|06-03-2009, 05:12 PM||#1|
[SE Sp/Co-op] Portals
Author(s) : Cyber, Metal Maniac, and zZerO
Game : Serious Sam : The Second Encounter
Type : Single Player and Cooperative
Speaking from experience, collaborative mapping projects are difficult. I remember spending hours discussing various nuances of a project I started with a couple of friends and having to constantly retool my work to prevent the entire project from becoming hopelessly convoluted. And if one member of the group is significantly better, worse, or just more headstrong than the other members when it comes to all things mapping, the project suffers as a result. At worst, collaborative projects can have painfully obvious seams between various sections of the map and the end result will be worse than what the strongest mapper could have accomplished on his own. Fortunately, Portals is a collaborative project that overcomes these hurdles and stands as a great example of how teamwork can produce something greater than any individual team member could do alone.
In Portals, Sam finds a secret in Teotihuacan that leads him to an ancient magical castle. To escape, Sam will need to collect 3 crystal skulls, each hidden in a radically different civilization. Each time you collect a skull, you return to the hub world to place it on a pedestal. I’ve never seen this type of level design attempted in a Serious Sam game, but the hub world is a great mechanic to draw all three maps together. The story is actually pretty good (for a Serious Sam map, after all), and is advanced at a reasonable pace by well-placed Netricsa messages. The messages not only let you know what’s going on, but also give you plenty of tactical and historical information, which gives the project some real depth. While their grammar is a tad on the godawful side, they are easily understandable so I can’t complain too much. Cooperative play is available and the project is fairly well suited for it, so bring some friends along.
Aside from the hub world, the project contains three completely different maps, each made by a different mapper: The Dungeon, The Canyon, and The Fortress. Due to the nature of this project I’m going to review each one separately.
In the first map, the crystal skull is mounted on top of a headless kamikaze. You end up chasing this annoying little guy through a dark crypt, a cathedral, and a small castle until you finally catch up with him in the final courtyard. Separating him from his crystal head with a well-placed shotgun blast is very satisfying indeed after chasing him for so long. He really is a great carrot-on-a-stick to give players a sense of purpose and keep them interested in what’s going on in the level. Unfortunately, the Dungeon is very short (probably no more than 20 minutes long) and very easy (I doubt you will die at all, even on Serious mode).
Visually, the map is decent. Most rooms are a tad on the blocky side (especially the crypts and the place where you fight the toad-spawning werebulls), but a few of them are really impressive (specifically the cathedral and final courtyard). Some things look a tad unnatural, like the massive staircase in the screenshot or the giant torch in the middle of the werebull room, but nothing is too over the top. Textures are generally used well to compliment the architecture, although the wood texture tiles a bit too much in a few places. The visuals in the final battle, however, are incredible. Rain and well-placed lightning bolts heighten the mood of the battle, and after everything is dead a shower of multi-color particle effects covers the arena. These effects really make the final battle feel epic even though there aren’t that many enemies to kill.
That brings me to the combat, and to put it bluntly, it’s disappointing. I realize this isn’t entirely the mapper’s fault, since he was assigned only a handful of weapons for his part of the project, and it’s hard to make exciting battles with only the chainsaw and shotgun (and flamethrower at the end). But regardless, the map hardly ever puts more than 5 enemies on screen at once (with the exception of a toad rush or two), and the enemy waves never feel that threatening. Up until the final battle the combat probably won’t engage you much and even that battle is only mildly entertaining. I did however like the werebull that spawned a stream of toads out of its head; it was a unique and clever combination of enemies.
The map is short, but it does offer a good number of clever secrets to find, so I’d suggest going out of your way to look for them. The only real puzzle in the map is finding a way to escape from the final courtyard, which is clever but Netricsa spells it out clearly for you so it can hardly be considered a puzzle. The map uses the default Gothic soundtrack, which works well enough, and switches to the Summoner battle music for the final battle, which goes a long way towards making it more epic.
Overall, while The Dungeon has a solid design and decent visuals it is probably the most forgettable map in Portals because it is incredibly short and easy.
The second map lets you grab the crystal skull in the very first room, but escaping from the strange civilization will be a bit more challenging. On the whole this map is also slightly easier than the main campaign, so you might want to crack the difficulty up a notch. It will probably take you about 30-35 minutes to finish.
As soon as you step foot out of the first building, you’ll be struck by just how spectacular this map looks. Imagine a mist filled canyon at sunset, with temples and platforms built directly into the canyon walls as far as the eye can see. I did my best to capture just how great everything looks in the screenshots, but they simply don’t do it justice; you have to experience this for yourself.
The architecture makes use of the Aztec texture set, but structures like pagodas and archways make the civilization seem a bit more Chinese. The overall effect is unique and excellent. Unfortunately, these effects take a toll on your hardware; your framerate is going to suffer significantly, even with a decent computer. And while the map may seem epic on a larger scale, if you look closely it suffers from a number of problems. The mapper uses dozens of houses that are little more than rectangles with an abrupt and ugly black texture where the door should be. Moreover, the walkways and platforms are all very similar, so the environments and textures get a tad stale after a little while. Overall though, these concerns are minor and the map looks generally looks great.
