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Custom Map Reviews
Custom Map Reviews
Map Title: Return the Heart
The first thing you want to know is that, no, Return The Heart has nothing to do with Heart of Chizra by Raven. The only relation between them is that you’re still getting a gem related to Chizra and that’s pretty much it; no other similarities, no copyright infringements, etc etc... Let’s go back to Return The Heart. It’s a small pack of three maps made by Doublez-Down as a break from another project, the full and unofficial version of the Shamu Quest saga. The author did already release various multiplayer maps for Unreal Tournament and UT2k4, but he had simply no experience with the Single Player side.
So, what are you going to expect from Return The Heart? Certainly, from someone who has to complete a pack started by a mapper of the caliber of Chicoverde, you want to see if he’s up to that mission. After playing the map pack, I think Doublez-Down has the potential to do such a thing, unless he’s hiding his real best for the new SQ levels. Maybe I am assuming too much, so just let’s go straight to the review; I have still seen some inspiration from Chicoverde’s old works though. Now, looking at the screenshots, Return The Heart seems to be promising, and you’ll be thinking why it got such an average score. Let’s find out.
Design-wise, Return The Heart does look like a cross between Shamu Quest and Nali themes from the original Unreal. The first two levels, Divine Annex and the Pit of Chizra, recall the temple of Chizra and Vandora, while the last one, Karkuth Monastery, will make you scream “Nali Castle!”, although this one seems to be better developed, and doesn’t have the “love it or hate it” factor of the old Nali Castle. Regarding the build, it’s very nice to look at. The maps retain the Unreal atmosphere while having the distinct architectural style seen in Chicoverde’s maps like Valley of Eelhandra. Which is not a bad thing obviously: ruined temples, clever use of vegetation and more. Basically, play the maps and you’re going to get “memories...”. The only thing which is absent is the large scale, and Return The Heart somehow just lacks it of its own. The layout of the temples is the simple room-after-room one; this leads to a complete lack of exploration. It’s all linear: before entering the successive areas, you have to kill enemies or press levers. There are some small deviations, but only to find something to let you progress. Unfortunately this does hurt the replay value because the whole “get this, go forward; kill this, go forward” becomes quickly old. At first it’s not too bad, but you’ll realize about these problems as soon as you progress. I know you’re supposed to win all the challenges just to get the gem; it’s always a good gimmick, but it’s not really executed well here. More could have been done for the latter and also for some non-linearity.
Speaking about the architecture quality, it is good overall and gives an oldschool Unreal feel. The chambers themselves look nice and detailed, with a good use of decorations and brushes such as broken columns and tiles. One of the best things you can do here is actually being able to trigger earthquakes every time you want; you just need to shoot always the Vandora picture at the beginning of the first map and you can have infinite fun. Oh, and don’t tell me if doing so may lead you to some serious dizziness. Various areas are slightly empty, while some of the corridors are a bit too cramped. Some traps such as crushing walls and insta-kill spikes have been employed. The third map is more advanced, and even closer to the original Unreal atmosphere: the terrain is acceptable, and not very plain. The castle itself looks okay, and as I mentioned, it will remind you of Nali Castle - due to similar spiral staircases and the monastery, for example - but with a better interpretation of the whole thing, so expect rooms with more personality. However, part of the layout still feels mediocre in the logical department. It’s hard to think that to enter a shrine inside a structure you have to find hidden buttons and run throughout small corridors (small enough that Krall and Skaarj aren’t able to pass through them). Doesn’t make much sense if you ask me.
