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Map Title: Vacillations of a Victorian Vagrant
Vacillations of a Victorian Vagrant, codenamed VVV, was one of the entries for the 8th Anniversary Speedmapping Contest of UnrealSP.org; it attained the second place with 7.33 as a final score. Its author is none other than Hellscrag, the founder of UnrealSP.org himself, who made various multiplayer maps (like DOM-Tempoclasm), the packs Tashara’s Cove and The Landing and two levels for Déjà Vu 2. He also led the ambitious Battle For Na Pali project which unfortunately will not see the light of day. So VVV is his newest, finished custom product since Triskaden Station of Déjà Vu 2; akin to The Last Fortress, it has been re-released as a final version.
The project was unveiled as the , which initially shrouded the map's nature in mystery. For the map, Hellscrag employs a Victorian industrial theme, something unseen in Unreal save for one exception. Practically, the design of the map is reminiscent old British cities in the Victorian era, of which the author has extensive knowledge; you’re on Earth! The author already attempted the same kind of environment in his DOM-Tempoclasm, but he wasn’t too happy about the results. This time, he wanted to do the theme justice by taking advantage of Unreal’s own sinister atmosphere. Hellscrag, your wish finally came true!
The storyline of VVV is pretty simple: you take control of a homeless person who has taken shelter in a disused tenement in a Victorian warehouse district. The problem is that you are completely alone. No one else is present in the other apartments and in the tavern, no boats in the horizon of the ocean, only strange sounds coming from the nearby, locked factory. Your objective is to find a way into the factory and discover what’s going on inside. To not turn the character into another one clone of Prisoner 849 from the original Unreal, the author decided to give him a personality in the form of random thoughts that can be read as Translator messages – which doesn’t really make sense, but it works, so it’s all okay. The funny thing about the messages is that the words are seemingly spoken with a strong accent, giving uniqueness to the character. So, without a gun in your hands, you’re walking in the streets with no one in sight, a fact that changes when you trigger a foghorn that draws unwanted attention to you. After picking up a Dispersion Pistol, you’re ready to defend yourself on your way throughout the abandoned, dark town.
So, an old industrial place with an air of abandonment, alien invaders and a character who expresses himself via thoughts. All of this makes you think of something else... like Illhaven? Yeah! This is what I thought when playing VVV. Since the release of the praised mappack, the community hoped that mappers would once again explore that unique type of environment and atmosphere. And well, here it is, even though it wasn’t even Hellscrag’s intention. VVV actually manages to look better and more realistic than Illhaven. The author has done a great job in recreating Victorian architecture with the Unreal engine, and even while I don't know much about the Victorian era, the map manages to convince me. Good choices have been made when designing the various apartments, the dock with its foghorn, the sewers, the unique-looking lamps, the doors and, most of all, the layout. I was impressed about how the various locations are interconnected while maintaining an enjoyable game flow. As you proceed through the level, you unlock more shortcuts and escape routes that you can exploit to confuse enemies chasing you (or yourself). Fortunately, for you, the scale of the map is smaller, which is logical since you are in a man-made environment; you can clearly see how the enemies have some disadvantages here. Anyway, when judging VVV during the contest, I had a little problem when rating the architecture; you know, due to the rules, it had to be made within six weeks. What I’ve noticed is the emptiness of many areas, mostly the indoor ones. Aside from various crates, destructible boxes or collectibles, they're cubic in shape or simply lifeless. This results in a slight absence of personality in some sections. The tavern is a fitting example since it looks identical to the two apartments you explore. Only in that moment was I confused on where I had to go, until I looked through a window and recognized the tavern as such because there was a counter inside. By the way, the windows strangely cannot be broken, but even if they could, your jumping height wouldn’t suffice to cross them.
