- Title: Zora's Episode 2
- Author: Zora
- Platform: Unreal
- Category: Small Campaign
- Review Score: 45%
Zora tends to populate these maps only with the direct elements of gameplay, and all other considerations get left outFor those who have been keeping up with current events, I’ve recently embarked on a reviewing spree that will span the four episodic map packs released by Zora. These packs have been hailed among players for their difficulty curve. Yet, because these maps have been long believed to more COOP oriented in tone as opposed to singleplayer (erroneously), UnrealSP.Org has procrastinated for years with giving Zora’s work the ole critical eye. But thanks to the wonders of seasonal boredom and a self-righteous belief that I can take on any brain teaser and defeat it in mortal combat, I have plunged myself into Zora’s world of tricks, traps, and infinitely spawning Skaarj Troopers (and in regards to Episode 2, catapults).
To catch up, Episode 1 fared with mixed results, but was ultimately plagued by the lead anchor of its fourth level; the nefarious mine cart ride (for the full rundown, check out my review of Episode 1). The five maps presented all had interesting concepts, even if they didn’t always work as well from one level to the other. And to add to that, each level was so fundamentally contrary in theme and their central approach to gameplay that one has to marvel at the grab bag feel of the pack. This is the first major difference with Episode 2, which exhibits far more restraint than its predecessor. There is a better sense of connectivity this time between two of the three levels (well, there four altogether if you want to be a Technical Teddy). Although keep in mind that I used the word better, since, as with the first Episode, you still don’t know why you’re actually in any of these maps beyond the “for the hell of it” yarn. But yes, I cannot claim here as I did with Episode 1 that no attempt at a story has been made, for Episode 2 includes more traditional use of Translator messages (well, two of the maps do) and this time they aren’t simply here to give the player breaking-the-fourth-wall-style hints. To be honest though, the narrative is still pretty weak. You essentially read some messages left by dead Nali in the The Citadel level, and they speak about standard Nali plight concerning the Skaarj when they aren't hinting suggestively about a puzzle you need to solve. What I also noticed this time around is that there is a better attempt to implement more rational puzzle sequences, and they feel a little more legitimate…although, again, this occurs more in two of the three maps.
Speaking of the first map, this may as well be where I get into it.
I will omit the introduction level from the meat of the pack on the grounds that you don’t actually do anything, and it basically facilitates the obligatory “Welcome To” role that normally gets assigned to a cutscene or an info dump with starting inventory. In this case, you begin in a very familiar site…well, familiar if you’ve ever been on an Unreal server waiting for the custom content to load. That’s right, the good old Entry.unr comes into play, and not much has been changed. You leave the cell and enter a featureless room, where a button-activated door ushers you to an exit.
The first true level of Episode 2 is The Adventure Pool, and if you ask me this level seems like it has more in common with the variety seen in Episode 1. A reject perhaps? Anyway, the level is actually quite short itself for that matter and boasts a surprisingly brutal encounter with some Slith. Yes that’s right. Slith. There’s no real theme to Adventure Pool, as opposed to the two subsequent levels, and suffice it to say this is where the pack is aesthetically at its weakest. You begin in a boxy environment with skylights and immediately engage two Krall with your trusty dispersion pistol. Easy peasy you might say. What comes next is a little rougher. You are presented with two intertwining waterpark slides in a large room that’s flooded at its lowest point. If the hotshot in you compels you to dive right in or ride the slides down to the pool, you’ll find yourself swimming with biterfish, Slith, and just above the water…razor flies. As any good Unrealite knows, on land the Slith ranks as one of the lower threats…but in water, every single one of them is like Michael Phelps on a bad dose of PCP. Unfortunately for me, I’m a complete idiot, and my initial plunge dunked me right in the middle of the rape party with me using my puny dispersion pistol to fight off the horde, and I managed to swim into a little vortex tunnel (which chutes you up an earlier, safer part of the map) before I got chewed up too bad…oh say, with nine health to spare.
