Throughout the Unreal-related websites, I'm confronted with questions like "What is SkyTown Redux?" or, more commonly, "What! Is there some chapter to play between Xidia and Seven Bullets??" – oh yeah there is! And after that I have to post a download link. It's a tale which usually happens, and it makes me a bit sad that an important map like this one seems very forgotten.
SkyTown Redux is another chapter of Jones' saga, which comprises the great Single Player map packs Xidia Gold, Seven Bullets and the upcoming Residual Decay; unlike these three, however, SkyTown Redux is a single playable map all done by Mister Prophet, and appears to be the prequel to Seven Bullets: you, the character Jones and survivor of The Xidia Incident, are ordered by the USM to go to Na Pali Haven and use the Skaarj's own EMP system to disable the ISV-Kran, now occupied by the Skaarj themselves. And this is the reason why you're forced to use the Flashlight and get yourself lost in the darkness when wandering the ISV-Kran of Seven Bullets.
As might have guessed, you'll be walking again on Na Pali Haven from the original Unreal. Now, what usually happens when you take a classic map from the original game, make geometry and gameplay changes to it and also add various new features? You get something cool. It's an experiment that usually succeeds, and SkyTown Redux is in my opinion the best example of such operation. Being a prequel to Seven Bullets, the map plays in the same style as Xidia Gold, so fans of the pack will know what to expect here. Everything is wrapped around by a really satisfying story, but also by a good quantity of technical problems.
The first unusual thing you'll come across is how you start the map. It's done throughout batch files (similar to Spatial Fear and Nali Chronicles), one for each difficulty level. Now you're asking to yourself "Why?". All the batch files do is load the map through a console command that you can do in the game; using the Oldskool menu would have been a better option, and probably wouldn't have added any bugs. Not that there's anything wrong with batch files themselves, but it can cause problems depending on your setup: for example, I have some Admin-related problems in Windows and I can't run the batch files, forcing me to start the game with the console.
As you start the map, you're shown flying a Terran shuttle into the caves below Na Pali Haven, and after a while you'll begin from the same starting point of the original map. You'll quickly spot many changes to the place; looking at the graphic department, you'll see that it's good, although those who have played Unreal will already know that the basic geometry comes from the original version of the map, made by Jeremy War. Now, this is the main problem that I have in reviewing the build quality of SkyTown Redux, as it is the only rehashed Unreal map being released standalone. It isn't like Operation Na Pali or Seven Bullets, where the reduxed maps aren't all they have to offer, as they rely on original custom content which makes more obvious the rating for the authors' original work. Here, instead, you're faced with a enhanced version of the original Sky Town, so I have no option but to rate both Jeremy War's work (known as "nice but low poly" stuff) and anything that has been added or changed in this version. Fortunately, while the shadow of War's build style is felt throughout the reduxxed map, Prophet has been convincing enough with what he has done.
Na Pali Haven has changed since we last saw it as Prisoner 849. On the one hand, the Nali made some changes to their city, with new areas, aesthetic modifications, sentry towers and more; on the other hand, the Skaarj made sure that a cyclone of war has tortured the entire Haven, literally: collapsed structures, dead Nali, tanks everywhere and more. You feel like being in the middle of an ongoing battlefield, and the atmosphere is almost the opposite to that of the original Unreal map. Once fairly benevolent, now the air of death and oppression all around you, and it fits very much within the context of the whole of Jones' storyline. I'm not going to list all the changes one by one, because it would take 10 pages to do it as I would for an Unreal Beta map, but as well as Na Pali Haven you'll be revisiting Outpost 3J, minus the church. Unlike the town itself, the Skaarj base has had a total re-design, very reminiscent of the Derelict ship from Xidia, together with the same build quality experienced in said pack. One thing occurs to me, though: the new outpost is really large, so how does it fits inside the mountain? Technically it's done throughout the use of a portal, but in the real world, it doesn't work. Maybe it has been extended for the whole island and taking the underground caves too, but it still doesn't really make sense in size and layout, especially if you look clearly at the cutscene where you beat the last boss. The old Outpost 3J did fit right inside the mountains. It's another case in Unreal of a structure being bigger on the inside than can be explained, but it's best just to think "Who cares?" and play. Overall, one can't deny that the new outpost looks amazing, and it's probably the best looking thing the map has to offer.