Going back to the to the whole emptiness matter, I don’t know the reason behind it. It’s either: A – not enough time; B – the author designed the place to look completely abandoned; C – the Skaarj just moved stuff away for their own reasons. Whatever it is, personally I think the map has way too many empty spots; the author could have done a little more work for the final version now that he had no deadlines. I’m not saying it looks bad – it’s just a little disappointing in that aspect. Regarding the rest, it’s all okay. The best looking areas are the first alleyway you set foot in and the whole mechanical structure inside the cathedral-like factory, which uses an interesting set of movers. Another thing I liked was looking at the locked gates that lead to the unseen parts of the town: they give a rather chilling atmosphere. Lastly, there’s the dock which overall looks nice; the bad news is that you can’t bathe in the sea because it hurts you, even if you simply set a foot in. One day Hellscrag should explain why he enjoys employing killing water in his maps so much.
Still speaking about the sea, I have to put it blunt: the horizon doesn’t look nice. Basically, right beyond the bounds of the water “pool”, there’s complete blackness, as if the sea is dropping into a void. Unfortunately no legal workarounds are possible to do with the engine for having a better-looking ocean horizon, but a better lighting choice could have fixed the problem a bit (complete darkness would have been a good idea). The lighting of VVV, anyway, it’s one of the strongest points of the map, and its greatest atmosphere loader. As I already mentioned, the design of the lamps and the torches is unique and completely fits with the theme; all the light actors are sourced and the shadow effects are extremely well-done. There’s a few pitch-black areas that may annoy those who don’t like playing in the darkness, especially since in VVV you don’t get a Flashlight; instead, you have a good quantity of Flares, that do the job if you know how to use them – just be careful to not get hurt by their explosions when they run out of power. One thing I have to note is that some areas, specifically the gray apartments, seems to lack any lighting whatsoever, without any shadow effects to speak of. Overall, the work on the lighting is the best thing regarding the map build.
I’d say the same thing about textures... well, almost. Let’s get something out of the way: anything about the alignments and the whole technical side, that’s all flawless. Now, the choices about texture packages, that somehow confuses me slightly, even if it’s not a big deal. The problem lies in the NaliC.utx pack, which as the name say... it’s about Nali, not Earth. Its textures are intelligently used, but there are still places where they feel out of our world; fortunately, they don’t seem to hurt the theme at all. Another thing which doesn’t strike me as good is using the most common wall texture of the UTCrypt package for the floor of the alleyways. Overall, it’s all remarkable work; honestly, I feel like not being correct of what I’m saying when commenting about some of the design choices, because the author may have planned all of them intentionally with the objective of creating the Victorian feel in Unreal. So I don’t want to push myself further and I sum it all up: a great job and the atmosphere is top-notch chilling.
The gameplay of VVV is surprisingly very enjoyable. It employs the classic style, but with an emphasis on clever ambushes and with the player exploiting shortcuts and small-sized environments to confuse the opposition. The battles are on the hardcore side thanks to the fact that enemies do a good job at chasing you, and most of the time they're just metres away. You have to be constantly careful and pay attention to the soundscape. The map doesn’t make any use of music, and there couldn’t have been a better option. Nothing bad can be said about the sound effects; sometimes there’s too much silence but that will be the best moment for you to check if a door is opening, revealing a hostile pawn who’s searching for you. Lastly, the sound of the foghorn is just awesome. Too bad you can only use it once.
