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Custom Map Reviews
Map Title: Project Xenome: First Day
Project Xenome was initially released as a forty level pack that was withdrawn from download after some controversy around borrowed map sections. Now it's back with some major rethinking and a new episodic format, and if this first episode is anything to go by the full release could be a new classic.
As a whole this is quite possibly the most convincing Human tech environment I've seen in an SP Unreal release; the visuals generally don't quite hold up to closer scrutiny as well as my former champion, Xidia, but it makes up for that with a consistently grand scale, lots of moving machinery and other interactive aspects, and one or two levels with layouts that border on ingenious.
The pack starts in relatively pristine labs and moves onto gradually more deteriorated industrial settings, which gives it a sense of progression and makes it feel quite varied despite sticking to a general Human base theme throughout. The starting level is probably the simplest, with little of the grand multi-level designs that make up a significant portion of the pack. However, between the nice use of environmental hazards and other interactive elements it still shows some flourish, and ends with a very nice looking lobby type area. From the second map onwards the detail rarely lets up, and there were a couple of levels where I was wowed multiple times by both the scale and detail of the environments. Map two does show a few issues with the texturing though; in the caves towards the end in particular a lot of the rock textures are noticeably misaligned. There are also a couple of confined corridors that have nothing other than dim ambient lighting, when a few highlights would have given them much more life. In general some parts throughout seemed a bit too reliant on semi-bright ambient light that I found a bit unconvincing, although most of the lighting work is very good. One general detail I liked was the signs; most packs in Human settings use a couple of generic signs and leave it at that, conversely Xenome has several signs that fit a lot of individual areas, it's a small detail that adds a lot to the sense of place.
Sounds are fitting throughout and used appropriately. The weak link is the music, which, while not distracting, also never really drew me further into the moment like the best usages of music do; I can't really tell whether it was due to unfitting song choices or dodgy implementation, but the music that is used didn't really add anything to the pack for me. You actually spend the majority of time in silence (music-wise), which is probably for the better as the ambient sounds enhance things throughout.
The pack shows a lot of influence from Half-Life, from the puzzle-solving to the general atmosphere and feel (although the later, gloomier sections feel more reminiscent of games like Doom 3), this also goes to the point of many textures and sounds being from Half-Life, this mostly works, but the textures suffer from the issue of having no detail textures applied, which makes them stand out and look a bit off when they are used alongside standard Unreal textures. The navigation puzzles work well, especially since it's quite a rare thing to see in Unreal maps. What you have to do is occasionally a bit vague, but you can generally get it by paying some attention to the environment and what's around you. I was amused by how similar one puzzle-involving moving a platform thing over acid-is to a task in Half-Life: Opposing Force (complete with Pupae standing in for Headcrabs), even the area layout is pretty similar, not that that takes anything away, and it is a well-devised task.
By extension of the above, areas aren't just there to look nice, a lot of the pack is based around interlinking multi-level rooms with several tasks to complete; and even seemingly empty areas can have something to do in them at some point. The peak for me was probably "Sour Water", which is based around a sort of sewage facility that you loop around on multiple levels (including an exterior); it manages a complexity of interlinking that very few maps come close to. Despite the large size and interlinked design of most of the levels, they mostly avoid forced backtracking and other potential flow stoppers.
The story is obviously well thought out and integrated into the gameplay throughout, however it suffers from the major flaw of seemingly having no proofreading at all, which leads to a lot of dodgy grammar and misspellings that took me out of the game a bit (although it always remains coherent enough to avoid being outright engrish). The story itself is based around your efforts to survive and escape an attack on your base by the Skaarj, and, while not especially ground-breaking, it works. The pack makes good use of Operation Na Pali content to add helper marines at various points, along with tasteful use of cutscenes to show certain events. Of course this pack is the first episode of a trilogy, but it does a good job providing a full narrative arc despite that. One slightly odd loose end was some sort of nemesis character that had no mention outside of various random sightings; with no textual foreshadowing or other descriptions for this character beyond occasional sightings they seemed a bit of an empty addition that added little to the storyline or atmosphere and were apparently just included here for the sake of the sequels. The ending also felt slightly abrupt; the gameplay climax was there, but it pretty much just ends when you are walking down a corridor.
The combat gameplay is mostly good, but there are a few semi-major balance flaws. I played on hard and spent most of the first few maps fighting Skaarj Lords with a Dispersion Pistol and Enforcer, the only way I could beat them was to exploit their AI to force melee attacks, in a couple of instances (most notably where you are rushed by three Skaarj Lords and all you have is a Dispersion Pistol and a couple of soldier buddies who get torn apart like tissue paper) my victory was pretty much down to luck. What made this less maddening than it could be is that enemy encounters are very rare in the first few maps; the author seemed to have been going for a "quality over quantity" approach to enemy placement, but there seemed to be a little too much "quality" in the first maps. One slightly irksome thing that led to some "learn by dying" for me is the practice of locking doors behind the player when certain ambushes happen; there were a few instances where I back-pedalled to retreat only to find a door had locked with no warning, leaving me swarmed (the three Skaarj Lord example I mentioned above happened to be one instance of this). The final battle also had directions that seemed slightly deceptive as it was implied you had to go to one location when you actually had to go to another first, and you are under heavy fire, essentially putting it on a timer.
The balance is mostly fine in the later maps, although you might run into some ammo problems if you aren't too hot with the Ripper (my main weapon in the later sections). It could have done with a little more Enforcer ammo; I was quite conservative with it throughout and was still nearly empty a lot of the time, and it's the only real "sniper" weapon you have. There's also a lack of health, it's most evident in the early maps, where you don't have the weaponry to outsmart enemies in tougher fights, but it stays a problem throughout, and you will likely be quite low on health a lot if you aren't conservative with it. The author has mentioned mainly balancing the pack for normal difficulty, so some of these problems might not be present there, but difficulty settings should have been heavily beta-tested anyway. Beyond those problems there are some very good fights, including arenas that make use of Z axis combat and various gameplay-related scripted sequences like enemies ambushing you.
It should be noted that the pack has large fights that take place in complex rooms with lots of details including things like fog; if you are on a weaker computer you may face some major FPS troubles, as some rooms with lots of combat chugged a bit for me despite being able to play most maps fine. However, the detail and size of the rooms makes the FPS issues quite explainable, and probably not possible to fix. There are also a few instant death BSP holes, including one that creates an obvious seam in one water area. The code panels also had a couple of instances where entering the code did nothing, and I couldn't use the panel again so I had to reload a save for it to work properly; I have a hunch it's related to moving away from panels too fast after entering the code, but I'd recommend being careful with saves around panels in case something goes wrong. I had/saw no technical issues beyond those however.
A very pleasant surprise that almost came out of nowhere, the author has done a great job on making nine full maps on their own and if they go up from here the next two episodes could be amazing. However, a little more beta-testing of difficulty settings should be done next time, along with getting in a proofreader for the messages.
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