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Map Title: 7 Bullets
Thirteen playable maps render 7 Bullets, by Team Red Nemesis, an UT SP pack of considerable scope and ambition. The pack, whose story follows on from Mr. Prophet's Sky Town Redux, follows Xidia veteran Jones as he attempts to retrieve a valuable data template that was lost when the ISV-Kran crash-landed on Na Pali. Backed up by a team outside in the Trench, Jones goes alone into the darkened ship and attempts to retrieve the template from the remaining Bloodpack Skaarj who now occupy its interior. The mission is a success, but the squad is attacked by an unknown assailant; ambushed, Jones awakes to find the template gone and half of his colleagues dead.
Team Red Nemesis are mappers Mr. Prophet, Darthweasel and Waffnuffly; coders UsAar33 and UArchitect; voice actor eVOLVE, and musicians zynthetic and Darkbeat. Support was also provided for the project in the form of testing by Eightball Maniac and a deathmatch map by Frieza. In this review I shall examine what this high-calibre collaboration has managed to produce. Beware spoilers, although I have tried to avoid mentioning the real minutiae of the plot in my review.
Mr. Prophet is no stranger to running mapping projects, and this shows in 7 Bullets, which demonstrates a tight storyline with plenty of twists and turns to keep the game interesting. Translator messages are well-written and scripted sequences allow the player to witness key events and conversations between the villains. The relatively prolific voice acting, so often a game's acchiles heel (think Operation Na Pali), is carried off admirably by British actor eVOLVE, who puts on a variety of different intonations and accents for the various characters he voices. It doesn't always work, but on the whole the acting enhances the game experience. I just found myself wishing that Jones himself wouldn't keep repeating certain obvious soundbites, such as "I need to find another way around..."
The pack begins with Myscha's original ISV-Kran levels reduxxed admirably into dark, forbidding and spooky locales by Mr. Prophet. True to form, Prophet makes the best of the original basic architecture and avoids making glaring changes to architecture and texturing that would spoil the effect. When the design gives way to a purely Skaarj segment of the ship, Prophet's designs are familiarly stylish, with plenty of interesting curves and dark ducts full of Pupae to creep through. The real revelation here, though, has to be mapper Darthweasel, whose Lost Passage of Vandora segment, set in a long-abandoned part of the original game's Temple of Vandora, is an eye-opening experience full of vaulted hallways and an outdoor area that might very well be Conceptual Grandness defined.
Darthweasel doesn't just cop out with the temple segment and fill it with Nali and lighted torches. Instead, he presents the temple as abandoned and decaying, and accordingly the principal light source is a series of interestingly designed Tarydium lanterns that line the walls and ceilings. Casting an eerie blue glow over the proceedings, they really give the temple the cold, abandoned feel that the team must have been aiming for.
The only disappointing part of the game, build-wise, is the Terran segment over the last few maps. Whilst very realistic, the grimy industrial design of the labyrinthine Dead Scorpion facility is simply too generic and remeniscent of Unreal Tournament or Half-Life. The designs are good: there are plenty of moving parts and heaps of crates, but the sickly yellow and blue lighting left me longing for the technicolour days of classic Unreal. This is more of a matter of personal taste, and all I have chosen to mark down for it is the lighting score, but I really did long for a splash of Nali firelight. Of this latter segment, the best level is probably the map by Waffnuffly, which incorporates some very nice cave areas.
As regards the game's use of sound it is, of course, exemplary, as one might expect from a project led by Mr. Prophet. However, it doesn't quite have the richly layered soundscape of, for example, Hourences' finest work. This isn't in itself so much of a problem as the game's use of music. The pack follows a less is more principle, and that's fine, but in such a situation the music, when it does show up, really should be awesome. Unfortunately, Darkbeat's score really isn't up to the task, and whilst it's sometimes good, other parts of it are repetitive and downright discordant. The stronger pieces are those by zynthetic, but they don't exactly predominate.
Technical execution, on the other hand, is pretty much perfect, especially considering the size and complexity of many of the maps. Apart from the new dynamic grass, which produced "popup" when approached from a distance, I could find nothing wrong with the execution of this pack.
