Zora’s nameless brain teasing saga continues with Episode 3. This four map set takes place before Episode 2, continuing a series trend of prequel installments that all conclude with Episode 1’s nonspecific final map Musica. But continuity matters little for Zora’s maps, as no recurring plot or ties between any level means that any of the Episodes can be played at any time, as can any map be played out of order like a compilation of isolated challenges. If you haven’t been following my previous coverage of the past two installments, Zora’s Episodes have maintained an impressive popularity among Unreal circles and have never been reviewed here at UnrealSP due to a long held belief that these maps were solely COOP orientated and could not be properly digested in single player. But as my previous reviews have stated, Zora’s maps are indeed SP solvable, if a little technically faulty.
In my previous reviews, I stated that the recurring problem with these levels is an overall lack of quality control. Zora’s primary concern is to present the player with obstacles, often times these obstacles being either elaborate feats of agility or complicated triggering conundrums…all of which operating by a learn-by-dying or learn-by-trial standard rule of thumb, depending on the task at hand. Past negligence appears here at points, such as clunky interfaces that often glitch the player out if they aren’t extremely careful…or even if they are; consistent issues being the involvement of Unreal’s “movers” in ways they aren’t quite perfected for the task at hand.
Because the nature of Zora’s gameplay is so unforgiving (Zora herself is said to have referred to her maps as “noob barriers”), much of the player’s time is spent trying to figure out what to do or killing themselves to test a theory. Case in point; Episode 3’s first level (called Ancient World for reasons that are inexplicable, since all the maps have little connection to the names attributed to them) has an early sequence that tasks the player with dashing over pools of lava using moving Z-shaped platforms as launch points. Because speed, timing, and a good send off makes the difference between a successful landing and a belly flop in molten lead, players will have little choice but to incinerate themselves numerous times in order to calculate how to get to the final room in this sequence, where they will find the first of Episode 3’s many Asbestos Suits. As if to add insult to injury, these lava pools do not instant-kill, giving the player a few seconds of full body immolation to think about what they did wrong. This is simply how a map in Zora’s lineup operates, and if you’re new to these Episodes and chose this one to start with then you’re already at a disadvantage because all the usual suspects are here and there is no warm up round. With this Episode in particular, Zora goes so far as to declare on her site that these are “the hardest maps you’ve ever played!” Whether that statement is true or not depends entirely on the player. But in my estimation, Episode 3 is probably the “hardest” installment in the series yet (taking into account all the “functional” levels and disregarding Episode 1’s broken mine cart map), and I say that it is for one simple reason; movement puzzles. Episode 3 is rank with them in ways the two previous packs merely messed around with. For those who know the score and for those that don’t, here’s the run down of what to expect;
- Puzzles requiring players to rely on velocity to clear a target.
- Puzzles requiring lots of jumping or dodge moving with hazards, similar to Bunny Track.
- Breakable hazards and puzzles, which may leave you stuck.
- No hints, aside from walkthroughs available outside the game space.
- Flying platform rides.
- Long underwater expeditions.
- Heavy Inventory implementation, which alleviates combat challenges.
- Respawning enemies for the sake of having respawning enemies.
- Possibility that you will often have the right idea but have difficulty performing it, making you second guess yourself.
There’s more to be sure, but these are the basics. Know that if you download this pack, or any of the others, this is the kind of ride you’re in store for. If that’s fine with you then dive on in!
Unlike Episode 2, which…despite its shorter game time…managed to surpass Episode 1 in practically every area, Episode 3 doesn’t actually evolve much from the second installment, except for the fact that there is simply more “of it” to go around. The aesthetic presentation might be just a little bit better, but that could be because there are more maps to be played. The visuals certainly remain unbalanced between decent looking areas to boxy, featureless areas with no cognitive scheme for the overall location. There is at least one puzzle sequence that can numb the mind with its challenge…not because it’s too clever for you, but because its implementation is botched somewhat and vague on an important hint that could not be figured out unless by accident or with a walkthrough. In my case, it was by accident. The attempt at story is no better than the brief presence of non-puzzle related lore from Episode 2, and somehow the spelling is very badly written at times compared to how it was before.
