[u1] Custom Map Review: A Friend In Need by Aspide
Posted: 16 Nov 2021, 07:57
A Friend In Need came out of nowhere this recent autumn. Authored by Aspide, who will be better known to this community for his Marathon Resurrection remaster, this short tier campaign conjures elements of some classic examples seen in years past. As stated in the ReadMe, Aspide’s main influence was our own Hellscrag’s Tashara’s Cove, although my experience with it gave me impressions of the works of Waffnuffly as well—specifically packs like Attacked! and single beast levels ala Palace of Chizra and The Last Fortress, where a lone player has to hold ground against a dug in enemy.
There is an interesting backstory to set the mood. You play as Stardust, a former marine of UMS (see Return to Na Pali) left stranded on the Nali planet for an unspecified number of years. If the Readme is skipped, the starting room is provided with entry messages written by Stardust. We learn that Stardust has been waiting in a chamber, preparing for a rescue operation. The target, their friend—a Nali prisoner named Inti—who is being held captive in a stronghold manned by a renegade Krall faction. The early level has various notations that have been left behind by Stardust to pregame a jailbreak of their poor ally. This is an interesting twist on the exposition. Usually we are led by other characters if we are not simply fending for ourselves. Having the story set by our own protagonist is not only an effective way keep us up to date on what is transpiring in a pinch but it also gives us a sense of the person we are embodying. In this case, a careful tactician who has taken the time to mount a field study of the hold they mean to infiltrate.
A hot place, full of treachery...
The story is overall satisfying and well written via log entries. They run long, at times, and if you are running this one under a version of Unreal that can grant larger Translator windows then this may be a good option. The Krall Captain featured in the first part of the map set (and serving as the principle antagonist) is up there as one of the most complicated character studies of this species seen in most community SP levels I can think of. If you take the time to delve into the backstory you will be at the very least intrigued, as Krall are often not represented so gray in Unreal. There is even some nice elements of humor to keep messages engaging. It ain't boring!
My Librarian wife liked this part
As a UMS operative living on the fringe of Na Pali, the player begins the game with the three character appropriate marine weapons from Unreal’s only Mission Pack. Other weapons can be found, as well as powerups (capping at a possible full loadout by the end, depending on how well you treasure seek). Decking the player out at the start with a fully armed UMS loadout certainly grants a strong sense of empowerment, and you’ll need these three weapons to break your way in. Therein leads to the gameplay discussion.
The short pack is extremely pleasing on the combat and problem solving front. You will have a grand ole time testing the walls of the subterranean stronghold, looking for the best course to traipse your way down into the domain, and of course dealing with the full horde of enemies that will eventually be alerted to any of your actions. Enemy placement is often assigned to guard post, sentinel positions. Though, often you will find yourself ram smack against an unplanned ambush. I cited the works of Waffnuffly in the introduction for a reason. If you are like me, you will spend a lot of time clearing houses and areas of any enemies that might be hiding about. Beware of some surprises! Besides stuff flying (literally) at you in the dark, be ready for unplanned close encounters in small attics.
I must say, it was very refreshing relying so much on the RTNP weapons for a change. I found myself leaning on the Grenade Launcher from the very first critter engagement to the last battle. The Rocket Launcher’s deep well of ammunition also afforded a ever present suppression of death if I had to rout a particularly nasty pocket of foes. The CAR was perhaps the most precious resource, thanks to the hitscan damage, and often was spent completely on a single incursion. As said, the other weapons do crop up. I used the Dispersion Pistol and Automag generously, but there was a situation that called for everything. This is impressive in such a short pack that uses so many weapons. I even had myself some Biorifle action in there at some point!
A big reason for this is Aspide’s approach to enemy use. It is, in a word, unconventional. While typical associations occur, such as Krall stationed along with Brutes, it’s the embedded compliment of aberrant species and critters that threw me through a loop. Aspide pairs his Krall forces up with the full array of nasties typically found in Unreal’s wilderness, but here they are placed in unexpected ways. You will have tentacles placed like ceiling turrets. Gasbags patrol the airways like drones. Flies, predators, mantas, spinners, and others are put in spots like guard hounds. It is as if the implication here is that the Krall have domesticated the untamable. While not all these inclusions make sense, like opening a door to a narrow hall and seeing a single bug waiting, it certainly kept the levels padded with shocks. You will rarely not have to fight something.
