Shortly after Chip's Challenge Level Pack 3 was released three years ago, I promised to write a review of the collection of 149 custom levels. As the next such set is upon us, I thought it is finally time to make good on that promise. I'll try to recall my initial feelings for the set, as well as how it felt going back to the levels and optimizing them. I have a few comments on what I think are great aspects of the set, and a couple about its shortcomings. I have to admit that I am a bit biased to write this review, because I just simply love the set. I further claim that there is nobody in the world that has played it as much as I have, since I have actively been working on improving my scores in both MS and Lynx modes for quite some time. If you can forgive me for these two faults, read on!
It was Christmas. We were visiting my in-laws and the only computer I could use was in a room with two teenagers sleeping. It was just before 2 am. As quietly as I could, I snuck in the room and I turned on the computer. The room filled with a sharp whirl of the fan that luckily soon died down to an acceptable level. I downloaded the set and the accompanying fresh version of Tile World. For the rest of the night I immersed myself in exploring the challenges Chip faced and the story presented in new screens between levels. I was excited after each level to see what the next one was. Every level I had not played earlier was particularly enjoyable.1 I was not concerned with optimal times, but rather just wanted to first see how the set felt. The newsgroup was vibrant with score updates from others. Those updates did not come in level order and many of the records were from the CCLP3 staff. Clearly not all people were playing the set through in order and without an editor, as I had chosen to do. As everyone else started waking up around me, I had to suspend my progress. I had had a great first night and had no doubt that the set would be a great success.
As the holidays progressed, I only had limited amounts of time to work on the levels and it seemed every day I could only advance a few more levels. This was also due to how involved the levels were becoming, and I was not even to the half-way mark yet.2 The set was getting crazily difficult, but as I was familiar with most of the difficult levels I managed to complete the set in a month. I was exhausted but wanted to revisit many levels to see on which ones I could match the records. This turned out to be a learning experience and a lot of work that is not yet complete. I was lucky enough to etch out a few scores under my name, but the speed and consistency that the veterans were doing the same was on a completely different level. At some point I turned to playing in Lynx and slowly started reporting those scores too. There are still many Lynx scores there for others to improve upon, though I hope I haven't made that too easy.
So that's my first contact with the set. I was there at the release and all of that was a new experience for me. I don't imagine anything can quite match the novelty of that first time again. I don't want to get into analyzing individual levels here, so I will stick to five general points about the set.
1) The levels included in the set are all very well designed. There were over 2,200 levels in the initial voting pool and clearly some of the best individual levels made it into the set. As Chip's Challenge is a puzzle game at its core, many of the highest voted levels turned out to be puzzles. It's apparent in the final product that the staff was very restricted by the voting results of a community that could only see one level at a time, and not the full experience of what the set would feel like. This resulted in a set that feels very heavy, particularly if one does not know what to expect. Later levels in the set that deviate from a heavy puzzle emphasis are very welcome. The flow of the set has it's positives too though, like the throwbacks to CC1 levels in certain slots. Among these, the results of the Level 1 and Cypher Level Contests were nice to see.
2) The updates made to levels, in particular the name changes and time limit re-evaluations, were inspired. I loved the new names of levels. Connecting the Jumble and Replay levels as series was neat. All the time limits worked well, being tight enough on levels where it made sense. It was a good move to allow some levels to be untimed, which was not a given as CCLP2 did not choose to do this. Several levels were updated to avoid busts, but in some cases this resulted in a very different level than the one that was voted on. I was surprised that no updates were made to levels after the release, even though some designers requested this and new major busts were discovered. I understand this in a way, but would have preferred that such a thing would have been made clear during the release. For example, saying that an update may be made during the first three months, but after that time no updates will be considered would have worked very well. Overall I felt the set was put together expertly and connected to a story very well.
3) The Tile World update was also a very welcome thing. The user interface was an improvement, though I missed some keyboard shortcuts. The ccx-files allowing a story to be told and crediting the designers was an essential upgrade. Some things were missing, like clear indication of odd/even step, or even random force floor direction at the start of a level in Lynx. The death messages were cool. I missed a simple way to change the graphics and a good way to compare one's scores to the bold. At least some love was shown for competitive play with the "copy score" function. The best new thing in my opinion was the ability to fast-forward replays of solutions, though a full map view during playback is still just a dream. The biggest let downs were the lack of a simple all-in one download which I thought was promised, as well as the lack of even the smallest update later on to fix small yet annoying bugs.3
4) I truly admire the work done on the scoreboard at the release of the set. Everything worked just like it should. There was a reasonable restriction on how many scores one could report at first, and the restriction of releasing solutions only after three people had completed the set was a step in the right direction. Maybe it should not have limited casual solutions, though, but only competitive ones. After the initial ban on solutions, I still felt there was not clear enough stance on which routes should be allowed to be released and which would be better left for players to discover for themselves.4 It is my understanding that the staff did not optimize the levels before the release, which sounded fair but probably let a few unfortunate details on some levels slip through the cracks. Too many levels that contain randomness require almost perfect luck. Some other levels are simply ridiculous to optimize due to other factors and might have been better off if they were untimed if they had to be included at all.
5) If I take a step back from the set itself, I can see that the process of creating it was not simple. The people that announced the opening of submissions were not the same as those that released it in the end. I am glad J.B. stepped up to the plate and organized a team around him to get the job done. There had to be a tremendous amount of work to be done behind the scenes between the closing of the voting and the release of the set. It is too bad that after this point some of the follow-up work was a bit sloppy. I've already mentioned the lack of an update to the set or Tile World, or clear guidelines on competitive play, but also there was no information released about the voting results. These results and other information about the formation of the set would have been interesting to hear and possibly could be useful to know for future projects. Additionally, there was no decent support for new players trying to solve the levels for the first time, like perhaps with proper hints and help on the Chip's Challenge Wiki or a page explaining what to expect within the set. As far as I know, there was very little promotion of the set anywhere. Maybe everyone was too busy enjoying the set itself to think about these things. At least I was.
In the end, I am a sucker for difficult puzzles (in the right context), so I felt this set was made for me. I still love it, but I kind of fear it as well.5 I felt the staff did an outstanding job compiling the set and I appreciate all their efforts. I want to thank the CCLP3 staff and anyone else who was part of realizing this whole experience for me. There are some aspects of the set that understandably people do not like as much as I do, unfortunately to the extent that some seem to hate it entirely. I like to think that in the right context and time, anyone could learn to love this set as one of the greatest works humanity has ever produced. I would not trade it for anything.
1 I had taken part in the voting process of CCLP3 but I did not get to play even half the levels in the voting pool. Almost a third of the levels in the set were new to me when I played it for the first time.
2 I have since learned that the half-way mark is at level #75 if you count by level number, at #95 if you count by how long it takes to watch the quickest solutions, at about level #100 if you are solving through the set after knowing the solutions, and at about level #140 if you are solving the levels for the first time without help.
3 Literally as I write this, an update like this has been released!
4 For example, maybe the second person who scores a route shouldn't be allowed to release the solution. This would allow the first scorer some say in the matter and yet once enough people, like three, have scored the route successfully, then it could be released if they want.
5 I have fewer than half the bolds in MS and still need to work on all the others. It is such a tremendous task to optimize the whole set that its proportions are hard to comprehend.