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Map Title: Zero Black
Zero Black, for Unreal Tournament, is a Single Player pack consisting of three maps, plus an intro and an epilogue, made by mapper EddX, the same author behind The Sky Shard and The Abandoned Colony. I also reviewed The Sky Shard, which is worth checking out.
Set in the Unreal universe, there's a nice premise in the ReadMe regarding the background of the main character, his captured girl and a nightmarish torture done by a group of Skaarj, managing then to escape. After some time, you are sent on a mission, the objective being an assault on an underwater Skaarj military base. It turns out that the base is commanded by the same group of Skaarj who tortured your character... Time to get some revenge, and possibly find your lost girl. So, what are you going to face in these maps? If you read the author's notes, you'll already be aware of the prospect of underwater trips.
After a long, cheesy-looking intro showing you in a submarine descending into the ocean, you take control of your character who is going to swim in the extremely large area shown in the screenshot above. Speaking of extraordinarily large areas, this is something that EddX loves to make in the editor, and ends up being an aspect of his mapping style.
Let me say that the beginning of the first map contains the most (or just the only one) unique sequence featured in the pack. You have to swim through a large passage with a Skaarj Sub next to you, so you won't be detected by the defence system which instantly blows you up. This is only explained in the ReadMe, so if you don't read all of it you're going to waste several minutes seeing yourself gibbed repeatedly until you figure out what the hell you have to do.
Now you finally enter the Skaarj outpost. It mostly consists of small rooms and corridors, with the occasional larger area containing either panels or a big generator. EddX tries his best at making everything detailed enough, with brushes, computers and nifty use of movers. Regarding movers, one of the room is basically a single one which moves to connect itself to the underwater section of the map, which presents a confusing layout and a more basic build.
Perhaps the map's theme would be consistent if EddX had used only the Skaarj Texture set, instead of combining it with its "rival" Mercenary DecayedS.utx one. Yes, both of them are good for technological structures and here it's done fairly well, but the "Skaarj" base simply looks like it was built by the two alien races of Unreal that can't stand each other; it will present seasoned Unreal with the question of who really owns the structure. It really doesn't make much sense when, for example, you look at two computers of different styles operated by Skaarj in one room. Maybe it was intentional, since the Mercenaries are working for the Skaarj for unknown reasons, or the author simply didn't think about it. Elsewhere, some textures seem poorly chosen, especially for the small doors that make them hard to distinguish from the walls.
Lighting is sourced well in the main map, while in the intro it feels totally out of place due to fully visible "black holes" and a strong, unnecessary yellow colouration of the environment. Sounds are nicely handled everywhere, and DCrater.umx is an excellent choice while sneaking throughout the base, even if pure silence would have been greater for the underwater trip.
The second level is the Lair of the Slith; by reading the title, you'll know that underwater locations are going to be the map's focus. Continuing from the previous theme, EddX manages to make the place more Skaarj-like with good use of Skaarj textures. Still, some issues are still present, such as doors being even harder to recognize (the first one is a moving wall, for example). You quickly access the "homeworld" of the Slith, which is a small reference to the locked Slith City of The Sky Shard. This section of the level consists of very gargantuan areas, all underwater, showing once again the author's love of grandness (already known from the Abyss of the aforementioned Sky Shard). Unfortunately, there's a little devil pact: EddX sacrifices most of the build quality, which becomes very weak when compared to the best stuff offered by the other maps.
Basically, it's a combination of samey rooms and tubes having basic shapes, with added brushes for the demands of detail. The Ancient texture set fits well with the environment, albeit with a repetitive use of texture patterns, while the lighting is very dark just to cover the ugliest parts of the area, resulting in the disorientation for the player or simply death due to strategically placed Slith.
The illumination mostly comes from some kind of green lights in the shape of cones, having one of the most terrible water textures of the game. Someone probably sneaked onto EddX's computer and filled the Slith city with these... things; jokes aside, they give an unprofessional impression: already bad as it is, the slime textures put on them are misaligned and it seems there’s no end to their existence! Also, some of the walls present the same green slime sticking out of nowhere, just to light up the areas. Big slouches of laziness here, the author had the potential to come up with a better concept - the glowing orbs from The Sky Shard being an example.
Sounds vanish from existence once you enter the underwater section, with Wargate.umx covering the entire swimming trip. Fifth.umx sounded pretty menacing at the beginning of the level. There's a lot to explore, but it mostly ends up eroding your health; scroll to the gameplay section for that.
Then we have the last playable map of Zero Black, a Skaarj mother ship, whose way of entrance is very similar to the one of The Sky Shard. Great in the architecture department, there's a nice set of conceptually grand rooms that do a good job at distinguishing themselves from each other. Lighting is varied and properly sourced and there's even better improvement in the Skaarj theme than before, with an appearance of the Queen.utx texture set. No problem with the sound, and Fifth.umx shines once again throughout the insane amount of battles, same with QueenSong.umx in the occasion it is used. Completing this map will lead you to the epilogue.
