When Team Phalanx released the original seven map version of Xidia in April 2002, I was outspoken about the difficulty of the otherwise excellent map pack, which I felt was far too unbalnced. However, most would agree that the original Xidia was in almost all other respects a bar-raiser on single player design, and let us not forget that it was released well before the infamous Operation Na Pali, which recycled two of Xidia's finer maps as part of its own map sequence.
September of the same year saw the release of Xidia Gold, which sought to patch up and improve the original Xidia saga (now retitled The Xidia Incident) and added as a bonus a further seven map saga, Xidia: The Escape, set shortly after the events of the first seven maps. Further patches followed in an attempt to fix a few bugs and balance up the gameplay, which was still being criticised, but in the process one of the longest maps in the pack developed a bug that made it impossible for players to save their game. That particular error put me off replaying the map pack again, but was thankfully fixed in May 2006 with the release of the Xidia Gold Final Fix Patch. Downloads for both the final version of the pack and the final fix patch are available at the end of this page.
The Xidia Incident follows hardened marine Jones, a now familiar character who would go on to reappear in Na Pali Haven: Redux, Seven Bullets and the forthcoming Residual Decay, as he is dropped off at a Terran outpost on the planet Xidia (known as "Outpost Pheonix") to discover why the personnel have dropped out of contact. Unfortunately, upon his arrival, he finds the crew dead and the facility overrun with advanced Skaarj. What follows is a gruelling journey through the outpost itself, a set of underground mines and an awe-inspiring derelict spacecraft. To begin with, Jones receives regular mission briefings through his Translator that guide him through his mission; the pack also contains subplots of its own, primarily relating to the struggles of the crew of Outpost Pheonix as they tried unsuccessfully to repel the invading Skaarj.
Xidia: The Escape takes a Half-Life: Opposing Force approach to storytelling, casting the player as another character who revisits the same locations as Jones and whose paths almost cross with those of the marine but never quite manage to. The protagonist of this story is Spencer, an engineer and born survivor who has hitherto escaped capture and elimination by the Skaarj, and who ends up getting mixed up with the mysterious Lt. Cray, who promises to help him escape but ultimately turns out not to be such an ally after all.
As many fans will report, the build of Xidia Gold is uniformly excellent. Both principal mappers, Mister Prophet and Hourences, create several dramatically scaled and incredibly detailed maps that explore several aspects of the Terran and Skaarj high-tech / mines theme. A greater diversity of theme might have been welcomed, since Xidia Gold only ventures into the ancient theme that Unreal does so well for one very brief moment; however, it wouldn't have fitted the story at all to explore ancient themes any further, and such matters are best left to be dealt with by the three follow-up projects. Within the confines of the the high-tech theme, Prophet and Hourences prove themselves to be a winning collaboration. Hourences' maps favour broad, sweeping hallways and dramatic caves, including custom textures such as the amazing icy Skaarj textures seen in Xidia: The Escape, whereas Mister Prophet proves himself to be an expert at gritty realism, constructing the sprawling high-tech labyrinth of Outpost Pheonix, a pivotal location that the map pack visits on several occasions. Both mappers, through the use of numerous closed doors and sealed vents, succeed in implying that the locations that they have created extend far beyond the areas that we actually get to visit during the game, a good conceptual approach to the design that comes in very handy when the mappers seek to bring the player back to familiar locations by different routes at later stages of play.
Hourences' maps are deeply sonorous, making ambitious and experimental use of sound to create an abstract but very immersive soundscape. Prophet's use of sound is a little more down-to-earth, in a manner appropriate to the theme of his maps, but it remains widespread and leaves no area silent. Music is put to good use on and off, but the team made the mistake of using a couple of tracks based on imported WAV files, and the results are in one case truly horrendous to the ears. Lighting, however, is highly polished throughout Xidia Gold, using the usual mixture of blue / gold lighting that has proven itself to work so well over several years of custom Unreal mapping.
There are aspects of Xidia Gold's design that can be criticised, of course: the texturing of Outpost Pheonix itself, which as a map is one of Mister Prophet's earlier works, is very uneven and draws on a number of high-tech texture sets in a number of locations. UTtech1 & 2 sit somewhat uneasily alongside textures from City, Metalmys, Mine, PlayerShp, RainFX, SGTech1, Slums, Starship and UT.utx in a manner that often doesn't gel or convey any particular sense of place (new areas seen in later visits to the outpost, such as in Return to Outpost Pheonix in Xidia: The Escape, are more consistently designed). Observant players may also recognise eleme1nts of Prophet's multiplayer maps in the mix.
Aside from the design issues specific to Outpost Pheonix, The Xidia Incident features a strong and consistent progression of themes from start to finish, but the same cannot, unfortunately, be said for Xidia: The Escape, which feels rushed by comparison and has much more of a "compilation" feel. Themes come and go in fleeting glimpses, and after the setting has switched on a quickfire basis from dead mines, though an ancient temple and a stunning icy laboratory to a cavernous, deeply alien combat arena, the "big picture" of the Xidian setting gets rather lost. Individual themes, particularly the amazing icy laboratory, occur far too briefly and bear no relation to each other. It is primarily for this reason that, whilst the individual maps are often stunning, the pack's Conceptual Grandness couldn't be rated higher. The technical execution of the build is also flawed, with a number of BSP holes throughout the pack and one particularly badly placed collision error (within a high-speed train segment borrowed from Epic's AS-HiSpeed) occuring early on in Xidia: The Escape. Players on older systems should beware the occasional slowdown, and the new weapons aren't without their bugs, either.
