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Map Title: Zora's Episode 4
The untitled Episode 4 marks the beginning and end of Zora’s jumping, dodging, pondering, shooting, gauntlet of tribulations. I’ve had a good run with the Zora maps, and am pleased to say that Episode 4 ends (or begins, however you want to look at it) on a good note. Sure, I cannot exactly say that the last chapter came full circle and totally overcomes the lows of its predecessors (or its successors…okay, I’ll stop). The trial-by-error standard remains as dominant a factor in the gameplay as it did in Episode 1, and the world of Zora—best described as an encapsulation of general Na Palish themes—is constructed by an intelligent design of sorts to tax any lone wanderer with one puzzle after another. Every facet of every locale seems tailored to this scheme (an effective security system, if insensible. There’s hardly any room left to make potty!). But while that’s true, what’s also true is that the levels of Episode 4 no longer feel as random as they did before. That is because Episode 4 follows continuity…if a little lean.
You begin at the dead end of a nondescript hallway and quickly discover that you are isolated on an island landmass with an unstable fault resting at its heart. If that isn’t bad enough, the worse news is that this volcano doubles as a launching site for a Skaarj outpost silo. That description might be overly generous given that, like all interiors I’ve come across in Zora’s maps, this outpost is a bare-bones shell of consoles, locked doors, and elevators. You never really know who you are or what led to your current predicament, but you do find a good deal of dead humans lying around the volcano. From their last wills and testaments you can read their thoughts in all their improper grammar (I guess it’s hard to twitter “I’m being killed!” as you are in fact being killed), but it is implied rather loosely that they are all part of some sort of team. Whether or not they were shipwrecked on the island or brought there by some other means is never revealed, nor is it mentioned if you are among their ranks. Certainly, no debris is ever located by the shores and nobody identifies themselves or others beyond first-name basis, and you have to be lucky to get that much. You will encounter a rare, speaking NPC in the first level (rare for Zora’s episodes and Unreal SPs alike), and in a later level you will locate a benevolent village with speaking Nali. This is done via Translator text, but it nicely adds some diversity to the brain racking you’ll be doing most of the time.
This opening is rougher than other episodes of the Zora series, matching levels like Lost and The Citadel for game time spent. The combat of this opener is also a notch above the Zora standard given the heavy Skaarj Trooper presence…and because you’ll be acquiring all Unreal’s weapons within this map by having to kill sentries for their guns, you’ll have to engage all of them in order to arm yourself adequately. This means that you’ll be fighting Skaarj that wield every weapon, from Flak troopers to Minigun sweepers to even guys shooting ASMDs, Automags, and Bio Rifles. All the normal Trooper classes appear with their associated weapons too, but the biggest threats are the snipers. The Vulcan is such a wide open level on the outside that a wise player will engage in long-range combat to tackle these adversaries. The interesting thing about this level is its layout, which allows the you to exit the volcano cone to the outer ridges and the beaches below, where much of your time will be spent navigating the slopes (by forcing this “hike” orientated exploration, Zora inadvertently risks over-experiencing Unreal-era terrain…which shows its BSP-relying age well here, unfortunately). Because you can take whichever direction you want after leaving the cone, initially, you will run into a random assortment of Skaarj moving along their designated routes. What this means is that you can quite easily acquire all ten of Unreal’s weapons in all kinds of backwards orders than what you should normally find them in. An early Flak trooper promises the almighty mortal/shrapnel launcher as your second weapon so long as you kill him in such a way that he doesn’t drop his gun out of your reach, and a Stinger is promised shortly after. Beyond that, your acquisition order relies solely on which path you take and who you fight along that route. When I played I found the ASMD and Automag last, with weapons like the Eightball, Flak, and Rifle making up my earliest grabs. Besides the Skaarj, there are quite a lot of mantas nesting about on the outer slopes, and the water around the island is rife with devilfish (but surprisingly devoid of biter fish…an odd lapse for a Zora map), with Nali cow farms placed sporadically on some cliffs. But the meat of this level will occur after you’ve cleared out the significant horde of baddies and are left trying to find the ways into each Outpost junction, where you’ll need to activate and then access each of the island’s four silo towers. The challenge here lies in the exploration…with a side helping of console hunting and countering some pissed off Skaarj reinforcements. The final puzzle is an 8-switch combination lock that needs to be pressed in the correct order. Failure will reset the sequence, and it might pay to scribble some notes to keep track (I have a steno pad next to my PC for precisely this sort of thing, and I still have the glyphs from The Citadel marked down there).
