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Custom Map Reviews
Custom Map Reviews
Map Title: Zora's Episode 2
For those who have been keeping up with current events, I’ve recently embarked on a reviewing spree that will span the four episodic map packs released by Zora. These packs have been hailed among players for their difficulty curve. Yet, because these maps have been long believed to more COOP oriented in tone as opposed to singleplayer (erroneously), UnrealSP.Org has procrastinated for years with giving Zora’s work the ole critical eye. But thanks to the wonders of seasonal boredom and a self-righteous belief that I can take on any brain teaser and defeat it in mortal combat, I have plunged myself into Zora’s world of tricks, traps, and infinitely spawning Skaarj Troopers (and in regards to Episode 2, catapults).
To catch up, Episode 1 fared with mixed results, but was ultimately plagued by the lead anchor of its fourth level; the nefarious mine cart ride (for the full rundown, check out my review of Episode 1). The five maps presented all had interesting concepts, even if they didn’t always work as well from one level to the other. And to add to that, each level was so fundamentally contrary in theme and their central approach to gameplay that one has to marvel at the grab bag feel of the pack. This is the first major difference with Episode 2, which exhibits far more restraint than its predecessor. There is a better sense of connectivity this time between two of the three levels (well, there four altogether if you want to be a Technical Teddy). Although keep in mind that I used the word better, since, as with the first Episode, you still don’t know why you’re actually in any of these maps beyond the “for the hell of it” yarn. But yes, I cannot claim here as I did with Episode 1 that no attempt at a story has been made, for Episode 2 includes more traditional use of Translator messages (well, two of the maps do) and this time they aren’t simply here to give the player breaking-the-fourth-wall-style hints. To be honest though, the narrative is still pretty weak. You essentially read some messages left by dead Nali in the The Citadel level, and they speak about standard Nali plight concerning the Skaarj when they aren't hinting suggestively about a puzzle you need to solve. What I also noticed this time around is that there is a better attempt to implement more rational puzzle sequences, and they feel a little more legitimate…although, again, this occurs more in two of the three maps.
Speaking of the first map, this may as well be where I get into it.
I will omit the introduction level from the meat of the pack on the grounds that you don’t actually do anything, and it basically facilitates the obligatory “Welcome To” role that normally gets assigned to a cutscene or an info dump with starting inventory. In this case, you begin in a very familiar site…well, familiar if you’ve ever been on an Unreal server waiting for the custom content to load. That’s right, the good old Entry.unr comes into play, and not much has been changed. You leave the cell and enter a featureless room, where a button-activated door ushers you to an exit.
The first true level of Episode 2 is The Adventure Pool, and if you ask me this level seems like it has more in common with the variety seen in Episode 1. A reject perhaps? Anyway, the level is actually quite short itself for that matter and boasts a surprisingly brutal encounter with some Slith. Yes that’s right. Slith. There’s no real theme to Adventure Pool, as opposed to the two subsequent levels, and suffice it to say this is where the pack is aesthetically at its weakest. You begin in a boxy environment with skylights and immediately engage two Krall with your trusty dispersion pistol. Easy peasy you might say. What comes next is a little rougher. You are presented with two intertwining waterpark slides in a large room that’s flooded at its lowest point. If the hotshot in you compels you to dive right in or ride the slides down to the pool, you’ll find yourself swimming with biterfish, Slith, and just above the water…razor flies. As any good Unrealite knows, on land the Slith ranks as one of the lower threats…but in water, every single one of them is like Michael Phelps on a bad dose of PCP. Unfortunately for me, I’m a complete idiot, and my initial plunge dunked me right in the middle of the rape party with me using my puny dispersion pistol to fight off the horde, and I managed to swim into a little vortex tunnel (which chutes you up an earlier, safer part of the map) before I got chewed up too bad…oh say, with nine health to spare.
