Wednesday, 21 October 2009 21:31

Shadow Complex (xBox Live Arcade, 2009)

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Overview

There's something that we've lost as gamers in the years since the shift from 2D to 3D based graphics. Sure, you might say, we've gained the more immersive world of the Halo series or Gears of War shooters, or the riveting, beautifully crafted vistas to be found in games like Final Fantasy and Mass Effect. The shift to 3D allowed us to focus on world crafting, on building settings in which the player could lose themselves in as easily as the story itself. Remember how incredible that opening area in Metroid Prime on the Gamecube was? The stunning, pouring rain, the rich, lush vegetation and the ripples of the water as Samus ran around in it? The Metroid series, though, highlights that something that we lost in the transition from 2D to 3D. After all, long before Samus was running around the world of Tallon IV, she was an explorer of the dark, side-scroller tunnels of Zebes – a platformer. For all the advantages of 3D, it just doesn't do platformer style games well, much less the sort of huge-map, backtracking, hunt-and-seek style gaming of games like Super Metroid and Castlevania: Symphony of the Night. What does all this have to do with this review's target, Shadow Complex for the xBox Live Arcade? Everything.

Review

A soldier wearing a suit of enhanced combat armor races toward the sound of gunfire, introducing himself as Colonel Sam Dallas as he reports to his commander at the Pentagon. He's enroute to a massive gun battle going on between a group of heavily armed men and what look like secret service agents. His commander tries to make him stand by, but he points out that he's stolen the armor, then goes off contact to go assault the attackers. After a short, pitched battle culminating in the destruction of an enemy assault chopper, the SUV being protected by the Secret Service gets away, while Colonel Dallas reports back in. The attackers have been neutralized, and the Vice President is safe... But then his stolen battle suit starts sparking, and soon after we hear a huge explosion, from the direction that the SUV escaped in.

Shadow Complex is based on a book series written by Orson Scott Card, taking place between the books Empire, and the due to be released Hidden Empire. It was inspired by the classic, side-scroller, dungeon crawl style gaming of Super Metroid and Symphony of the Night, with a large map filled with power-ups that you need to collect in order to be able to complete the game. Like those classics, you're required to backtrack to many of the power-ups as you gain new abilities that unlock previously sealed sections of the map. What makes Shadow Complex unique is that it's what's known as a 2.5D game – the game world is a fully rendered 3D world, in this case using the Unreal Engine 3 for its powerhouse, but your main character, Jason Flemming, can only move in the classic two dimensional space – horizontally and vertically. This provides for a rather unique experience in which your enemies often shoot at you from deep in cavernous rooms, not to mention that richly crafted background and setting I was talking about in the overview.

Now, normally I'd get into the story first, but this time I wanted to take the time to look at the fact that Shadow Complex is a developer-admitted nod to the huge and complex side-scroller platformers of Super Metroid and Symphony of the Night. Like Samus and Alucard, Jason starts the game out relatively weak – he has no weapon, can only jump like a normal mortal, and is just as at risk from gunfire as any other human being. He does have the slight advantage of having been trained by his father from a very early age at the art of espionage and generally being a ghost that harasses the enemy. Early on in the game as you explore the huge underground enemy base, searching for a way to get Jason's girlfriend out, you come across a suit of highly advanced battle armor. The armor is retracted to a security location as Jason comes into contact with it, but not before he manages to get hold of a jetpack that functions to provide him with double-jump capability. Much of the rest of the game from here consists of retrieving the rest of this battle suit while surviving the enemy infested base. Tell me if these abilities sound familiar: Grappling Hook, Super-Speed, Rockets, Grenades, extra Health tanks... Yeah. Like I said... big homage to Super Metroid here. On the other hand, as you progress and deal with enemies, you also gain experience, granting Jason things like additional defense, accuracy, and so on, which draws more from Symphony of the Night.

Shadow Complex could have rested on its semi-biological parents of Samus and Alucard, but instead of making the game just an homage, the developers at Chair actually made a pretty damn good game out of it. There's a greater focus on stealth and planning of attacks in Shadow Complex than either of its ancestors – often it's easier and safer to go around enemies than it is to blast through, and you spend as much time crawling through ducts and squeezing through hidden entrances as you do gunning down your heavily armed and armored resistance. Equally as important is the gradual reveal of the storyline of Shadow Complex, which is far richer than anything either Super Metroid or Symphony of the Night were capable of. Let's face it – both of those were, pound for pound, dungeon crawls, and while Symphony did have some storyline to go with it, that certainly wasn't its main focus. Shadow Complex, on the other hand, is a game immersed in its storyline, providing good reason for Jason to stick around as he first searches for his girlfriend, then for a way to get her out, and then for a way to stop what he's seen coming.