Both halves of the pack are reasonably strong on storytelling, with The Xidia Incident making good use of the translator and occasional scripted sequences, and Xidia: The Escape making a brave attempt at adding voice acting into the mix. The voice acting in Xidia: The Escape isn't as laughable as the voice acting in Operation Na Pali, but it's not very well performed, and the lines that are spoken are often completely different to the subtitles that appear on the screen. But the story, whilst acting as a good framing device and being explored over the course of the pack to some extent, is really secondary to the combat in this release.
And what of the combat? The Xidia series is, after all, infamous for its challenging approach to combat, leading to the adoption of the phrase "Xidia-style gameplay". Have the various amendments made by Prophet and co to the pack since the original release of its first seven maps done enough to silence its critics?
The answer to that is, not entirely. Things start out well enough with the revised version of Outpost Pheonix, in which Prophet appears to have gone to some lengths to provide a level of health, ammo and armour more commensurate with the level of opposition that Jones has to face, and whilst it is certainly still challenging it couldn't really be described as unreasonable. However, things go pear-shaped for The Xidia Incident after that: after the player enters Hourences' maps, the placement of items no longer appears to be linked to the location or nature of the major combat scenarios, and the player can finding himself facing several waves of heavily armed Skaarj in between opportunities to tool up (armour is also largely absent from this section of the pack). I would personally have preferred for the provisions to be better spread out over the course of the maps so that coming badly out of one fight wouldn't leave the player on a low level of health for so long a period of time, prejudicing the player's enjoyment of the following fight scenes.
This is a problem compounded by the presence of certain classes of Skaarj that are augmented beyond levels that, to my mind, are either particularly realistic or fair or enjoyable to fight. I speak, of course, of the Skaarj Praetorians and their boss counterpart, the Red Nemesis. These "leader" Skaarj, with their cheapskate and unconvincing red / orange skins, run more quickly than their animations should allow (and more quickly than even a rapidly dodging player can sometimes escape), and deal totally unrealistic levels of damage with their claws. Throughout Xidia Gold there was not a single Skaarj Praetorian / Red Nemesis fight that I enjoyed, with each one a chore to be got through before I could continue with the game. My preference is to fight less overpowered creatures in pairs or threes, and I hope that the team are careful with their use of creatures such as these in Residual Decay. I was also uncertain as to why so many of the other Skaarj, in particular the Troopers, needed to be outfitted with drab grey skins; it didn't add any interest or realism to me. More interesting were the pack's new or augmented weapons, although one (the Chaingun) was so heavily handicapped as to be almost useless.
The difficulty situation, unfortunately, only gets worse in Xidia: The Escape. The game starts out reasonably enough with Return to Outpost Pheonix, which offers a challenge similar to the revised Outpost Pheonix map in the first half of the pack and a few opportunities for tactical gameplay; but, after that, the pack begins to abuse the player with excessive numbers of enemies in certain parts of the following maps (and, in some cases, scripted "enemy reveal" cut scenes that become infuriating when seen for the 10th time). The provision of health and armour once again becomes divorced from the location and nature of the maps' major fights, although this time, to begin with, the player builds up huge stocks of ammunition. Towards the end, of Xidia: The Escape, the ratio of creatures to health pickups gets worse, ammo supplies drop off, and a number of major fights become tactically disadvantageous to the player with, in one case, the player's only route of tactical withdrawal from an encounter with three Skaarj Hybrids being partially blocked by burning girders that damage the unarmoured player. But it was the lead-up to the pack's final climactic boss fight that really angered me: having unknowingly bypassed a crucial but somewhat hidden health / ammo stash, and having negotiated several arduous fights, I was presented with no further ammunition, no armour and... one health pickup worth 20 points. It was my fault for missing the cache of supplies, but it should probably have been more obvious, a matter which could have been corrected simply by removing one closed door.
Of course, no Xidia Gold review would be complete without a mention of its most frustrating gameplay feature: when the player's health drops below 25, his running speed is significantly reduced and the view starts zooming in and out in a dizzying manner. There's fun realism and there's harmful realism: if ever there's a chance when the player needs to be given the oportunity to run away, it's when his health is critically low like this. Other perhaps unnecessary and ill-thought-out features, such as the renumbering of some of the weapons and the provision of a rather chunky HUD that marginalises the health readout, are perhaps minor annoyances that require some getting used to rather than show-stopping design problems.
Xidia is a landmark release in design terms that, back in 2002, truly raised the bar of single player design on both its initial release and is subsequent expanded release as Xidia Gold. However, after a reasonable start that is challenging but fairly well balanced, the gameplay quickly degenerates into poorly considered, unbalanced combat that, at least in my case, led to the excessive use of the save game feature and largely put me off revisiting the pack in the future.
ArchitectureImagination, realism and detail of structures used in the design of the level.10
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).10
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.9
Technical ExecutionTechnical soundness of the level, i.e. no visual glitches, no random deaths or other gameplay bugs, and a good framerate.7
Conceptual GrandnessScale, imagination, awe & originality of design and layout, physical foreshadowing of future areas.8
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.7
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.5