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Map Title: Skaarj Tower - Shadow and Fire
Skaarj Tower - Shadow and Fire is a difficult map pack to review for two reasons: firstly, that the scope and length of the two maps contained within it is unrivalled by anything yet released (with the possible exception of Shamu Quest), and secondly for the fact that these maps, designed for coop but retrofitted for single player, are positively arcade in flavour. By this I mean that ammo, armour and health is in vast supply, with far more provided than a single player could possibly want, but that creatures are also very numerous.
The pack consists of two maps: Skaarj Tower and Skaarj Castle, with Skaarj Castle being the author's first map. With that in mind, there is no doubt that to have created a pack with such scope and grand concept is a phenomenal accomplishment. But is it any good?
On exploring both maps it quickly becomes apparent that a great deal of thought has gone into the conceptual design. These maps are grand, and probably represent the most integrated locations since Bluff Eversmoking. In both maps, the final target, be it the Skaarj Tower or the Skaarj Castle, is visible from various points, but it's getting to it that will be difficult. With both maps you're in it for the long haul, finding switches in various places to open doors in various others. The connectivity is normally good, although both maps often entail lengthy backtracking sessions (often without many new enemies) in order to progress. This doesn't hold true throughout, but usually predominates.
These failings aside, it's the Conceptual Grandness that really shines with this map pack. The immensity of the locations goes some way to compensate for the rather functional and sometimes repetitive architecture of the pack. Parts of it are good, such as the exterior designs of many of the buildings in Skaarj Tower, whilst other areas (particularly the interiors) tend to be boxy and unadorned, with many windows and doorways untrimmed. The natural architecture is generally very good whilst not being high-poly, although one part of Skaarj Castle where the player really "hits the roof of the world" fails to convince.
On entering the second map it's immediately apparent that one is dealing with an older piece of work, not just in architecture, but also in lighting. Much of the outdoor area in Skaarj Castle is zonelit, and generously, too. Whilst this undoubtedly keeps the performance good and the synthetic architecture breaks it up, the lighting is generally "average". It's better in the first map, Skaarj Tower, in which Drew uses high-radius lights of various shades to light the caves, with some relatively richly coloured torches adding warmth.
Texturing is good in Skaarj Tower, with a broad range of NaliC, SkyCity and Ancient textures making the buildings interesting to look at, and uniform but effective texture choice for the natural environment. However, the rock textures are often unaligned. Difficult as it would definitely be to align the textures in this map, it still sometimes looks sloppy. Skaarj Castle, meanwhile, is a little less finessed from a texturing standpoint, with noticeably repetitive texturing on staircases and trim textures occasionally used for walls.
Sound is implemented with a varying degree of success. Generally speaking, the sounds are too loud and of too wide a radius, but they definitely add to the atmosphere. It was a little odd that Skaarj Castle seemed to be devoid of wind sound effects, meaning that large parts of it were silent except for the music. There were a few seemingly random sounds in Skaarj Castle, and in at one point in Skaarj Tower there was a waterfall sound so loud that it completely drowned out the music - although that was quite cool in a way! Speaking of music, the pack uses it well, pressing on through a broad range of different Unreal and Return to Na Pali tracks to set different moods as the game proceeds. Some tracks played for too long, however: Watcher.umx outstayed its welcome, and Return.umx was a strange choice to begin with.
With all the scale and openness seen in the design, it's remarkable that the framerate is as good as it manages to be. Drew has managed this by keeping the terrain low-poly. However, there are a few key locations where the framerate really does tank - players had better beware of meeting excessive resistance at these times. On a brighter note, the pack seems almost free of BSP errors, although a few seams and a couple of very occasional HOMs can be detected.
