Χέοψ ~Cheope~, or Xeops as it is commonly called, OR by its subtitle DORADO (all caps), is a mammoth sized single level made by forum and site regular/staff member UBerserker. I say mammoth here, I use that word. But not necessarily because the level takes a long time to complete. More so, in fact, because of the sheer scale created by UB. Xeops is an Egyptian/Alien fusion in the spirit of Serious Sam and Stargate. In a way, I ought to call it a love letter to Serious Sam 3: BFE. You play as Damien; a quasi-military badass on a mission to raid this immense location in search of an interstellar artifact. With both your Chainsaw and Minigun in hand, players can expect to begin an experience much in the same way as The Last Fortress where a fully prepared and armed protagonist enters the fray with no fanfare or buildup, ready to be thrust into the thick of it at the get go.
In terms of what to expect gameplay wise, The Last Fortress reference was merely a setup for how the level begins. Rather than getting a romp through an Unreal-Esque location, you should expect instead an experience closer to UB's direct influences, Serious Sam, or perhaps more specifically EXU. This may seem very unapproachable to some readers who perhaps have had Xeops on their radar for a while but were nervous about pulling the trigger on that download. Granted, I would consider Xeops more restrained in many ways to EXU, and to be quite honest with you I found Xeops far easier than The Last Fortress comparatively. Much of this has to do with the benefit of Xeops providing Damien with a boosted loadout. Of course, this means that the enemies themselves are also boosted from their Unreal variants (with some new ones). In true EXU fashion, enemies from Unreal reappear with different skins, different attacks, and in some cases radically different mechanics.
As stated, you begin with some weapons already available and through the course of playing you will find other weapons to use at your disposal, including a Pulse Gun and a Ripper from UT. Like some custom packs have done, there is a mix of Unreal guns and UT guns, though I would say the UT variants dominate. While most of these weapons (except new ones that I will not spoil here) use the default models and skins, you will notice that Damien seems very powerful compared to, say, the average Unreal protagonist with how well these weapons devastate your foes. The Ripper in particular is quite dangerous. Generally speaking, all the weapons also boast larger ammo pools. You will always have a gun capable of exacting death, though your preferences may vary. During my personal runs I found myself using the Quadshot the least, but perhaps another player's experience may differ. Simply put, they all do the killing thing very well and there is plenty of said killing to be had. Not to be outdone, the Chainsaw (Damien's stand-in for the Dispersion Pistol) is truly exceptional for breaking all the many urns and vases littered about the location, most of which can be counted on to be filled with precious dust (nothing). In a strange twist, however, I found myself using the Minigun for 70% of the total engagement. Fact is, many post-fight area clears revolved around me looking for more bullet dump sites.
Let's talk about that for a moment, these ammo dumps. Throughout the Sun scorched, sand-blasted exterior Damien will be hoofing it between battle areas searching for piles of inventory laid out in very arcade-flavor. The story accounts for this, however, in that these dump sites are precisely that. This sort of thing correlates directly to the provided narrative. Because it IS an Unreal map after all, UB had more avenues to inject plot where he did not necessarily need to, so this deserves some commendation for keeping its neck above the Zora/Cat Bombs waterline. Honestly speaking, Xeops arguably has more plot than it actually needs.
On story, UB does a great job keeping the humor of the situation intact and on the verge of earnestness without going into any truly garish territories (which has happened before in other packs). Again, the plot is very much inspired by Serious Sam, with Damien even being a caricature of Sam's own making. In fact, when you actually hear Damien talk (I did not notice that my character spoke until about halfway through the level) it happens in a sort of quick jab or jest the way Sam might say something before or after a very serious encounter. Otherwise, much of Damien's personality is conveyed through Red Text that broadcasts across the screen whenever he has a thought (another note is that all font colors of the basic HUD are changed, so get used to that). This usually only happens before a landmark occurrence or a triggering event, so be ready.
The other major story element comes in the form of Translator messages from Damien's superiors, much in the way the Trans window was used in Xidia nearly twenty years ago now (omg). Perhaps somewhat hilariously, the trans log window is made to be gigantic. There will also be glyphs on the ruin walls for the player to glean lore from if they so choose to, though the best part of all these messages and story is that they are optional. To make things even more fluid, it is entirely possible that some of Damien's musings will not repeat the same way per playthrough. For instance, his reaction to certain things may alter in text based on the player's actions, where they've gone first, and what they've done already. It is an interesting little inclusion, but as an Unreal player I would be more interested in seeing how such a event-based system would work on a more Unreal themed level (notes for UB). Nevertheless, it adds a level of replayability that may encourage players to seek out alternate paths on retries.
