Let’s back up a bit. What differs VCTF from CTF is the “V” bit, which stands for VEHICLES – meaning justifying vehicle use for crossing large land masses (and running down players, naturally).
Standard CTF maps work like DM: designed for foot soldiers, so contain tight ledges to run and duck, ramps to leap from, pads to bounce up… so taking an existing CTF map and dropping vehicles in is a bad idea: the tight cramped nature of a DM/CTF map makes it a nightmare for VCTF, especially when terrain doesn’t work well with vehicles. Humvee trying to ascend stairs? Tanks negotiating narrow alleyways? Forget it.
Now large expanses of land containing long tracks across swooping hills all make for a boring trek in CTF but are ideal for VCTF, as they represent areas crossed much quicker on vehicles than on foot…. rather like an Onslaught map. Hence, a good VCTF map is more “Onslaught with flags” than “CTF with vehicles” – taking an ONS map and dropping in flags is a safer bet, and works in many cases (DG-FalloutIsland is an excellent example)
With this in mind, some maps I’ve reviewed are still pretty awful for VCTF. Even before playtesting them, I’ve noticed neglected small touches (finishing the job) is often a good indicator of thing to come, so my first stage is to check the screenshot and description… you know, those things that give me an incentive to play this map. And these are somewhat telling.
The Map Screenshot
Ideally, glimpses of the map from one (or more) angles forms an easy preview: is it a sun-bleached dazzling desert? A desolate dim forest with wet undergrowth? A frosty foggy hill or muggy tropical paradise island? A glum broken urban landscape, sadly reminding of how civilisation once prospered?
So … why leave it blank? Okay, so we can play the map to find out – but come mapvote, everyone’s scratching their heads trying to remember what the map looks like. Should we play the one with the dank Scottish hills? Or the one with the palm trees and buzzing mosquitoes? Or that… black rectangle one with “Preview Unavailable”…? You can guess what the choice will be.
Worse still, some map authors have actually included screenshots completely irrelevant to the map. Yes, they took the time to snap a logo instead. “Let’s play this map!” “Is it any good?” “I dunno, but like their clan tag looks ahhhsum… so the map MUST be, er, like.. ahhhsum? Yeah?”
No. Fuck. Especially when the author has created several maps, all with the same tag as a screenshot. Why, that makes it sooo much easier to identify, right?
And then I encountered a map that had a photograph of a cereal bowl as their screenshot. Yeah, you heard that. A. Bowl. Of. BREAKFAST. Cereal.
What the bitchtitty fuck has that got to do with THIS MAP? Is it set in a bowl? Is the play area a large crater on the moon? Does it have a wide circular expanse with rocky ground underfoot, perfect for those bumpy scorpion rides and angling the tank turret higher?
No. It’s set in a large drab dark-grey room… you can see the relevance. Shitballs.
The Map Description
Even without the screenshot, the description can be enough to get the juices flowing… a good example is KillBillyBarn: the story builds atmosphere, sets the scene for the map, gets the right mood for combat. And if the description is OF THE MAP – even better: I want to know what the map is. I want a reason to play it. Although I’m grateful for being the recipient of your valiant efforts… I’m not really all that interested that it happens to be your first map. Or that it didn’t take you long. Or that you’re still learning UnrealEd.
And putting together letters to form words these days tends to be a job made easier with modern technology known as “Spell-checkers”, designed to ensure letters are arranged in the correct sequence – even detecting imposters and strangers that may otherwise change the meaning of your text.
Badly-spelled grammatically incorrect sentences liberally peppered with “LOLz” and “Awsum!” suggests that you’re either 9 years old or have the mental processing abilities associated with that age. Yes, you belong to a clan… congratulations. Yes, shouts out to them… wonderful. Yes, I acknowledge their combat superiority… hell, do I care? Does this immediately make me want to pick this map to play? Does it dogfucktics. (that’s “no” to those struggling to understand multi-syllabled words).
Okay, let’s stop kicking the amateurs and instead concentrate on a few good examples.
Antropolis (by Oscar Crego) is a great example: two bases separated by a large grassy area which can be covered by foot but using vehicles is a distinct advantage, not only for speed but protection from being run-down. It is possible for foot runners to use the buildings for safety, but incomplete cover still makes for a treacherous journey, despite additional vehicles positioned half-way. Not only is the layout of play area well-designed, the lovely scenery of ruined temples and sunny fields (which aren’t actually flat) is very immersing. Ticks all the right boxes.
