Expert Visuals, by Pl-destroy. One of the earliest and most successful approaches at creating something both unique and slightly bizarre for the Unreal game. It's one of those maps where a group of people have been chosen by a god or a superior entity of some sort to undergo a series of hard battles, with the obvious catch that everyone but you is already dead. The concept sounds like the one from maps such as deCyber Duel (which was released much later), but here the game style is different. Instead of fighting all the Unreal monsters in arenas and in the way you like it, you have to make your way throughout a linear set of challenges, all unique in their own aspects. I'm actually surprised that Expert Visuals works under Unreal Tournament, because I wasn't able to get it to work in Unreal v.224. I guess it should also work in versions 225, 226 and 227 too. Or I did something wrong.
Expert Visuals comprises two maps: the first one is the intro, called "start". Not an intelligent choice for a name, as there can be tons of other Unreal files with the same name and it's likely that issues about file conflicts will happen. Fortunately this map isn't necessary at all: it's basically a long cube room where you'll read messages such as the name of the author and that expert skills are required to beat his creation. Then, you'll quickly end up in the real playable map, Expert Visuals, which you can open directly from the menus without missing anything important.
This was the author's first work, done in six weeks; I don't recall seeing his name anywhere else. The build looked somehow nice and "new" back then, but today, not any more; you can't really expect much from something that's been old for a decade, especially from a year where custom maps were done by authors who didn't care about being overly ambitious. Once again, this is a case of an author focusing more on the gameplay side and other unique aspects than the architecture. Pl-destroy opted for a bizarre atmosphere, achieving that by designing the place with that theme in mind. I call the structure where you're in a "place", because I don't know what the hell it really is. It doesn't make sense – at first it looks like a temple dedicated to a Nali god, but as you progress, the feel of the map keeps changing. It's like you're dreaming, or you're in an virtual world or in an alien compound; I don't know how to describe it. You'll run through extremely basic areas, being either large or small in size. The major exception is the final area, which is pretty grand and contains more brushes (in the form of a lake) instead of decorations that fill the rest of the chambers. Generally, all the rooms feel empty and lifeless.
What hurts even more is the texturing. As I said, you'll run across various themes that keep changing between chambers: at first it's Ancient themed, then Skaarj themed, then Effect themed... yeah, you read that right. Before speaking about that little bit, the use of textures is very weak. While the Ancient sections don't look that bad, the overall selection is very repetitive, misaligned and logically unfitting when they are used – for example, pillar texture for a floor, and an enormous column made of panels. The second room has the entire floor made out of a rare water texture, which looks weird and also contains the only HOM that I noticed in the entire level; later in the map, there's this whole, Effect-themed corridor with default textures, waving wall textures from the Vortex Rikers and... incredibly colourful walls that can be annoying to your eyes. Sums up the whole situation about the build. Sure, the author did all that intentionally for the theme since you're in a place full of insane stuff, but it's too bizarre to be good. It doesn't impress any more, if it ever did ten years ago. Unique art that has aged badly.
The lighting seems to fare better. Aside from being generally basic and with some unnecessary, irritating flickering lights coming from lamps or candles, it does a good job at welcoming you to the next challenges. The best use of it is in the last, gargantuan area: the first time I went inside it I didn't realize where I was walking, and then boom – you see yourself in the middle of this giant hole, which amidst everything else, looked awesome for the time. The rest of the light actors don't have sources and are very poor in quality, but their purpose is to warn you about what to do next in the level. My overall rate about the build is... well, take some pills and go look at that certain ubercolourful corridor which I mentioned above, for several minutes. That’s what I can really say about it, otherwise I'll go over and over.
So what's Expert Visuals' main attraction? The gameplay! What else anyway. The first thing I have to say is that it's full of scripted sequences; of all the playthroughs I did, possible errors regarding them never occurred, so the author did a job well done about those.
