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Return to Ruins

Mod review

High in the mountains, wooden bridge leads to entrance of some ancient structure. Looking down, we can see the jungle. It is very far away, giving sense of extreme height and therefore, dangerous anventure. But what's the most stunning - angled surfaces! It was believed that the game doesn't support them, and suddenly, they work. This feels like a miracle, like seeing something that's absolutely impossible, and yet, here it is.

Temple-like corridor turns out to be an entrance to decayed mine that supported an ancient underground city. Big cavern around the place is what causes the sense of scale now, with visual accents provided by vegetation and ancient buildings, rails create the feeling of perspective, nearby pillars and big rock do it if we look to the right.

Gameplay has nice choice and replayability. You can shoot the monsters, or run past them, wait until they gather into crowd, then eliminate them all with a well-placed grenade throw. It gives excellent incentive to return for a completely different way to play and search for missed secrets.

We are destined to visit the city's recreational area, marketplace, high streets and continuation of the mines, then get to the arenas through the big temple. All areas are detailed, nicely textured and well-lit. Experience is going to be even more immersive thanks to Powerslave engine forcing level designers to never teleport the player away when falling down or going underwater, making it feel like 100% real 3d world, temple level pushes that further with the staircase you can see from above and below (underwater). Returning to previously visited areas will be required, but they will change to keep the experience fresh. Level progression gives sense of continuity like in Blood's Cryptic Passage: you see part of previous level at the beginning and part of next level at the end.

End of first map demonstrates the most advanced usage of sector over sector trick I've ever seen - there's a corridor under the ceiling, you can not only walk below it and inside it, but also see through windows in it and jump outside. This also looks like a miracle, another moment when impossible is happening.

The temple amazes when it changes its shape, opening more rooms. It has nice architecture, interesting puzzles and layouts that feature returning to previously inaccessible parts of already visited areas. There's also a very imaginative and clever use of sand through the tools available in the engine: quicksand made with teleporter that simulates falling into other place, and room that gets filled with sand made with animated textures and elevator. Due to being a level about puzzles, it has more traditional gameplay style - destroy the enemies first, so they won't distract you from puzzles.

Arenas with boss fights are an intense, spectacular ending of the mod full of exciting unexpected surprises.

At the very beginning, it's possible to fall off the bridge if you go forward to the left or right from it. Thankfully, this flaw can be easily worked around by starting a new game again.

Cave that players see if they look back could use a turn, which would be better than a completely black wall. There's a chance that the elevators which are supposed to raise the Bastets won't work, then it will be possible to jump down and get stuck.

Recreational area with lake and palms is lit, but I couldn't see the source of light. No torches, no lights, no sky-revealing hole in the ceiling.

Mod support allows to unlock all hidden potential of games, and Return to Ruins is one of the most illustrative demonstrations of that. Original Powerslave is a great game with spectacular battles, beautiful animations that give cinematic feel, interesting exploration and puzzles, excellent sensation of real 3d despite being made on 2.5d engine with flat maps for levels. And Return to Ruins is many times better in every aspect. It's... There's no word for that. Greater than great.


Arx - End of Sun

Mod review - 1 agree

You learn a new spell, and then you realize that now you can use it to help a character you couldn't help earlier, reach a place that was previously inaccessible. You know exactly where to go to reach them thanks to landmarks you remember. And it all is your own thoughts, your own memory, not some waypoint in front of you. You are the hero. You are the one who solves the problems.

Level design is memorable. Each location is very interesting to explore, each part of each level has a lot of unique features to make it stand out from other parts, making you remember it.

Exploration is very rewarding. There are plenty of secrets containing valuable items that will aid you in your journey. Walking everywhere and learning the locations will also help completing the quests, as you can see above. And finally, the beauty and variety of the places you visit are the reward, too - you enjoy looking at them and wonder what awaits around the corner.

Often even in expensive commercial games you can see levels which are composed of many very beautiful assets, but actually playing them is not fun, because you just cannot find your way around and have to wander until you stubmle into your destination - they are mazes, not levels. The developers fix that with a quick and dirty hack - give you a minimap with waypoint that constantly tells where to go. And there are puzzles where you receive the answer together with the problem.

These things prevent you from getting immersed in the world and becoming the hero of the game, because hero is the one who makes the decisions, finds the way and solves the puzzles and you just follow the instructions from the onscreen GUI.

And this is why Arx: EoS is a breath of fresh air. Not yet another something between a movie and a game, but pure, 100% game where you do everything yourself. Very engaging and rewarding experience. And very accessible, too - it's completely free and uses IdTech4 - an engine which has the best graphics quality-system requirements balance.