Surprisingly, texturing has its share of problems too. While they’re all well-chosen and fit nicely with the context of the maps, there are technical issues. Karkuth Monastery suffers the most: the textures on the mountains are applied with a weird angle, some floors have overscaled tiles and in a certain room there seems to be a misplacement, probably due to an accidental move in the editor. Some of the doors look weird too (the custom ones, to be precise – the rest comes from the old Unreal levels), like the ones of the huts that are moving squares... and the used textures don’t help either. On the other hand, the lighting is very great, aiming once again for the Unreal style. Good mix of colours and the light actors are generally sourced. However, some of the shadow effects leave a lot to be desired and the light saturation seems to be too high at times. Regarding the sky box, the sky itself is one of the most impressive that I ever seen. Except when you look outside throughout one of the windows in the monastery, as having the skybox right in front of your face (you’ll see a plain square-shaped land touching walls of stars) is rather ugly. Using terrain brushes instead would have been a better choice.
No problems here with the sounds effect; complete silence is never heard, and the dynamic ambient actors do their job flawlessly. Music-wise, the tracks used are UTemple, SETI, Unreal Beta’s Suspense and Eversmoke, and they all fit in the environments where they are used. Never before I thought that Eversmoke could work well in a map that isn’t Bluff, but Return The Heart successfully manages to break the taboo. Its action songsection is heard for a few times, but the last battle could have really benefitted from Wargate’s one. One technical thing I have to report, is that the pack comes with its own Supsense.umx file; those who have downloaded the Suspense track from Skaarj Tower: Fall of Seethe (which is not the Unreal Beta track) will be forced to overwrite it, unless you make workarounds such as renaming the umx files. Ending.umx from Unreal Tournament makes its appearance too when you finish the last mission but you’ll probably touch the exit teleporter before anything else happens!
About the story, Return The Heart starts with a good premise. Many years after the events of the original Unreal, humans wanted to know more about the Nali culture, sending archaeologists and scientists on Na Pali to do the job. Two of them, after discovering and exploring a place related to Chizra and Vandora, don’t return anymore, and you, as the security leader of the Science division, are now going to search for your lost friends and for another thing: a gem with powers to defeat the enemies of Na Pali, called the Heart of Chizra. The author gives this introduction throughout the readme, where commentaries and inspirations are written too (just watch out at not reading the hints!). According to Doublez-Down you can play the maps standalone but it’s not a good idea as you’ll have issues about “what’s happening” and the equipment (you do get a Translator at the beginning of all of the three maps though).
How is the development of the storyline in the levels then? It’s somewhat confusing at first because in the first level you’re blocked inside a temple and then at the end you come out of it and enter another one. You will say “wait, what I really did now?”. In the Divine Annex, your objective is to find the two scientists, while in the next two maps you have to get the gem and take it somewhere else. The search for the two dead guys doesn’t have much importance in the story, to the point of not caring at all or forgetting the matter even when you see their carcasses – making the Divine Annex some sort of filler level than anything else. The hunt of the gem instead is the focus of Return The Heart. Almost all of the translator messages will unnecessarily bombard you of knowledge about its power, the curse casted by the Na Pali gods upon the temples and hints from the Nali about what to do with the Heart itself, that you’ll discover in the nicely conclusive ending. As you’ll know by taking a look at the readme, shooting certain stuff in the temples may anger the gods due to the curse. The already mentioned quakes caused by Vandora is one of the consequences, and you can cause it by shooting certain vases too, but aside these I haven’t encountered anything else, and no lethal thunderstrikes from the sky has ever occurred...
