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Map Title: Zora's Episode 1
Over the years UnrealSP has championed the many singleplayer maps created by this great community since the release of the mother game. While we've been fortunate in recent months to honor a promise made at the inception of our new review schema to reevaluate every map and pack that has come to our attention during these long years, there have always been releases that we've missed. Many of these maps or packs have, for a long time, been cherished by the Unreal community and its COOP circles. Recently, UnrealSP has made strides to rediscover these levels and add them to the pool, such as Vigil99 and the always exceptional deCyber Duel. But when I think of the maps that go unrivalled in their acclaim by the diehard masses, yet unmentioned here and other populated fan sites, I can think of no other name that has so often been murmured.
That name is Zora.
Most are aware, I gather, of Zora's Unreal COOP servers. But this author is also responsible for producing maps, and of those there are four singleplayer episodes. I have taken on the task dismissed by many over the years here to review these episodes, starting with the straightforwardly titled Episode 1. One might ask why these packs have gone unreviewed for so long. I am led to believe that they have been, for a long time, considered COOP-centric in their development, making them unfavorable selections according to our schema, which has always focused chiefly on the singleplayer experience. Thus, Zora's maps have in a way been considered “review proof.” But after downloading and experiencing these maps for the first time, I can say that the SP experience is there and not so polarized as some might say. But while the single player can download and enjoy these maps without having to rely on COOP companions (something that can not so easily be said about a pack like Zephon, which has a functional SP but was tested and optimized for online team games in the spirit of Monster Hunt, yet we reviewed it here just the same) it must be said that Episode 1 is not without it's issues. Issues that are, at times, grave enough for me to insist on reviewing each Episode separately for the sake of the author's later, possibly improved work.
So, without further ado, we begin with Zora's Episode 1.
For as long as I've heard about Zora's levels I have also heard of their difficulty in regards to puzzles. This was a matter learned quickly after beginning the first map, where you, the player, spawn over a sandy island in a vast sea and find yourself at the bottom of a long shaft. The first map, entitled Lost, puts you in an enclosed environment short on distinguishing features but high on torchlight. Right away the nature of these levels becomes apparent. Make no mistake, these are not expositions of an adventure narrative linked together by connecting environments. There is no tale to tell or logic to obey. You are not embodying a marooned no-name or a lone marine as seen in even the most conservatively applied Unreal map storylines. You are, for as far as I can ascertain, whatever avatar you wish, for the point of these maps are to test you, and beyond that there is little more to say. The very first translator message you receive comes from a monk statue, and it says something to the effect of “Hmmmmm, you're lost, hmmmmmm.” Messages elsewhere are few and far between, and the quality of the prose does not get much better. Episode 1 is, essentially, a collection of tricks and traps. You will be challenged with puzzles, most sure, as well as acrobatic feats of the likes best seen in Bunny Track maps, and to a lesser extent combat, which of all things is one area of Episode 1 that is easily managed. You will ride hover platforms that jet around an open landscape and you'll skate down the slopes of Arecibo Observatory-sized roulette funnel. You'll ride a mine cart and use music to option the very paths before you. You will do all these things because they are there for you to do them. And after you complete them all and reach the end of the last map, there will be a congratulatory “well done” followed by an invitation to play online with some pals.
I'll speak of the gameplay, since that is the core of Episode 1 and all it seems to want to do... or bend, for lack of a better word, since the style of these maps is very different to what Unreal had in mind, as it is also uncommon for shooter gameplay in general (with many of the puzzles looking like they would fit better in a more puzzle-oriented game rather than one with guns). In some cases, they break completely. The first map presents you with a labyrinth of dimensions unheard of in just about every Unreal campaign or map I have encountered. Not to say that the maze is overly gigantic in scope, but that the sheer amount of false turns and paths is effectively daunting. After ten minutes you'll have cleared out all the enemies and will likely find yourself stuck navigating the halls, stepping past the bodies of those you have slain or the occasionally appearing Nali (who, by the way, seem to populate some of the maps for no reason in particular, and only react when attacked or threatened). After twenty minutes you might begin to do as I did and start marking each passed corner with dispersion pistol burns (thank Oldskool for permanent decals), which filled in for the role of bread crumbs. The solution, you'll eventually come to find, is that one path will lead you to an exit... the right exit.
