Nikola's name is known in the cooperative community of our game, in particular in the -(DOG)- clan (NewbiesPlayground) which in itself has been the origin of several releases somehow skipped by the rest of the Unreal world. Till 2014, however, she was just a player like so many of us. This changed in June, however, with the release of her first work, Wasserburg Eusebius. Since then, she has produced a further couple maps and packs and gathered her clan's critical acclaim. Was it well deserved? We shall see as her works are reviewed one by one.
Wasserburg ("Water City") Eusebius is a large map, no questions about that. It features an underground city riddled with water canals, reservoirs and pools. An interesting concept if executed properly. This place however, contrary to the name, looks more like a dungeon taken straight from a Castlevania game - and amazingly, it does provide some location authenticity when looked at from this angle. The skytown-themed hallways and large rooms are mixed with what looks like huge libraries and sacred-purpose areas. On several pedestals orbs are seen that look like miniature planets and moons, giving the location a surreal fairytale feel. Everything is huge - so huge that most of the time, the player feels like a little child in a place made for adults three times taller than them. It's like being Alice in the Waterland.
There are two factors however that can break the enjoyment and immersion for the player. One is the environments' simplicity: while there are seeds of decent design in place, they're brought down by the fact that most shapes are very simple, often square-based to a tee. This is particularly jarring in the water reservoirs and pools. They feel downright empty. The other is obvious glitches and mistakes. At the very beginning, if you look to the side, you'll find some constructs just 'in the air', separated from the ground/floor by a small empty space. At least one of the water pools contains a large-scale BSP hole. On default settings, the player will also find the majority of the areas too dark to play through comfortably and the searchlight, while eventually provided, is given too damn late.
On the other hand, one must appreciate Nikola's ability to improvise. A room with two large pedestals with huge green jewels on them holds a big surprise: the 'jewels' are actually upscaled books, however they're positioned so well that it'll take you some time to notice what they really are.
Gameplaywise, it's a mostly quite enjoyable dungeon romp. The player's task is simple: explore the area in search of a series of switches that will unlock further areas of the dungeon and eventually reach the exit. There are several problems with how it was executed in here, though. Let's go through this bit by bit. The player begins their journey at a crossing. The door behind you is locked and will remain so, therefore there are three other directions on the crossing left: west, east, north. Only the western area is open initially and it might prove difficult to choose the way to approach it. Here's a hint: go straight ahead, otherwise you'll find yourself underequipped (only Dispersion Pistol) in confrontation with several Skaarj including snipers, just to name a few. Going forward will mean a confrontation with just a small squad of enemies that can be easily outwitted or if patience permits, picked off before going for the weaponry lying around.
Problems arise however in the eastern area of the Wasserburg. Eventually, the player will come across two pairs of supercharged Behemoths and Mantas, in the company of several Skaarj gunners and snipers. This might seem too much for a lone player (and if charged at mindlessly, the Behemoths certainly are, as they are genuine bullet sponges!), however people sporting a tactical talent will find their way around. Here's a hint: friendly fire works wonders. More than once in the level, but mainly in this particular case, running in-between enemies on purpose to goad them into shooting at each other has a big chance of working out in your favor as instead of using up your own ammo reserves, you'll get them to kill each other with no more than a couple provocation shots from you.
That aside, there are actual issues also with the gameplay. There are areas from which you will be unable to jump out once falling into them, forcing you to either try some luck at rocket- or DP-jumping or restart from the last save (or the beginning of the level if you didn't save). Additionally, I found the map personally a bit too much of a maze. I had problems unlocking the eastern part of the area (surprisingly enough the northern one was open so if it happens on your end, you'll be able to finish the map prematurely) and eventually rocket-jumped through the fence on the side of the door and opened it from the inside. There are instances when the player is required to make a couple risky jumps to an area below and this may cause health and even life loss.
However even with those issues in place, the level remains a solid dungeon crawling experience, complete with a mixed ambience layer and the "Ice Queen" music track that abandons realistic location feel in favor of oldschool gameplay mood.
Please notice that there was not a single mention of the story in this review. Quite simply put, there is none written or implemented.
Nikola's first mapping endeavor, while flawed beyond the shadow of a doubt, shows huge potential. The mapper knows how to build locations that look and play well and if the issues would be ironed out, Wasserburg Eusebius could have been considered one of the best single player map releases of the year. While that isn't so, the way things are, it makes us stop in place and wonder: Hmm, this is interesting. What else can she do?
ArchitectureImagination, realism and detail of structures used in the design of the level.6
TexturingUse of textures in the level. Technically speaking, alignment and scaling. Choice of textures, and quality of any custom textures used.5
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.6
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.5
Story ConstructionBacking story & progression via translator, subplots, and script of voice acting where applicable. Logical choice of opposition.0
Story ImplementationProgression of the written story via the events of the level, and performance of voice actors where applicable.0
Gameplay AweQuality of scripted sequences, originality and staging of combats. Maps that force the player to "learn by dying" will be penalised.7
Gameplay BalanceBalance of weapons and items to creatures, including difficulty settings. Most importantly, fun factor.7