Luckily the map is heavy on health and inventory. And guns, if you take the opportunity to see them (I did not notice myself until I plugged all the Slith the down and dirty way, but the corners of the pool sport weapons for the taking). If you play it right, you can deal with this scenario a number of ways. Cheapskates can even potshot from the top of the room before diving in, but believe me…this approach is not as ingenious as it sounds, as DP blasts are slow, and from a distance it’s next to impossible to score one hit on rapidly moving Slith for every fifty shots you send down. It could take all day. But if you like pain emo kid, you can try my strategy; dive in with your DP, wing as many green hides as you can and dive into that vortex. Hopefully one of them will follow you in, where you can beach the bastards on dry land and take them down easier than you did the Krall (well that’s not fair, Slith actually fare better than Krall toe-to-toe, if you can believe it). I managed to get almost all of them this way, leaving me with a mono y mono with the last Phelps Slith. But I generally don’t recommend this strategy because chances are that you aren’t crazy like I am…and if you’re smart, you probably found the guns first. There are also pillars rising up from the water topped with power-ups and other important items (including SCUBA), and to get these you can either brace the slippery slides and try to coax your way through the air in death-defying leaps, or you can scramble for the jump boots situated in the water, vortex back to the top, and activate them for a injury-proof landing.
Versatility. That’s the other thing Episode 2 has over its predecessor. In the first pack, your chances of success usually relied on dumb luck or sheer accidental clairvoyance. Here, you can approach every obstacle a variety of ways. To reach the exit of the first map you’ll likely have to dare the slide in some way (it wouldn’t be a Zora map unless a player was zipping through a map at break neck speed at some point), but I’m convinced that it could be accomplished more than one way. My own solution was perhaps a little crude in its genius (I slid down till I was close and jumped off the track like a spider monkey). But this multifaceted approach lends to the following maps too, and once you leave The Adventure Pool behind, Episode 2 sheds the last sinews of pointless location for something a little closer to the roots of what traditional USP maps shoot for; thematic level progression! Now, it’s still a rather coarse exercise in Episode 2, don’t get me wrong. But the next map has a presence that certainly feels more like Unreal to me. Thus, we come to The Citadel.
Another thing that stands out about Episode 2 is the combat. I chastised the first pack for largely stuffing monsters into locations without scripting them beyond wherever they were placed, although there was the occasional patrol. Citadel makes a little better use of its bestiary, with snipers and Krall lackeys on the prowl above fortress walls. as well as spawning Skaarj Gunners that quickly go into SWAT mode (busting open doors to find you). Fish and water enemies still get the shaft in regards to placement, although to Zora’s credit these Episodes have, for as much as I’ve seen thus far, made frequent use of aquatic hazards, whereas most USP mappers (myself included) tend to overlook the potential of water battles in lieu of theme, opting for predominate helpings of land battles…and if there is any other pack made by an author that insists on using biterfish as often as Zora then I can’t think of it. I’ve never actually taken the time to kill whole schools of biterfish like I’ve done often in these two episodes. But I’m forgetting the map! The Citadel is the star of the pack, as well as its longest endeavor (the rest are admittedly short). You begin on a conveyor that rapidly wheels you to a cauldron of lava, and after you barrel roll yourself off the mechanism into a graveyard, you’ll see enemies following suit behind you, each one going into the dip one after the other. I think this goes on forever, although I didn’t wait around to check. It’s humorous and odd, but otherwise the map is a more or less straightforward series of Bluffs, made in the sprawling style of…well, Bluff.