The Closure

Mod review

Some levels have good variety of shapes, sizes, layouts. Others seem to be author's older work, because they are simple and monotonous locations using textures from Doom3 that look ugly because only diffuse was taken, normal and specular were not. Only parts where Doom3 textures look nice are complex doors, yet custom texture would still look better than a ripoff from other game. Later there will be phillipk textures which look out of place in Half-Life 2 mod. Corridors and rooms from some futuristic transport (seems like it's spaceship Enterprise, because that's what the manual in Breen's room says) also look out of place in Borealis.

Sounds and locking doors are used to hint where to go and prevent wandering in search for ways to advance in wrong places. Later powerup that shows solutions to puzzles will be appearing. Considering the length of the mod, it's really good to see that the author values the player's time.

It looks great at some parts: outskirts of City 18, airport and part of the city near it have spectacular views. Snowy city at the north has very detailed cityscapes with complicated layouts, and out of place Doom3 textures are minimal. Last levels where Gordon returns home look nice too. Mines at the beginning and snowy landscapes with buildings around Borealis looked decent - nothing made me stop and enjoy the scenery but overall design is good.

The research labs that remind of Black Mesa and rooms with rockets and engine test hit the right spot, creating a feel of Half-Life series returning to its roots, further reinforced by recoloring wall mounted medkits and chargers into HL1 colors.

Cutscenes are clever and imaginative, making the most out of existing animations, and when there are no animations, ragdolls are put to use. Some of them received a touch that makes them look even more professional - the camera animation starts right where the player is.

The resistance base we visit before City 18 looks weird - it seems identical to the one from Episode 2, even same room where we launched the rocket, but it's not in the forest, it's in some town instead.

Scary sounds of locked doors are a nice touch. I also liked headcrabs that crawl around like Doom3's imps and combine equipment which play animations when the player approaches. And the scene where Freeman looks up and sees several fast headcrabs on the ceiling.

Moving the car around broken bridge and unmoveable broken cars were pretty nice puzzles, though I don't know if they appeared in the mod intentionally or accidentally.

I liked the moment where you fall through floor that breaks under your weight, then after some time return there and see that someone put wooden planks there. It makes you feel that you're not the only sapient being around and everyone else are not AI controlled robots.

Teleporters that leave craters on the ground are awesome, and the effect when Gordon enters one of them looks cool, too.

Combat includes some interesting situations. Car that falls in the cave and obstructs the path gives the player a nice idea of crushing antlions with it. Walking around huge turret through the trenches, roof after highway of map29 which required clever use of cover, carrying the turret around because you have no weapons.

Ending is very rewarding. The radio host provides long awaited bits of plot, but he mentions help that came from Vortigaunts. I didn't hear the explanation of why they attacked Freeman.

Overall, some parts of the mod are great, some decent, others are mediocre filler that makes you want to quickly run through it. If only the same amount of time was spent on making few great levels that fit the game and don't look out of place, implemneting some cool new gameplay mechanics, then it would be an amazing mod that lives up to expectations it creates by its name Half-Life 2: Episode Three.



Mod review

The architecture looks original and creates uneasy feeling of being moved into hostile world that's different from ours.

Gameplay-wise it's about solving environmental puzzles, finding a way to advance. Here are few examples of puzzle implementation.

If at the beginning you attack enemies with crowbar, their gunshots do overly high amount of damage. But when you find a machine gun, the damage suddenly decreases.

Lock which requires a key looks like it's breakable - different model should have been used for it. Then I put barrel that looks like it's explosive but actually doesn't explode near the enemy and wasted some ammo on it.

And then I see doors which are "blocked from the other sides" which prevents them from opening despite the fact that they're physically able to open both sides... Now it becomes clear that not enough thought was put into planning and implementing this. Such puzzle design breaks the immersion and makes everything look artificial.

Second level has some complicated physics puzzle that I didn't understand. Somehow I was supposed to use the thing attached to rope as an elevator but eventually I just managed to jump to the pipe I needed to reach this way. And the crate at the beginning is aggravating because it's very easy to slide off it.

Despite these annoyances with puzzles, this mod is worth checking out for its original architecture and unique otherwordly feel. If you like this feeling and want more of it, unfinished cut maps are included, you can load them by pressing "~" key, typing "map filename" and pressing "Enter". "mine_2" is the most beautiful of them.


