This review is for version 1.0 of Steele Dawn. Version 2.0 has been released with some of issues mentioned here fixed.
This set is actually an attempted recreation of an old mod (and potential paid expansion, although that wasn't confirmed) that was being worked on but got cancelled; the team working on it included authors of early pioneering maps such as Liberation of Na Pali Episode 1, Rajal Castle and Spantobi: Unexpected Threat, among others who were mapping veterans from other games (with Spantobi actually being a map salvaged from the cancellation of this project). Years later, A lot of the concepts were recovered by Leo(T.C.K.), and, while it mostly didn't go beyond that, several incomplete maps and other resources were found. Delacroix then coordinated a project among various modern Unreal modders to turn the concepts and disparate saved elements into an actual campaign, which was successfully released as this project. It's also an Unreal 227 project , and makes use of a lot of the newer features to further enhance aspects of itself (although it can work on other Unreal versions and UT with missing features).
The backstory is quite fleshed out and set decades before Unreal itself, with a story of a technologically advanced yet semi-pacifist earth faction, the Serinites, who had abundant resources in an environmentally deteriorating Earth, and, between the attacks of a terrorist faction called the Vesspines, and the rest of Earth's prejudice towards them, were eventually pushed to space travel to the Jupiter moon Io, which has actually been terraformed by the Nali (who are a very advanced race in this mod's story). With help from the Nali the Serinites are reaching a state of relative prosperity on Io in just over a decade. Unfortunately the Vesspines have now found them again, and have teamed up with the Skaarj to wipe the Serinites out for good...
You play the defined character of Brandon Steele, a wise-cracking build engine-esque protagonist who has spent most of his life on Io, and wakes up from a night of drinking at the bar to find the Vesspine assault on the Serinites' main settlement has started. Steele isn't ready to lose everything to terrorists, and seemingly isn't too interested in pacifism either, so immediately heads out to arm up and start kicking ass.
The architectural design is mostly decent, although there is some clear inconsistency between the newer segments and recovered areas; the latter have clearly been worked on to bring their visual standards up, but they still tend towards being a bit more simple and cubic, versus sections like the almost fully original city area you start in that's full of impressive skyscrapers and sells the feel of a city under assault. The weakest part visually is probably the Starport, which is somewhat realistic feeling in design, but is also mostly cubic rooms with simple designs, along with some very similar looking areas. The lighting is also a little inconsistent, with some parts having interesting and varied compositions, and others being a bit bland with not much colour and flatly lit rooms, along with some splashes of complete darkness that don't feel appropriate for the semi-realistic environments that tend to suffer this the most. Even at it's worst it's mostly still acceptable though. One particular lighting detail I liked was the use of Jupiter's orange/yellow hue for exterior lighting, with it lending areas like the town in the second map an almost autumnal atmosphere, and it's nice to see an alien detail like that vs a set like Peril On Mars that infamously doesn't feel like Mars at all despite the name and premise. The texturing is the strongest part visually, with a well-chosen and varied selection (including on the new enemies and other actor objects) with the only weakness being the more repetitive sections where the choices are fine but not very varied. The varied terrain textures are nice, but a few more transitional textures could have really brought it together.
Sound usage is fine, and new actor/weapon sounds fit well enough, although I don't recall any ambience that's especially stand-out. The Music is mostly a mix of Unreal, Unreal Tournament and beta tracks, but there's also a selection of original tracks (seemingly completely new songs made by Yrex and not anything recovered); they are generally quite high-energy and upbeat, but that fits with the relatively fast-paced and action heavy design of most of the levels. Despite the large track selection it fits together well, and lends the pack a slightly different style musically.
