The Sky Shard is a pack consisting of four maps (three playable with the last one being a flyby), made by mapper EddX, better known for his later pack Zero Black. It's compatible with Unreal and Unreal Tournament.
The pack was made back in the 1999, and this was the author's first work, completely inexperienced with the editor; unlike many beginners, EddX tries every trick he knew in that time, mostly relating to story and level design... just scroll down and read.
If you take a look at the ReadMe, you'll know why you are doing this map pack. This is not a typical "My ship crashed on a planet full of Nali and Skaarj and I have to escape from it" saga, taking instead another approach: space exploration.
A group of humans takes some signals from a star ship of an advanced technological race (the Skaarj), which landed on a planet with Nali and Tarydium (no confirmation that it's Na Pali). The humans follow the signals, and now their main objective is meeting them in order to become rich and famous. Your mate is sent down but he doesn't return, so it's up to you to find him and at the same time, explore the planet and "meet" the creatures...
You start in a bright corridor, get your Translator and Flashlight, see your star ship flying away and you start to walk in this hallway. The wooden floor below you breaks and you fall down a long, cubic hole, arriving in a small pool with an Automag and some Clips. And so it begins...
The first map is a Nali sanctuary. Architecture-wise, the author enhances only important areas. On one side we have basic cubes, cylinders and staircases and on the other one you find colossal rooms with more details, such as more brushes, boxes and monk statues. Doors are very primitive, just single barriers moving vertically and none of them make any noises.
Everything would look even better if the EddX made a good, coherent use of textures. Ancient and NaliC themes appear here, fitting the place quite well. But there's extreme repetition. Most of the time you enter a room covered with one kind of texture. Usually aligned, but tiling the same blooded brick for several metres is incredibly ugly. On the other hand, water pools are like moving sheets and look like mud (the ugliest liquid textures are used here).
Lighting is unsourced most of the time (the sourced lights that you may find are torches, lamps... or pools) and very bright. The use of sound is poor as well. No music is heard in the pack aside from the ending map; it's a good choice, but it would have been even better if the author had added more Ambient Sounds, or even one single Dynamic one.
As mentioned above, the author does his best in the most "important" areas of the maps. These have more variety in texturing, a good use of shadows and proper, fitting ambient sounds. Other rooms are just filled with boxes (breakable or not) or simple decorations such as cups or lanterns. EddX had all the skills to make every part of the level interesting. It's already above beginner's standards, and the ideas here are pretty unique.
One mistake is the presence of enemies in areas that can't be accessed in any way until you find a key hidden by the Nali.
The second map is the heart of the pack and the real reason why The Sky Shard should be played. The player find himself in a huge cavern. The scale is immense: you see, by looking down, the bottom of the abyss and various metal walkways, while looking above a Skaarj ship struck into the ceiling.
The level, being low-poly (there are still basic areas filled with rocks and Tarydium crystals), can be fully explored. Yes, you can go deep in the abyss and see what's there, and admiring the stuff above you.
The map isn't quite linear, but your objective is just "take a key for the lift and go to the ship". It can be confusing for first-timers, but fortunately most of the areas are put here for the sake of exploration and more mini-plots.
Texturing is good, but the choice of the StarShip theme (which is intended for Terran structures) doesn't fit at all for the Skaarj outposts hiding there. There are still repetition issues and muddy looking water. Lighting and use of shadows are generally good while sounds are next to nonexistent. There are various design faults, though: for example, to descend into the abyss you have to jump into a series of empty pools in order to not get fall damage, which sounds kind of stupid, but it's nothing compared to the amount of work put into making what's around you.
For other ideas, the map has some massive digging machines and Skaarj boards that take you from one place to another.
After this behemoth you enter the Skaarj ship, the pack's worst level. Architecture being completely basic again, the Decayed theme, which is for Mercenaries ships, is used here. Then later the Skaarj texture pack makes its appearance. Unfortunately most of the time there's a poor selection and everything is watered down by incredibly bright lighting, usually unsourced. A large number of black lighting bugs are present too.
Unlike the previous levels, this one isn't completely enveloped by the silence, as sounds are heard from every mover and computer panel. Though it doesn't make up for the failings of the previous maps in this respect.
The generator area has the problem of having pools of liquid that you cannot escape from without flying. Being an area with generators, the water should have been charged with electricity (in a logical way), but in reality they are harmless empty spaces. One last thing is that the generator can be destroyed even before completing a small task.
