Hourences - it's a name we all know. Sjoerd "Hourences" De Jong is the guy who worked on Xidia and Operation Na Pali, before going commercial and making maps for Unreal Tournament 2004 as well as writing a range of mapping tutorials, and most recently publishing his own book, The Hows and Whys of Level Design. However, before going on to do all of that, Hourences made this.
Ortican is a single player release for Unreal Tournament that consists of one large playable level and a separate extro map. Set in a high-tech Terran facility that has been overrun by the Skaarj, the player arrives with a mission to re-take the facility and, set down nearby by his dropship armed with a Universal Translator, a welcome Searchlight and a supply of weapons and ammo, begins his journey by trying to get inside.
The exterior of Ortican is a grandiose creation that manages to look utterly awesome whilst also being very low-poly. Hourences puts the detailed textures of the unloved Starship.utx to great use to create a unique look and feel to his map - a trend that continues throughout much of the interior. The blend of blue and yellow lighting sets the textures off very well and the end result is dramatic despite the textures being massively overscaled. Ambient sounds are put to good use in the traditional Unreal way. Pitch variations can be heard and, if you listen carefully, you may even hear one or two custom sounds. Terrain is basic but convincing, and Hourences adds the rare touch of creating a recognisable moonlight effect on the cliffs. Overall, the exterior makes a heck of an impression as the first scene of the map.
Inside the facility, Hourences ups the poly count somewhat, but not to great heights, allowing the textures, lighting and grand scale of the many corridors and rooms to do much of the talking (as stated in an earlier version of this review, the Starship textures work better here than they ever did in Unreal). This low-poly approach yields great results in terms of the amount of real estate and long playing time that Hourences manages to cram into a single map: modern mappers could, perhaps, learn a thing or two from this approach. Ambient sounds continue to work well and we are treated to some very smooth lighting effects created using a mixture of blue and white, with occasional red highlights adding atmosphere in the map's creepy, Half-Life-esque, Pupae infested ductwork.
The map isn't perfect, however: the widespread use of Starship.utx creates a most definitely Terran feel to the place, but there are areas where the map switches briefly into DecayedS.utx, Skaarj.utx and Mine.utx that really don't fit in. These texture sets belong to the Mercenaries and the Skaarj and don't look right as part of this map, either in theme or in colour. The use of crates from the ISV-Kran and the Inuit Corporation logo is a nice touch for continuity, but the writing sometimes appears upside down or backwards. The ambient section of QueenSong.umx is a great accompaniment for the exterior of the Ortican facility, but given that the originally unused second section of QueenSong.umx is used for most major fights in the map, it starts to get tiresome after the first few kills. Framerates in Ortican are known to tank badly on older PCs, particularly around pools of transparent water, due to Unreal's eccentric approach to culling geometry in such locations, and one very obvious WarpZone transition occurs, causing problems for Unreal's AI.
Returning briefly to the story, it is at least effective at setting up the events of the map and the player's reason for being there. After the player's arrival outside the Ortican facility the plot isn't exactly developed, but it is at least implemented well as the player completes his mission to knock out the facility's communications array and throw down with a Skaarj Queen. The ending sequence wraps things up nicely, although it is primitively constructed. The Story Construction score takes a hit for including Mercenaries as part of the enemy line-up, since Mercenaries and Skaarj have traditionally operated separately, indeed being at war in many custom map packs. I would suggest that the level of storytelling in Ortican is pretty much what you'd expect from a single map release, albeit better conveyed than many with the effective use of scripted sequences, staged combats and Movers.
Gameplay, however, remains a sore point with Ortican. The individual fights are challenging, but not unreasonably so in terms of the opposition the player faces (unless you count an early fight against two reskinned SkaarjGunners with hitscan ASMDs); unfortunately, however, Hourences fails to provide sufficient health and armour to make the map readily playable from start to finish without the regular use of saved games. Indeed, there is virtually no health for much of the second half of the map, despite the player having to face several fights against multiple Trooper type Skaarj. The result tends to involve regular reloading of saved games, low health from start to finish and a certain amount of frustration for the player (especially if the player is a purist who is averse to mid-level saves). At least Hourences thought to tool the player up a bit before the fight against the big bad boss, although the boss arena could have been much better designed to allow for some level of cover and tactical gameplay.
Ortican is definitely an atmospheric sensory experience that every self-respecting Unreal player should investigate, but it is potentially a frustrating gameplay experience for players whose skills are anything less than truly godlike.
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).9
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.7
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.6
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.8
Gameplay BalanceBalance of weapons and items to creatures, including difficulty settings. Most importantly, fun factor.6