When I said "wise-cracking protagonist" above that's not just in text messages, which leads to what will likely be the most contentious part of the sound design; voice acting. I mostly found it fine; past some character establishment at the start the protagonist mostly stays quiet outside of cutscenes so doesn't get in the way too much, and they mostly work as a Duke-esque character, and they get some friendlier interactions with allies to flesh them out a bit beyond just snarking, along with a fear of Rats that comes up a little. I'm not especially experienced with audio/microphone problems, but there were one or two moments where it seemed the character's dialogue was a bit too loud for the hardware to handle, but the main example does at least cap off an amusing moment that comes with a custom animation. Steele's insults/threats for the villains did seem a bit one-dimensionally focused on anal trauma, and it seems he could have worked on his repertoire in that regard.
There are various other characters with voice acting too, namely the two main villains, along with some friendly Nali. While I wasn't too convinced by the Alien voices used (although those can be tricky even for professional recording set-ups, so I think that's forgivable), I actually found them some of the highlights, especially the villain's sniping at each other as their already fragile alliance starts to break down over Steele's seemingly unstoppable rampage. One issue I did consistently have with the voice acting is that the enemy and boss quips happen far too frequently, and more than a couple of such enemies leads to a near constant barrage of taunts.
Along with the voice acting supporting it, the story is quite developed throughout, with you learning more about the nature of the invasion and the Vesspine alliance with the Skaarj. As mentioned there are two villains, that could quite easily get messy, but good work is done with developing them as individual characters and threats, and they ended up being one of my favourite parts story-wise. There are also plenty of set-pieces and other design to support the story, and, while a lot of the backstory is in the provided manual, the general story can be easily understood just from playing the mod.
To support the pseudo-prequel expansion premise there's a multitude of new/reskinned creatures and weapons. The creatures include a new larger variant of Predators, the Scorpions that were first used in Arachnopolis, much more dangerous fire-spreading Krall, the slightly horrifying semi-human beta Nali (although they seem to have been tweaked to be less uncanny), including a take on female Nali, and some Human enemies. The new weapons are a Quantum Accelerator that uses ASMD ammo (although, while the ASMD is still present, the new gun is mostly strong enough to replace it) that both heavily slows enemies for a time with it's primary and does a lot of damage and literally explodes weakened enemies with it's secondary. A Shotgun that's one of the more satisfying takes on that weapon in Unreal, being completely devastating in close-combat, and a Grenade launcher with four different fire modes, all of which can annihilate groups of enemies. The old arsenal also has some tweaks, like Dual Automags, a slightly faster Rifle with a new scope and a complete visual overhaul for the minigun. The manual also mentions a superpowered Eightball I never found in two playthroughs, so I guess it's a secret or only found on lower difficulties.
The gameplay is mostly a strong point in the pack, and further supported by all the new content. The mention of Human enemies earlier likely evoked some dread in those with a lot of experience playing Unreal packs, but they're actually not a big deal here, as the Quantum Accelerator secondary one or two shots them, they use very few hitscan weapons, and their movement is toned down hugely from the usual dodge spam crack-fiend bots in other mods. At least on Unreal difficulty I almost felt they could have been slightly sped up as they're nearly harmless most of the time. The other new enemies also mix things up in mostly interesting ways; the new Krall are actually a threat, but they're still not too hard to dodge and their new attack can be turned against them and other enemies, and there's a new Titan that can get very nasty if you go in guns-blazing but are very manageable if you slow down a bit and understand their gimmick.
The only new thing I found a little frustrating is the take on the Xidia Praetorians that are present; they can take utterly absurd amounts of punishment, along with being amped up as expected. Mostly they are present in cramped areas where you can exploit the geometry to keep them under control, but even when stuck somewhere they take a ton of ammo to actually kill (according to the documentation, in one instance you are supposed to use stealth, but given how it's in a pretty cramped location with a bunch of other enemies wondering around I'm not really sure how). There's also an even more absurd variant at a point in the last map, but there it's intended as a mini-boss fight so it still feels more fitting there.
There are various nice set-pieces and the boss fights are well executed and manage to have unique gimmicks without much frustration, and are some of the best I've seen in Unreal. With things like a chase through a mansion against an invincible enemy, a dual fight against some Skaarj Brothers with new attacks, and the previously mentioned Titans that are mini-bosses. When it comes to the main antagonists your earlier encounters and the story do a good job establishing their presence and giving some actual investment when you finally get a chance at some payback.