This probably sounds like a lot of criticism up front, but at its best moments I just was not as engaged with Episode 3 as I was 2. Perhaps it was because Episode 2 was brief and did not wear out its welcome, whereas the longer play time wasn’t always a blessing in this installment. Although, this pack is technically superior to all the Episodes I’ve seen thus far, but not by a huge margin. The feel is pretty much the same. Zora excels at thinking up new puzzles to confound the player with instead of rehashing old ideas, and that’s one of Episode 3’s strengths. You’ll constantly feel like each new map is introducing a new challenge or a new style of puzzle. Forgive an analogy to shoddy film horror, but it’s like those Saw movies; every trap kills someone, but each one is different. For example, there’s a sequence with carousel rooms that you have to turn to either open a passage beyond or reveal switches (or enemies). There’s also a bit that involves linking projectile activated switches in chains. The concepts are there, let there be no doubt. Zora never seems to be low on cerebral marvels.
I just have a grudge with the implementation is all. Either it seems that Zora’s ideas are just too smart for Unreal to handle…or that Zora simply lacks the faculties to give these sequences the polish they need in order to be as engaging as they could be. I do not mean the latter statement in a condescending way, as I know myself that sometimes you do something in a map and release it as such when there really was a lot more you could have done to test everything. There are two ways to release a game product; playable and passable. Often times, Zora’s maps teeter on passable. Passable is when players can complete the game from beginning to end, but not all of them may want to. In my sentiments, this is not about a “noob barrier” but rather, a “tolerance barrier.” Forgive another analogy, but I have played buggy commercial games before, as have we all. I have made conciliations with some and not others. Two examples are the games Fallout 3 and S.T.A.L.K.E.R.; two similar games that are similarly bugged in ways that can break the game experience. One game I deem with high esteem (Fallout3) and the other I grew frustrated with to the point that I uninstalled it without finishing (S.T.A.L.K.E.R.). Sometimes a player can just forgive a game for its imperfections and be raw at others for theirs. For many players, Zora’s maps are, I think, very much like this. Beyond that, all I can add is that while I accept these maps as singleplayer Episodes, I find that this is another uncommon case where maps reviewed on this site evade the scrutiny of the scoring system. I’ve always hated scoring regiments, of any kind, and I always will (even though I find some, such as USP’s current schema, preferable than most others). But I do not enjoy the process of giving marks at the end of every one of these, and for instances such as this, all you need to know that Zora’s levels are consistent within the context of themselves, although I am scoring each installment a little higher than the last because I do feel, in a very generalized way, that Zora does better each time. Episode 1 thru 3 could each be hitting high acclaim on the UnrealSP review listing if only that extra finesse had been instilled in what users here have come to value in all their Unreal SP maps (and games in general). And if care was given elsewhere to each quality of an overall map pack beyond perfecting how best to polarize the player and make them hot under the collar, I might feel better about the scores I’m assigning in such a robotic way. But the bottom line is that these Episodes seem to be strings of gameplay without a game. They could theoretically work just as well (perhaps better) in a side-scrolling setting, or on paper. I would very much like to see Zora working on a map pack as a team member, with other members pulling together to make a complete experience.
But that’s simply my overall summary of the Episode in question, and in the spirit of Zora’s maps I will finish my review of Episode 3 in backwards fashion.
Ancient World, the first map, takes place on volatile expanse of terrain seated uneasily around a magma lake. This level is interesting because it is a rare instance where prolonged lava exposure with an Asbestos Suit makes up the majority of game time. You’ll be finding and using up many gears of SCUBA to swim the inferno and you will even encounter some Fire Sliths. Many Unreal mappers have made their own versions of Nitrogen and Fire Slith, or other kinds of Slith. Zora’s attempt, like other special monsters in these Episodes, have energy skins akin to the Cryo Skaarj from the end of the mother game…every mapper’s trusty way of making enemies look extravagant without anyone asking questions. But Zora is cool enough to give these guys napalm projectile attacks and a unique “flame out” effect when killed. The hardest part of this level is the early bit when you do not yet have the Asbestos and have to pass a tedious jumping puzzle. This is followed by some interior segments that don’t look very interesting (big boxy rooms with unsourced lighting at the pack’s lowest, laziest point) and require you to break glass floors to reach lower levels, populated by Skaarj and Tentacles for the most part. Speaking of which, Zora has a way about using the low-level critters that bugs you to the point where you are firing Eightball rockets at tentacles just because you want to see them explode…with fire. This was prevalent with biter fish in the previous packs, and boy will these guys show up at the worst times (like the police…or erectile dysfunction). Luckily you’ll have the provisions to waste a few rockets on these guys though, if you need a little violent catharsis. Technically speaking, there’s no reason why Gasbags and tentacles are stationed in levels with Skaarj other than to provide a combat challenge between every brain teaser…but by this point the Zora Episodes have proved that sensibility is not its objective. The only real problem past this point is that once you get the Asbestos Suit it’s possible to trap yourself in lava pools, since many of them cannot be exited once you’ve fallen inside. Chalk that up for another case of well-rounded trial-by-error and load button finger flexing.
