There were high expectations for Project Zephon. The project appeared seemingly out of nowhere, with substantial work already completed, and was then under development for some considerable period of time beyond its initial announcement. A number of major figures within the Unreal SP community were involved, such as Derdak2rot, Cardiologist, WhirlWindWabbit, GTD-Carthage and milb, along with respected multiplayer mapper L.J. Paranoid. Having seen a number of amazing screenshots, The community was primed to receive something truly special... and, in some respects, they did. Why the seemingly low score, then? Read on...
Project Zephon doesn't have that much of a story - despite the considerable talent amassed for the project, this was, for many of the project's contributors, their first major Single Player project. The story, such as it is, involves the player being assigned to a ship investigating problems at the ice planet Zephon, which is being mined for its extensive supplies of liquid nitrogen, and where a seemingly dead, buried Skaarj ship has recently been discovered by the miners. The player's ship is attacked, and crashes on the planet, with few survivors. The player must set forth onto the planet's icy surface and find a means to escape. What follows are twelve, generally long, playable maps set veriously on, within and in orbit of the chilly ice planet.
After the initial setup, plot development within the pack is basically zero. The story is set up very much like Unreal, in that the function of the various maps is fleshed out to some extent through the use of translator messages, which also occasionally provide the player with clues as to how to continue. However, such informative translator messages are also very often noticeable by their absence, and such messages as there are are often very badly written due to the lack of proof reading by a native English speaker - the first of many things to take a shine off what should be a very professional-seeming mod. Scripted events do occur within the maps but, with the exception of the first map (which is incredibly dynamic), seldom serve to push the story forwards.
The project could also have used further testing and optimisation. Known to crash in a number of places under certain circumstances, particularly in the intro, suffering from significant slowdowns from time to time and featuring such eccentricities as flickering trees, poorly encoded custom music that sounds horrendous when it restarts following a loaded game and poorly behaved doors (more on this later), Project Zephon should definitely have been more thorughly tested.
Let's look, now at the good. As the screenshots will testify, most of Project Zephon's maps are, visually, absolutely stunning. Architecture, textures and lighting come together to create the most convincingly freezing location ever seen in any Unreal single player project released to date. Project Zephon takes the icy high-tech theme seen in Hourences' famous Xidia Gold map Genome Warriors and implements it on a grand scale, suffusing almost every map with a harsh, frigid sense of coldness. It would seem that, with much of Project Zephon, the reigning champion Xidia Gold has finally been beaten for a dramatic and memorable rendition of a high-tech Unreal theme. There are exceptions, though: Cardiologist's four maps for the project aren't built to nearly such a high standard of design, and all tend to feature huge open spaces that are pretty bare and unadorned by comparison to the rest of the project. They aren't bad in and of themselves, but when compared to the incredibly sophisticated maps to either side of them, they appear out of place and visually jarring.
For the duration of one map, Project Zephon goes low-tech and takes on a Mediaeval look and feel. It makes sense in the context of the storyline to have such a place, being a prison village built by the Krall, but what we actually get is a map that looks like a sophisticated Unreal Tournamentdeathmatch map, and not the ramshackle shanty town that it really should be.
The project's use of sound generally supports the icy high-tech theme, but isn't groundbreaking like that seen in, for instance, Xidia Gold. The project also features a number of custom music tracks: some are good, and some are not so good, becoming a little repetitive after a long period of gameplay, particularly when multiple reloads are involved.
With Project Zephon, the real issue that brings the score down is that of the gameplay. Within the first week of release, the gameplay balance of Project Zephon has given rise to considerable discontent among single player fans, with only the most skillful players describing the single player campaign as "easy" or "reasonable". Amidst less than glowing feedback, Team Zephon has been forced to admit that the game was tested almost exclusively in multiplayer coop mode, with single player gameplay scarcely looked at.