As suggested earlier, Jason is the son of a military man who spent a great deal of time training him in the art of stealth, harassment and espionage. Early on we discover that as he came of age Jason turned his back on that life, intent on living his own, and even drawing a certain amount of humor as he realizes that he's ended up fighting after all. He and his new girlfriend, Claire, are backpacking in northwest Washington. Claire, apparently an avid spelunker, tells him to wait twenty minutes while she gets ahead and then come after her. Jason, armed only with his flashlight, follows after once the time is up, and makes his way into the caves, only to discover Claire's climbing pack. With it's help, he's able to scale a wall he couldn't before, and finds a section of the cave where metal flooring has been installed, and then a doorway. He falls through a missing section in the floor, but before he can climb back out a security panel slides into place over him, and above he hears the sound of Claire trying to convince an unknown group of men that she doesn't know anything and to let her go. Once they pass, the security panel opens back up, and Jason decides to go after Claire.

There's really not much more to talk about character-wise – honestly, what you see is what you get with Jason, and like its parent games, Jason is what you get for the entire game, beyond a few plot development interludes. At one point, he realizes that it's getting easier for him to kill, and wonders if that's a good thing or not... after a moment's hesitation, he decides it's good after all.

I found the control scheme to be sufficient, if somewhat frustrating at times. For a game in which you're only allowed to move on a 2D surface, I would have liked to be able to use the crosshair pad instead of the thumb stick to control Jason – instead the crosshair selects from your available special weaponry. Also, there is an obvious problem produced by the reality that enemies are allowed to move in three dimensions, that of aiming. You can't just shoot straight forward and expect to hit enemies behind you, after all. In Shadow Complex, you're able to aim your gun in 360 degree arc using the right thumb-stick, and the game semi-intelligently aims at enemies in the fore/background for you as you point your gun in their general direction. You also see a laser pin-point. If you don't aim manually, the game helps you out by automatically aiming in the cardinal direction that you're moving in, though without the laser sight. Jason twists and turns in time with this, so you get the realism of him actually looking and turning in the direction that he's shooting, but I found this to be somewhat clumsy in practice. First and foremost, aiming requires you to take your finger off of the standard-layout jump, action, reload, melee setup of the four face buttons. This means that it's exceedingly hard to properly aim at enemies while jumping – and almost impossible to do so during tricky double and triple jumps.

Worse, you're able to aim your grappling hook via the same right-stick/automatic left-stick scheme. This should never have happened, frankly – every time I missed a grapple target, it was because the hook had fired the wrong way due to the auto-aim of the left stick, often straight ahead instead of at an angle upwards as I'd intended. This happened half the time when I managed to get my thumb down to the right thumb-stick anyway, too. That in and of itself wouldn't have been so bad, but there is a series of very complex jumps toward the end of the game, and, honestly, once you acquire it, the grappling hook becomes your best, fastest route of transport throughout the game as you speed around picking up power-ups, and for finding good positions to fire on enemies.

Beyond these complaints, though, the control scheme worked fairly well throughout Shadow Complex, with much of the action surprisingly smooth and fluid. It really did feel like getting into a good groove on Super Metroid and blazing through sections with rapid jumps and only minor pauses to take out enemies, so Chair is to be commended for this. The power-ups gained throughout the course of the game act in a mostly predictable fashion, though I did notice that while standing too close to a grenade will injure you, firing a rocket point blank into something doesn't even make Jason twitch. A relatively minor inconsistency, but one that probably shouldn't have happened. You have unlimited ammo for your primary weapon, though you do have limited clip size, which does a surprisingly good job of balancing things out on that side of the gun. Also, I have to give Chair credit on the implementation of Jason's flashlight. Not only does it serve a practical purpose throughout the game as both targeting aid – it's aimed the same way that weapons are – in the many, many dark areas of the game, it also functions in the way that Samus's visor did in Super Metroid, revealing which special weapon can be used to destroy what structure/door. More importantly, you can move with it on, and while it does have limited power, that power lasts for a great deal of time for each charge, and recharges wickedly fast.

Graphically, I can't say that I was incredibly impressed by Shadow Complex. While it does use the Unreal Engine 3 – the same engine that brought us Gears of War (and, indeed, was co-developed by Epic Games, GoW's developer) – there's no evidence that the graphics engine was really pushed to its limits here. There's a variety of cut-scenes scattered through the game where we get to see the results of well-modeled, well-rendered characters in close-up views, but as the majority of the game is played from a side-on, flat-edged view point, a lot of the benefit of using such an advanced rendering engine is actually squandered. That's not to say that the many, MANY varied rooms aren't nice and pretty looking, only that we could have seen so much more here.