The exit of the map puts the player face to face with a 2D skybox inside a Skaarj pod (in reality a moving platform).
Then we have the last map, which is a flyby of some sort. Starting on some cliff (behind you there's a fall and you can even survive it, forcing you to restart the level or cheat), you enter a corridor and the epilogue starts. You see Nali doing chants, ghost through a wall (yes. There's no explanation if this is magic or not) and you find yourself flying in the Sky Shard room of the first map. After a while you're being thrown in cylinder-shaped hyper space (the FlyBy track makes its appearance here), arriving to your lovely Earth. Pack is finished.
The initial story ceases to be important after a while. The player encounters in the Nali temple a crystal called the Sky Shard, endowed with immense and unknown power. This is the reason why Skaarj have invaded this place (unsurprisingly). You kill them, you discover that your friends are dead and you have nothing to do other than to escape... by using the power of this crystal.
Everything is explained by translator messages. All the maps have no less than 20 of them, and they talk about the story of how the crystal appeared and what it does, the feelings of the Krall while working for the Skaarj, stories about the Giant Abyss, Skaarj analyzing humans and much more. There's pretty much everything and you could easily spent 30 minutes reading all of the well-written messages. EddX definitely does a great job here at making the player interested in what is happening and what has already happened around him; although the effect is rather spoiled by the lack of a feeling of "what's really happening". The absence of any scripted sequences turns the adventure into yet another monster slaughter.
A curious note is the presence in the second map of an entranceto the Slith's city, which will be expanded on in Zero Black.
The gameplay, unfortunately, as mentioned above, lacks any scripted sequences. You're just here, killing every placed monster who patrols or guards the room you're in. Nothing more than that. Enemies are mostly Krall, Slith, Brutes, Mercenaries and Skaarj.
No battle is hard, except the first one of the game where you're put against a Behemoth with a Dispersion Pistol and an AutoMag. Some rockets and you're dead or kicked down to some hungry Devilfish.
Other Brutes, Krall and Slith (these latter being rare and put in very strategic places) are good deals for some shooting training, while the Skaarj (placed fairly randomly) have severe difficulties at moving through the environment. Mercenaries (this time being hired by the Skaarj, and it's even written on a message), even if they do make good use of their Machine guns, do not stand a chance against Razor Blades (they never activate the Invulnerability shield if you use this weapon) that are found in extreme quantities in the Skaarj Ship.
In the third level, an unsurprising ending boss makes an appearance, but the area where you fight him is very large and you have all the ammunition you need to slay the beast.
There are no difficulty filters here (everything is the same except the creatures being more powerful); the quantity of ammo is way too high (already from the first level you're given a full payload of rockets), while in the health department everything is provided for amply. A skilled player can finish this pack on Unreal difficulty in just one hour.
The pack presents a number of minor, but annoying technical problems.
The Sky Shard room has framerate issues due to bad use of lights and mirror surfaces; the same temple map has torches disguised as cups supporting huge, harmless pillars of fire. EddX forgot to make them indestructible... shoot these decoration and you see the flames flying from the surface below.
The Skaarj Ship has lighting bugs, a fatal BSP hole, and a crazy lift, while the Giant Abyss has surprisingly no visible HOM effects. Then there are various places that if you fall in, you need to re-load the game or cheat.
Everything else should work as it is supposed to be.
I enjoyed this pack immensely many years ago. Today, even if the poor build and lack of scripted sequences are now extremely noticeable, I still managed to enjoy it, and I dare to say even more than Zero Black due to the much more balanced gameplay.
The well-portrayed, huge scaled areas, especially the Giant Abyss (a relic in Unreal history), are something that everyone should experience.
Unique level design and an interesting story makes The Sky Shard worth of a play. It's much more than you'd usually expect from a "first attempt with the Editor".
*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.4
TexturingUse of textures in the level. Technically speaking, alignment and scaling. Choice of textures, and quality of any custom textures used.2
LightingLighting of the level: does it look cool? Use of light colour and other effects, and sourcing of lighting (no light out of nowhere).4
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.2
Technical ExecutionTechnical soundness of the level, i.e. no visual glitches, no random deaths or other gameplay bugs, and a good framerate.5
Conceptual GrandnessScale, imagination, awe & originality of design and layout, physical foreshadowing of future areas.6
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.2
Gameplay AweQuality of scripted sequences, originality and staging of combats. Maps that force the player to "learn by dying" will be penalised.1
Gameplay BalanceBalance of weapons and items to creatures, including difficulty settings. Most importantly, fun factor.5