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Review: The Skyfalls

Project Information

  • Title: The Skyfalls
  • Author: Alex "Gorthaur" Jones
  • Platform: Unreal Tournament
  • Category: Single Map
  • Review Score: 34%

Main Review

This map isn't everything that it could have been

Somebody once said to me: "Reviews can be brutal. So sorry Hellscrag, but this level is very mediocre". So whilst I regret it, as there are some nice ideas at work here, I'm afraid I'm going to have to turn to Gorthaur and say much the same thing: that this map, due to a number of glaring problems, just isn't everything that it could have been.

The premise... well, there isn't really a premise. There's no story in the readme, and not even a translator in the map, let alone any actual translator messages. All we get, shortly after starting the map, is a line of text informing us that we have returned to the underground of Na Pali Haven after killing Outpost 3J base commander Ssja'Rath. This isn't, unfortunately, enough to qualify the map for any points for story - there simply isn't one. And with the lack of a translator the map also loses key opportunities to signpost the flow of the game - this I shall return to later.

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The architecture and conceptual design of the map aren't bad. The map is possessed of a decent scale, focused around a large central water cavern designed in a fairly complex way, surrounded by a network of tunnels that borrow ideas from both The Sunspire and Gateway to Na Pali. The designs are semi-interesting but are low-poly, and don't break any particular ground from a design standpoint. Nicer is the view one gets of different elements of Nali architecture when one reaches the mouth of the cave, including a windmill and a watchtower. However, one doesn't get to visit these locations over the course of the map, as it tries to link to a Skyfalls Part 2 that hasn't yet been released.

The architecture would be more proudly shown off if it wasn't shrouded in an all-enveloping blackness, but unfortunately Gorthaur seems to think that "darkness is cool". I'd agree, but too often the way to proceed is entombed in a dark veil, and there's only one flashlight in the map. When the reviewer has to resort to firing into the shadows with a dispersion pistol to figure out how to proceed, you know there's a problem.

The lighting, when present, is dim, but largely sourced. There are a few torches, lanterns (that emit light but don't look particularly lit) and tarydium crystals. However, after playing the map for a while, I felt that MORE of all three types of light were needed - both to liven up the visuals and also highlight the proper way to progress. On the other hand, maybe it's just as well, as many of the textures, while well chosen, were badly misaligned (in particular the water textures, in which there were visible seams, and also clear evidence at one point of coplanar sheets, causing an unsightly flickering effect).

The map wasn't exactly technically sound, either; I noticed several examples of winking-out wall syndrome; one much-needed ammo clip was lodged in the ground and unreachable; and there were problems with one or two of the triggers - this I will cover in more detail later. I also felt that there should have been a current pulling the player through the water towards the waterfall, but it was strangely absent (no movement was visible on the texture, either).

Basic ambient sounds of water and (occasionally) wind were used well, but the map needed something "more". There were problems with the music, too; after an initial combat scene, the map was stuck on the drama section of EverSmoke.umx for an inordinately long time, and given that it was even retriggered at one point, I'm not entirely convinced that it was meant to go on for so long - but it did, and at the end of the day that's what matters in the scoring.

This brings me to gameplay. Well, Gorthaur states in the Readme that the map is challenging. Playing it on Hard skill I would say that it definitely had its moments, but for the most part it was manageable, and there were some nice moments such as the arrival of a few Skaarj via long vertical jumps, or ambushes in the dark by Tentacles. I would have enjoyed it more, however, if so many of these fights hadn't taken place in what were essentially "blind alleys" in progression, or perhaps secret areas, that I only discovered because I was searching so hard for the real route to progress.

One particularly tiresome sequence, involving taking on an amped-up Skaarj Officer carrying a Flak Cannon, whilst all I had was a Stinger, Automag, no armour and unfavourable terrain, had me reloading a number of times before I achieved it without either dying or having the Skaarj falling over the precipice and taking its Flak Cannon with it into the cloudy depths. This spot eventually turned out to be the exit, but at the time I engaged the creature, it was merely another dead end in a long line of dead ends. There's guided non-linearity and there's bad flow: these are two separate and very distinct entities.

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This is symptomatic of the broader problem with the map... unclear flow. Due to the lack of translator messages and all-enveloping darkness, both of which I have already touched upon, most of the times one eventually encounters a new switch to press there is nothing to indicate what it has actually done. This is a problem compounded by the number of closed "doors" in the map's various blind alleys and by the map's non-linear layout. Worst is the final switch, located on an obelisk, that actually calls the Sky Elevator for the exit some distance away, and which due to weaknesses in the map design can actually be accessed at a much earlier stage than is intended. Were it at all clear what this switch actually did, it would be possible to bypass most of the map.

Further compounding the gameplay frustration is the design of the water, which it is only possible to escape from at selected points. Given the amount of combat that takes place in the central cavern, the player is bound to fall in at some point and end up a sitting duck. Furthermore, the water is opaque, putting a spanner in the works when attempting to aim upwards at Gasbags from this "dunked" position as the water insists on repeatedly blocking the view, whilst the Gasbags can still see the player perfectly.

I also mentioned dodgy triggers: there is one switch in particular that doesn't always seem to do what is intended. It's meant to lift an obstinate grate that has been blocking the player's way for some time by this point, but the first couple of times I operated it it failed to do so. It doesn't help that it takes some time to get from the switch to the grate and back again, whilst not being far as the crow flies; I was sufficiently sure (by elimination) of its function that I ended up using fly mode to travel between the switch and the gate until the trigger had operated correctly.

Summary

Disappointing. The Skyfalls represents an interesting design let down severely by a lack of story, poor testing and a failure to consider the map from the perspective of someone who hasn't played it before.
Review Scores
BuildThe combined value representing the technical quality of the level's construction.38% CastThe combined value representing the imagination and reasoning behind the level's conceptualization and design.30%
ArchitectureImagination, realism and detail of structures used in the design of the level.5 Conceptual GrandnessScale, imagination, awe & originality of design and layout, physical foreshadowing of future areas.5
TexturingUse of textures in the level. Technically speaking, alignment and scaling. Choice of textures, and quality of any custom textures used.3 Story ConstructionBacking story & progression via translator, subplots, and script of voice acting where applicable. Logical choice of opposition.0
LightingLighting of the level: does it look cool? Use of light colour and other effects, and sourcing of lighting (no light out of nowhere).4 Story ImplementationProgression of the written story via the events of the level, and performance of voice actors where applicable.0
SoundUse of ambient sounds and event sounds to give the level atmosphere, and the quality of any custom sounds. Appropriate use of music and silence to complement the atmosphere.4 Gameplay AweQuality of scripted sequences, originality and staging of combats. Maps that force the player to "learn by dying" will be penalised.6
Technical ExecutionTechnical soundness of the level, i.e. no visual glitches, no random deaths or other gameplay bugs, and a good framerate.3 Gameplay BalanceBalance of weapons and items to creatures, including difficulty settings. Most importantly, fun factor.4
Final Verdict: Below average
Score: 34%

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