Aggressive Alleys & Bahamas Brawl – I’m a fan of Hobi-Wan’s maps; he’s done some great stuff, and Aggressive Alleys finds a sweet spot between being large enough that vehicles matter and yet small enough to manage flagcaps on foot, making use of building runs to avoid (but not completely) vehicle danger. The central barricades mean it’s not a simple race up and down the alley, some dodging is required. Bahamas has a slight change on that theme: it’s larger and much more open-plan, ripe for a lot of aerial action, and has two routes around a large oasis: the bumpy causeway throwing smaller wheels around, or the longer beach trek, flat and long enough to make driving worthwhile but with boulder placements that provide some cover. Whilst it’s perfectly possible to cap on foot, being out in the open so long is dangerous, justifying vehicle usage.
Dystopia & Razku from BlackEagle. Dystopia is one of the longest I’ve seen, consisting of two car parks joined by a concrete carriageway with slip roads and bridges. Like Aggressive Alleys, there are more vehicles to be found along the route, with narrow side roads make it tricky for vehicles. Footwork plainly takes too long, so vehicle usage is strongly encouraged. Razku is a pleasant tropical island with Aztec buildings separated by a long straight narrow beach run against the water, but plenty of side huts and piers hiding possible assault positions off the run. The location of palm trees and varying dune heights nicely defeats camping and sniping, keeping the action interesting.
The Map Design
So then, onto the map design itself.
Let’s reminds ourselves here about VCTF – the V bit stands for Vehicles… and yet some maps aren’t designed with vehicles in mind. I don’t mean the terrain didn’t suit them, I mean the actual vehicle placements seemed pretty odd.
One map had tanks placed well outside the base, around a rock wall and within a cove – quite a hike, requiring another vehicle to transport players there in the first place. Who buys a tank for home protection then keeps it in a garage a mile down from their house? Another map had the Hellbender up on a platform, too high to jump or climb in… entry was gained by ascending a lift then falling down into it, because difficult accessibility to vehicles is a requirement for VCTF maps, right? Has anyone actually considered how it got there in the first place?
Finally, there are those VCTF maps that contain open areas, narrow alleyways, lift shafts, sewer pipes and across rooftops… but not a vehicle to be spotted anywhere.
The Map Implementation
And then we get to the actual effort put into realising the design.
Look, I’m no artist: I’ve rarely touched UnrealEd, I don’t know Photoshop; but that doesn’t mean I can’t look at something and decide it looks bloody awful.
I’m certain the good mappers started out this way once. Put a staircase here, a ramp there, a box over there and a flat ground… and it looks insipid: a ground paved with the same identical marble-effect tile, all pointing in the same direction, leading to rooms plain, featureless and drab, connected by staircases constructed from the same log grain effect on every step. A ramp that’s smooth and perfect, free of overgrown vegetation and completely unblighted with age, because that’s how stone appears when left untouched for years in Amazonian rainforests.
And at some point, mappers have looked critically at their work and decided “that looks TOO perfect to be true… let’s add realistic imperfections”. And then the real work begins.
Cracks and dents appear in floor tiles. Gnarled trees grow an identity. Dips and bumps mar perfect green fields, along with weeds and overgrowth. Stone pillars develop pits and scarring. Steps stain, and wear smooth from years of feet walking the same central path. Ramps lack the the odd brick, or exhibit grafitti during forgotten moments. Buildings lie broken, scattered in disarray around areas of disrepair. And soon, you’ve got an artistic masterpiece.
This is what makes the map enjoyable. The game transports players to another location, fooling them into believing they really are driving down long green valleys, racing a humvee over bright glaring sand, rallying a scorpion through slippery dank swamplands and muddy hills or trying to pilot a raptor under a broken arch through thick fog. What do you tell players? “Quick! We’ve got the flag! Let’s hide behind that perfect brown cardboard box that was probably once a child’s play castle!”…?
Unfortunately, those with plenty of development effort going into the construction of the map may have overlooked testing. I’m going to rant about this briefly, simply because testing isn’t about showing what works, it’s about showing what doesn’t – i.e.: a mapper will submit their results, believing it to work; a playtester should accept, believing it not to – and will prove so by discovering these niggles. Like it or not, your map contains flaws; if a tester doesn’t pick them up early, players will encounter them later.
Some maps, whilst looking nice, contained some bad glitches that totally broke gameplay. I’m going to break with tradition and name one: ”vctf-horsellcommon2k4” permitted me to drive a manta and scorpion straight into the side of the alien ship, dropping below it. If humans had realised that alien ships were pure soft-light holograms, the War of the Worlds would be over much quicker.