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Review: Xerania's Fall

Project Information

  • Title: Xerania's Fall
  • Author: Simon "EZKeel" West-Bulford
  • Platform: Unreal
  • Category: Single Map
  • Review Score: 56%

Main Review

Xerania's Fall does things that other map packs still haven't emulated

Prequel to Legacy and Invasion, this is a map that really shines. I found it to be quite fun. To sum it up in a sentence: It plays like a seriously compressed version of Legacy in that there is one level but it is divided into a hub, 3 unique sections that can be played in any order and a final section that (obviously) comes last.

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I'll start with the build and elaborate on the story later.

I found the map to have some serious atmosphere. You start the level with the massive Skaarj base destroyed and still smouldering. The rubble is surrounded by vulturous Gasbags looking for bodies to feast on. Then you step through a time portal into the past and find yourself facing the fortress in all its glory. Complete with Brutes on the battlements ready to rain fire down upon you.

You are then given the option to experience what EZKeel obviously intended to be a unique take on the conventional concept of a flyby. The player can take this flyby of the tower and I recommend they do because it also serves as an effective method of sniping those pesky Brutes upon the battlements. Gameplay advantages aside, the flyby totally impressed me. You are flying around a truly menacing piece of architecture and it really gives you an idea of the immense scale of the level that you need to conquer. The tower is quite low poly, but on that flyby the tiny polycount has a grand effect.

After the absolutely awesome flyby you have to enter the tower. That's where the map lost its magic for me. The interior is just as bland as the exterior, but this time it actually counts. The outside worked as low poly, the inside doesn't. While the tower itself is interesting and sort of fun to explore, it looks crap. There is this teleport room which fails to convince badly because the teleports are simply white textures on the dirt. Every time you step on one of the four teleports you are warped to one of the higher floors of the tower. Unfortunately each teleport drops you in what appears to be the exactly same place. It isn't actually the same place, but due to the extremely repetitive interior architecture, you have no idea which floor you are actually on until you peek in the closest door. Actually, two of the floors ARE exactly the same except for the lighting scheme, and even that was pretty similar. The lighting is mainly white light, with the interior of the tower trying to experiment a bit by adding some contrast in the form of no light at all. Lighting in the other sections of the game is slightly better, but plain white light is still the dominant method in this map.

I also started to wonder if I was encountering bugs at this point. There is this great lift in the middle of the tower that really is the best piece of architecture in that section of the map by a mile. Unfortunately I was wondering what its purpose was because it only seemed to take me to the first floor. I assumed it was glitching up, but upon inspection of the readme I discovered that EZKeel intended the lift to be this useless. It makes me wonder why he made the most interesting piece of architecture in this section so damn pointless.

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Texturing seemed fine. Choice of textures worked for the most part, except for in the Aquatic section, which used dirt styled textures in places where the architecture indicated I was in a sewerage pipe sort of thing. In terms of correct texture application, EZKeel has done ok. I didn't notice any misalignments or overscaled textures.

Sound was good in this map. There was heavy use of ambient sounds and the right stock Unreal music tracks were used in the right situations. Xerania's Fall also scores points for originality on the sound front by using custom computer sounds. In his Invasion map pack and his masterpiece, Legacy, EZKeel has always used custom computer voices in place of the stock Unreal ones that we've all heard a million times. EZKeel seems to have something against the stock Unreal computer voices and Xerania's Fall is no exception. The first ambient noise we are treated to is a computer telling us that we need to protect the base for 3 minutes. There is actually a music track playing here but the sounds of the beeping computers and whatnot overpower the music until you step outside. Ambient sound usage is consistent throughout the pack and is used very well.

Technical execution is pretty good. There are some nice interactive elements like a Skaarj execution that were executed flawlessly. There's one thing I’m still in the dark about, though: Why is that lovely computer voice telling me to defend something that isn't under attack? See, at the beginning you are tasked with defending your base while a holographic wall is prepared. Those first three minutes of defence are spent twiddling your thumbs and reading translator messages that are posted around the base. I don't know if this was a bug or not, but it made the level feel a bit unfinished either way and the map loses points here. One more point to draw upon is a jail inside the tower that is filled with Nali and pickups. It takes up a whole floor but I can't for the life of me work out how I'm supposed to get at the goods. I can't open the map in Ued for some reason so for me this is a mystery that will most likely remain unsolved.

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All things considered, the build was good. Not great mind you, but definitely way above passable. The architecture was simple but serviceable (Even the tower interior despite what I said previously). The lighting was mainly white but there were some changes every now and then. The texturing is fine and actually nicely supplements the white lighting when you're inside the tower (They are both quite bland so maybe it was intentional). Sound was excellent. Technical execution was a bit iffy, but I can't really find any proof that anything actually went wrong so I'll have to say that it was good.