Also, while I enjoyed the 2.5D setup of the game, there are places where it's very difficult to tell what's available to Jason's plane of movement and what's in the fore/background. Especially guilty of this are sections with stairs in them. With only a couple exceptions, at no time are you able to run up stairs, you invariably have to go past them to wherever the break between the wall and the 'platform' part of the steps is, and jump up to there. However, often where there are steps, they're made to look like you can just run up them – and of course, sometimes there are enemies that DO run up and down them. This is something that happened throughout the game, and while the intent is appreciated, I think I'd rather have seen them avoid the situation entirely.

There's not a whole lot to talk about in Shadow Complex when it comes to the music. Much of what there is in the game is standard background filler. It's certainly no Gears of War with its dramatic, orchestrated score, or even a more simplified set of themes like Super Metroid or Symphony of the Night – though I grant that anybody who can call Symphony's soundtrack simplified (in comparison to modern games, at least) is asking for trouble. There's just not much in the way of drama or intensity added by Shadow Complex's music. The main theme is a boring, dismal violin solo, and the ending theme, which at least is vocalized and shows some signs of life, is far too little, too late. The voice acting is better, with decent jobs being provided by Nolan North, voice of Jason, and Eliza Jane Schneider, who played Claire. Nothing stellar, but decent.

Ah, lessie... I wanted to take a moment to grouse about the fairly limited cast of enemy characters. Your opponents can be divided up into a grand total of five categories. There's the hopeless mooks, enemies equipped with pistols and submachine guns that are there for target practice, the mooks, enemies packing slightly more firepower but are still there mainly as target practice, the heavies, enemies that fire rockets or grenades, manage to be annoying, but serve in the end as more target practice, a small variety of small robots that seem designed to be used for punting practice, and a handful of boss walker-tank enemies that take a bit of effort to bring down... but provide a much larger surface area upon which to practice firing on.

There's really not a whole lot of challenge here, folks. The vast majority of danger that you'll face throughout the course of Shadow Complex is of the strictly environmental variety, where the environment itself serves to hinder you more than the enemies that are taking aim and firing on you while you try to maneuver into firing position. This is part of the problem presented by the aiming that I was referring to earlier, honestly. The enemies that you'll be facing are... underwhelming in anything but considerable numbers, even at the higher difficulty levels where they're capable of doing a fair amount of damage in a short time. The boss fights are painfully easy once you figure out that each one has an exceptionally exploitable weak point – and aren't really that durable regardless.

Overall

Despite the problems mentioned above, though, I did, overall, thoroughly enjoy playing through Shadow Complex, for the simple fact that, for the most part, it's a well put together game. Chair started with a great inspiration, the classic games of Super Metroid and Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, and instead of resting on those laurels, they did build up from them. There's a good solid background they had to draw on, and while I've never read Empire, or any of Orson Scott Card's works, I felt the game stood well enough on its own. The play control for the most part is solid, and the aiming, while quirky, works for the majority of the time once you get used to it.

I would have liked to see better replayability in this title. When you complete the game, you can start a new one retaining all of the experience and abilities granted by that xp. Every ten levels as you level up unlocks special abilities, like the complete, marked up game map, and unlimited grenades, foam, or rockets, among other things. With that said... To be honest, there's not a whole lot to do on replays here, beyond go for a few completion achievements, such as the 'Justin Bailey' achievement. Yes, they did go there. With the limited, similar enemies, though, once you know a room's layout, you have most of the mooks dead before they know you're in the room. Still, I'd recommend Shadow Complex for the nostalgia value alone, the sensation of a good, solid platformer and the nods to the classics that make up its parentage. Call it three and a half out of five for a rating. Fans of Orson Scott Card will likely get more utility out of the game than I did, too, especially if they're planning on reading the next book in the series.

Additional Info

  • Title: Shadow Complex
  • Genre: Metroidvania, Side-Scroller, Platformer
  • Platform: Xbox Live Arcade
  • Developer: Chair Entertainment, Epic Games
  • Publisher: Microsoft Game Studios
  • Engine: Unreal Engine 3
  • Writing: TOASTY! (+4)
  • Pacing: Groovy (+5)
  • Graphics: Average (0)
  • Controls: Below Average (-1)
  • Voice Acting: Above Average (+1)
  • Soundtrack: Below Average (-1)
  • Replay Value: Very Good (+3)
Last modified on Saturday, 28 July 2012 22:51

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