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Map Title: The Last Fortress
If you followed the six-week 8th UnrealSP.org Anniversary Speedmapping Contest, you probably already know The Last Fortress. Made by Lord Waffnuffly, developer of well-known products Attacked! and EXU2, this single behemoth of a map was the winner of said contest; I was one of the four judges, and I gave it a 9 as a vote. Why The Last Fortress got the biggest trophy? Compared to the other entries, it was just polished in every possible category: excellent build, incredibly dynamic gameplay, a proper good story and, finally, no bugs on sight. Overall, it was just an impressive experience. Now, almost a year after the contest, the mappers who participated in it have begun polishing their entries for standalone releases, making them more enjoyable to play and... making them officially reviewable. The Last Fortress was the first to see the light of the day again.
Since there wasnít really much to improve from the old TLF, you may not notice big differences. Scripted sequences have been improved, difficulties have been tweaked a bit, find a way to climb the castle isnít as hard as finding a gold treasure and various small bugs got blasted away. Lastly, the map can now be played in Coop mode without any problem. Now Iím free to go in details on what this map has to offer, and to give it a real proper score.
The build quality is absolutely gorgeous. Iím still impressed how stunning it turned out to be after six weeks of mapping. The setting is a large Nali fortress, now overrun by the Skaarj and their technological furniture of doom. It throws out a theme which feels inspired from Dark Arena of Unreal fame rather than Nali Castle, and playing a good bastard child of Dark Arena has been always something which I liked to do, and this map pulls its game perfectly. The place is massive: courtyards, defence positions and the main castle itself; you canít go in the indoor sections, but you can go almost everywhere outside, namely the courtyards and the towers that guard over the terrain. This means that thereís a lot to explore and there are also secret areas, so watch out for those. As I said, youíll feel really small compared to the surrounding, especially to the towers. And when you are on top of them and look down, for a rare time in an Unreal game youíll feel like suffering of dizziness. Iím not really joking: just try to descend from a tower using one of the ropes. The map seems to rely more on a grand scale, and itís probably one of the most successful attempt at it, easily on par or even better than Shamu Quest.
It actually touches the limits of the engine, but certain spots of the maps (mostly the optional ones to explore) feel empty. Itís like ďyouíll find a more detailed area here and not in the other oneĒ. Now, thinking about it, is that considered a bad thing? Aside the fact that more technical problems related to the engine would have probably appeared Ė and according to the author, developing the geometry of the map was a serious pain - what other stuff would you add? I have never seen a castle being filled up and down, left and right, of barrels and plants. Over-detail (or over-busy looking places, depend on how you want to call them) isnít always a good thing. The architecture shines because how right it looks: it feels like a real castle, with design choices that make sense. Itís simply impressive to your sight. The image of the Skaarj bridge connecting two towers is breathtaking and one of the most memorable since the stone bridges in the Vandora section of Seven Bullets.
The barren atmosphere of the fortress is helped by the lighting. The orange skybox fits perfectly with the settings and the shadow effects are good on the most part; it also gives the great vib of playing oldschool FPS games such as Doom or Quake. On the bad side, it may end up repetitive since youíll stay outside all the time, making the colour orange stick to your head for a lot of time. Fortunately, the Skaarj, to light up the dark areas, have employed some strong blue lamps, that really go together with the orange colouration of the sky. Work on the textures, with the NaliC package, seems to be overall flawless in both alignments and choices, except the clouds being low-res when you just look at them.
Whatís less impressive about The Last Fortress is the use of sounds. First of all, the music: itís the ambient songsection of Crater.umx which is played until the end of the map, clearly a hour or two of playtime. Itís a good choice, but youíll have to hear it always and always, without a moment in which it stops, and not even the action songsection plays. At least it is a pretty silent track. Watcher.umx instead is very welcome for the last battle, and unsurprisingly it turns to be a better boss theme than Guardian.umx and even Warlord.umx. Regarding the sound effects, well... letís just say that the whole fortress is a windy place, and that the Skaarj have done a lot of work for their loud machinery Ė especially the bridge. Iím using Galaxy, and if you pause your game and re-play it near said bridge, its sound can be irritating, but itís not a problem worth to complain about.