According to Pl-destroy, to beat this map you have to be an expert fighter. I remember when I first played this, I wasn't able to win in the first battle. We were so inexperienced back then... but now, after all of these years of Unreal gaming, fighting tons of skilled Skaarj Troopers and crazy bots, the difficulty offered by Expert Visuals has become pathetic. All the challenges are about beating the crap out of modified Unreal enemies, that generally come in waves or ambush you in specific points that you would never expect. All the chambers have specific challenges. For example, in the first one you have to fight in a large area a group of Skaarj Scouts that surround you and shoot from every direction. There's a pool which you can use to hide from the projectiles but you're too slow. The trick? All the Skaarj die in one hit, and you can use an Automag to end their lives quickly, before they do the same with yours (it is the only hard part of the whole level). Another area contains, in my honest opinion, the most entertaining battle against Flies in Unreal history. You'll be swarmed by them, with more appearing around you all the time. Since they're slow and come in groups, it's really satisfying blowing them out with ASMD combos. For the rest you have to fight enhanced Gasbags, micro Skaarj and other pawns modified to be absolutely weird. There are also invisible enemies, which is unique for an Unreal single player game. You can make them temporarily visible by lighting them up with a Search Light. Now, with this little resume of what kind of opposition you’re going to fight, you'll be thinking why this map is still easy. Here's the problem: there are too many items. Basically, every chamber is full of health pickups of every sort (Nali Fruits, Health Packs and also protective vests); not to mention the ammo, it's a Rifle/Flak Cannon/ASMD paradise. You can waste many bullets and you can still make it. Actually, I think it's all about the last few battles, that are about fighting fast enemies that don't want to die. And these guys become really tedious, like you would want them already eating the dust because they have nothing better to show, while you run/dodge backward, shoot, run/dodge backward, shoot, etc... And you won't worry about where you are running backwards because the rooms are all plain and there aren't any traps. Well, there's one exception: in the Fly room there's a long hole. If you fall in it, you'll end up swimming in a pool, until you reload the game. Why not a death trigger of some sort to end the matter quickly? No, you'll be stuck there forever, like a loser. Another example of bad design is when you get the first Rifle, four rapid micro-Skaarj that shoot normal sized projectiles will come out for you like crazy. If you set the weapon priorities to switch to the Rifle regardless of your current weapon, you're screwed. The only way to kill those Skaarj is with the splash damage of the Dispersion Pistol, and then hope they don't dodge that much. Some of the battles pop up unexpectedly, but it's easy to prevail. There's no difficulty filtering, and I recommend you to go straight to Unreal difficulty for the best enjoyment. Overall, the challenges are generally varied and the sequences are cool, other than being able to make you stay alert to what surrounds you.
Regarding the sounds, they do their best in the scripted sequences. They can be scary for some people, but most of all they warn you that something may appear. Unfortunately, all of these things happen in the last area; it would have been cool if Pl-destroy had polished the rest of the map in the same way, but I think the author was trying to build up the tension, which you won't really feel that much. Generally there's no music in the map, except for a few sections. Starting with the Nali.umx was nice, but Unreal4 and K_Vision felt out of place and unnecessary. Did I mention OhYeah.umx? Oh yeah, it's in it and I don't get why. Honestly, it's a mood-killer.
There's no story here. You don't know the reason why you're fighting these battles, and who are the other guys lying dead around. They have messages on how they died; you may count them as hints, but are worthless at best. You decide: just like a message which warns you about tons of Flies, when tons of Flies are right in front of you. Helpful, huh? Anything you read from the dead guys are just all bad jokes. Sometimes, non-translator messages pop up, and you may want to read them since those are actually helpful. The map has, as far as I know, no real ending.
A unique gameplay experiment let down by the overall easy difficulty and the poor build quality. It's hard to get bored, but if you do so at least try to force yourself to see the last area of the map.
*Note that only the Unreal Archive uploads are checked to be the newest and most compatible/stable download link.
ArchitectureImagination, realism and detail of structures used in the design of the level.1
TexturingUse of textures in the level. Technically speaking, alignment and scaling. Choice of textures, and quality of any custom textures used.1
LightingLighting of the level: does it look cool? Use of light colour and other effects, and sourcing of lighting (no light out of nowhere).3
SoundUse of ambient sounds and event sounds to give the level atmosphere, and the quality of any custom sounds. Appropriate use of music and silence to complement the atmosphere.2
Technical ExecutionTechnical soundness of the level, i.e. no visual glitches, no random deaths or other gameplay bugs, and a good framerate.5
Conceptual GrandnessScale, imagination, awe & originality of design and layout, physical foreshadowing of future areas.3
Story ConstructionBacking story & progression via translator, subplots, and script of voice acting where applicable. Logical choice of opposition.0
Story ImplementationProgression of the written story via the events of the level, and performance of voice actors where applicable.0
Gameplay AweQuality of scripted sequences, originality and staging of combats. Maps that force the player to "learn by dying" will be penalised.6
Gameplay BalanceBalance of weapons and items to creatures, including difficulty settings. Most importantly, fun factor.4