This is a shining example of what to expect in Zora's Episode 1. Challenges will be presented to you in similar fashion, with no clear hints beyond what you see. This can be an endearing trait in games, and in Episode 1, it often is. Other times it can be exasperating, or mundane, as also occasionally happens here. The labyrinth is a real time drainer the first time you are faced with it, and believe me when I'll say that this section, as well as others, will readily taunt you with dashing the tilde key and typing “ghost” in the console. That's an unfortunate side effect of a setup that can tire instead of engage, and is frequently found in Episode 1. I have a fondness for game puzzles, I truly do. When done right they can really be rewarding when solved, where the solution is vague enough to numb the mind but intriguing to the point that you can't help but solve it on your own. But mazes, either on paper or in games, tend to be a matter of luck or repetition unless there's something in place to keep the search fresh, and for some the maze in the first map will have one too many contrivances. In my own experience, I yelled out a very loud “Aha!” when I turned that last corner and found a way out.
The second map, Skaarj Roulette, is essentially a tall room with prolific use of cone-shaped structures to produce an effective Z-axis conundrum; the way to the exit is right across a gap at the very top, where you start, but to cross you need to clear the obstruction, and the lever to do so rests somewhere below you on the skimpy walkways, and below that is a great big funnel. The kicker? Skaarj warriors and gunners are continuously dropped into the mix. Falling down the curves of the funnel cause you to accelerate at high velocity, turning you into a speeding bullet that baffles the enemy AI and gives you motion sickness. It's a laugh riot really, and is the most fun you'll have in the entire set of maps. Though, the map has some issues. If ever there was an example of how not to use cone shaped rooms and cone shaped doors, it is in the middle of Skaarj Roulette, where the player has to open improperly prepared hatches and step into a space too small to accommodate both the player and the switch inside. Again, this taunts the tilde key, as getting out of these two booths on your own is a true demonstration of one's tolerance. When it comes to movers, Episode 1 is filled with complicated scenarios involving them, and many of them are simply too cumbersome. But none of them holds a candle to what awaits the player in the fourth map.
The mine cart ride is where Episode 1 hits rock bottom. You begin in a room with a railway and several computer screens which, when activated, turn into crude (only visually) security cams showing different sections of cart rail. Each of the screens is outfitted with a lever, and moving them shows a shift in the track somewhere along the railway via camera. You are led to believe, as I naturally assumed at first, that there was a particular path that was correct, and that discovering the right path is a matter of trial error. The trial and error part was correct, but the paths of the rail matter little, as they only change which segments of the mine you will pass through. Boys and girls, this is where most players will likely exit the game. I can appreciate the complexity of this particular use of movers and what must have been involved to script such an intricate rail system with a moving cart that rides the passages correctly, and I suspect any mapper could sympathize with how difficult this must have been to put together. But this does not excuse the fact that the map is broken. Not just bugged, and it is that. Or clunky. Or badly optimized. It is all these things. But it is also broken, for there is no way any reasonable player will ever attempt to try to finish this map. I gave it a good long thorough attempt, and even I had to give in to temptation and dab that tilde key. This map is just unplayable. It is absolutely ludicrous to expect a player to put up with this. I give you the mine cart, which is activated by the flick of a lever and quickly begins its move through the railway system. You have precious seconds to jump up the bars sticking out of the back before it begins to move, and once it does then getting inside is next to impossible. Then you have to either wait a good long while for the cart to return or reload your game. And you can't follow the cart through the hatch, of course. You'll get crushed when the door closes. To put it bluntly, getting inside the cart is beyond frustrating, and the whole sequence of entry/exit into the contraption is horribly conceived. Unreal player collisions and movers just don't react well in these situations, and this point is made clearer no better than what comes next. Say you actually get inside the cart and begin the ride through the tunnels; what you're faced with then are a number of instant death bugs that will make you want to punch a baby dolphin in the face! These are all those that I experienced in my game, perhaps you'll discover your own:
If there exists a way to complete this level, I just don't care. I really don't. And you shouldn't either. It is the odd man out in a pack where every other map can be completed with some perseverance. But this level asks the player to be unreasonably forgiving, like a hitchhiker you pick up one stormy night that stabs you with a rusty knife and then has the audacity to ask if you can drive him to a motel.