Dispersion Pistol users will be very happy with the gameplay. The weaponry you’ll get along the way will be limited, and the main enemies of the level (Skaarj Scouts/Warriors/Assassins/Lords) mostly come in numbers, especially in Unreal difficulty, not to mention that they do it all through ambushes, sometimes even unexpected like the first battle where you don’t have much room to escape. At the beginning you’ll have some problems dealing with the Skaarj if you’re not skilled enough with the Dispersion Pistol, but it will get easier later on when you pick up the Automag and the DP Power Ups (it requires a bit of exploration to find all four of them). There’s a Minigun too but as usual, it becomes dead weight when you have the more useful Automag, plus you won’t find many Clips. The difficulty will almost hit rock bottom at the end of the game, when you get the GES Bio Rifle and the Razorjack. Even if in the end you’ll be put against an infinite capacity of Skaarj Assassins, they won't match up to the power of the slime-shooting weapon in close quarter combat; the Razorjack makes short work of everything, and there’s still too much ammo of it present in the level. You’ll be easily oversupplied if you decide to use the Dispersion Pistol for most of the battles. Regarding the amount of health items, it all depends on how are you able to avoid the enemy attacks. Personally, I think it’s about right, possibly more than necessary. Actually, the final version of VVV contains a new item: booze. It’s a “human” replacement of the Health Packs (that, coincidently, are only dropped by some Skaarj). The mesh looks very cool, and it only replenishes 12 points of health as opposed to 20 given by the normal health packs. This is balanced by their high quantity found throughout the level, but they’re harder to see due to their dark texture.
Your enemies will be mostly Skaarj of the warrior caste. You’ll start facing Warriors, and then Lords when you arrive in the last area of the map. You’ll also fight strategically placed groups of Pupae and Slith, that will manage to be tough due to the dark lighting. The biggest news is that VVV is one of the two known custom maps (the other being UMS Solaris) that employ a team of Bloblets to fight, the most unused creature of Unreal. Their fans can rejoice again. While sometimes you can find enemies simply waiting for you, the most commonly used formula is that you’ll start battles after you complete certain objectives (like using a lever or surpassing a certain door). The most confusing moment is in the ending area where you have to guess what to do with the Skaarj machine; you won’t get any help from real messages, aside your thought which is about “shutting down the thing”. It’s hard to understand what’s going on, especially when you’re put face to face with duos of Skaarj Assassins that appear infinitely until all the four control levers are pressed – levers that are easy to localize, except one which, in the contest of how the machine works, seems to be out of place (inside something that I would consider to be an optional area). Having to confess something, in my first playthrough I went like Rambo and tried to kill every spawning Skaarj Assassin with all the blades I got. Do not repeat my error.
Technically, the map plays well and a good rig may be required, as the factory is a bit demanding (you’ll get slowdowns and the movers in it won’t work as intended). For the environments being in such low scale, the AI has little to no problem to navigate through it. I have to note two things though: the first is that some Skaarj, once you just try to escape, will quickly run to their starting positions, killing the whole “cat & mouse game”; yes, you’ll be the cat for a while. The second note is regarding the doors: almost all of them will be opened to your side. What happens? Once you bump on them, they’ll immediately close. You have to memorize how they work, otherwise you’ll be screwed by the enemies. The doors will get in your way more than you think; I’ve experienced being permanently stuck by one of those: I was pushed to a wall and since I was just near the mover, I wasn’t able to close it. You may want to focus solely on these doorways when you’re approaching them during a chase sequence. Luckily, even the enemies become crazy when trying to use them, making them very vulnerable. The bug of the final door not opening has been fixed (or at least, it never happened to me).
The last bosses are in the form of a certain customized Unreal enemy – simply different skins and properties, but they do the job. Difficulty-wise, they’re not too bad. They use powered-up Dispersion Pistol projectiles, and this is one of those rare times where you can feel how powerful is an orange bolt thrown at you, but on the good side, their lack of spread damage will give you an easier time. They’re pretty much weaker than the original version overall, and they don’t move around so much, making them easy targets for your Razorjack and even for the Bio Rifle (the big one gets stuck frequently). Luring them outside the factory is recommended... not just to make the fight a little more interesting, but because they look rather cool when they fly over the buildings.
Build-wise, it’s not on the same level of Triskaden Station or any of his works for Battle For Na Pali that we’ve seen in the screenshots. VVV doesn’t strive to break any records, but it is also devoid of any weakness. Unfortunately, the map is short, but that is balanced out by good replay value due to the difficulty filtering which changes most of the enemy patterns. The Victorian atmosphere is simply great and the “cat & mouse” gameplay concept can be extremely fun. You won’t be disappointed.
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