Texturing and lighting go as far as architecture does, a job well done for both. Fans of S3TC textures will probably be disappointed, because the map makes use of alternate, but rougher versions of the original textures used in Na Pali Haven; but it's a good thing, in my opinion, as they do a much better job at representing the atmosphere of the level. Since Xidia Gold, Skaarj continue to being fanboys of the colour grey. For their new outposts, the desaturated Skaarj texture pack has been re-used again; as I said in my Déjà Vu review, I always considered it to be a dead set compared to the original Mothership textures. Here, instead, as it did in Xidia and Seven Bullets, it fits perfectly, as it is consistent with the grungy visual style and Skaarj adopting the same colour set for their suits. I was surprised to see coloured lights more than just white, anyway! But jokes aside, there's not much to say about the lighting; it's good, except for the shadow effects being on the average side, with occasional mediocre patches.
The least impressive feature of the level is the use of music. The map doesn't have a dominant track; instead, a few have been used for temporary sections. The most heard one, and possibly the most fitting for this dark-themed level, is Fourth from Noork's Elbow, both in its ambient and action songsections. The SkyTwn action theme appears again as it was used in the old Na Pali Haven; Newmca7's battle track from Cellars at Dasa Pass, Dirt from Inside UMS Prometheus and Isotoxin from Outpost 3J make it in, for various battles against the Skaarj (the use of Isotoxin in one of the boss fights felt absolutely cool, personally). Wargate from Nali Castle felt out of place and, lastly, the custom tracks were way too cheesy. The exploration of the floating island could have been good enough without music all together. While Fourth was more than a random choice, it covered up all the ambient sounds heard throughout the map. Sounds are crucial here; not only because they do an incredibly good job at showing the ongoing chaos on the Haven with the use of gunfire and Skaarj shuttle noises, but because they are really useful to let you know if there's an enemy around (and the ReadMe does state that as well). In general, the use of the music has messed up the sound factor of the map, which could have been easily prevented.
Now I'm finally left with the gameplay to speak about... and there's a lot to speak about. It could be summarised as "Welcome back, Xidia". However, the difficulty of SkyTown Redux depends on the player's game skills. It's generally hard, and you'll come across stuff such as lots of hitscan battles, continuous and sometimes unexpected ambushes and scripted sequences, more Skaarj and, lastly, annoying bugs. The main opposition here, as you probably know, is made out of Skaarj Commandos: basically black and grey coloured Skaarj Officers armed with Shock and Sniper Rifles. Yeah, the same ones fought in Xidia Gold and in Déjà Vu's last maps are back again to torture you. They'll be your worst nightmares because, as I already mentioned, they are armed with two of the most powerful hitscan weapons of the game. This means that you'll get enough ammo for these weapons as well; the problem is that you cannot avoid hitscan hits unless you're a lucky shot. This is always a frustrating problem in any Unreal Single Player game other than fighting bots, because from these kind of Skaarj Trooper battles you'll come out heavily screwed up most of the time unless you anticipate or stun them in the fastest way possible. You have to come up with some working strategies or you won't make it to the end, especially on the highest difficulty. Fortunately, the map has way too many health items of every type, and sometimes in a really exaggerated quantities; in my most recent playthrough, I left tons of health and Assault Vests after finishing the map, and didn't use one single Seed. I feel safe to say that running out of ammo seemed quite impossible too – except the for the Sniper Rifle, which is a really useful weapon here – so you can be pretty creative with your ways of killing stuff. On my latest playthrough, the game felt easy, but for one reason: I've played SkyTown Redux almost twenty times now, so its obvious "Learn by dying / Trial and error" gameplay style didn't work anymore, and it ended up being an averagely challenging but really fun experience.
