Bastion of Darkness
Author(s) : Leo
Game : Serious Sam : The Second Encounter
Type : Single Player/Cooperative
This map pack has a bit of history behind it, starting as a mod that was distributed illegally as a stand-alone game based on the Serious Sam : The First Encounter engine. It was then later made into an expansion pack for Serious Sam : The Second Encounter, before finally being repacked into a map pack containing 3 large maps and 1 outro map. As the map pack is in Russian, a language which I do not understand, I am going to completely preclude the plot, Netricsa messages and dialogue from my evaluation. The same principle will apply to the readme file (if any) given the history of this mod-turned-mappack.
Level 1 – The Damned Tower
Right off the bat, you are dropped into an unskippable cutscene featuring dialogue between Sam and Beheaded Ben in Russian. Russian gamers here may be able to gain something from reading the dialogue between them, but to everyone else, this unskippable bit of plot is 2-3 minutes of dead space where their engagement with the gameplay is stalled. This is the not the only cutscene with this unskippable property, but it is the most notable one. It has the unfortunate consequence of breaking the GoToMarker cheat. So already, this map is off to a bad start. However, first impressions can be deceptive as the map quickly steps up its game after the initial cutscene and delivers a fairly challenging and entertaining experience. Seriously though, I really hate unskippable cut-scenes.
The combat in this level is pretty meaty, throwing large amounts of enemies in fairly deadly combinations at you and putting you in situations where evasion is pretty difficult, at least for the first half anyway. Enemy variety seems to peter out somewhat after the first half of the level, going from a varied combo of enemies to waves that feature only one type of enemy followed by another wave featuring another type. I cannot really say that the experience is too badly hurt by this, but I cannot say that it helps either. Either way, this level has around 1300 enemies to shoot at, and while it could be argued that it is a few hundred too many, it should give you at least 90 minutes of entertainment.
The level design is fairly good too, offering plenty of secrets that have visual cues ranging from subtle to blindingly obvious. It does not disappoint on the level sprawl department either, offering wide spaces and big rooms to fight in with optional items to collect and optional fights to trigger. There are a couple of gimmicks in the level that keep things fresh, ones that I have not seen repeated in other fan-made levels. One has to wonder, though, if the abundance of Serious Sam crates is a direct reference to the second Roman Ribaric interview on Old Man Murray.
Owing to the size of some of the locations, and because extra detail may get in the way of player movement, a bit of geometric detail has been sacrificed. A couple of visual glitches have been spotted and there are more than a few rooms that were mostly just plain boxes to fight enemies in. While this may be seen as a detriment, it is a fair trade off, since the level still looks good in spite of this. The author did a fairly good job of recreating the medieval look for the level while adding a couple of unique twists in, like the mausoleum room and a sewer room. However, some of the choices of room lighting color is fairly questionable.
What is odious, however, are the unnecessary sweeping shots of various areas. They do not add anything to the experience, and they take control as well as immersion away from the player for longer than necessary, as those sweeping shots of the next areas linger on for way too long. Some of them are even unskippable, which is really really bad form.
In the sound department, the author breaks the mold by incorporating more than a few songs into the level for the peaceful and the tense moments. They are taken from the core campaign of Serious Sam : The First Encounter. While the peaceful music is fairly fitting for the locations they play on, the transitions to the fight music, and even other pieces of peaceful music are pretty jarring. The result is that you have a set of background music tracks that while fitting in their own right, do not gel all that well together.
Overall this level is good, and is a promising teaser for the rest of what this map-pack has to offer. It can be played in co-operative mode as it contains markers for players to drop in on the action. So far, I would be ready to recommend this map-pack for single player and network play. It seems to be well-designed for co-operative mode.
Score : 80.9% Good
Level 2 – The Nightmare Tower
The level starts off with a cutscene where Sam falls for a trap, as usual, and has landed himself in a prison cell in a castle complex filled with enemies. He is stripped of his armor, weapons and ammunition, and left with just his Knife and Revolver. The task, as I would gather, is to escape the dungeon. Which shouldn’t be too hard, given that you still have a gun, a decision that is no doubt made by the brilliant minds of the Gnaar prison wardens. Yep, having Gnaars as prison wardens isn’t exactly the smartest thing to do.
The gameplay in this level is radically different from that of the previous level. While there are plenty of fights, the map places a bigger emphasis in navigating hazards. The idea and execution of these traps are pretty solid for the most part, however in other cases, these traps make successful navigation impossible without trial and error. For example, the lava pits in this level are an unforgiving hazard that guarantees death, not instantly, but rapidly, and with no way to climb out. In one of the sections of the map, the floor would give way without warning to the lava pool below, heralding the entrance of a Giant Lava Golem Boss. The problem here is that, without knowing beforehand where this hole would suddenly appear, players are almost always guaranteed to fall into their fiery doom as there are no indicators telegraphing to the player where the floor would crumble away. The fights with the Kleers in the cramped confines of the cave is not that much better either, as players only have Shotguns at that point . This results in having to leap across a lava pool and baiting the Kleers as the only way to reliably survive that fight. There are also a couple of Zumb’uls that spawn in close-quarters and in cramped spaces, giving players no time to dodge out of the way or avoid taking damage without knowing where and when they will spawn. These take away from the experience, but not enough to hurt the level too much.