For a pack having a theme about exploring ancient structures and such, with humans sending their agents on an alien planet without thinking twice, you’d expect using more of your time for searching treasures... but not here. You’ll be always fighting, more than anything else. And with “always”, I mean “at every possible occasion” – the Skaarj practically conquered anything here. Unfortunately, gameplay and the technical execution have been in the way for my enjoyment of the map pack. Intelligent ambushes are practically set in positions where you can’t expect at all, mostly when you’re forced to re-visit areas after you’ve unlocked something which lets you proceed. You’ll encounter many races aside Skaarj, such as Slith, Krall, Gasbags and Tentacles. None of them will give you problems as the Skaarj themselves. These guys are generally found in positions that give them a high advantage; escape routes are troublesome to use, so expect to fall in elevator shafts a lot (some of the elevators move at incredibly fast speed too). But the things that give you frustration are the levers attached to the walls. Every time I encountered one, I wanted it to be a simple button. The problems with the levers themselves is that if you rush into them, you’ll get stuck by the mover until it returns to the original position; basically, you have to touch their edge and it will be all right... but it’s hard to keep the concentration when doing so, so expect to get stuck a lot. The worst news is that it can happen frequently when you are fighting a Skaarj. Getting stuck by the lever means a quick game over unless you’re just lucky. And you have to use those levers to open the doors if you want to escape, not to mention that the doors close after a few seconds; you have to deal with this matter in every map of the pack. Another thing you have to watch out are torches over ledges where you can walk on. Do it and it’s instant death... and it may happen in a certain Skaarj chase.
The trick to win your battles here is not giving a single chance to the foes as soon as you see them. The monsters will generally appear in front of you, and you want to avoid all the possible attacks, because the health items (that appear mostly in the form of Nali Fruit) and protective accessories are sparse and scarce, especially on Unreal difficulty which is a big step from Hard and Medium. It’s recommended to save the game a lot, because with continuous ambushes and awkward escape routes you can die unexpectedly. Luckily, you get a lot support by the Flak Cannon, the Eightball, and Razorjack, but they won’t save your life always. You have to be conservative, as heavier equipment are absolutely needed against the Warlord (found in Map 1) and waves of Skaarj that don’t want to end. There’s surely a good work about the difficulty filtering, but in certain points there are just some sudden exaggerations, or just badly set up battles. An example of the first problem happens in the Pit of Chizra, after the crushing movers. You’ll enter a dark area, you’ll go in the middle of it and bam. Three Skaarj Scouts surround you, punishing you heavily if you fight back. Retreating to the crushing movers is a bad idea and there wasn’t any chamber next to the with the ambush. It was only after a few retries that I realized I was supposed to jump on various fallen stones and making it into the pool to escape. It’s not a bad concept in any way, the problem is that it comes suddenly and you can’t quickly catch the solution; not everybody is a game genius. About the badly configured battles... well, there are some. Single rooms where a definite amount of Skaarj Scouts continuously appear, one after one, from the same hole and in the same way, doesn’t strike me as a fun-to-play sequence, but rather totally repetitive. This brings me with an issue about certain spawnpoints. It doesn’t make sense when enemies pop up from nowhere without explanation (the last boss is a victim too), or from a purely unexpected position. So, be sure to have always the Flak Cannon in your hands to avoid that anything may go wrong in the next second.
At the end of the day, Return The Heart will simply pit you toward a legion of aliens. Yes, any Unreal game is always like this, killing enemies and finding levers to unlock a door. Although the formula is taken too heavily here: the high amount of enemies to be fought doesn’t give variations of the mood, and the levers are against you too (it’s a stupid statement, yeah, but there’s no end to their nightmare). On the other hand, the traps that you’ll have to pass along the way are entertaining (the one with the opening floor was tricky); Doublez-Down should have thrown more ideas rather than the overused search for a hidden button camouflaged as a brick or pressing a set of levers in the right order. As monsters go, the Titan and Behemoths are welcome additions, but the last boss - an Unreal creature that will be never a threat if its properties aren’t heavily increased - is anti-climactic.
I haven’t noticed any geometry bugs. The map pack comes with a Deathmatch map named Relinquished, but it won't be rated here.
It feels like I have been very negative when commenting Return The Heart; I understand that the author is a bit new to Single Player mapping, but the pack is by no means bad. Doublez-Down aimed at creating environments that recall the Unreal atmosphere – and he did it, successfully. But now that he has to compete with Chicoverde’s Shamu Quest maps, he has to push his skills way further, by possibly avoiding the whole “area-after-area” architecture style and creating overall more unique levels. The gameplay also needs more work.
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