This set has no relation to the official novel of the same name; a review of that can be read here
Hard Crash was originally reviewed as a "leaked" version with only five of the intended eight maps, along with some rumours about why it wasn't finished. Thankfully the implied drama around it turned out to be untrue (beyond typical real-life hold-ups), and Silver-Serpent (also known as Xer06siX) released this final eight-map version, including many improvements to the original maps.
There's little backstory established, but you start on a Skaarj-besieged ship and end up heading into the deepest depths of Na Pali and beyond. Translator messages do some work building things up, but there's also some slightly ill-fitting comedy messages. Unfortunately any messages completely disappear in the new content, and all you have to go on is some vague environmental storytelling. This pack really shines in the atmosphere department though; with the arguable exception of the relatively lush third level there's a sense of brooding menace in every map that builds up as you descend deeper into the depths. This build-up does climax in a bit of a swerve, but the ending is still an interesting setting that provides some impressive vistas.
The starting level, "The Outer Limits", tasks you with finding a way off your spaceship down to Na Pali. The environment is a familiar ISV-Kran type style and relatively cramped, but there's still some flourish that hints at what's to come, like a cafeteria lit by a moody brownish-red light, and a general feeling that anything could be lurking in the shadows. In the original release I found this quite a brutal start, but, while there's still some potential nastiness like Eightball Troopers in cramped rooms, it's overall heavily improved and much more reasonable now.
Map two, "The Great Escarpment", is set on a doomed Human base in a coastal area. Unfortunately it's the low-point of the pack visually; the attempts at more realistic Human structures, such as windmills, are nice, but the exterior is mostly lit with drab ambient light (although it does give the map a somewhat dark atmosphere), and some of the rock textures are pretty ugly. There's a somewhat menacing looking lookout building on a hill, but it feels lacking beyond that. It feels like it was a much earlier map by the author. It does however seem to be have been polished up a bit for the final release, with some of the uglier terrain tweaked a little to be more natural. The open environment makes combat relatively easy, with the main challenges being a Skaarj Scout ambush in a windfarm and a few juiced up brutes patrolling the area. Once you can access the interiors there's also a nice gameplay contrast as you go from open engagements to cramped room clearing.
You then head inland for "The Wooded Village". this is a traditional Nali village/terrain map in concept, but Silver-Serpent's creative design gives it some flair. The houses vary in design, and there are interesting looking Skytown-styled structures at points. It all climaxes at a giant Skytown styled Tavern/interior town that pulls off an overall style I don't think I've seen before in a set. While the new content of this full version of the set has more detailed areas later, this is probably my favourite level in terms of setting, and there's some very interesting geometry for a Nali-styled level. The mood feels a bit lighter here, with the bright Skytown textures and lush exteriors. There's an insanely health-boosted Titan that's kind of an odd encounter, as the lead-up to it provides 50+ Flak Cannon ammo and I needed almost all of it along with some other guns to kill it (and you can also just go around it). There are also some weirdly durable flies that survived a couple of powered-up Dispersion Pistol shots, although there's thankfully only a few.
Map four "The Station" is where your descent truly begins. You find a Mercenary outpost being built underneath the Nali town and a skirmish between the Skaarj and Mercenaries there. Despite the shift in opposition this is a relatively short map and seems like somewhat of a transition level, but the underground Merc base feels appropriately moody and, like the previous level, it puts a twist on a familiar theme. Despite the underground setting, the combat here is quite range-based to start with, as you go down a very long tunnel, but then it get more confined after that. I feel the Skaarj vs Merc aspects could have featured a bit more, as it's only really a thing in the first part, although this is the main map where the Mercs get some action, and I guess more Skaarj would have taken away from that.
The fifth map "Caverns of the Forgotten" has you ending up further underground, and uncovering a lost Nali (or maybe not...) ruin. The creepy new texture set and lighting does a great job making the map feel very oppressive, and there also some surprise twists on the theme along the way as you find strange black voids. After navigating some large caves and reaching the ruins themselves there's a hub-like setup (albeit linear) as you go off from a central room to explore a couple of side paths that culminate in boss encounters (first a fight on a chessboard-type area against a bunch of enemies, and then a Warlord) that then open the way to progress deeper still... The backtracking from the side paths did seem a little much, especially as there's not much new beyond a few extra enemies.