Unfortunately, it shows. Whilst there is generally sufficient ammo provided throughout Project Zephon to kill everything that comes along - without, that is, causing an oversupply - the provision of health and armour is usually scarce to nonexistent. Unless the player is truly inhuman and capable of fighting his or her way through twenty to thirty Skaarj without taking any damage at all, from the middle of the game onwards the lack of health pickups usually results in the player proceeding through much of the game with less than 20 health, saving after every successful fight, in an experience akin to playing single player against instagib opponents. Seldom if ever is the player given a chance to recover his or her health to high figures after taking such damage: instead, the game proceeds from intense fight to intense fight with no health provided at all. In the early maps, where the opponents were sparser and weaker, the challenge of taking on ordinary Skaarj at a tactical disadvantage was kind of interesting, and unlikely weapons became my friends in the spacious combat environments. But in the mid to late game, where opponents are more powerful and more numerous, the "trial and error" approach that results from this unforgiving gameplay balance, and the constant reloading of saved games, is demoralising and deprives the single player experience of almost all of its atmosphere.
Furthermore, Project Zephon is full of complex and slow-moving doors that are poorly configured so that only the player can open them. With the odds stacked so heavily against the player as they are in this pack, a cautious approach to combat with a heavy reliance on the tactical retreat is essential - but the slow moving doors frequently obstruct the player's retreat or, worse still, close on the opposition, meaning that the player must return to the doors to open them and, in the process, encounter up to three or four angry Skaarj with Eightballs, Razorjacks and Stingers at nearly point-blank range.
To demonstrate that I'm not simply dramatising, one memorable map includes four Behemoths and in excess of twenty Skaarj, but all of one health pack and three bandages, and no armour. Many of the Skaarj are of the Trooper variety and the weapons they wield include Flak Cannons and Rifles (three at once, in fact). In a situation where the player may well have entered the map with less than 20 health to his name, this level of provision simply isn't reasonable. Unfortunately, it's a scenario of a type that is repeated in almost every map of Project Zephon.
With a great deal of perseverance and innumerable saves and reloads, I managed regardless to get through most of the game on Hard skill (after bypassing the intro sequence, which presently forces the game onto Medium skill). Among the enemies fought under these circumstances were, in the later maps, massive security bots armed with rapid fire rocket launchers that each took about thirty Eightball hits to destroy. However, it was when, on the final map, I found myself entering, with 7 health and no armour, combat with a modified SkaarjOfficer with 700 health and and a hitscan ASMD, that I finally conceded that the game had become impossible and enabled God mode for the duration of the fight. I was then forced to cheat on two further occasions, summoning Redeemer missiles to destroy two giant security bots in a cramped room with no health or ammo provided, and using God mode for the tactically disadvantaged final fight, by which stage I was too tired and drained to care how I completed the game, as long as it came to an end.
It is, to me, frankly inexcusable that a lengthy and high-profile map pack such as Project Zephon, built by so many tremendously talented people, should be rendered essentially unplayable by such an elementary error as a failure to undertake a proper single player beta test. Unless Project Zephon experiences a radical gameplay overhaul, involving the provision of a far greater level of health and armour, even if only to an extent that allows players to mess up the occasional fight but still complete the map without reloading, I shall not be wanting to play map pack again, despite the amazing visuals that typify many of its maps. In its present form I simply cannot recommend Project Zephon as a single player experience, and it will have to remain the sole preserve of multiplayer cooperative gamers - which, as a long-term single player Unreal fan and critic, I think is a terrible shame.
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.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).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.8
Technical ExecutionTechnical soundness of the level, i.e. no visual glitches, no random deaths or other gameplay bugs, and a good framerate.6
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.4
Story ImplementationProgression of the written story via the events of the level, and performance of voice actors where applicable.6
Gameplay AweQuality of scripted sequences, originality and staging of combats. Maps that force the player to "learn by dying" will be penalised.4
Gameplay BalanceBalance of weapons and items to creatures, including difficulty settings. Most importantly, fun factor.2