Half Life 2: Deep Down (classic)

Mod review

The level design is generally very minimalistic and conditional, with very little details - they're not enough to give you the feel of being in a real place. This makes you quickly run through these levels because there's not much to look at, but this is not possible due to puzzles.

Puzzles are about finding some item to use or some passage which is blended with the surrounding environment. This is annoying: you're forced to spend more time in an area than you'd like to - searching for the solution.

The combat offers very nice variety - from optional entertainment of throwing infinite grenades at infinitely spawning enemies to crushing everyone on your path with the car and throwing Magnusson devices at Striders.

When we finally reach the Combine Advisor, we just destroy it and the mod ends. Would be really nice to see some mod where the Advisor is a new enemy - formidable boss with customly programmed original AI and attacks.


Silent Hill: Alchemilla

Mod review - 1 agree

In short words - very good free game, play it.

Excellent level design - various believable and detailed cityscapes and interiors - hospital, shops, apartments, another dimension. Nostalgic graphics which remind of PS2 games.

There are, however, a few flaws that separate it from the honourable rank of one of the best games ever made.

It seems like the developers made a mistake by not following proper steps of the development process: first you document everything you want to happen in your game, then choose the engine, try to realise all features you documented, if they don't work - try other engines until you find one where you can get all the features to work. Only when everything's working, you make levels.

Instead, the authors decided to start with levels. As a result, they couldn't make inventory, notes and combat systems. When playing I coudn't help but wonder - maybe it would be better to use Amnesia game as a base for this mod since it already has inventory and notes? On the other hand - with Source SDK as a base and 100% custom content there's no purchase necessary to play which allows to reach greater audience, so what would be better isn't an easy question.

So the only thing we have to play with are puzzles. But even here it's not so smooth. The balance is off at times. You can only place cards and jump in the pit if you read certain notes beforehand, which is a very bad design decision. The character and the player must be one and the same, and the result of player's actions must not change depending on what the character knows or not. With aforementioned pit in particular, there's a high chance that player would jump there early, die, decide that jumping there is always a bad idea and gets stuck.

Also it looks like eventually the authors got tired of the game and decided to just stop working on it and release. As a result - there is no ending. No proper culmination, no proper finishing event. Just at one point the screen suddenly fades to black and you see the credits - that's all.

Other flaw is that I didn't find any clues that I must choose one correct clock in the clock puzzle. But the hero thinks at one point "I need to find a working clock", so the only thing the authors should have done is to add ticking to that particular clock and then it would be properly balanced and fun to complete.

I don't remember any more problems - other puzzles seem possible to complete on your own as long as you invest enough effort.


Paranoia 2: Savior

Game review may contain spoilers - 3 disagree

Continuation of Paranoia Half-Life mod which is famous for its very atmospheric and believable level design.

Part two certainly manages to keep up. The aesthetics of Russian underground complex and such original architectural style are present, the atmosphere is done so well - it makes you feel the cold of underground that comes from concrete around you. Lighting makes it better by providing some good colour combinations and beautiful lens flare effects.

The battle system is pretty original and interesting. The enemies are slow and easy to kill, but each hit takes away a lot of health and also makes you drop your weapon. And medkits are very scarce. The animations of enemies are pleasing to watch, the death animations too, which in my opinion looked even better than ragdolls would, so the quality of character animation here is certainly very high.

Closer to the end we'll see cloned soldiers that got out of control. Here's when our armor finally comes in handy. Insta-death from headshot makes shooting very rewarding, and the game forces the player to be calm at all times, because if you start to hold the trigger, you'll shoot often but the spread will be so high - chances of hitting anything will be low.

Rescuing Paulina is a great connection with original mod. Her AI is done very well: she is good at following the player and always stays out of battle.

I also liked the effect of hero's feeling bad, where vision gets blurred and the weapon starts to move around.

I noticed some flaws. If you hold right mouse button, and then press left one, weapon won't shoot. Emergency access card was hidden in decorative pile of papers and looked like one of them, so I only could find it after consulting a video walkthrough.

In the hospital if you look at the windows you'll only see clouds and nothing else. I understand that the engine has limitations, but the authors could make a 3d scene with some buildings and bake it into the skybox...

In the very end we see a city with magnificent architecture that's a lot more enjoyable than underground tunnels and laboratories we spent time in before. It starts to feel that everything up to this point was a prelude to something even greater that's going to start now, but instead, we see credits roll.

So, time to wait for Paranoia 3. Make it, please!



Mod review - 4 disagree

The story makes everything around you disappear, makes you only live in it until it ends, and that's what I believe only the best of the best stories can accomplish. And there's great music.