The Vulcan is my favorite excursion in Episode 4, but that is not to say the later maps pale in comparison for any reason. Not to be outdone, The Volcano Underground offers some surprises of its own, including some of the Zora series most harrowing combat debacles. Take for instance an elevator ride that never reaches its destination intact, culminating with an ambush scene straight out of Metal Gear Solid. It is also a nicely-sized map as well in regards to pacing, and by the time I finished it I felt that I had been playing for a long time, even though I hadn’t played nearly as long as I had in The Vulcan. There is an early segment in a control room that can give you pause for a moment as you figure out a height obstacle, and later sections include a catwalk detour through a cavern infested with Brutes, Episode 3’s Fire Slith, and pupae. Actually, pupae make a pretty large appearance in Episode 4, appearing in droves at every major map aside from the non-combat one. But not to be outdone, the Skaarj make up the bulk of the combat challenge here.
As mentioned before, there is a Nali Village to be seen, and in a twist all your weapons are taken away upon entering. I suppose it is meant as a “holster your gun” type situation, but unfortunately there is a bug that occurs if you load a saved game within the map. Technically, there is no reason to do so since you cannot die here…but due to the nature of a very vague “what to do next” puzzle, I was touring and retouring the boundaries of the map several times. The scale of the map is quite large, and one time I reloaded a save so I would not have to circle around a long swimming route back to the only spot in the lake that you can actually exit the damn water…and upon reloading my game I found that my dispersion pistol was inexplicably equipped. It may not be much of a bug, since you don’t actually need to shoot anything…but it does destroy what might very well be Zora’s nicest thematic touch in all four episodes when a player starts firing off pottery and storage barrels to the apathy of the townsfolk (and that’s not taking into account what happens when you shoot at one of them). Beyond that, the puzzle I mentioned is fairly perplexing in standard Zora fashion. You have an interesting ability to converse with the Nali here, who welcome you to their haven upon entry. While you can speak with many of them as they brisk the pathways and go about their daily routine (true to RPG tradition, this so-called daily routine consists of walking around town in patrols, but that joke is only funny if you’ve been playing any adventure game since childhood…if your childhood was at least in the 80s/90s. Otherwise, don’t laugh at my quip. You don’t deserve to get the joke) or read their diaries, nothing said or written actually helps very much when it comes time to moving on to the next map. It would have been more interesting to invest in some dialogue/reading clues, but Zora instead chose to go with more variations of the “noob barrier” theme, which apparently means putting players in a contained environment and not giving any indication of what to do next…in the hopes that said players will develop hyper-cognitive modes of perception, like digital telepathy or what Russell Crowe had in A Beautiful Mind, and auto-decipher the solution (in which case they would no longer be noobs, perhaps? I dunno). Anyway, like every other one of these there is an answer, of course, and like the worst offenders of previous episodes, when solved you will more likely be rolling your eyes due to the elapsed time it took to figure it out rather than the joyous, self-appreciative smug you might feel if there was any sense of accomplishment to be gained from bearing with these unreasonable brain traps. Well, you do get items as a reward, so it helps. Suffice it to say that yet again, you might be over-thinking what you have to do. You also might feel the temptation to dab your tilde key, at least for the “Fly” function so it doesn’t take you the whole interlude to Iron Butterfly’s In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida to explore the map for the sixteenth time. I will say this; there is an early puzzle with a fairly simple solution, but it appears to you in the form of the dreaded cipher glyphs from Episode 3’s The Citadel. Fear not this red herring, I implore you! A greater stress test requires your full attention if you wish to progress to the final map.
It would seem that the Skaarj represent the main antagonists of Zora’s Episodes for the sole reason that they repeatedly show up as the series’ primary “smart” antagonist. Mercenary and Krall presence is relatively low in all four installments, with the Krall not appearing here. In every episode with the exception of Episode 1, the finales have posed the player against an onslaught of Skaarj in some kind of “base” or other command post (thus comprising the total play time of Zora maps with only Skaarj outposts as reliable climax points). Episode 4 ends on a two-deck Skaarj starship as it speeds through the cosmos. You play the part of stowaway, with the main Skaarj force lying asleep in their bunks (which seems odd since they abducted you in the last map, yet you appear on the Teleporter room without a security party to escort you the afterlife). Like Escape from Heaven and The Water Laboratory, you unlock various junctions of the map by activating consoles elsewhere. The difference here is that the environment is much better than the last acts of yesterday (or tomorrow, depending on your point of…okay, I said that I would stop and I mean it this time). Granted, by the final episode no map in Zora’s Episode 4 reaches true par status with the mother game, but at least the balance is no longer so jarring. In other episodes you would get one map with sensible texturing and alignment, while others seemed fresh from their rawest form (this was most noticeable inside The Water Laboratory and just about all of Escape From Heaven). Like the endings of the other episodes (Zora’s Episode 1 not included), this finale is strictly combat oriented.