Combat here is definitely a step up from The Dungeon, in part because the fights are balanced around a larger weapon selection. Unfortunately, the vast majority of the map relies on spawning small and very manageable rushes of identical enemies (Gnaars, Kamikazees, Reptilians, Harpies, etc.), and always gives you plenty of room to maneuver, so combat here still falls short of being frantic like something you might experience in the Single Player game. This is a shame because there are a whole lot of interesting ideas here. One fight requires you to navigate a small maze by jumping up to the ceiling at times, all the while fending off minions on both the floor and ceiling. In another battle, enemies are hurled onto your platform from the depths of the canyon itself. Not knowing where enemies will come from or land definitely adds some tension to the fight, but it also gives you a chance to snipe them off before they become a threat. The final battle is excellent and pulls way ahead of the rest of the map, tossing a huge number of enemies at you and ending with a truly difficult boss fight.
This map also includes some secrets, but none of them really stand out as being spectacular. Still, some are fairly creative so I’d encourage you to look around. The map makes use of a default Aztec track and switches to the Summoner battle music during the final battle. Both tracks are used well and perfectly compliment the level.
Overall, while the map’s combat can sometimes get tedious and some aspects of the environment are repetitive, The Canyon is visually stunning, extremely creative, and has the ability to throw some truly excellent fights your way (especially at the end).
The third and final map in Portals is obviously meant to be the epic capstone of the whole project. It is also the longest map of the three, clocking in at about 40 minutes. Sam is teleported to a strange industrial civilization and has to locate the crystal skull, deactivate the massive shield around the fortress itself, and defend it while the exit portal charges up. While this map does put a large number of enemies on screen at once, it really is no more difficult than the other two because you get more health and ammo pickups than you can possibly use (I’m talking an ammo pack and first aid kit between every wave). I’d play this map on Serious mode as well, no matter how good or bad you are at the game.
Visually, this map is interesting. The industrial architecture is unique and creative, but there just isn’t all that much of it in the map and what is there tends to be fairly blocky. The nature of these buildings really calls for a custom texture set (metal, concrete, etc.), but the mapper tries to make the default Gothic texture set work instead. As you can see in the third screenshot, in many places the texturing just looks silly and unnatural. No one would build a power plant or water tower out of ornamental stone. But aside from the sparse buildings, you’ll spend the vast majority of your time running through an extremely flat canyon. The mapper uses a red stone texture on every ground surface in the map, which doesn’t look that great and gets tedious very quickly. A bit more work on the terrain would have done wonders for this map. Finally, as far as I can tell the map uses ambient lighting, or at least way too many light sources. There are no shadows at all anywhere (even though the sun is setting), which really takes away from the realism and makes things a lot less interesting.
Combat here is a step above the other two maps in Portals. You’ll fight plenty of large attack waves in wide open environments, and many of the attack waves are pretty clever (not quite at the same level as Pompey or Kristo, but clever nonetheless). It’s a shame that an overabundance of ammo pickups lets you use your most powerful weapons whenever you want, which takes away from the experience and keeps you from appreciating the quality of many of the fights. My favorite feature was how many of the enemy waves spawned from large contraptions that literally dug themselves out of the terrain, complete with an explosion of debris. This is most definitely a more interesting way of spawning enemies that having them pop out of thin air. I do wish there were more enemies before the final battle; in several cases you have to run too far down the dull canyon to spawn anything at all. The final battle (where you have to defend the fortress) is a lot of fun, throwing a large number and variety of enemies at you while the exit portal charges up. It would have been better if you were just about to be overrun when the portal finished charging, but hey, nothing’s perfect. At the end the fortress’ “defense system” activates, which looks great and is a really clever way to end the fight.
There are a few secrets here as well, but nothing too creative or interesting. I can understand if you don’t feel like looking for them; running around the huge canyon can get pretty dull. The sound used is a Babylonian track, which in my opinion doesn’t fit the industrial architecture particularly well. Those tracks bring to mind soft colors and hanging gardens, which is pretty much the opposite of what’s in the Fortress. I would have suggested something different, but it’s not that big of a deal. I also wish the music had switched to boss music during the final battle to heighten the mood.
Overall, even though the Fortress suffers from some visual problems and is far too easy, it does offer some solid combat and serves as an effective climax for the mappack.
After collecting all three crystal skulls, you’ll be treated to a final battle in a massive underground cavern. I don’t want to spoil the final fight, but the mapper gives players an extremely creative take on a familiar concept, and the result is sure to make you smile. Afterwards, you’ll fight a brief final boss. As far as I can tell, the boss is impossible without cheating (hiding under the portal overhang prevents her from attacking you at all), which seems like a huge oversight. Even if this trick is intended, it really is poor level design.
Portals is a collaborative project that just works; all three maps give players a healthy smattering of creative ideas, fun battles, and solid visuals. Moreover, no map is so radically different than the others in terms of style or technical ability that it feels out of place, and a well-constructed storyline effectively ties all three together. I’d certainly recommend this project, especially for cooperative play, if you have a couple hours free.
Overall Score : 81/100 Good
Last edited by Scorpion777; 06-03-2009 at 06:47 PM.
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