Besides the aforementioned minor bugbears of map design, the gameplay is pretty solid, delivering a varied experience with more than a few secrets to find. The gun from Unreal lying around that Sam cannot pick up or use is a pretty funny touch. I would talk about the jumping and platforming puzzles that are featured in this level, but that would be a bit spoiler-ish. There is about the same amount of level sprawl as the previous one, allowing players to explore prison cells, get temporarily lost in a cave, and spawn back to where they were previously via teleport, allowing them to open a previously-locked door. The combat is still pretty solid, especially the massive fight at the end. There is plenty of enemy variety to keep the combat interesting.
Visually, this level is significantly better than the previous one. There is a lot more detail in the architecture, and the choice of lighting made a lot more sense than in the previous one. The locales in this level are also a lot more varied too. There are far less unnecessary dead spaces in the rooms, only opting to do away with the geometric clutter in areas where big fights take place. This is pretty smart and commendable. I only spotted one visual glitch in my play-through of this level, which is pretty unfortunate. The problem with unskippable cut-scenes still plague this level. The author dedicated an entire level just for the outro cut-scene and it is unskippable. This outro level bugged out visually at the end as the end-of-map Netricsa interface pops up, superimposed under the cutscene bars and the credit scroll that was playing then.
The audio is just like the audio from the previous level, fitting in its own way, but not jelling together too well. However, since the transitions occur far less frequently, this is much less noticeable. The author managed to add in an extra electronica track for the outro, and a few new sound effects which is a nice touch.
Overall, this level is also pretty solid. It is pretty different to the first level, and while some of the implementation is not as good as it should have been, the experience overall is still very good. It would be pretty hard for me to say off-hand if I like this level or the previous level better. It would be a pretty close call, and you opinion may go either way. What is odd is that there is no network support for this level, even though the previous level has it. Either way, my recommendation for this map-pack remains favourable.
Score : 81.1% Good
Secret Level – The Mysterious Tower
This is the secret level of this map pack that is accessible through finding a secret level exit in one of the two other levels available in this pack. However, I was not able to find any such exit in my playthrough, so I don’t have any idea how to access them normally. Fortunately, the author made the level selectable from the custom level menu, so anyone can experience all three levels of this pack.
Right off the bat, you are thrown into an arena. In there, you start off with a fairly difficult fight with practically every enemy type available, but with full ammunition and every weapon, except the Sniper and Cannon. Quite an explosive way to start a level. Some may be put off by how this level starts, but I would say that it is very fair, and actually very nicely done. I say this because it is a secret level, and players who found it normally would most likely be better equipped than I was when I started this level from the menu. The level itself is pretty short, consisting of the arena, an underground mausoleum and three narrow towers. While only the central tower can be climbed up to the top, players can jump to the rooftops of the other two towers for extra supplies, and with some exploring and platforming skills, find a very rewarding secret on each of them. You will, in fact, revisit the arena once again at the end for the final boss fight with the Summoner. A very satisfying end to a short level. These two fights will test your skills as a Serious Sam player. My only gripe with the gameplay in this level is that it ends as soon as the boss dies.
Visually, there is not much to be said about the map, it is pretty nicely done in general. I only spotted a few visual glitches in my playthrough, and I was not able to reproduce them after I found them. The only big issue I noticed with the visuals is the ugly cave where you pick up the Cannon. Trying to cram a lot of organic geometric detail in such a small area never yields good results, sometimes simpler geometry works better.
Unfortunately, the selection of music tracks used in this map is the weakest in this map pack. You have, for the peaceful music, a one-note orchestral sting track used to generate tension in the core campaign, and some hardstyle track for the fight music. Both of these tracks are weak choices in my opinion, as, with the exception of the peaceful music in the mausoleum area, they do not fit in very well with the overall mood and environmental ambience of this map. The only track that fits in is the boss music for the final fight with the Summoner.
Funnily enough, when the level transitions into the outro, the initial camera can be skipped, allowing players to take control in the outro level. However, once the player triggers the rest of the cutscene, they will be railroaded along the rest of it, but played from their perspective as opposed to the intended camera perspective. I would count this as a minor gameplay bug.
Overall, I would say that this is a short and sweet level that provides players with a couple of challenging fights. On one hand, it is small enough that it does not really warrant it being its own level, on the other hand, it probably would not even be noticed if it was an area within one of the levels. Because of its small size, and the relatively poor choice of music, it is overall the weakest level of the bunch, though not by much. I would highly recommend a playthrough of this level for players seeking a challenge. It is unfortunate that this level does not have support for cooperative play.
Score : 76.7% Good
Overall it is a good map-pack that should give you a couple of hours of entertainment. The fights are fun and challenging, and the visuals are pretty good. There are a couple of issues here and there, but they do not detract too much from the overall experience. One might even chalk some of the issues up to the conversion process. The map-pack also tried a few new things and, for the most part, they elevate the quality of the map-pack well above the average. If you are looking for a challenging set of levels to spend an afternoon on, I would highly recommend that you pick it up and play through it once, and then play through the first level again with a friend in the co-operative mode.
Overall Score : 79.6% Good
Download : [Link]