The gameplay of TLF is the big beast of the map, as it is pretty much the factor which had the most work put in it. Waffnuffly never disappointed in this field; Attacked! was known for its heavy use of scripted sequences and EXU just speaks for itself: so crazy, yet so balanced. In The Last Fortress, get ready for slaughtering masses of Skaarj and Brutes. Problem is, this kind of heavy-gunning gameplay doesnít seem to be very open to everyone. One reason is because some people like to play non-hardcore experience or seek something like the atmosphere as a priority. Itís a matter of taste, so personally I find nothing wrong in that. Another reason itís the high difficulty, but that wouldnít be always considered a good complain. Itís balance what counts the most. The difficulty of Xidia Gold was punishing and we loved it; on the other hand, no one really wanted to play Unreality: Episode One. Why? Because its gameplay was developed by the hand of the devil Ė giving that feeling called frustration when you went through it. The Last Fortress, at the beginning, does scare players just with the sudden Skaarj Trooper wave youíll encounter right at the beginning of the level, but after playing it a bit youíll discover that the line of death isnít that close as you may expect. Itís recommended to start on Easy difficulty for average players. For veteran players, Hard is the way to go. Unreal difficulty on the other hand, is quite the real deal.
So, whatís just entertaining about the gameplay? This time, youíll begin a map in a different way. Not anymore with only 100 Health and a tiny (or more like, ready-to-kill) Dispersion Pistol, but with an Assault Vest and all the weapons already with limited ammo, except the GES Bio Rifle and the Minigun that donít appear. This is just the signal of the enemy rain youíre going to get; pretty obvious, youíre not going to expect Krall throwing cakes at your face inside a fortress. Instead, youíll fight hordes of Skaarj Infantries and Assassins coming in front of you, Skaarj Warriors dropping from above, Behemoths shooting fast rockets from the fortification, Skaarj Snipers on the left hand side, Skaarj Gunners on the right hand side and a bunch of angry Titans. Yeah, now we actually know why itís called the last fortress. The Skaarj have finally understood that they can screw up against human bot controlled by a player even if they would send an enhanced Skaarj Berserker toward you in a small room. Skaarj and Brutes are the only baddies youíre going to fight in TLF; do not expect though to just go around and find a bunch of placed Skaarj Gunners with 170 points of health, cleaning their guns. Waffnuffly once again dishes out his gameplay ideas: depending on the difficulty you play, the monsters will have different properties, such as increased or decreased health, or also higher projectile speed. For example, Lesser Brutes, known fragile enemies, are now threatening due to their fast rockets they shoot; not to mention, how strategically theyíre placed. In The Last Fortress, looking only in front of you is a terrible idea, as z-axis gunfights are very common; you have to be careful all the time, and look for whatís coming from any direction. Enemies clearly donít want to be threaten like living jokes this time: they use the environment and the shadows at their advantages. This is one of the aspects that characterize the fortress; itís not a random Nali castle with flags and birds, it clearly works as a fortified structure. See, the invaders are forced to go through three pathways before entering the main gates, and whoever took control of the fortress are taking profit of all of its defence points. In this case, Skaarj will snipe you from small windows or hide behind corners, while Brutes guard from every tower the courtyard below them. Expect also sudden ambushes. They can also camouflage in the lighting: Lesser Brutes are apparently harder to see in the middle of a orange light, while in the darkness Skaarj Troopers suddenly pop out. Some of the areas are very long and seeing whatís happening on the other side is not an easy feat. One thing I have to say is that Skaarj really like to jump from high positions; lucky guys since for them falling from above is the least of their problems.