But when you play it for the first time... it's a different story, especially for FPS newbies. Already the first battle against the Skaarj Commando, near the beginning, is harder than a casual Single Player adventure, and after that, you'll be welcomed by a Skaarj Ship which bombs you from above. The sequence is amazing, but you'll die instantly without realizing what happened. The bomber appears only once in the whole map, but wasn't it a bit sadistic to add it in the first minute of the game? Way to make players switch off right away. Later, it's all about Skaarj Commandos scaring the hell out of you with their continuous ambushes and loud sounds. Some of these really work against you, while others are apparently unpredictable; I actually had to read my own walkthrough to win in the safest way possible some of the most annoying fights.
Navigating throughout Na Pali Haven is as linear as ever. It may not be a bad thing, but in the later parts of the game, if you try to go back to the beginning you'll suddenly be confronted by unavoidable, heavily armed Skaarj Commandos and "–OW! You're DEAD". Really, you should not have to expect them to come out of the blue in certain points of the island, and without even a warning. Instant frustration guaranteed, so keep an eye out for what is in front of you.
Fortunately, Skaarj Snipers are easy to spot, but the troopers aren't the only enemies. You'll face Skaarj Lords that you would rather have as the main opposition, but also Skaarj Special Forces, enhanced troopers armed with anything possible that you probably wouldn't want at all. Thankfully their number is fairly limited. Other oddballs are the turrets; easy to defeat, but very hard to spot their presence and to avoid their insane bullet rain. Finally, as in any part of Jones' journey, a few Spinners enter the fray too.
The most entertaining enemies are the Skaarj Seekers. These small Skaarj Scouts come in a large quantities, but luckily, in any position where you fight them, the old Machine Gun Turrets from Xidia and the Infiltration mod will be of aid to make short work of them, and it's a great change of pace from tough gameplay to crazy shoot em' up minigame. They can be useful against anything, once you finally get to use them... as it is one of the hardest thing to do in this map. They're bugged, and you're forced to approach them carefully otherwise you won't activate them; instead, you'll be disarmed for a while and you won't like it when you have Skaarj Commandos right in your face. It happens with great regularity, so save the game before you try to blast stuff with the turret.
You should really save your game all the time, though, as for now, I have just listed the worst and most noticeable bug of the map from a somewhat lengthy list. There's a multitude of them, they can be hardly missed, and characterise SkyTown Redux almost more than anything else does. Problems vary from many small geometry errors (these are common when you re-work Unreal maps due to how they were made) to stuff like falling from the sky once you get a certain key – but it happens rarely. What may tick you off most of all, however, other than slipping your hands off from a machinegun turret, is the presence of Nali Warriors. They are scattered around the map and are ready to fight the Skaarj with their weapons. The matter is, they don't even try to. They stand here like dolls, ignoring anything around them and being ignored by the Skaarj as well. If you ever wanted to take down the four-armed aliens just out of frustration but it never felt right to do it in an normal Unreal map, here you'll more motivated. Perversely, they are also counted as enemies and will attack you if you bother them. Were they against the Skaarj, as set out in the ReadMe, or were they secretly working for them instead? Well, you may not be able to answer this, but at least you can take their ammo after killing them if you need a real form of help; just make sure you don't kill the real harmless ones. A last big bug is that when the force field to the Inn's cellars is activated, if you try to re-enter it, you can't turn it off and you'll be stuck in the sewer unless you cheat. Take note of this if you’re going to play the level.