There are two puzzles in the level that enable the player to move forward. One is fairly simple, although the mechanism for its solution doesn’t make a lick of sense (but by now, if you’ve played through Episodes 1 to this map, you’ll probably be expecting that). The other is a fairly intricate combination lock that requires a cipher, and to bypass this one you’ll have to collect clues from two settlements…one of which being a sacked Nali village that has its own brainteaser…and to top it off you’ll have to figure it out under pressure, since a garrison of ambushing Skaarj Gunners will constantly fall out of hammerspace in effort to stop you. I can see this puzzle making most players stare at there screen with that vapid expression of a person that has just walked in on their grandparents doing the nasty dance. But in all honestly, if you’ve ever been confronted with a cryptogram before, or if you’ve had a hand at playing countless puzzle-heavy games over the years (including those blasted escape-from-the-room flash games) you may not have too much trouble with the actual solution itself. What’s awkward about it is that, even with the cipher, and even with the diagram provided to use it…the real stumper is the manual combination locks themselves, which consist of two dials in four rooms. You are supposed to use the hints provided to ascertain four digits. However, what is not mentioned is that you have to use one dial to run the declassified digit, and the other to run the order. Furthermore, you are not told which side gets what info. This seems to be a recurring style of Zora’s that might polarize players, since typically speaking, a reasonable puzzle needs to provide enough know how without explaining the whole system, but fair enough that the player is never put in a position where the solution is impossible to figure out without consulting a walkthrough. But I think there’s enough room here for experimentation that a clever player will fill in the blanks themselves if they’ve seen enough of these sort of conundrums before. And I have. The hardest part of this puzzle was, for me, dealing with the doors to each room. You see, as you’re running from chamber to chamber, thumbing away at each lock or consulting the diagram, that stream of Gunners I was talking about will run amok. For all Zora’s talents, proper door use is not among them. I am reminded of those cone booths in Skaarj Roulette. Many of the doors in Citadel work on a swing hinge, and they have auto close times whilst being configured in such a way that approaching them from the inside risks a player bump, thus slamming them shut again. This reminds me of some blatantly ill-conceived instances in Zephon, where badly tuned door mechanics were often a matter of life or death. It isn’t so bad in Zora’s map thanks to the affordable inventory. But still, imagine there’s a door between you and a pissed off Skaarj Gunner. You start to load your Eightball and get ready to drop a payload of bouncing death on your opponent…and as you release the trigger the door inexplicably closes, ricocheting the explosives back towards you. That’ll ruin anyone’s day, even with two layers of shields. This problem creeps up again with the many Nali huts visitable in the level, only then the danger factor is not the same.
I’ll leave the Citadel map by saying it’s really the main attraction of Episode 2, with the first map and the last (which I’ll cover next) being rather brief in comparison. Besides all I mentioned, there are boat rides to enjoy, a finale with a blimp that you better be quick on your feet to catch, and numerous inventory caches to uncover using multiple uses of Jump Boots. There is also a catapult that can be used to jet yourself across the map, although it’s a shortcut and not a mandatory attraction. The way it’s supposed to work is that you wind it up and cut the “rope” with gunfire to send you flying. In my experience it takes a certain kind of finesse to use right, and I actually gibbed myself once for standing off center. So be careful.
The last level is Release of Heaven, and while there’s more to it then The Adventure Pool it’s still a relatively brief map. After tethering your blimp beside a floating structure in the sky, you embark on a demolition mission…or at least, that’s your only foreseeable purpose there, since the entire map seems to be strategically built for self-destruction, with numerous corridors networking around computer terminals that are set to compromise a large crystal powered generator on the roof. This is another brilliant example of why the Skaarj Trooper is, above and beyond, Unreal’s most dangerous enemy class. Zora has already made prolific use of these guys in the previous Episode, and I’ve already mentioned the Gunner onslaught in Citadel. Here, it seems that you’re faced with the challenge (since every Zora map has a central one) of dealing with all the Skaarj Troopers in the universe. Most notably, a respawning horde of Stinger-wielding Infantry facilitate Episode 2’s final combat sequence. Prior to that, you’ll have to deal with an enclave of other Skaarj guards that include just about every variety of Trooper there is, including bruisers carrying Flak Cannons (there exists no greater combat challenge for even seasoned Unreal players than an uncertain confrontation with a Flak Trooper). The finale is the most engaging scenario thus far in the Zora levels, and can be particularly frantic due to the labyrinthine system of hallways between console rooms and the rate at which the Skaarj Infantry spawn in groups (they also are configured very well to aggressively chase you through rooms, and if they spot you on a balcony a whole group will make their way to an elevator elsewhere in the map and ambush you on your floor).