Some moments titter a bit close into precious screen distraction when some spawns occur, so my advice is always have your finger ready to clear the screen. Oddly, Unreal is a rare game where I usually enjoy stopping to read a logbook. But in Xeops, doing so always felt out of character. I cannot say if a more UT HUD styled radio blurp might have served better here. But it all works and that is what matters. I will say that I found the enemy messages quite humorous. They are quite specific about not being properly prepared for Damien's approach (who in this reality is very famous, for they know him by name) and many logs have funny laments. For example, there was a particular one written by a lackey that bemoaned how their masters were sending all these weapons and munitions that none of them were trained for which would likely just be used by Damien to kill them all in the end. This made for a funny dynamic about goons protecting their own ballistics meant to arm them against you, but since they could not operate them the gear was thus a huge logistical liability.
Build quality is very well done. As mentioned earlier, the place is quite large. But unlike other Unreal maps that "go big," Xeops does not suffer the common repercussion of blurry close-quarter experiences as a consequence. Much of this has to do with the exceptional texture quality. In many cases the textures alone do ALL the work, but in others smart use of decorations (including oversized leet palms from ONP) and a vastly deployed series of particle effects and dust layers give the location a presence that would have been quite barren and stale if this had been made back in UT's heyday. Top marks here; in a game where Egyptian/Desert themes are rarely attempted, this has my vote for the best of them. But it also sells very well as a tomb and ruin location, in spite of the fact that you are predominately outside for most of it.
The layout also has more depth than is originally clear. It is possible to miss a lot of really cool things if you have a one track way of thinking, and I applaud UB for having the conviction to allow the player to skip whole sections if they so chose to (or by the result of their own lacking awareness). It's brave and and it can be hard for a mapper to stomach such things. For instance, ten secrets exist in the level and to find them all you have to really explore the place. Whole enemy appearances can be missed (I know I didn't see everything my first time through) and in some cases you can also miss out on important inventory. Back-tracking is key, since whole paths that were previously locked will open after an event, granting new but optional access. I know for my part the vastness of the journey sometimes prevented me from heading back in certain directions after I cleared them, whereas a tighter environment might have kept me more vested in uncovering things (I kept wanting to sprint to the next fight more than anything). This might be an unintended side effect of the level's openness.
Therein lies some of the map's drawbacks. Get used to that Unreal footstep sound folks, because the entirety of your experience when you aren't fighting will be running the long gamut between these huge towering structures. Fortunately the level's layout is not as Labyrinthine as something like DM-SpaceBeacon, and all those little setting details I mentioned keep the area feeling very alive. What perhaps doesn't always mesh so well are the AI at times. Granted, for the most part they are very efficient and WILL notice you. But because of the long stretches and the total wideness of the map's surface area, it is possible to step out of projectile and sight range. Some sequences had me sighting Krall and Brutes standing still even when they were in direct line of sight, and they remained inactive until I moved closer or shot at them. Not that this was necessarily a bad thing, as normally the gameplay is very reactive to enemy spawns and only seemed to be something I noticed for enemies that were actually PLACED into the level. Still, there were a few spots where enemies were sooo far away we had to meet each other to get into firing range (the point where projectiles/attacks reach their limit or where their lifespan end can fail to bridge the gap between some enemy appearances).
I did have some issues with the brightness of the lighting in regards to combat. While effectively sunny for the obvious theme and used very well for the setting in general, the over bright downcast more often than not masked most enemy projectile types. Quite often it was very hysterical to actually be hit by some things because they were essentially invisible against the glare. I would think this was a conscious design decision given the care put into so many other details. The level IS quite large and the player always has the distance advantage. While most (if not all) the enemy projectiles are new, they are usually speed boosted to accelerate at the player very quickly to compensate for the long distance. I can understand making an argument to make them difficult to dodge, but I would debate the merits of making the ground textures so washed out in brightness that I was actively trying to use dark patches (of which there are few) and decals to hopefully better see the incoming shots. In some cases they have contrasting colors and glowing, or visible models (like rockets), which helped. In other cases they were straight invisible until literally the last second. And a lot of them will track you, so beware!
