A three map UT single player unit by Sarevok, The Odyssey may not appear to offer much for its hefty 47MB download, but let me tell you that the second and third maps are huge. Playing them, it's easy to see why Sarevok took so long to put this map pack together - and the designs have certainly come a long way since an unknown mapper called TheChief7 first approached me with a beta of the first map of a trio called Skull. Also responsible for the download size are the numerous music files included from Unreal and Deus Ex (more on this later), and a great deal of Return to Na Pali content in the form of the RtNP2UT mod.
Before we continue, let me say that I really wanted to give The Odyssey a higher score. However, this is my first review for the new schema, on which a top score is much harder to earn. It's not just that; while The Odyssey is a great accomplishment in its own right, it is also let down by a number of small things that add up to a general loss of points, some of which are the classic hallmarks of a newbie mapper (although, in general, Sarevok has far overcome this status during the course of his work on the pack).
We'll start with the story and context. According to the story in the readme, The Odyssey sees you set out to rescue an important Nali who has been abducted by the Skaarj, and this is the position you are in when you wake in a village in the first map. However, after that, it quickly becomes apparent that this map pack is about the journey (or Odyssey) itself, rather than the story guiding the way. Translator events are minimal, mostly involving the standard dead humans vs Skaarj scenarios with the occasional clue on how to proceed. However, for the most part the player is left to figure out what is going on for himself, and the map progression is occasionally unclear as a result of this. From time to time the player has "thoughts" that appear on the screen that give an obvious hint to a player who has forgotten what he is meant to be doing. Apart from a pretty cool flyby by a Skaarj ship in the first map, the story isn't really furthered over the course of the game, and by the third map the translator events have almost fizzled out completely. The player finds himself fighting Mercenaries in the middle of a Skaarj base, and while the game itself acknowledges this oddity, there is no explanation regarding why these traditionally opposed races are suddenly working together. Suffice it to say that the Story areas of the schema are the areas in which The Odyssey loses many of its points.
Build, on the other hand, is a much happier land altogether. While there is room for improvement, Sarevok's architecture is both detailed (including several nicely designed torches and broken-down pillars in the temple areas of map two), and dramatic (good points for Conceptual Grandness). This quality is most apparent in maps two and three, but is less manifest in the first map, which incorporates a fair chunk of material from the second beta of Skull. I was pleased to see that Sarevok had cast off the least impressive of the original designs (inclding the terrain and the Skull itself that gave the pack its original name); however, there are certain old retainers that stand out as "newbieish", particularly the exterior of the small chapel in the main part of the village, which lacks both detail and trim (as well as being oddly textured in the ShaneChurch set).
Maps two and three are much more detailed and are the maps where the pack's build really starts to shine. The temple structures in map two are detailed (one area with windows that had real mountains outside was particularly well designed), and the Skaarj base in map three is cavernous and dramatic. However, the base lacks the verve of, for example, Hourences' greatest works, and sometimes feels a little "empty" of both structure and purpose. In certain locations where the architecture is more detailed, however, the framerates can be seen to drop slightly.
Textures are largely well chosen throughout the pack (and fresh, thanks to the inclusion of a certain amount of custom material and the use, in the later stages, of an SGTech / Richrig theme for the Skaarj base). They are also well aligned for the most part. However, the finer points of alignment have often been nelgected; cases of this include near every cylindrical structure in the pack (torches, pillars and pipes), parts of the terrain that couldn't be fixed with a simple "Align Floor" (and some that could), and occasionally the brick textures in the temple. The temple is, in fact, where these problems are most noticeable, thanks to the use of a large number of "round" structures. This is a mistake that Sarevok also made with his Déjà Vu map until it was fixed by Lightning Hunter and I for version 2.01, and I hope that Sarevok will remedy it if he makes any further maps in future (which, I might add, would be most welcome). None the less, I'm giving texturing a respectable score, as the texture use is detailed and interesting. Unfortunately, I also saw a few frightning HOM effects where there should have been solid textures...
Lighting is another area where, relatively, this map shines (okay, bad pun!) - lighting is very well sourced and good use is made of colour, particularly in the temple. I did feel that the natural twilight and moonlight in the terrain areas could have been more atmospherically and realistically done; this lowers the score a bit; but overall I'd say that the pack was very well lit and I have no complaints. There was even a bit of fog used in some areas for atmosphere - but this is also the source of the pack's most glaringly obvious technical bug: passing through a mining facility, the player enters a large cave at the top of a flight of steps and - just like that - the fog "cuts in" thanks to a very carelessly placed zone portal. It wouldn't be so bad, but the ambush from below by two powerfully armed Skaarj requires a great deal of ducking in and out of this entryway, resulting in the fogzone transition hitting the player repeatedly like several blows to the head with a heavy, blunt implement. I'm not sure how Sarevok managed not to catch that one, along with the failure to use "Bright Corners" on grass textures in the terrain areas, a mistake which left very noticeable shadow seams. A masked hay texture that was unlit and black was also a classic newbie mistake that is easily corrected by raising the sheet to four texels above ground level or replacing it with an UnrealShare.Panel.