It's unusual for me to get this far into a review without mentioning the story. Well, as previously stated, Skaarj Tower - Shadow and Fire is principally an arcade pack. Drew has tried to bolster the story by writing a pretty interesting background story involving the treachery of two Skaarj generals, but it doesn't see much implementation beyond the readme. Translator messages are the standard "line of bread crumbs" to help the player navigate the maps (some disguised in dead humans' logs, some odd messages from no-one in particular, and others just straightforward tips), and there are no scripted sequences to speak of (apart from a couple of nifty falling stalactites in Skaarj Tower). The story is further undermined by the sporadic inclusion of Mercenaries amid a primarily Skaarj task force without any real explanation as to why. No, story is not really what Skaarj Tower - Shadow and Fire is about.
Indeed, Skaarj Tower - Shadow and Fire is all about the gameplay. Well, it comes thick and fast - the player is stocked up with weapons and ammo in the first room, and by the end of the second has fought a StoneTitan and several Skaarj. It continues much in this vein throughout; huge creatures like Titans are rare, but I don't think I've ever seen such gratuitous use of SkaarjSnipers! These creatures cluster on every crag and parapet just waiting to decapitate the player. To be honest, the pack was so generous with health, armour and rifle ammo that I really didn't mind - but I'm glad I chose to play it on Hard difficulty instead of Unreal skill. I think if I'd chosen the latter, it would have been a problem.
Several other rare creature classes get a look in. There are far more Snipers than anything else, but it was also a pleasant surprise to meet IceSkaarj as the vanguard of the Warrior classes, and a small number of Mantas. In fact, apart from Assassins and Lords, the other Warrior classes are pretty rare. There are also plenty of SkaarjGunners, with a few SkaarjInfantry and a few SkaarjOfficers. These Skaarj are consistently armed with their default weapons, which probably works best. I also enjoyed one sequence that utilised Behemoths with an entertaining height advantage.
Combat comes sufficiently thick and fast that the seasoned Unrealer will find that, with choice virtually unlimited by industrial quantities of ammo, all of the Unreal weapons, even the Minigun, come into their own. Drew, however, clearly favours the Eighball Gun, Flak Cannon and, in particular, the Rifle, as these are the weapons for which the most juice is provided. It was actually quite refreshing to have such freedom to use the Rifle with its handy scope, as in many packs its ammo supply is strictly limited. In many ways, Skaarj Tower - Shadow and Fire's gameplay is the complete opposite of what one expects from a traditional Unreal map... but there's no doubt that this unusual approach is fun. I must have left upwards of twenty Super Health Packs and PowerShields completely untouched over the course of the pack, but the individual combats still found the time to be sporadically challenging.
No review of Skaarj Tower - Shadow and Fire would be complete, however, without a mention of the infamous tunnels sequence. Help for navigating this extensive and uniform maze may since have been provided, but it's a fact that most first-time players (myself included) will either not know or not want to use this guidance. I'd go so far as to say that playing the pack through Unreal Tournament and Oldskool Amp'd is pretty essential, as the permanent dead bodies and decals of your enemies make much-needed landmarks where no others are provided. There's no mistaking that this maze section is bad game design - but if you explore it as systematically as you can, returning to the central pool if you lose your bearings, it's manageable.
Finally, the lack of a boss in the first map was disappointing (apparently there is one, but its position is randomised and it's possible not to encounter it). The second map has a boss of sorts, but it's more of a small coda to the combat and gesture to the story as anything else. There was a nice credits chamber and hall of fame accessible at the end, but suffice it to say that I was none to pleased at having to backtrack all the way through the tunnels to get to it!
I don't want to come down too hard on Skaarj Tower - Shadow and Fire, because it's a very entertaining ride. If Drew can only hone his architectural skills, I'm sure he can go far. For future maps, however, Drew might want to consider creating a more SP-centric creature and item balance and being less florid with the provision of ammo, health and armour. Whilst Skaarj Tower - Shadow and Fire is an entertaining and impressively conceptualised work, the menace is somewhat taken out of your foes by having full ammo, 200 health and 500 armour points about your person.
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