Nak'halinra Peak, more commonly known just as Sbegin, is a bit of a classic to my mind. Originally made for Unreal but later re-released for Unreal Tournament, Sbegin was the first map of noted level designer Chicoverde's second attempt at the Shamu Quest saga. Shamu Quest was always intended to span several map packs, but since the original pack was never followed up directly, it is unclear whether the new saga was meant to be the second episode, or a replacement first episode, of the saga. Sadly, due presumably to Chicoverde's work on TeamVortex's Operation Na Pali and his later commercial work, Shamu Quest never has been and never will be completed. As it stands, this map and its following instalments Valley of Eelhandra and Temple of Eelhandra were released and are reviewed individually on this site, as well as the original Shamu Quest pack for Unreal.
The story of the Shamu Quest saga is roughly as follows: the player is on a mission to recover several magical artefacts, with one artefact to collect per map pack. Since this map is only the first of a series, the story is not resolved here, but the subplot of the Skaarj / Krall clan war that plays out in Valley of Eelhandra is introduced nicely, as is a subplot involving a captured Nali priest. Unfortunately Chicoverde neglected to include a readme with this version of the map, so if there is any further backing story than that, we do not know it.
Either way, the story is an ongoing thread in the level, and is designed into the gameplay and architecture. The story is reinforced primarily by translator messages (including the player's own musings), but there is also a cool sequence involving a hot air balloon that, if you're not concentrating and allow yourself to get distracted by Krall, is very easy to miss. None the less, it's a memorable moment in a high-quality map that possesses a definite grandness of concept.
On entering Sbegin, the thing that always strikes me is the elaborate terrain. I don't think I've ever seen such imaginative terrain as is on offer here, where ledges and crags overlook deep bodies of water, wooden bridges span ravines and cliffs and waterfalls tower over the player as he wanders, antlike, from canyon to plateau. Given the complex shapes, Chicoverde applies and aligns the rock textures remarkably well, and slight misalignments here and there can largely be forgiven. Slightly more odd is the use of the grass fringe textures of GenTerra.utx on parts of the ground, generating a distracting stripy effect. Although one can see what Chicoverde was trying to achieve here, it doesn't really work.
This very organic environment, decorated with large plants and trees and enhanced in some spots with the use of large Nali torches, is interspersed with scattered Nali structures. The rickety bridges I have already mentioned, and these are relatively nicely done, spanning the larger ravines with an interesting curved design; one moment when part of a bridge collapses during an attack by a Brute is a nice touch. Later, more substantial structures include a stone tower, an inventive lift system and a few underground structures including a mine and armoury. All are nicely lit and textured, if straightforwardly done.
Lighting in the natural environment is moody but occasionally too dark for the sky; warm Nali torches and bonfires serve to break up the even, natural lighting. Good use is made of sound, featuring the usual array of natural sounds such as wind, water and crickets, and the use of altered sound pitch adds to the dense atmosphere. The soundtrack, Fifth.umx, is a suitable accompaniment to the slightly mysterious feel of the environment presented by the map.
The gameplay of the map is solid. One of the map's strengths is its layout: several areas are optional, including a series of jumps to reach a shield belt and a visit to the well-defended tower. Whilst the map is not entirely linear, the player is also unlikely to get lost, thanks to the use of landmarks and limiters on backtracking.
The opposition consists predominantly of Brutes and Krall. Both classes are used well, with the Krall usually attacking in pairs or teams, and one fight against an enhanced KrallElite adding diversity. I did, however, witness at one point a Krall running on the spot, as if following a path of AlarmPoints that was somehow obstructed. One ambush by Mantas is well-staged and unexpected, one of the many little flourishes add to the interactivity of the map, such as the collapsing bridge mentioned earlier and the use of a cannon to gain access to the armoury.
If I had one complaint about the gameplay of Sbegin, it would be that it has too much ammo. This is not uncommon with Chicoverde's Shamu Quest maps, and it takes the edge off the game experience, although thankfully the provision health seemed to be balanced about correctly.
Given its complexity and the fact that it was built before the days of UnrealEd 2.0 and tesselated cubes, Sbegin's BSP is remarkably sound. However, one small HOM was observed, along with other minor errors such as misaligned sconces and torch flames.
Nak'halinra Peak is the first of a trio of very atmospheric maps with a relatively involving story. It is definitely not a map to be missed, and for its full effect should be played in conjunction with the following instalments, Valley of Eelhandra and Temple of Eelhandra.
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.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).7
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.8
Technical ExecutionTechnical soundness of the level, i.e. no visual glitches, no random deaths or other gameplay bugs, and a good framerate.9
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.6
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