Despite the amount of combat and all the new threats (along with the previously mentioned absurdly durable Praetorians) I never felt too low on ammo or health, and there's a sufficiently generous amount to get you through everything while still making you vary up your weapon use, the combination of very powerful new weapons with their own ammo and buffed older ones also helps to even the odds. One oddity is the Human ammo drops; they mostly use the Quantum Accelerator and drop ASMD ammo as a result, but then there's sections where they just don't, and, most strangely, there are one or two levels where both these things are present in the same map. The inconsistency suggests this is an oversight and not intentional (and it left me a bit low on ASMD ammo at points). There's also a section that involves you getting rushed by literally ~20 enemies of several types, and while it looks impossible, the cramped environment means that this army almost immediately descends into in-fighting and takes itself out. The carnage is funny to experience, but it doesn't feel like the intended way for the moment to go.
Another gameplay twist is a section where you pilot a small Spacecraft to bust into a Spaceship, and, while very simple and on rails, it's short enough to be a fun little diversion and not outstay it's welcome, as well as being where some of the most amusing villain dialogue happens. There also a new puzzle element of Sudoku boards to open a couple of doors; that's another thing that's likely to evoke dread in many reading this (and did for me initially), especially as it uses alien numbers, but it's actually very manageable as it pretty much tells you where to place everything after you fill out the initial board. Though there is a fully optional "hard-mode" version later where this strategy doesn't work, and I wasn't smart enough to solve that one so I'm not sure if it blocks anything notable off.
The final level is mostly the map Spantobi: Unexpected Threat with some new texturing and areas, along with completely reworked combat and set-pieces for Steele Dawn's new assets. It was a little strange initially, even if I didn't really mind as I was always a Spantobi-enjoyer, but the documentation (As I've hinted at throughout this, the mod comes with a quite extensive manual that also includes a lot of information on the development, and is where I got most the info on the maps and history that I've mentioned in this review) provides good proof that the map was originally intended for this set and was salvaged into a stand-alone map, which also explains why it's build always felt quite professional for such an early map release. While a lot of the progression is similar, the story and gameplay additions also fit in well, and the level does a good job wrapping up the story and adding some new set-pieces to the map that fit in well. The ending itself felt a little short despite a nice post-credits bonus, but it works well enough.
The weakest part of the gameplay for me was the Mountain Stronghold, which felt a bit overscaled to the point that backtracking around got a little tedious; one or two other areas involve a lot of travelling, but they don't tend to combine it with a degree of backtracking (at least if you go the "wrong" way first) like that segment does, especially as that area also has little in the way of combat and story set-pieces. There were one or two points where the way further wasn't especially clear, but those areas were mostly small enough that looking around wasn't too big of an issue.
Technically I had almost no issues; I don't recall any BSP holes or similar. The only issue I had was that one boss made my weapons disappear the first time I played it; since you can't damage that boss, and your weapons still come back after, this didn't actually matter in practice, but I haven't been able to recreate it on subsequent attempts at that boss so I'm not sure if it was some one-off issue. The inconsistency with the Human enemy drops also borders on a technical issue for me.
This is a fun set with a lot of experimental ideas, a fleshed out story (even with the potentially contentious use of voices), new content that mostly works, and is visually pleasant beyond the somewhat clashing visual quality of the new and old content. Overall it's a very enjoyable look into a potential alternative history of Unreal modding, and worth playing for just about anyone.
ArchitectureImagination, realism and detail of structures used in the design of the level.7
TexturingUse of textures in the level. Technically speaking, alignment and scaling. Choice of textures, and quality of any custom textures used.8
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.9
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.8
Gameplay AweQuality of scripted sequences, originality and staging of combats. Maps that force the player to "learn by dying" will be penalised.9
Gameplay BalanceBalance of weapons and items to creatures, including difficulty settings. Most importantly, fun factor.7