Youíre going to fight Skaarj and more Skaarj. The Warrior caste isnít that threatening, except when youíre climbing the last few floors of the main tower. The Troopers, as expected, wonít go down that easily. Fortunately, for the most part theyíll be using less dangerous weapons such as the Dispersion Pistol, Eightballs and Razorjack. Stinger users are a pain if they are in teams, while Snipers arenít that tough. These latter are hidden behind some small windows in the first section of the level, and they barely hit you; other than that, their health is low so you have better chances at killing hitscan enemies without getting yourself shot due to bad luck. The health of many Skaarj depends on their current duty. Lone ones? Theyíll be stronger. Any kind of snipers or large groups of them? Theyíll be weaker. This feature is very used in TLF. Doesnít mean you can lower your guard though, just when you think everything is fine, two Skaarj Warriors will drop behind you. Or worse, youíll have to face Skaarj Officers with the Flak Cannon, who really are punishing. You have to pray for low odds of appearing of certain monsters; this is another one of Waffnufflyís favourite gameplay features. Other than the usual difficulty filtering, some more enemies may appear, or certain groups of Skaarj Warriors are replaced by Troopers and viceversa. Said feature greatly enhances the replay value, and already the amount of scripted ambushes and enemy guard points is way too high for being memorized, so every time you replay the map youíll probably forgot whatís up next. Either that, or it will be the Skaarj themselves to forget about your intrusion in the castle. During my playthroughs, when I was exploring the top of the walls over the long wooden bridges, I spotted some Skaarj Warriors waiting to drop down, as if their scripted sequence wouldnít have worked. Apparently, I discovered a bunch of more enemies that were stood in one position, completely hidden over the outpost towers, or even retired in places where you probably wonít return or bother to check. The level is full of scripted sequences, and the author in the middle of all the confusion in the Unreal editor has probably forgot something. Same story happens for the snipers behind the windows, but, who knows, that could work at their advantage if theyíre lucky enough to spot you when returning in the first section for items. So, trying to kill all the Skaarj legally wonít be possible (I missed a lot of them).
Youíll be constantly fighting. What keeps you alive is the inventory youíre going to pick up. Starting already with good equipment, youíll find along the way a high amount of ammo, with the obvious exception of Rifle bullets. Even on Unreal difficulty running out of ammunition, especially if you canít get enough of the Dispersion Pistol which reveals to be as useful as always, will be hard. Aside normal pickups, enemies drop their stuff too, including the weapons from the Troopers. Pretty much, all of your guns will have an use so donít neglect them and donít be conservative: the Automag is always your standard all-purpose hitscan pistol, the Flak Cannon makes good work of heavy enemies and Skaarj Lords, Razorjack and the Rifle are perfect for headshots. Hitting the heads in TLF will be a godsend for you. Many of the Snipers can practically be killed with one blade or bullet in the eyes in order to avoid direct confrontation with them, unlike what happens in most of the other single player map packs. The strategies are up to you, and once you ďconquerĒ territories, from a good position (over a tower, for example) you can play the same bad game the Skaarj are doing upon you during the entire level. You wonít miss the absent weapons: the range of the GES Bio Rifle is way too short for these kinds of maps, while the Minigun can hardly be considered a weapon for what it does.
Everything is right about Health packs and other items. Starting already with an Assault Vest and quickly getting a Kevlar Suit, along the way, youíll find many Bandages and Health Packs, with some of them being dropped by enemies as well. If you like to explore (which you really should do if you want more ammo already) youíll find armours and Shield Belts. What makes the map difficult is some of the ambushes made by groups of Skaarj that will eviscerate you in pieces; although thereís a solution for them, just wait the next few paragraphs. Minor hits will constantly bother you but all the health pickups will keep you up; there are also a lot of Seeds to find, but as a veteran player I didnít feel the necessity of using one of them. You want to avoid all the possible projectiles anyway, because on higher difficulties, having an overall good equipment is a must for the final battle. Save the game often. Other items are Flares and a SCUBA Gear; Flashlights are there too but another one would have nice, not because for searching items since they glow, but for seeing enemies in a better way and also secret passages (that sometimes, may cost some health due to a few jumps you have to do). Lastly, donít forget to retreat from a dangerous situation: thereís enough room for doing anything here.
And yet, these warnings about legions of Skaarj guarding together the fortress, youíre still thinking on how are you going to clear the level. The Last Fortress employs a new, custom weapon: the SK-6 Rocket Artillery Cannon, which uses a gray Eightball mesh. Basically, take the Flak Cannonís secondary fire and turn it into a Redeemer. Well, quite. Not the same raw power and the large explosion, but the rockets/grenades are incredibly fast and the gun is overall easier to use. Itís strong enough to take out solid squads of Skaarj. See that team of four armoured aliens? One bang and itís done. The sound of the explosion effect is extremely satisfying, and like what a taunt from Unreal Tournament 3 says, youíll really feel its impact. The SK-6 wonít be available until youíll enter the castle; surprisingly, its ammo isnít rare. Theyíre in form of single rockets or as packs of four rounds (practically a reskinned box of Flak Shells from UT); if you explore the place good enough, and make correct use of the new war tool when itís necessary, youíll probably end up having full ammo of it Ė which is just 20 rockets Ė and that can easily happen in Unreal difficulty as well. Either I did choose the hard way by using normal weapons to fight a few Skaarj waves, or really the author has been too generous. At least, this will be of a big help for average players; practically, it does work as an anti-ďlearn by dyingĒ item. If suddenly youíre face to face with four Skaarj and havenít saved your game, you know what to do... if you have the missiles, hopefully. Unfortunately for you, even enemies will have access to said weapon. The first confrontations are against SK-6 Behemoths (coincide also with the first time you see the missiles in action) and seeing them suddenly shooting dozens of these explosive mortars casting loud explosions was just a great experience. SK-6 Behemoths arenít tough, but Skaarj Gunners do and have to be killed quickly with the Rifle before youíre dead meat; scripted sequences make you alert of their presence but thereís a single moment throughout the map where you donít manage to know in time where theyíre located, leading then to your death. Luckily, theyíre rare.