SummaryVisually, the pack is better than its predecessor in some ways, but still perhaps a hair below Unreal standards. While the expansive second map rivals something like Bluff in diameter, it lacks a sense of polish and falls short on layout (every locale visited is low on space to explore). Take for instance the mountain range encompassing The Citadel; the textures chosen are not the best and the way the exterior is lit hardly does them any favors. What you see is a kind of Crayola-styled croc teeth, where the rocky slopes look like a jigsaw puzzle of lit and shaded triangles for the terrain angles. Lighting is fairly basic throughout for that matter. Sound is adequate, but that’s all…and there aren’t any custom tracks to sweeten the pot as in the first pack. A casual allotment of Unreal songs are used, and the selections used come down to a matter of taste depending on how well implemented they are. When it comes to theme, only the second map really has a definable style. The third level uses the Decayed Ship theme, but only to a bare bones degree. Really, the environment seen in the floating base is very basic, with some rooms simply being boxes with round doorways. Featureless is a word that comes to mind. There are also some instances of awkward texture alignment, or lack thereof. No set piece is going to turn heads, but hey…as long as it works, right? If there’s a chief criticism to be made it’s that Zora tends to populate these maps only with the direct elements of gameplay, and all other considerations get left out. What this means, though, is that castles will have a single atrium where puzzles need to be solved and Skaarj bases will consist of a concourse for the player to do their business. For example, let’s take Release of Heaven. You have to blow up the crystal on the roof, but you don’t actually know what the base is for. You don’t see the Skaarj doing anything but minding consoles when they aren’t standing in ambush booths on the roof, and there really is no foreseeable source for the spawning Skaarj to come from, as there is in, let’s say, ISV-Kran. What is the generator for? Why am I going through all that trouble to summon a automated blimp to get there, and why do I need to blow it up? Why did I start in a prison and who would build a building as asinine as The Adventure Pool? Episode 2 never answers these questions. But you do face one revelation by the climax; after destroying the final obstacle, the player’s only option is (as logical as it sounds) to take a swan dive down the chasm left from the dismantled power source and fall through the atmosphere. After a loading screen, you discover that you’re playing Lost from Episode 1. Yes, that is correct. Episode 2 is actually a precursor to Episode 1, meaning that these Episodes are actually prequels to each other. Perhaps there’s more to learn in Episodes 3, and by Episode 4 maybe I'll know what the heck is going on. Or not From a technical standpoint, Episode 2 is largely vindicated from the previous pack. The general functionality of all the major puzzles and the significantly more intelligent use of enemies makes up for minor instances of clunkiness, where some doors may not operate very well and some set pieces to not interact with the player so seamlessly. While the overall experience is very brief compared to the longer engagement that was Episode 1, Zora’s Episode 2 is a finer product overall, even if it still lacks in many areas outside of the puzzles and situations pit against you (such as atmosphere and story). But if Episode 2 is any indication, the more recent Zora’s work gets the better.
|BuildThe combined value representing the technical quality of the level's construction.||50%||CastThe combined value representing the imagination and reasoning behind the level's conceptualization and design.||40%|
|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.||5||Story ConstructionBacking story & progression via translator, subplots, and script of voice acting where applicable. Logical choice of opposition.||1|
|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.||2|
|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.||5||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.||6||Gameplay BalanceBalance of weapons and items to creatures, including difficulty settings. Most importantly, fun factor.||6|
Final Verdict: Average