The story ceases to be important the moment you enter the Skaarj base in the first map. What is the primary objective sent to you, as set out in the ReadMe? Kill all the Skaarj and their allies you see. And that is, kill and mutilate all the Skaarj and other bastards you see before they do the same to you. The detailed background's main purpose was here to let you know about the captured girl who'll be your personal, secondary objective, barely touched in-game. The pack's insane load of translator events (another obsession of EddX) are all about the status of the Skaarj's environments and of their Slith experiments. You won't miss anything if you read them, you'll simply save 30 minutes of reading. On certain occasions, the character will talk through texts about his personal thoughts on his girl and the Skaarj Lord who tortured him.
Scripted events are almost nonexistent in Zero Black; you get to sneak the Skaarj base with a sub, and trapped on two occasions in flooded rooms, but there's nothing more than that. It goes like this: you enter a room, kill angry guys in it, read messages, find another set of SCUBA-Gear, swim for a long while, enter the big base, set up the bomb and bye-bye. The epilogue sets you in a Skaarj sub where you see an already fallen Skaarj mother ship; after many seconds of ascending to the surface you'll reach the extraction point where... nothing happens, aside from some messages from the author himself. Pretty unrewarding honestly.
Since your objective is killing, the author should have put something special in the gameplay department, the most known aspect of Zero Black. The style of the gameplay is in the manner of Assault: you just have to advance onward and kill enemies, and it's all done with the use of UT weapons whose use never convinced me in single player games (some of them being useless or just overpowered). Difficulty filtering is used: you just get an even higher load of monsters to fight on Hard and Unreal difficulties. And on Medium it was stupidly high enough.
Good, what do you expect now? The first map is the easiest, but that's not saying much. Your main enemies are the Skaarj, and most of the time the environments are cramped. This gives a big advantage especially to the Trooper caste; As if they weren't strong enough already, in Zero Black they quickly corner you somewhere and you'll end up being killed from shock blasts, blades or flak shells. If you're not the one to ambush them, the chances are that you'll be crushed. And speaking of ambushes, they're unpredictable and unfair: suddenly getting stuck by a Skaarj Trooper with a Shock Rifle at the very beginning, or sniped out of nowhere in the middle of the base.
Also, all the rooms are guarded by solid, combination of enemies (Mercenaries too) that attack you from any position. Sometimes this will lead them to suicide/friendly fire since they can't do much in small areas, but mostly you won't realize what's really happening and there's no way to avoid dying. Lastly, you'll know how incredibly annoying Skaarj Troopers with hitscan-Enforcers can be when they ambush you underwater: they hit you all the freaking time. The situation becomes even worse in the underwater lair of the Slith. The level will make you hate the serpents more than you did in Unreal's temple of Chizra. And in a confusing, dark section with almost no health on offer, you shouldn't have to face six, fast Slith hidden in an area attacking you in a row. Or a single one behind you who hides in the darkness. Don't worry about the SCUBA-Gear, though, as all the ones you get are almost infinite.
The mother ship map seems to be fairer. No big boss at the end, but the author thought it was a good idea to throw at you nearly infinite waves of enemies, hidden Skaarj Snipers or an all-purpose Skaarj Officer team.
You'll definitely fight a lot. Save every now and then to avoid frustration. Fortunately, EddX is kind enough to add a nice amount of ammo and weapons in various spots throughout the levels; from Map 2 you're going to get all the weapons, but the Flak Cannon is going to be the weapon of choice against the Skaarj due to size of the environments. Health is also provided, and even Shield Belts, but they become rare at crucial points such as the Lair of the Slith.
Exploration becomes a necessity on higher difficulties, and there's a lot of it in Maps 2 and 3. Optional rooms contain equipment and monsters... or just monsters. In every part you go there are similar bad guys awaiting for you. Not one moment of peace. And yeah, watch out too for what you explore in the Lair of Slith: basically, one area will just have a deadly ambush of the Slith, while the other one will have Skaarj guarding some items.
Ultimately, I started to grow sick of the gameplay style. There's barely any creativity, as the entire point is to hunt enemies that are simply placed in front of computers. You get a bunch of items from a spot and fight the next wave, and you do this again and again until the end, with no twist or scripted (and fair) ambush. The combination of repetitiveness and a bit of unfairness kills the entertainment, and subsequently, interest in the pack itself. I recommend playing the maps on Medium difficulty for the best chance of an enjoyable experience.
There are some technical issues too, but nothing game-breaking. One elevator button didn't work, a few translator events are put in the wrong position, Slith shoot at you from behind the glass when they shouldn't have been able to see you, and a giant HOM is visible in the extro map. Also, rooms that become flooded cause a big loss of framerate, broken lighting and graphical glitches, but only for a while.