One must respect 7 Bullets for doing something different. It carries this off with aplomb, and the conceptual design is impressive throughout, especially in heavily reduxxed areas such as a revisited Noork's Elbow. I did find, however, that the pack didn't fit all of the criteria for Conceptual Grandness. In particular, there seemed to be slight lack of foreshadowing in the physical design of the maps, and it was hard to believe that such an extensive new ruins segment could be accommodated between the reduxxed versions of The Trench and Temple of Vandora. This segment didn't, in fact, really feel like it belonged to the Temple of Vandora, having a markedly different design - but it gets away with it, just about.
Story is more comprehensively covered. In particular, the subplot about a recurring nemesis known as the Scarred One was enjoyable. The first couple of glimpses of this creature were truly chilling - sadly, the story didn't ultimately quite have the payoff it deserved. Introducing the Terran pirates was another interesting twist, but as mentioned previously, after a couple of maps fighting bots, I was longing for a green scaly hide to sink my flak into. In some ways it would have been nice if the Terran pirates could have played a more transient role in a longer, more diverse map pack. None the less, the story progression was good, and the bad guys developed a character of their own. Overall, the story was well covered. The only disappointment was that, while some cut scenes were very flash (including Matrix-style freeze frames), others seemed badly edited and clunky.
All this brings us, finally, to gameplay, and firstly to the awe. Mr. Prophet doesn't pull any punches with this one, and the ISV-Kran segment is full of unexpected ambushes by Pupae, trooper Skaarj and "Brood" (a rather unconvincing giant Pupae). Most of these simply serve to enhance the atmosphere and keep the player on his toes, but some, for which there was no way of preparing for the first-time player, forced the player to learn by dying via point-blank range explosions or a Pupae attacking simultaneously with a handy Translator Message popping up and filling half the screen. One or two traps were wired this way, including one fan shaft which required a very careful dodge manouvre (it was made clear that the fan was a hazard, but not clear exactly how it should be circumvented). This is a habit of Mr. Prophet's that, unfortunately, he hasn't quite shaken off since the days of Xidia. It should be remembered when mapping that the first-time player won't be able to take the necessary pre-emptive action, and that in these situations they should have a chance to react before they are killed.
Thankfully, this settles down a bit after the player leaves the ISV-Kran, and the gameplay is able to progress in a more natural way - and, I was pleased to see, Prophet and co. have got the balance about right this time. The map pack had an informative readme file that set out exactly what level of combat a player could expect to encounter on each setting, and made clear that real Xidia-style gameplay was reserved for Unreal difficulty only. According, I selected and completed the pack on Hard skill without too much frustration.
Team Red Nemesis have provided an almost entirely new arsenal this time (which, incidentally, is also available for deathmatch via a mutator). From the rapid fire Machine Mags through to the new and arse-kicking Quadshot V8 and the Bloodpack Ripper (which became a great friend to me when dealing with automatic cannons), 7 Bullets gives you plenty of new toys - unfortunately, you will also find that the Terran pirates wield a similar range of weapons - be prepared for ample save and reload action as you get whacked by snipers, and hopefully you won't get too frustrated. The biggest saviour of this "taxing" style of gameplay are the portable rations: accumulable inventory items that allow you heal 50 health points at a time, even in the middle of combat. Be warned that these do not appear on Unreal skill; I know that I would have been lost without them.
Overall, the gameplay was balanced, but the bot fights in the last few maps became tiresome after a while, and one or two of the major battles seemed, off-kilter either to the benefit or the detriment of the player. Finally, and I never thought I'd see this in an Xidia style project, but there was too much ammo! Some weapons, such as the Plasma Rifle, I really barely used.
7 Bullets dares to be different. To my mind, ending the pack by fighting humans in concrete warehouses after a promising start and a return to the Nali planet, was disappointing, and detracted from the pack as a whole. The early disappearance of the Skaarj from the storyline reminded me a bit too much of Unreal 2 - however, I feel safe in saying that 7 Bullets is quite a lot better than Unreal 2. If you approach this pack with an open mind and don't expect too much of a colourful romp across the surface of Na Pali, I'm sure you will enjoy it.
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