This creeps up elsewhere in other levels…mainly because it’s quite possible to maintain the inventory acquired in this first map all throughout Episode 3. But even without considering your loadout, it’s possible to get trapped. For instance, the follow up level Dead People’s Base poses the player with the carousels I was talking about earlier, and they can trap a player forever between two dead ends if they try to (as I did) jump on as it’s turning (the idea being to see if this is part of the puzzle or to simply see if it can be broken). This can happen with the moving staircases as well, if you manage to roof yourself on one as it is going up. I did this because I saw a jump boots on the ceiling of one of the shafts, and realized all too late that the item actually got stuck up there unintentionally by an attachment bug…so word to the wise, don’t always trust your eyes when you see items sitting just out of reach. Dead People’s Base presents the player with the projectile chain puzzle I was speaking about, and this is where the pack reaches its quirkiest moment. Allow me to explain the setup in order to isolate the issue at hand, and do not read the rest of the paragraph if you wish not to know (what kind of person reads a critical analysis of something before actually experiencing it first themselves, honestly? If you’re looking for a trusted opinion on whether or not to download, or buy, something…well, that’s what scores are for I guess. See why I hate scores now? It’s because you’re all lazy. You make me sick). There are these controllable mover panels that the player is meant to guide and aim at orbs stationed around the room, and they will fire Skaarj projectiles at whatever you aim them so long as an attacking Skaarj Warrior (supplied endlessly via revolving door) charges your station with a shot of their own. Sounds cool, right? Well guess what!? It does not work very well. The Skaarj only seem to shoot at the right spot once each, prompting you to kill them and summon another if you don’t have the chain linked properly before hand, and even with the signal bling, it does not seem to line up very well. But that is not the real problem, no. Worse than that are the moving panels. Again with untrustworthy mechanisms…oh Zora how you slay me with your rapist wit! These things gave me flashbacks from that evil mine cart map from Episode 1, although the sequence never gets remotely that bad. Zora chimes in to break the fourth wall with two bits of helpful encouragement that give you just enough forewarning to know that these things probably aren’t all-the-way safe. Getting too close when moving them around could instigate a massive health/armor drain as you get stuck in an encroaching position, meaning that you have to move carefully as you guide the panel. But the real kicker, you ask? These things aim like Michael J. Fox if he’s off his palsy meds and wearing a blindfold. After a lot of patience (and a lot of dead Skaarj) you can get all the panels aimed just right and trigger all the points you need to, but by the time you activate them all and get through to the next section you’ll probably be filled with so much pent up rage that you’ll want to run towards the nearest living thing and kill it…
…Which is exactly what you get to do!