That was where the original release ended, but it now continues on. The first new map "The Last Gate" continues on from the previous map as you enter an impressive void temple, but it's mostly a very short boss level against a Queen; while she's boosted a bit and has working teleporter behaviour, she can't follow you up the slope at the entrance to the arena, so it's pretty simple to bait her and pick away from safety without much trouble (especially as most of the spare ammo is there too), making it a pretty simple encounter. After dealing with that you enter to portal to whatever lies beyond the depths...
"Fringe of the Source" is another major theme shift, as you seemingly enter another world comprised of a vast volcanic wasteland with occasional crystal structures, along with more large ruins like those underneath Na Pali. Curiously there are also various high-tech Mercenary structures that suggest they got here before you... The theme is quite original, and large in scale and evocative. The vast scale makes the combat predominately ranged, with mostly Mercenaries after some Krall and Gasbags at the start, with the occasional structure for closer-range combat, and the climax involves fighting up a large high-tech elevator structure that ascends above the wasteland and gives an impressive view.
The finale "The Crystal Citadel" opens on probably the most impressive view of the pack, as you look down from above over a huge temple and the various structures and natural formations around it. After you work you way to it, the final temple serves as a sort of boss rush, as you go through Giant Gasbags, a Warlord, buffed Titan with a new skin and finally another Queen (actually weaker this time). Despite how intimidating that sounds you have more than enough supplies to deal with all that, and going through a bunch of random bosses doesn't feel especially satisfying, even if it does work as a climax. The massively open environment also make it pretty easy to render most things harmless, and, as good as it looks, the size results in a lot of wondering across huge areas between the fights. The ending involves you getting in a ship with nothing else beyond that, which does raise the issue of the fact you are apparently still in this other world? While it looks great and piles on the bosses it feels a bit lacking as a finale overall given all the earlier mystery isn't really resolved at all.
In the leaked release the gameplay was a major sore spot as health and ammo were quite rare, especially later. This is entirely fixed in the final release; it almost goes too far the other way, as I was loaded up on supplies and armour most of the time, along with there being multiple energy amps to further delete stuff, and there are even more items around if you explore a little. Overall this is much more fun than it was, even if it perhaps takes away from the soft horror atmosphere a little. There's the occasional enemy that feels like it has been boosted a bit absurdly, although it's rarer than it was in the previous version. As mentioned, there's a range of boss fights, but they don't have much to make them stand out and mostly go down quite easily, in fact, the first Warlord fight on a surreal ruin in the void is easily the most memorable battle overall.
The worst issue with the new content is that there are seemingly no translator messages in the last few maps at all, which sticks out given the simple yet effective mood-building of the earlier maps. There is some implied story (like the Mercenaries doing something with the crystal structures), but without a bit more it's hard to get much story out of the final maps, which is extra frustrating when it feels very close to being an interesting surreal journey rather than a random set of maps with just a little bit more work put into the storytelling.
There's no music, but the sound design has heavily improved in this version, with a lot more ambience and some new sounds to further add to the creepier areas, and overall the lack of music works, although a few parts are still a bit silent.
Technically there's nothing too bad although there's the occasional BSP hole, including a couple of large brushes you can fall through. the most notable oversight is that a couple of bits of water aren't properly converted to a waterzone so you just fall right through it, it is at least in optional parts though (outside the literal final room, but the way is pretty clear there).
While the climax and storytelling didn't quite live up to what I imagined from diving into the abyss at the end of the original release, this is now a complete set with some great sequences and memorable design, and most of my gameplay issues have been fixed even if it's not remotely perfect. A strong set that's worth playing for anyone, with a quite singular style to it's build.
ArchitectureImagination, realism and detail of structures used in the design of the level.9
TexturingUse of textures in the level. Technically speaking, alignment and scaling. Choice of textures, and quality of any custom textures used.8
LightingLighting of the level: does it look cool? Use of light colour and other effects, and sourcing of lighting (no light out of nowhere).8
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.7
Technical ExecutionTechnical soundness of the level, i.e. no visual glitches, no random deaths or other gameplay bugs, and a good framerate.8
Conceptual GrandnessScale, imagination, awe & originality of design and layout, physical foreshadowing of future areas.8
Story ConstructionBacking story & progression via translator, subplots, and script of voice acting where applicable. Logical choice of opposition.3
Story ImplementationProgression of the written story via the events of the level, and performance of voice actors where applicable.7
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.8