The wardens are restless...
This leads me to the backtracking, which you will do plenty of. Aspide has provided the levels here with tons of secrets and hidden easter eggs. I uncovered a bunch of them and even then I still missed a couple! These range from minor bonuses, like finding a powerup to the Dispersion Pistol, to major troves such as a weapon’s vault and an alternate level exit! Conceptually Grand, check. You will want to go everywhere. This is most evident in the second map, “Vecchie Ferite,” (Old Wounds) which plays out as one big vault needing to be unlocked. This map culminates with an exceptional battle, I might add.
Where A Friend In Need comes at odds with the UnrealSP schema is centered sorely at the build commendations, though only in cosmetics. While the use of music is prolific for a short campaign and sounds in general are well applied to the level happenings, long term players might feel the design to be on the simpler side. Much of the construction, as you will see in the first room, begins with basic brush cuts and aside from some well formulated set-pieces this fact does not let go for the remainder of the set. It might seem superficial now to pick some things here apart, but keep in mind that this category of short campaigns which A Friend In Need now joins has a legacy of dramatic ideas that have marveled the Unreal masses for years while also failing to stick the landing when it comes to the fundamentals. Among this tenure, I am happy to report that Aspide’s undertaking comes through the eye of the needle rather well! In the end people want something they can play and play again.
Aspide has come out saying that they are still getting the hang of the editor, with much of A Friend In Need being early practice with Unreal. If my opinion means anything, what I have seen here shows fantastic gameplay consideration and attention to craft, and though I can see that some simplicities exist here and there (mainly in terrain, the nefarious hardest to learn part of old BSP), Aspide knows how to construct the boundaries of an effective map. Take for instance the skybox, which uses a UT2KX texture cube to sell the base-in-a-big-volcanic-cavern thing. Simple, but it works. What doesn’t go over as well are awkward texture choices. There are maybe too many instances of horizontal trim being left vertical or vice versa, maybe too many noticeable walls not aligned…a lot here to pick from. For that reason the lowest score will go to Textures, even though the design is otherwise appropriate. I would say that some scaling inconsistencies crop up, but a lot of this comes from how mobile Stardust is otherwise. Some houses and hallways seem cramped, perhaps too cramped for combat, and at least one door mover in particular seemed way too big.
What is interesting here is that though Aspide doesn’t quite hit the visual feat common of short campaigns in this same category, like Illhaven, this one is a hell of a lot more fun to actually play—hence my final score. Yes, I said it. This one is fun, very fun in fact, and more so than a couple of heavy titles I can also name. There are a bunch of well executed technical sequences that are way harder to do then align some textures—so if you’re reading Aspide, you figured out the important things already! You are going to be dangerous to contend with. There’s even a cool finale arrangement with some truly Unreal-esque scripting, and even a credits map. I especially enjoyed the Quake-style difficulty selection. Other Unreal maps have done this before, but perhaps not so accurately!
Another tidbit worth pointing out are some doors-vs-enemy hiccups, which is a common gripe on my part but it is always a big deal. For the most part it is manageable, but let’s dwell in it a little bit shall we? My comment here is that for the amount of doorways that pop up in certain levels it might have been okay to simply have them open once and stay open. These were the only parts of the gameplay that slowed me down and they happened a little too often. I know this is a sore point for some levels over the long history of Unreal SP, and on the forums Aspide admitted some difficulties here (which is fine, considering). It is well known that the Trigger Control function, while godly for all those Human-level enemies, does not always work as well with the lesser brained members of the Unreal enemy roster. But mark me! You want players to fight the enemies, not the door system! The best thing to do in these situations is damn the doors for the sake of gameplay. Especially in circumstances when the level uses elements of the bestiary not quite suitable for mover conjunction.
Add a little violence
It is good and you should play it. Solid gunplay. Gets the right stuff right. One of the more enjoyable short campaigns with an interesting plot line. It might not be the flashiest, but its guts are Unreal.
Technical Execution 7
Conceptual Grandness 8
Story Construction 8
Story Implementation 8
Gameplay Awe 8
Gameplay Balance 7
Total Score: 66%
LINK: https://drive.google.com/file/d/1lnNLUn ... sp=sharing