Luckily the map is heavy on health and inventory. And guns, if you take the opportunity to see them (I did not notice myself until I plugged all the Slith the down and dirty way, but the corners of the pool sport weapons for the taking). If you play it right, you can deal with this scenario a number of ways. Cheapskates can even potshot from the top of the room before diving in, but believe me…this approach is not as ingenious as it sounds, as DP blasts are slow, and from a distance it’s next to impossible to score one hit on rapidly moving Slith for every fifty shots you send down. It could take all day. But if you like pain emo kid, you can try my strategy; dive in with your DP, wing as many green hides as you can and dive into that vortex. Hopefully one of them will follow you in, where you can beach the bastards on dry land and take them down easier than you did the Krall (well that’s not fair, Slith actually fare better than Krall toe-to-toe, if you can believe it). I managed to get almost all of them this way, leaving me with a mono y mono with the last Phelps Slith. But I generally don’t recommend this strategy because chances are that you aren’t crazy like I am…and if you’re smart, you probably found the guns first. There are also pillars rising up from the water topped with power-ups and other important items (including SCUBA), and to get these you can either brace the slippery slides and try to coax your way through the air in death-defying leaps, or you can scramble for the jump boots situated in the water, vortex back to the top, and activate them for a injury-proof landing.
Another thing that stands out about Episode 2 is the combat. I chastised the first pack for largely stuffing monsters into locations without scripting them beyond wherever they were placed, although there was the occasional patrol. Citadel makes a little better use of its bestiary, with snipers and Krall lackeys on the prowl above fortress walls. as well as spawning Skaarj Gunners that quickly go into SWAT mode (busting open doors to find you). Fish and water enemies still get the shaft in regards to placement, although to Zora’s credit these Episodes have, for as much as I’ve seen thus far, made frequent use of aquatic hazards, whereas most USP mappers (myself included) tend to overlook the potential of water battles in lieu of theme, opting for predominate helpings of land battles…and if there is any other pack made by an author that insists on using biterfish as often as Zora then I can’t think of it. I’ve never actually taken the time to kill whole schools of biterfish like I’ve done often in these two episodes. But I’m forgetting the map! The Citadel is the star of the pack, as well as its longest endeavor (the rest are admittedly short). You begin on a conveyor that rapidly wheels you to a cauldron of lava, and after you barrel roll yourself off the mechanism into a graveyard, you’ll see enemies following suit behind you, each one going into the dip one after the other. I think this goes on forever, although I didn’t wait around to check. It’s humorous and odd, but otherwise the map is a more or less straightforward series of Bluffs, made in the sprawling style of…well, Bluff.
I’ll leave the Citadel map by saying it’s really the main attraction of Episode 2, with the first map and the last (which I’ll cover next) being rather brief in comparison. Besides all I mentioned, there are boat rides to enjoy, a finale with a blimp that you better be quick on your feet to catch, and numerous inventory caches to uncover using multiple uses of Jump Boots. There is also a catapult that can be used to jet yourself across the map, although it’s a shortcut and not a mandatory attraction. The way it’s supposed to work is that you wind it up and cut the “rope” with gunfire to send you flying. In my experience it takes a certain kind of finesse to use right, and I actually gibbed myself once for standing off center. So be careful.
Visually, the pack is better than its predecessor in some ways, but still perhaps a hair below Unreal standards. While the expansive second map rivals something like Bluff in diameter, it lacks a sense of polish and falls short on layout (every locale visited is low on space to explore). Take for instance the mountain range encompassing The Citadel; the textures chosen are not the best and the way the exterior is lit hardly does them any favors. What you see is a kind of Crayola-styled croc teeth, where the rocky slopes look like a jigsaw puzzle of lit and shaded triangles for the terrain angles. Lighting is fairly basic throughout for that matter. Sound is adequate, but that’s all…and there aren’t any custom tracks to sweeten the pot as in the first pack. A casual allotment of Unreal songs are used, and the selections used come down to a matter of taste depending on how well implemented they are. When it comes to theme, only the second map really has a definable style. The third level uses the Decayed Ship theme, but only to a bare bones degree. Really, the environment seen in the floating base is very basic, with some rooms simply being boxes with round doorways. Featureless is a word that comes to mind. There are also some instances of awkward texture alignment, or lack thereof. No set piece is going to turn heads, but hey…as long as it works, right?
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