area is rather exciting, but I think that it could have been even better with a little more work. It might have helped a little if Hellscrag had made this area a little larger, so that more of the monsters he used could have been put in place initially. For example, I am a little skeptical about how a Titan can appear out of nowhere at one point. The closing battle, while being a decent challenge, was still a little anticlimactic. Also, even though the end of this level gets high marks for its realism, it just wasn't impressive enough for me to really be satisfied with.
The final movie is short, but effective. It closes the plot, and it rewards the player with one last look at the cove in its entirety before finishing. It ends with the night sky in the player's sights, realizing that even though the adventure was fun, it is still over.
In summary, Tashara's Cove shines in its ability to convey its sense of place to whoever is in it, and its large devotion to continuity, both in the story and in the levels themselves, only serve to augment this sense of place. While some things may look a bit too simple or plain, especially along the lines of texturing and colorful lighting, it is clear that Hellscrag decided it was more important to make them look convincing. Along the lines of items and combat, Hellscrag also decided that this set of maps wasn't meant to be combat-intensive, so if a good fight is what you look for in such a set of maps, I suggest you play these maps one difficulty level higher than you originally planned. And though playing through this adventure was a lot of fun for me, I felt that it didn't stick with me afterwards, and I really just wanted to play through it all over again when I was finished. I certainly think that Tashara's Cove is an excellent addition to the Unreal genre, and I would recommend it to anybody, especially people who are new to Single Player gaming.
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