The final map is entitled Musica, and like all the maps before it the level completely changes in style and in regards to the central puzzle. Here, you have to trigger music to open certain sections of the map, and the song only stops when you complete whatever ordeal the chosen path asks of you. There are three sections with three songs, and each of them sound like nineties rock complete with vocals, although I cannot place the bands. One area is a kind of gallery filled with hiding monsters that you have to clear out. Another takes place in a wide open terrain zone loaded with translucent “energy monsters” in the spirit of The Darkening, and of those enemies there is a notable dual warlord appearance, although you can engage them separately and the space given to you makes the battles cake. In this section you have the option to ride one of four hover craft around the zone, which is filled with just as much ammo and items as it is with foes. The third area, and the one I played last due to a discouraging agility test at the beginning, involves searching flooded rooms. Of these, only the flooded section is a bit clunky. The sliding trick at the beginning, which is set up for you to chute down a pipe and clear a pit of lava to the other side, is very tricky. It has more to do with luck than skill, and after a few drops into the lava because your player collision did not pass the next hole as needed, you will be tempted to reach for that tilde key again. But it can be passed, if you do it just right. Just don't fall into the pit wearing an asbestos suit, or you might find it impossible to get back out, low gravity or otherwise. Once you clear it the section is pretty straightforward with a very Zelda-esque puzzle involving crates. But the end of it is where you might find yourself going cross-eyed again. The final room in this section consists of walkways and staircases leading up to an upper level where two Krall are standing on a platform. Dispatching the Krall is not a problem (nor is dispatching any enemy in Episode 1, since inventory and ammo is bountiful, including multiple amplifiers and the ability to upgrade your dispersion pistol to level five). But you might scratch your head a little here, since the solution - or what seems to be the solution - is in plain sight, and yet you can't seem to activate what looks like you need to activate. This is a case where the solution is more of an “oh” kind of deal, where the correct way to flip the switches seems unnecessarily veiled. There's really no way to figure it out except by accident, and that's not very clever. It's just wasting time.
The maps are interesting in their novelty, but awkward to play for the most part. Expect to learn by dying, and then expect to die without learning a damn thing. I had a blast in the more combat orientated sections, most specifically the Skaarj Roulette funnel and the third map, which is the pack's only straightforward combat map, called Jungle of Monsters (although it's not really a jungle). But the jovial violence might have had more to do with the fact that I actually felt like I was doing something that felt like Unreal. Thematically, there isn't much to speak of here. Various Unreal sets are used, from Ancient to Mine, but there is absolutely no sense of location in any of these levels, let alone any thematic connectivity. Technically, the maps are not impressive to look at but they fall shy of truly amateur. Some glaring design decisions wear on the eyes however, such as using energy textures that are meant to be masked for pieces of architecture, and more glitchy texture work and BSP inconsistency then needs to be mentioned. But then there are graceful elements, such as torches that can be shot out to darken a room and complex mover use that needs to be praised for the effort, even if many times it doesn't work so smoothly. Plus, some levels balance out the less impressive looking ones. Zora also displays an exemplary understanding of player physics at times in regards to the acrobatic puzzles seen most surely in Skaarj Roulette, but then again other places don't seem to match up with such scrutiny. The pipe slide feat in the last map springs to mind, and I've already covered the mine cart level. While Zora's got player air speed and fluid friction covered, the BSP and technical setups for some puzzles get in the way.
There's no quality control here, which may be the main issue. You won't see a mastered sense of player mobility as seen in Bob - Everyone Needs A Friend. The optimization of inventory and general things are all questionable. The enemies stand where placed or from where they are spawned with no further attempt at pathing or further combat scripting like, say, an ambush or a patrol or two. This makes for abundant, but dull combat. Many of the movers, like switches for example, clash with the player and require an indirect approach to flip (in some cases, like the cone booths in level 2, this doesn't work so well). I would have expected more Translator help in how to deal with many of the puzzles, as some of them are so silly that their solutions don't depend on you being smart. The only instance I can think of where a message popped up with the intention to help me was in the mine cart level, where I was told how to ride the blasted thing, but in practice the advice failed to work and only got me killed. What I'm left to guess is that the pack is popular due to longevity rather than by gameplay, and what fun factor is derived by its proponents has more to do, I expect, with years of casual COOP circulation. I certainly get a sense that the maps (some of them) were designed with an admin's backdoor in mind, for many unreachable sections of the maps are flooded with unattainable inventory (but could be, with COOP mutators and Admin cheats).
Overall, my opinion on Episode 1 is mixed. Having no story certainly hurts the scoring, but we've reviewed maps with no storylines here at UnrealSP before so I do not see the harm. There is one map (the mine cart ride) that is essentially an antithesis for functional gameplay, and I gather only sadists would attempt to solve the riddle of the railway. But there are fun moments in Episode 1. They just don't happen often enough. While the maze in the first map can be taxing, it is the most aesthetically pleasing level in the set, and with the addition of the third level there are at least two maps that are fair and balanced in the ways that count. The Roulette level is memorable, but perhaps too silly. While sound is generally basic, a few custom music tracks add some flavor towards the end. Even with the dead weight of the mine cart level, Episode 1 can be decent with some unrealized great ideas to show for it. It's just not enough to really make the pack jump. I will play Episode 2 next, and despite what I might feel about this one, I am intrigued by Zora's work and quite curious to see where these Episodes will lead.
Important Note to Oldskool players: this pack has some heinous Loading bugs and random errors that might crash your game to desktop on occasion. I am led to believe this problem does not exist when played on Unreal, so keep that in mind before attempting.
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