Project Xenome was initially released as a forty level pack that was withdrawn from download after some controversy around borrowed map sections. Now it's back with some major rethinking and a new episodic format, and if this first episode is anything to go by the full release could be a new classic.
That was the intro when I initially reviewed the first release version of this set, but it has since been patched (along with a sequel releasing), and I have now rewritten it a bit to account for most of my issues being fixed, along with increasing the score slightly.
As a whole this is quite possibly the most convincing Human tech environment I've seen in an SP Unreal release; the visuals generally don't quite hold up to closer scrutiny as well as my former champion, Xidia, but it makes up for that with a consistently grand scale, lots of moving machinery and other interactive aspects, and one or two levels with layouts that border on ingenious.
The pack starts in relatively pristine labs and moves onto gradually more deteriorated industrial settings, which gives it a sense of progression and makes it feel quite varied despite sticking to a general Human base theme throughout. The starting level is probably the simplest, with little of the grand multi-level designs that make up a significant portion of the pack. However, between the nice use of environmental hazards and other interactive elements it still shows some flourish, and ends with a very nice looking lobby type area. From the second map onwards the detail rarely lets up, and there were a couple of levels where I was wowed multiple times by both the scale and detail of the environments. Textures can feel borderline overscaled occasionally (namely in one or two terrain-based areas), but it generally works with how large the environments are. In my original review my one real issue with the texturing was that no detail textures were applied to many of the custom ones, but this seems to have been fixed and they now blend in better. There are a couple of confined corridors that have nothing other than dim ambient lighting, when a few highlights would have given them much more life. Some parts also had semi-bright ambient light that I found a bit unconvincing, and could be a little gloomier, but most of the lighting work is excellent. One general detail I liked was the signs; most packs in Human settings use a couple of generic signs and leave it at that, conversely Xenome has several signs that fit a lot of individual areas, it's a small detail that adds a lot to the sense of place.
Sounds are fitting throughout and used appropriately. The weak link is the music, which, while not distracting, also never really drew me further into the moment like the best usages of music do; I can't really tell whether it was due to unfitting song choices or dodgy implementation, but the music that is used didn't really add anything to the pack for me, the custom music also seemed a bit too quiet. You actually spend the majority of the time in silence (music-wise), which is probably for the better as the ambient sounds enhance things throughout.
The pack shows a lot of influence from Half-Life, from the puzzle-solving to the general atmosphere and feel (although the later, dilapidated sections feel more reminiscent of games like Doom 3), this also goes to the point of many textures and sounds being from Half-Life. The navigation puzzles work well, especially since it's quite a rare thing to see in Unreal maps. What you have to do is occasionally a bit vague, but you can generally get it by paying some attention to the environment and what's around you, and details such as lighting are generally used well to highlight notable objects and areas. I was amused by how similar one puzzle-involving moving a platform thing over acid is to a task in Half-Life: Opposing Force (complete with Pupae standing in for Headcrabs), even the area layout is pretty similar, not that that takes anything away, and it is a well-devised task.
By extension of the above, areas aren't just there to look nice, a lot of the pack is based around interlinking multi-level rooms with several tasks to complete; and even seemingly empty areas can have something to do in them at some point. The peak for me is "Sour Water", which is based around a sort of sewage facility that you loop around on multiple levels (including an exterior); it manages a complexity of interlinking that very few maps come close to. Despite the large size and interlinked design of most of the levels, they mostly avoid forced backtracking and other potential flow stoppers.
The story is well thought out and integrated into the gameplay throughout; The story itself is based around your efforts to survive and escape an attack on your base by the Skaarj, and, while not especially ground-breaking, it works. In the original version I had a major issue with typos and a general lack of proofreading, but, while not perfect, this seems to have mostly been fixed after the patch. The pack makes good use of Operation Na Pali content to add helper marines at various points, along with tasteful use of cutscenes to show certain events. ONP's infinite Dispersion Pistol also turns out to be very helpful for the starting parts. Of course this pack is the first episode of a trilogy, but it does a good job providing a full narrative arc despite that. One slightly odd loose end was some sort of nemesis character that had no mention outside of various random sightings; with no textual foreshadowing or other descriptions for this character beyond occasional sightings they seemed a bit of an empty addition that added little to the story or atmosphere and were apparently just included here for the sake of the sequels. The ending also felt slightly abrupt; the gameplay climax was there, but it pretty much just ends when you are walking down a corridor. In terms of custom resources a few humans clearly wearing Resident Evil 2 RPD uniforms stuck out as a bit immersion breaking, but they are at least only really present in the first map or two.
The combat gameplay is mostly good on Unreal difficulty, but the start is weirdly brutal relative to the rest; namely the second map where you have minimal, if any, dual Enforcer ammo (the only non-Dispersion Pistol weapon at that point) and get rushed by three Skaarj Lords, with your only mercy being a couple of marine buddies who get torn apart very quickly. On the other hand, if you embrace the cheese and exploit the environment you can somewhat trivialise them (hint: Skaarj don't handle water very well). Even past that you're likely to be quite low on both health and ammo for a bit, although you finally start getting a break somewhere into the third map and it settles into it's general, much more reasonable, challenge curve.
After that starting wall the balance stays pretty level; the actual fights get much more elaborate, but you have the tools to fight back, and post-patch, there's a reasonable enough provision of health and ammo to have some rough fights and still recover. Some of fights are on a huge scale, with literally six+ enemies potentially coming after you, however, the complex environments and vertical designs provide a lot of ways to turn the odds in your favour. Sometimes it does feel like there are just a bunch of Skaarj thrown semi-randomly into a room, but the environment's intricacy tends to naturally create dynamic fights out of that, I also rarely got hung up on anything despite the level of detail, which suggests care was put into avoiding that. Weapons are provided somewhat conservatively for the first half, with the dual Enforcers, ASMD and Pulse Rifle being the main weapons , despite them not necessarily being optimal for the vertical and cramped combat areas, which seems to be an intentional choice to put you in a situation where you can never fully be at ease, and the flip-side is this creates a nice feeling of empowerment in the latter half, when you finally get to go wild with weapons that excel in those environments like the Ripper, Flak Cannon and Biorifle.
It should be noted that the pack has large fights that take place in complex rooms with lots of details including things like fog; if you are on a weaker computer you may face some major FPS troubles. However, on the new UT469c patch I had no notable performance issues. I did stumble into a few instant-death BSP holes, however, while that's unfortunate, it does seem that the worst offenders in the original version were fixed, and I don't recall any visible BSP holes. I had no issues beyond that, and it seems technical problems have mostly been ironed out.
A very pleasant surprise that almost came out of nowhere, the author has done a great job on making nine full maps on their own and, now it's sequel has released, it turns out this was somehow just a taste of what the author was capable of, but that's another story... Replaying it post-patch, outside of the rough start (and this was on Unreal difficulty, so lower settings might avoid that problem anyway) most of the issues I had with the original release have now been fixed, and I can recommend it even more unreservedly.
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.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.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.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.8
Gameplay BalanceBalance of weapons and items to creatures, including difficulty settings. Most importantly, fun factor.8