Moving on to cast. This is one in which I am finding it hard to finalise my opinion. In terms of Conceptual Grandness, I would rate Xerania's fall around the 75% mark. The tower is made of sex and gives the map an amazing first impression. The game play was conceptually grand at the time for its non-linearity and remains conceptually grand today for being able to do it in a single map. The whole idea of the tower and its many floors was very conceptually grand but failed when it came to implementation.

Story wise, I would actually rate this single map better then Invasion. You have a much more striking sense of purpose in this map then in the whole of Invasion and in this map there is actually a suitable in-game climax (Invasion just had a cutscene). Translator messages were used very effectively and there was voice acting in the final boss fight which I will come to later. Enemy placement was a bit suspect, though: EZKeel made this map so that Mercenaries would be operating next to Skaarj and that is the number one crime that a single player map pack could commit.

The story itself involves Xerania, a Skaarj monstrosity that has been used against Earth in the human / Skaarj war. The player's mission is to go back in time to when Xerania was still developing and eliminate it while it is still weak. This might sound a bit clichéd but EZKeel has managed to pull it off extremely well. The player always has a set goal to reach and the whole mission is all laid out in the translator messages at the beginning of the level as if it were a mission briefing: 1. Protect base while holo-wall is prepared; 2. Go back in time; 3. Infiltrate and secure the base; 4. Destroy the 3 power nodes in any order; 5. Destroy Xerania.

The thing which I like about this story is that it is so much more believable then Invasion's. Invasion is "Xerania's Fall Part 2" but Xerania has already fallen by that time and isn't even mentioned in that pack's story at all.

The story progression is much better. In Invasion your mission is completed quite fast, leaving you wondering why the map pack hasn’t wrapped itself up yet. In Xerania's Fall the map ends when the mission objectives have been fulfilled which gives a much more wholesome ending and doesn't leave on a note of anti-climax.

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Xerania's Fall loses points on its final boss fight, though. Xerania is a strict "Learn by dying" boss and while the build up to the fight is great (Xerania taunts you with some realistic voice acting prior to the fight, which is great albeit with low sound quality) the actual fight inevitably gets repetitive after the saving and loading that is required. The story never actually states what Xerania is and a lot of the tension in this map comes from the feeling that you are getting closer to a powerful, unstoppable and unknown foe. The fear of the unknown is a high point of this pack, so I'm not going to spoil it for you by saying what Xerania is, but I will say that it has a quite questionable texture associated with it that reduces this maps perceived quality.

Gameplay is a bit below average. Xerania doesn't do anything new on the gameplay front and the stuff that is similar isn't done as well as it could have been. There is a Warlord boss fight that comes out of nowhere and is not difficult in any way, although it did make me jump when I walked through a corridor and found myself right next to a Warlord. Scripted sequences were well done. There is a Titan boss fight or two that came out of no where but unlike with the Warlord fight there was actually a build-up to the duel. You weren't expecting Titans, but you were expecting something. That was good, I really appreciated it.

Gameplay balance is one I don't know about. I played on Medium. For some weapons I had an over supply of ammo and for others I was really low. The enemies you fight seemed relatively balanced on that difficulty. But at the same time, it seemed damn EASY! Maybe I should start playing these map packs on hard from now on. Assuming it was just my leet skillz that made it seem easy I can say that gameplay balance is quite good. Otherwise this map is too easy. Gameplay awe is also a grey area. I found the boss fight to be unique. I thought that the subsections were just as awe-worthy as the gameplay in regular Unreal. And the tower had what I call "Accidental gameplay awe". The tower takes z-axis to extremes and makes fights quite interesting if you teleport to the top floor and try to take out the enemies on the floors below you. The fire fights in those situations weren't meant to be played out in this way, but when they are the gameplay actually becomes unique and a refreshing change from the wide open spaces and long narrow corridors of every other pack.

The big thing in this pack is the fun factor, and I would have to say it is above average by a fair amount. The gameplay in the tower is quite fun and the whole time travel thing was a neat effect. The fact that you can use the flyby to take out enemies is definitely a fun addition and brings the score up considerably for gameplay.

In short: This map is fun.

Summary

Xerania's Fall does things that other map packs still haven't emulated and it does them well. Its story is solid and it makes a worthy prequel to Invasion and Legacy. Overall it is a solid map and a great piece of mapping history.
Review Scores
BuildThe combined value representing the technical quality of the level's construction.54% CastThe combined value representing the imagination and reasoning behind the level's conceptualization and design.58%
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.7
TexturingUse of textures in the level. Technically speaking, alignment and scaling. Choice of textures, and quality of any custom textures used.5 Story ConstructionBacking story & progression via translator, subplots, and script of voice acting where applicable. Logical choice of opposition.6
LightingLighting of the level: does it look cool? Use of light colour and other effects, and sourcing of lighting (no light out of nowhere).3 Story ImplementationProgression of the written story via the events of the level, and performance of voice actors where applicable.6
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.7 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.7 Gameplay BalanceBalance of weapons and items to creatures, including difficulty settings. Most importantly, fun factor.4
Final Verdict: Above average
Score: 56%

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