Sound is an area where The Odyssey is a mixed bag. There are plenty of ambient sounds and dynamic ambient sounds, and although no use is made of the Pitch property of the ambient sounds to enhance and vary the atmosphere, the inclusion of several custom sounds for the natural areas helps to make up for this and keeps things original. The rain and thunder in map two add a lot to the atmosphere. However, the pack's use of music is less successful. For starters, Sarevok is prone to switching between the ambient section of one track and the combat section of another, which often doesn't work - it lacks the coordination of using a single track's multiple sections. Also, all of the transitions are instant, when the transition following a combat section should always be a fade, and no use is made of silence. While most of the tracks are well chosen (particularly in the first map), some choices are peculiar - in particular, the Deus Ex music doesn't mesh particularly well with that from Unreal; it's too high-tech, and mixing it with Unreal action cuts doesn't help.
This leaves us with the Gameplay side of things. In The Odyssey, the player finds himself armed with the Unreal Tournament arsenal mixed with weapons from Return to Na Pali. I have mixed feelings about the UT weapons in single player - in particular the Enforcer. By the end of map three I was well tired of fighting Tentacles, which the Enforcer seemed singularly inept at killing. Going akimbo with dual Enforcers was fun, but this change robbed the weapon of the accuracy that has always been the Automag's strength. Also, the way Sarevok engineered the akimbo Enforcers (by placing an actual DoubleEnforcer actor in map two) meant that it was possible to switch between the single and double enforcers. Whether or not this was intentional, it was confusing, and for a while I thought I had lost the second Enforcer. Possibly the wrong decision. However, picking up a Combat Assault Rifle in its original configuration was very gratifying, like catching up with an old friend one hasn't met for years. Thumbs up for the dicision to include the CAR from an early stage!
Most of the creatures were lying in wait for the player in the traditional way. I didn't see much use made of PatrolPoints, although one or two SkaarjSnipers could be seen to patrol in map three. The first map made a welcome use of CaveMantas, an often neglected creature class. The second map required a fair amount of backtracking, for which Skaarj and Slith tended to "drop in" to keep the action going. It was cool at first, but after a while I grew tired of creatures dropping from both open and closed ceilings. More interesting fights, such as a pair of KrallElite emerging from opposite side doors, were relatively few and far between. However, one fight early in the first map made me glad I was only playing on Hard and not Unreal skill, when a SkaarjTrooper with an ASMD Shockrifle leapt out of a window and started firing at me! The combat, while generally balanced, I would also class as "tricky", particularly in the second map; unfortunately, in the third map, it rather tailed off, with the player running through a lot of big, empty spaces.
I found the end fight to be rather too familiar, but that's natural in this day and age given the choice of opposition. It was okay. What bothered me more was an interim fight, where the player is whisked away to face a pair of reduced-size Titans in a circular arena. Ammo was adequate and the configuration of the arena gave the player the advantage for a change, but the Titans, while reduced in size, seemed to have the full amount of health. Consequently, and hardly helped by a very poor choice of music, the fight went on for too long and quickly became repetitive and irritating. I felt it added nothing to the pack, which would have been just as good without it.
One thing I thought well done was the ammo provision; the player was often forced to switch weapons and improvise with his weaker tools, but was never gasping for ammo in general (as opposed to the original version of Xidia, which often left the player starved - that just wasn't fun). Health placement was a bit off, though; the provision of Health Vials instead of Bandages in wooden barrels was just plain wrong. Also, map three left me starved for health pickups at a critical moment. Due to my own mistakes previously, I was forced to play through a long section of the game (which included fights with Pupae and a SkaarjSniper, without cover) with all of 7 health points to my name. Eventually I was granted a single Nali Fruit Seed and able to continue without saving after every fight, but this really let down this part of the pack for me.
Gameplay verdict - overall very balanced, but disappointing and somewhat uninvolving towards the end of the final map. Little bugs let the side down, though, such as several Spinners with invisible projectiles, a couple of Slith stuck in the floor at the end of map one, and a sea of SCUBA Gear intended for Coop play that really should have been filtered down to one for Single Player. Little things detracted from the realism, such as a group of Predators in the Skaarj Base, and a cluster of UMS drop boxes in an underwater cave. How did they get there?
In this lengthy review I've made a lot of nitpicky points, but that's because there are a lot of little issues to nitpick. A greater degree of testing and a greater attention to detail might have fixed this and gained the pack a couple more points. However, where The Odyssey really falls short is in the storytelling (or lack thereof). Had the author included further elaboration of the story and a greater degree of foreshadowing (both physically and textually), the pack would have picked up several more points in the "Cast" fields. The lack of a proper ending also leaves the player feeling short-changed, as he has worked hard to get to that point.
The Odyssey is a good map pack and is very much a recommended download - Sarevok should be proud of what he has accomplished for this independent SP release. However, after playing it, it doesn't really "stick", and one does get the feeling that it could have been better.
*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.7
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.7
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.7
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.2
Gameplay AweQuality of scripted sequences, originality and staging of combats. Maps that force the player to "learn by dying" will be penalised.5
Gameplay BalanceBalance of weapons and items to creatures, including difficulty settings. Most importantly, fun factor.6