There’s a cool gauntlet in the middle of the second map. After fighting through hordes of underlings before working your way up to brutes and behemoths, you’ll find yourself in a gigantic arena with a circular catwalk separating you from the floor…and the ‘big’ enemies make an appearance. This fight is interesting, as killing an enemy from above lowers the catwalk closer to the floor and spawns the next adversary; multiple cryogenized Queens all at once. Exclamation mark! Surprisingly, this battle is not as epic as it could be. Zora had the courtesy of adding spawn points for the Skaarj Females to teleport around from, but the positions of these points and the size of the room negate their effectiveness. Each Queen kill lowers you until you’re on the ground floor with the last one. The battle is probably very easy thanks to the over supply of ammo, superhealths, and amplifiers, and because the Queens can get pissed at each other. My impression here is that the arena was too large for Unreal AI. The third map is very brief and there’s not much to speak of. It includes an enclave of Zora’s signature energy-suited Skaarj Snipers, as well as a lava pool to trap yourself in if you happen to still be wearing Asbestos…which is an easy conundrum to get yourself in thanks to a really jerk move regarding an unreliable walkway (You probably thought that was a funny trick, didn’t you Zora? DIDN’T YOU!). I think these maps pop up again and again as filler for the brain teasers. Skaarj Roulette comes to mind from Episode 1 and again in Episode 2. But fortunately (depending on how you look at it) the combat is something that never really ever gets redonkeyless, and while I’ve gone and said that Zora always keeps her puzzle ideas fresh it does seem like sequences regarding enemies and actual fighting all come from the same brown paper bag of tricks.
The last and best level is The Water Laboratory. Again, another sprawling swimming epic. This one introduces a new inventory item that makes you dog peddle like a mad man. Note to player, use your SCUBA sparingly. And I mean both types, as you don’t want to be in a situation where you run out. The real charm of this map is the locale, as the “puzzle” aspect of Water Laboratory comes down (mostly) to button pressing. On that note, there is a really “duh!” moment regarding a certain console you need to interact with in just a certain kind of way. It’s one of those situations, again, where you won’t know what you have to do aside from just feeling every surface in the room until something makes a noise. By the time you find it (if you’re doing it on your own and not consulting a walkthrough) you’ll want to shoot yourself in the face with rock salt. Otherwise there’s another agility challenge you will need to engage (I call it land surfing).
One thing that stands out in Episode 3 as compared to previous episodes is the usage of the level music. Oh. My. God. If ever there is a case where music selection is a pivotal consideration, it is a Zora map. You are going to be in a position where you will be playing for a long period of time if you choose to go it alone (singleplayer). The last thing you want during a time consuming, trial-and-error/learn-by-dying brain stomper is repetitive background music that makes the capillaries in your eye whites seethe with aggravation. Ugh! Zora made the odd decision to use one of the heavier tracks from Unreal Tournament as level music for Ancient World, and after repeated failures at jumping puzzles and after swimming endless circles around the lake of lava you might find yourself sitting in the dark of your PC room shouting, “SHUT UP! SHUT UP! FOR THE LOVE OF GOD SHUT UUUUUUUUP!” Word to the wise, using music from a fast-paced multiplayer game in a slow-paced singleplayer (or COOP) excursion is a delicate procedure. It’s like killing someone when you’re in the Mafia; it has to go through proper channels and everyone has to okay it, or fugedaboudit! The other tracks for the other levels are custom, but I did not particularly care for any of them in the duration they were playing. Too many loops is too many loops. The exception was the combat gauntlet in Dead People’s Base. For the most part, Episode 3 is not for those with sensitive hearing tolerances. This is definitely the worst sounding Zora pack. Do yourself a favor and deactivate music for this one…that’s the only time I will ever recommend this.
I’ll conclude with this; finishing the last map and beginning The Adventure Pool from Episode 2 with all the inventory you have left from your previous game might completely change the way you experience that pack, as well as how you might experience Episode 1. It actually might make for a whole new critical inquiry into the backwards mobility between these packs, as having something at the start of a level that you would not have had with you if you decided to play the Episode in question on its own…miiiiight give you a benefit, or get you in a situation where you can get stuck in a hazard that you would have otherwise died at without certain inventory. But that’s for you to discover.
http://www.klankaos.com/USP/zora_eps.zip (All Four Episodes)
*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.5
TexturingUse of textures in the level. Technically speaking, alignment and scaling. Choice of textures, and quality of any custom textures used.4
LightingLighting of the level: does it look cool? Use of light colour and other effects, and sourcing of lighting (no light out of nowhere).5
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.5
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.6
Story ConstructionBacking story & progression via translator, subplots, and script of voice acting where applicable. Logical choice of opposition.1
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.6
Gameplay BalanceBalance of weapons and items to creatures, including difficulty settings. Most importantly, fun factor.6