In my opinion, Zero Black would fit perfectly in the MonsterHunt arena as an "area after area" mass enemy slaughterfestm such is the scope of the pack. Compared to his older release The Sky Shard, EddX largely improved his build skills for indoor structures, while retaining his conceptually grand mapping style. It's a bust that, once again, he put minimal effort into the progression of the main story, overloading the player with unnecessary translator messages. It's hard to get into the gameplay, filled with generic and usually unfair battles. I'll give to EddX one thumb up for giving us a long bit of underwater exploration, though, as it's unusual in Unreal.
Second Opinions - Hellscrag
The original review, based on the old review schema:
Those who followed its development closely will know that Zero Black, by British mapper Edward "EddX" McRobbie, is a three-map pack that takes place in an underwater Skaarj outpost. The map is an Unreal Tournament SP pack in the truest sense of the term, meaning that you'll be fighting using the UT weapons... and, unfortunately, so will the Skaarj. The pack has a mildly interesting background story that plays out through the pack, but ultimately Zero Black sets out to be a combat-centric adventure, and combat is what you'll get.
Zero Black takes place across three principal settings; an underwater Skaarj base, a Slith city and a large Skaarj space ship that is docked underwater. This combination offers little chance for themic variety, but does give the pack a consistency of style that helps it to gel. Amidst all the high-tech design, EddX manages to use a few ancient textures for the oldest parts of the Slith city - which, of course, take the form of underwater tunnels. Yes, there's a lot of swimming in this pack, but EddX prevents it becoming a problem by providing bumped-up SCUBA gear at the appropriate locations.
The maps are often fairly non-linear and favour exploration, particularly the vast Skaarj ship, a particularly complex map of which I'm sure I didn't even visit half of the side rooms. Regardless, the maps have a clear progression for the most part, aided by on-screen messages at various doors and control panels. The translator is also used heavily, but perhaps more for background text than key clues.
So how does the pack look? Well, this is EddX's second UT SP release (the other being spabcv2, or The Abandoned Colony). As such, EddX's architecture is of the middling variety. The first map's architecture is generally decent, although it errs to the primitive in parts of the second map (in particular the green "organic" lights, which are quite blatantly textured cones). The pack's finest architecture is in the third map, where EddX creates a Skaarj ship on a grand scale, which I find to be much more convincing in theme than Unreal's Skaarj Mothership. The same texture set is used, but EddX is more adventurous with the lighting and creates a more realistic layout.
What of texturing and lighting? As it happens, both areas are dealt with competently, but imperfectly. I saw a few misaligned textures on surfaces that EddX might have considered less important; they don't destroy the theme, but leaving the texture at the same alignment on each face does nothing to enhance the aforementioned conical lights in the second map. I also felt that door and lift textures were often ill-chosen, appearing indistinguishable from the surrounding static geometry. Lighting, meanwhile, achieves decent atmospherics and is sourced, but not very strongly so. There was plenty of contrast between light and dark areas of the map, but the sources within the lit area were not that strongly defined, costing the pack perhaps the greater atmospheric kick it could have had.
Sound is executed more thoroughly. EddX makes good use of the creepier side of Unreal's score with tracks such as Crater, Fifth, Fourth and QueenSong. Ambient sounds are also ubiquitous, and while EddX doesn't make use of the SoundPitch feature for the kind of atmospherics we have grown accustomed to in maps by Hourences et al, he still manages to inject Zero Black with a good range of sounds for ambience's sake.
All this leaves the gameplay, always a burning issue in map pack design. Well, the map pack runs smoothly and doesn't overly tax the engine, which is a good start. A couple of HOMs slipped through the net in the underwater areas, and these create distracting white patches due to the fogging effect, but they are never present at moments of key combat - which is, of course, what Zero Black is all about, and I can safely say it doesn't disappoint.
Combat begins fairly simply, with Skaarj faced singly or in pairs, before increasing as the player accumulates more weapons, and facing the player with individual challenges like Snipers or large Brutes. The second map ups the stakes by featuring tricky underwater combat with Slith, often forcing the player to make tactical retreats down the nearest tunnel, but it's not until map three that the pack really hits its heights of challenge, with large groups of Skaarj or Brutes jostling to eviscerate the player at regular intervals. It sounds like a major increase in difficulty, but it's on a sensible curve and the player normally has plenty of ammo for at least some of his weapons. My only concern is that the health, which is supplied at regular intervals throughout the pack, seems to dry up just for the last few minutes for some of the pack's tougher battles.
Once the saga is complete, there's a short extro map that rounds things off nicely. All I might say is that the ending was a little anticlimactic, lacking the über-battle one might have expected.
On the whole, Zero Black is a very solid pack with a good gameplay curve and ample supplies to fight with. From what I gather, you have to pick the right difficulty setting, but that serves to open the pack out to a broad audience of differing experiences. EddX creates pretty convincing locales with good use of sound and plenty of backing text for the thorough player. It may not be up there with the best, but Zero Black is worth a play.