The narrative was one aspect maligned in previous episodes, and while I’ve been strident in my criticisms thus far during my Zora spree, I can say that effort was made to immerse the player in the environments. The best of it entails communication with active NPCs, including the one human character you meet in the Vulcan. Logs populate every single map, making the Universal Translator the most tested inventory item in the Zora map for a change. But the effort—while notable in a series with a substantial drought of ingame plot—is not faultless. Between the thirteen maps of this four episode epic, there exists no redeeming storyline, and Episode 4 fails to deliver a beginning to a story we already know has no end. Throughout Episode 4, characters (usually dead) populate the environments and your antagonists toil away at their computer panels when they aren’t patrolling or waiting in ambush—and the culmination of all that well disciplined console attendance translates quite literally into program functions and how nominal every system is…with occasional reminders that negligence will be met with punishment. Basically, standard Skaarj computer crap. You never get a sense of what your enemies are doing besides being Skaarj. You never know the relationships between all these dead humans and the lone survivor of the first map…least of all how they are supposed to relate to yourself, the protagonist, if you even have a purpose here. Not even the Nali, who appear in every episode, seem to know. They don’t even acknowledge each other (let alone a community to hail from) until Episode 4’s third map—though, you can make an argument in court that this is simply because they’ve all been traumatized by the events of Episode 4. I mentioned in my review of Heart of Chizra—which you might remember as being a mapper’s own personal “test run” of how to perform basic singleplayer tasks—that even a map of such brief game time is sufficient enough to incorporate a consistent storyline with a beginning and end. If Raven could do it in a five minute experience, then anyone can. Yes, Episode 4 has plot points. But it doesn’t have much of a story. I will say that it might be more prudent to begin these episodes proper from Episode 4, since the chronology might alleviate the compilation feel in Episodes 1-3 to some extent by at least offering a launching off point. However, in that same breath I am reminded of issues that contradict this line of reason. Playing backwards, I noticed that a map in Episode 3 is revisited in Episode 4…and in this case it might pay to play forward numerically since the expectation of cataclysm adds some intrigue to the Episode 4 experience that may not be there if played the other way. Furthermore, to play forwards means that you are experiencing the “better” maps first, leaving the less balanced, less ably constructed episodes to look forward to…and I will add to this by saying that Episode 1 will easily be the most frustrating of the four sets to get through.
To complement my verdict of Episode 4’s storyline, the sound of this installment is substantially adequate. While later Unreal SP packs have explored sound usage to greater lengths, what is heard in Episode 4 sounds correct for the most part. The fathoms grumble beneath you prior to every earthquake in The Vulcan, birds cry from above, and most machinery groans appropriately. Skaarj command posts don’t sound as lifeless as they did in previous episodes, but what stands out is the music. I criticized Episode 3 heavily in this regard. It was a train wreck! Every track was inappropriately garish on the ears and grew nauseating after the fourth or fifth loop. Not so here, for Episode 4 boasts four of Zora’s finest selections. Even the action tracks for the finale feel right in use, giving the last act a feel of immediacy, even if there isn’t raw tension to be had. The tracks are all custom, and I am led to believe that Zora serves as her own musician. So Zora, if you’re reading…you did a good job with this one, and don’t let my condemnation of Episode 3’s tunes bring you down too much.
Visually, there is very little to disparage. Zora might, at times, over-light her environments, and this is one factor true for Episode 4 as it is with all the ones before. What doesn’t crop up again are those unsightly instances of mapper’s block that were hard to ignore before…where thematic texturing was all for naught, alignment was either an afterthought or a non-thought, and boxy passages with one base look for all sides and no source of lighting was a common occurrence. Episode 4 doesn’t exactly rise to Unreal’s occasion as far as level depth is concerned, but there is finally a good balance between each environment. What doesn’t always work are texture choices, with an oddball here and there (like a human starship wall showing up on Skaarj architecture). But there have been packs released to much higher acclaim that do similar by their themes. It is a bit strange how the second and third map link up; before you were stranded on an island with oceans expanding outward for as far as the eye could see, and after a fast-paced Skaarj hover craft ride you wind up on what is possibly a mainland or another landmass. The transition is less far fetched than the ludicrous connections I was forced to accept in Episodes 1-3, but it is a little curious nonetheless.