Thereís stuff where you can waste a lot of ammo though. During the map, youíll face three Stone Titans. Nowadays the big beasts are considered laughable threats, but here they throw rocks harder than before; combined with the dark lighting, youíll possibly manage to hit your face with one of them. Have fun shooting big missiles... and obviously saving some of them for the last boss. While itís the classic army leader you are forced to defeat, of all the boss battles in the Unreal SP history this is one of the most entertaining and challenging to fight. If The Last Fortress have been too easy for you, this dude will change your idea; he got an extremely strong stamina, especially in higher difficulties, and he pays off even with an unique trick.
Overall, Iím safe to say that the gameplay of The Last Fortress is one of the best I have ever seen, and just really fun. Excellent ideas and use of scripted sequences, and the SK-6 Rocket Cannon is an amazing addition. My only complaint is that the balance in the higher difficulties seems to be in favour of the player. Less ammo and the removal of many Seeds would have been a good choice.
This leaves me now to talk about something: the story. And guess what: for a combat driven map, itís good. You donít get a lot of information by reading the readme (the commentary says much more but you shouldnít really read that before playing), just a little paragraph where it says that you, as a stranded from a crashed human ship, have finally managed to pass through all the opposition and reached their last stronghold. Itís set on Na Pali, many years after the events of the Original Unreal, and basically your character has arrived at the end of his/her journey and is ready to eliminate all the Skaarj in the fortress; good time, we got control of the character in the most interesting part of the quest! Yeah, there isnít a lot of backstory. Youíll get more to know when you proceed throughout the map. Youíll read various logs, and they are about a certain Dr. Morgan who has been forced by the Skaarj themselves to build a weapon called ion cannon; at the same time, heís sneakily tried to free all the imprisoned Nali with the help of one of them. Thereís a good build-up on what the doctor exactly has done, and the Skaarj really donít care about him (not to mention, their logs are funny). You wonít understand whatís going until you start to climb the main tower: youíll steadily begin to know where you are and the real use of the ion cannon. All pretty unexpected from below. The last scripted sequence is satisfying, and contains the best interaction with the sky box itself since the falling asteroids from Operation Na Pali.
Doing so, you have to climb the tower, which is one of the main aspects of The Last Fortress. All of this is done throughout climbing ladders or ropes. The concept of making your way toward the top of the castle is more original and immersive than what has been done to the Sunspire, but the downside is that it can be pretty frustrating. Climbing stuff is not that easy. It works in this way: you touch a rope to attach yourself to it, then you look up to ascend. Usually the character goes out of the climbing line and falls, unless you balance yourself a bit with small movements, or simply jumping correctly from the very beginning. You can also descend by looking down, but you need to be extremely careful because itís easy to screw up and fall due to the playerís high acceleration. Sometimes, when climbing a rope, you may suddenly stop and not be able to ascend anymore. This is the most annoying technical bug about the map, because itís almost impossible to get out of this situation legally. Lastly, youíre slow, and youíre very vulnerable from the enemy fire. Who played the original version of TLF may remember how difficult was to find the first chain to go over the first structure. The position is still the same but itís now more visible due to a fallen lantern. To sum it up, youíll never feel safe when using ropes and ladders, mostly the long ones, so saving the game before reaching any of them is a good idea.
Aside the whole climbing matter and a few scripted sequences of the enemies that donít seem to work, The Last Fortress seems to be free of bugs. You obviously need a good rig to play it smoothly, otherwise youíll get many slowdowns and minor graphical glitches.
Simply one of the greatest single map releases. A massive, impressive-looking structure to explore, impeccable gameplay to experience, all tied together with a well-done plot.
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