Variety of locations, quests and plot twists are amazing, and the mod will take about 20 hours, but it almost never feels protracted despite the length.

Characters are well written, and it's entertaining to hear what they have to say. And skins of their heads look great. Amazing what a simple high-resolution picture can do.

It's a great idea to put in two storylines of the character - his personal life (develops in the house), and his professional career (develops in the chapters), and I really look forward to see how these two will eventually intersect.

But why only 5/10?

For every thing that made me love this mod, there was something that made me hate it.

Battles were annoying (maybe that's just me though) due to health depleting too quickly. And when I got the hang of it, the authors started to spawn crowds of enemies!

Bugs play a serious role in spoiling the impression:

One time I rescued a survivor, and when I escorted him to safe zone, everybody acted as if he didn't exist, and he continued to follow me. Immersion breaker.

Each loading is a risk, as the game may crash or freeze so hard that even the Task Manager won't be able to close hl2.exe process. I actually couldn't finish the mod (good thing that the ending can be seen on YouTube) due to stable crash at the Chapter 2's first checkpoint - the game crashed before it could save (apparently any disk-write crashes it at this point, because when I tried to make a screenshot it also crashed). And trying again involved sitting through a 10-minute scene, "skip cutscene" key I found in the keyboard settings didn't work...

To conclude - play it, but not now. Wait for update with better content, stable code, improved gameplay balance. You will benefit from the wait as you won't have to deal with the unripe product.


Rebalance Mod Ultimate

Mod review

In the entrance area of Wellspring Underground, a lot of texture stamps, props and lights of different color are placed, creating very visually intensive space, which instantly makes you see that you're going to play a level which is definitely as good as the ones made by id themselves, and maybe even better.

The place we arrive in a while later, looks simpler in comparison with starting area, which is a very welcome change: it allows us to rest from overwhelming detail, and happily stare at simple corridors.

The game's unique features have been put to good use. Just like in original levels, Megatexture technology provides most realistic graphics ever seen in a game by eliminating texture repetition, and lightmaps of very high resolution are used to show some beautiful shadows.

Most stunning things of this map are its variety, prop placement and texturing. The rooms, corridors and tunnels we're going through are very different from each other, skillfully placed props and texture stamps make them even more interesting to look at. Just walking and looking around is very fun, and it's also rewarded with items, which is a plus, too. There are water leaks, fans and ambient sounds to make the place look alive.

Orange walls which are used quite frequently, greatly aid in creating unique feel and atmosphere.

The battles are fun and challenging. Disabled health regeneration makes you search for ways to kill enemies more effectively.

There are, unfortunately, some issues with it. A lock grinder is required to proceed, and if you arrive without it, you'll get stuck. Some textures are stretched. One room suspiciously reminds of resistance hideout, another is very similar to The Well entrance.

But overall, despite the small flaws, Wellspring Underground is certainly very fun and must be played by everyone who has RAGE. I highly recommend you to download this map and play it, because you are very likely to enjoy it.


G String

Mod review

Under a suspicious name which looks like it was chosen to get some undeserved attention we find very complex Half-Life 2 mod.

The design, the atmosphere, everything is totally new, all textures and models were also replaced. You will visit a lot of various places.

The gameplay contains very challenging environmental puzzles, where we have to carefully explore the place to find a way to advance. They are all solveable, just require some time to think.

The battles were made more challenging due to lack of armor and silent grenades without lights. Some battles were so hard that I had to resort to taking medkits from the console, and entering the console before I die was challenging.

Having all weapons under one button is a strange design decision: that's not convenient (maybe the author is a big fan of mouse wheel?). Also, it would be great to have options to turn off film grain and black bars. And subtitles would help a lot.

The weapon models are new, but the reload animations show the author's limited skills: the weapon goes down, and then back up with full clip. Thankfully, the author came up with some nice ideas which are possible to realise even with her limited skills, so some reload animations are pleasing to look at.

The police/crowd control acts very similar to combine from HL2, but there are also new enemies: funny robots "nanny", which are usually found in the mud for some reason, there are also non-android dangerous robots.

Some encounters with resistance members made me happy: warm colours, pleasing song plays. It's really a great idea to make them this way.

The odd ending leaves too many questions: what was real and what was not?

Overall, this is a big release worth playing, top-notch mod. An adventure in the city that you've never seen before. Maybe you will enjoy this new atmosphere a lot, maybe you'll be unable to understand and feel it, but nevertheless, this is a big event in Half-Life 2 modding history and I recommend to try this mod.

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