Technically speaking, Zora’s Episode 4 has to grapple with some of the perilous ordeals seen in the other maps. Although no instance is as obscene as it has most certainly been before, Episode 4 continues the trope of the spiteful door. They close on your face at ill moments, and those held on a hinge have a habit of bumping shut upon activation, leading to numerous instances of the awkward archway transition. Sometimes these doors slap you with a bit of pain, which only exasperates the problem more than it should, and when you’re posed with the prospect of repeated backtracking the return to these motion halting endeavors get a bit tedious. Buggered doors irk me especially, since I know they could be solved with thirty seconds of property adjustment on the part of the mapper. But yes, there are no mine carts of hell and no transducers to soil your personal space (although, I did see an inoperable transducer at some point with a dead body impaled on a linking rod. There is no explanation for this scene, but the scenario I like most is that the NPC in question grew frustrated with one of Zora’s puzzles, and in an act of complete defiance chose to commit ritual suicide. I prefer to think he died laughing). The door problem only becomes a real combat snare in cases where you’re going toe to toe with Skaarj Troopers, which is an issue that comes up inside the outposts of The Vulcan and inside the Skaarj vessel at the end…the latter of which involves battling groups of warriors between rooms where the doors constantly dissect the combat, often in my favor, since the Skaarj here are prone to returning back to their bunks in the event that they lose sight of me for too long. This makes them the most lax of any Skaarj security force I have ever encountered! In some brief instances the door problems just flat out pissed me off. At the end of The Vulcan, after getting all four silo towers disengaged I made the long trek down to the map’s lighthouse, where the final stretch awaited me. I crept around the tower to the rear, where the lighthouse door opened in my face…making me move back instinctively (since I had experienced some painful door jolts prior to that) and fall into the water. The worst part? To get back up there, I could not merely swim back to the shore around the lighthouse, no…I had to paddle my ass all the way to a wharf on the far side and climb back up on the surrounding terrain before hiking all the way back. I admit, I might have dropped a few F bombs.
I cannot speak of gameplay without mentioning the puzzles, for they are the central challenge of Zora’s maps. Episode 4 fares rather lightly in this regard, if you can believe it. No brain teaser is particularly complex, with the exception of the third map’s delirious final solution. I’ll speak of this for a moment, since I discovered it myself by pure accident…and if there is an alternative way to beat it I am all ears. Somewhere in this level you can find a pair of Super Jumpboots, which also appeared in The Citadel from Episode 2. However, unlike Unreal’s unique pair at the end of the game, these Super Boots can actually run out if you use them too many times or carry them around in your inventory for too long without using them. An absurd conundrum with a vague hint requires you to use the boots to jump on a particular spot with a false floor, in which case you have to avoid being bounced back out by a nefarious jump-pad. This is the only way I know of to get to the final room (which involves revving up a generator in a really flashy sequence that might be the single coolest thing in all of Zora’s Episodes), and if you run out of jump boots to do the job I cannot offer you an alternative, besides restarting the map that is. The elevator trap I mentioned earlier in the second level exercises the trial-by-panic option, which almost certainly requires a death before you have a chance to get out without losing most of your ass. Beyond that the pack is pretty fair. As said early in the review, you will get all the guns in the first map…and then lose the ability the use them by the third. As I said, I ran into a weapon slot bug when I reloaded a save in that level, and when I began the last map I was back to my trusty dispersion pistol and nothing else. You will regain some of your arsenal early in the last map before you run into much worse than fifty effing pupae, a blob, and a consort of Slith, leaving you with a Stinger, a Bio Rifle, a Razorjack, an Eightball, and a Rifle to mop up the ship’s crew (although you have to do some acrobatics that would make Batman blush in order to get the Rifle; I think I managed it with some jump boots left over from the last map). In my experience, these guns were more than enough to finish the job, so dispersion glitch or not it won’t matter. Otherwise, you will probably find three or four shieldbelts between the four levels, like I did, as well sufficient armor and environment suits. The availability of these items is balanced better this time…with the sole exception of a Super Health fiesta in the basement of the last map, which will topple the difficulty over better than a sledge hammer covered with bees. So yeah, it gets way too easy at the end, especially when the climactic battle pits you up against a horde of Skaarj Warriors that have trouble tracking you through doors and apparently want nothing more than to growl you out of the room so they can go back to their bunks and catch some Zs. Seriously. This might be the only instance in Unreal history were you fight narcoleptic enemies.
At the end of this engagement I am left with a summary of the pack and the series as a whole. Episode 4 does more right than it does wrong, and overcomes general expectations by bringing unique thinking challenges to the table. The talking NPCs, while refreshing, are not used with as much sophistication as campaigns like Nali Chronicles and others. At the end of the day the attempt at story is weaker than most of what has been seen in the USP lineup. If one thing is imparted at the end of all this, it is that Zora is an exceptional puzzle maker. Her episodes speak volumes to that, even if the concepts behind each of them don’t work as well as they should when translated into the Unreal Engine.
Without further ado, the ‘Prophet Picks’ of the Zora Episodes Hallmark moments:
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