On enemies, most of your notable encounters will be from group spawns. The early level sort of feeds you bodies to slaughter in small pools, which is a good way to make the player comfortable and test their arsenal. People will make all their weapon mistakes early before sticking to what works for them (I predict that "what works" will often be the Minigun). Various Krall, Skaarj, and Brutes appear as the mainstay occupiers, but later you will encounter repurposed Mercenaries, Titans, and other pawns. There were also some cool little robot floaters which exploded into mechanical components when shot, though this gib system in general seems pulled straight from EXU (I do believe you could kick body parts around in EXU as well).
There were some annoying ones to be sure. These wingless Warlords, for instance, armed with long range flamethrowers that always seemed to be able to hit me (though they did low damage). I would target these jokers first (have Warlords ever been reduced to such low standing before in Unreal?) and there was a particularly nasty surprise pair of Behemoths at the bottom of a staircase that are capable of spontaneously detonating a fully loaded and armored player on the spot in a split second of looking at you. This is a throw back to The Last Fortress, where there's no way to know what an enemy is capable of until you have already been turned into a crater. Since it was my first Xeops death (and last), I was shocked. Perhaps that was the point? I try to be careful myself of this sort of thing when making my own levels, but sometimes it happens unintentionally (a particular crate related trap in a Demo I released recently seemed to, perplexingly, insta-kill players over and over again who simply weren't paying attention. It got to the point that I had to heavily edit the sequence altogether). Considering the fact that Damien had been a walking killing machine up to this scrimmage line, it was an odd switch, and it is the only area of the map where this happens. To make matters worse the steps leading to these bozos is larger than the player's step height, so be warned if you step down and try to back-peddle. You will die, and we will sing songs of you. It was the only point of the map where my path was infringed upon short of a event door or forcefield closing me in for an intended gameplay sequence. Otherwise, expect to be quite mobile.
I cannot think of any other big issues, although that last one is up for debate as an actual issue or feature. When going to the last area during the air raid, I was constantly assaulted by some sort of loud bombing run that was apparently happening elsewhere. I kept checking up and around and never saw anything. In a map like this when you want to be keen to enemy locations before they see you first, it sounded too much like an enemy some place in the level was shooting at me but couldn't get to me rather than it being level sounds, but I would need feedback on this. It was still audible even up to the last fight, which was a shame since the selected music for the map is quite good but was sort of overshadowed by the end of it by this constant blitz. As for the end, expect no encore other than your own satisfaction. When it's done, it is done.
Probably the biggest obstacle working against the level is the necessary filesize. I saved this part for last since it will likely be what deters most people from NOT trying Xeops. The USP forum thread from the author details TWO download links, totaling hundreds of MB apiece. Included is nothing short of a horde of system, texture, music, and other files that need to be dumped into their appropriate folders (and one .unr map file). Among this list of things are renderer files and a host of EXU dependent material. Quite simply, there is a ton of stuff to unload, and while it is all organized I cannot blame anyone who is thinking about going at Xeops but stopping short because of this fact alone. Hopefully this review highlights the merits enough to sway otherwise, because there is go
A combat heavy romp through a unique environment, should not be ignored! High replayability for a single level. Be sure to enable the EXU renderer included if you want better distance visuals, but be advised it is not mandatory! May even be better on your hardware in defaults. Had no slowdown or issues on my crappy Inspiron Dell Laptop with the latest OpenGl.
ArchitectureImagination, realism and detail of structures used in the design of the level.8
TexturingUse of textures in the level. Technically speaking, alignment and scaling. Choice of textures, and quality of any custom textures used.10
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.9
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.9
Story ConstructionBacking story & progression via translator, subplots, and script of voice acting where applicable. Logical choice of opposition.8
Story ImplementationProgression of the written story via the events of the level, and performance of voice actors where applicable.8
Gameplay AweQuality of scripted sequences, originality and staging of combats. Maps that force the player to "learn by dying" will be penalised.10
Gameplay BalanceBalance of weapons and items to creatures, including difficulty settings. Most importantly, fun factor.9