Continuing to speak about the gameplay, you'll probably know that it makes use of the same game features of Xidia Gold. This means the same oversized HUD, a useful infinite Flashlight and a Translator with a message scrolling feature (although the way it works is messed up and you can lose data from it). The armour system is once again identical to the one of Unreal Tournament, but even more confusing and too simplistic: for example, I don't know if my armor points come from an Assault Vest or Thigh Pads, so I have to remember what I previously picked up before choosing what to get. There's nothing bad about the underwater features (just don't use the Shock Rifle and you're okay), but the visual shaking when you're low on health feels like you drank a bunch of beers. Those who never tried the large prequel will never know about this because it's not mentioned in the ReadMe; but it's necessary to stay healthy all the time, otherwise you won't be able to do much, because you're even slower in that mode. Luckily, as I have already said, the map is really friendly regarding the health items.
Lastly, the arsenal. While the ammo is found in large quantities, you'll only find a bunch of weapons. It's a combination of weapons from Unreal and Unreal Tournament, including again the Combat Assault Rifle from Return To Na Pali. They are also slightly modified to be more efficient. For example, the CAR shoots powerful grenades and the normal fire does more damage now if you aim for the head. There isn't a real best weapon, so you have to choose one for the right situation. Especially when you're facing the bosses. Yeah, by reading the messages, you'll soon know that you're going to fight against three Red Nemesis, the same big red Skaarj from Xidia Gold. They weren't a threat back then, and here they don't improve. While they're faster and have a high amount of health, and that in the first battle you're just limited to Mining Tool's powerful secondary fire, you can rely on the same tricks you would use against any Skaarj Warrior. This does end up in hilariously but disappointing fights. Nothing good can be said for the last boss, who's none other than a bot armed with the Chaingun. Yes, the almost insta-kill Minigun that probably everyone used for the last boss fight from Xidia is back, but in the wrong hands. This forces you to do some cheap-killing with the Sniper Rifle. It is not a fun approach, and if you try anything else, you'll probably die.
The second time he fights you, the situation does balance in favour of the player a little too much, but overall it was a great way to end the troubles over Na Pali Haven, thanks also to the build-up of the story. What SkyTown Redux does perfectly right is the storyline, and it greatly connects the events of Xidia Gold and Seven Bullets. You may want to play the first part of Jones' saga before this, but the ReadMe provides enough information on what happened in the past events and also for everything regarding the current mission. Messages and scripted sequences are top-notch and the Betrayer, while it was a little predictable to know who really he was, has the most fleshed-out personality of any major antagonist I ever encountered in Unreal. For a single map, having a story this complex and polished is an amazing feat.
After the enjoyable ending, you have the possibility to restart the level, but with a bonus feature depending on the chosen difficulty. With Easy you'll have the Flak Cannon from the beginning; Medium difficulty has the most interesting bonus, as you start with an immensely powerful ASMD, used by the map's last boss. Unfortunately, the bonuses of the other difficulties are, guess what, bugged. Hard does give you the Bloodpack Ripper which doesn't hit the target; the weapon would then appear in the sequel, fixed. Fans of Spencer, the main character of Xidia: The Escape, will like his appearance in the bonus mode of Unreal difficulty, but the whole version is full of bugs regarding the weapons. At least you can search for the Easter Eggs!
So after all of this, how can I conclude my opinions about SkyTown Redux? It has been always one of my favourite custom works of all time, and I dare to say I have enjoyed it more than the original Na Pali Haven and its Krall slaughter fest. Maybe you won't, but it still has an own charm. If the presence of all the listed bugs and of the generally higher difficulty makes you sceptical about the map, don’t worry: they do not go as far as to take all the entertainment value away from the map. Plus, the map is a great reference for thinking about good ways of storytelling in Unreal. If you've already played Xidia Gold and Seven Bullets, you should absolutely check this, and viceversa. It is much more than a nostalgic revisit to Na Pali Haven.
*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.8
TexturingUse of textures in the level. Technically speaking, alignment and scaling. Choice of textures, and quality of any custom textures used.9
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.5
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.10
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.9
Gameplay BalanceBalance of weapons and items to creatures, including difficulty settings. Most importantly, fun factor.8