An Instant Classic
When it comes to summer there are at least two things you can count on. One is the Summer of Arcade promotion for XBLA games and the other is fireworks. However, this year the two actually closely resembled one another. As with any good fireworks display, the Summer of Arcade started strong to attract interest with ‘Splosion Man and Marvel vs. Capcom 2, petered out in the middle a bit with Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Turtles in Time Re-shelled, and then finished with a strong finale of Trials HD and Shadow Complex. In my opinion the old saying still holds true here, because it seems as though Microsoft has definitely saved the best for last.
For anyone who doesn’t know, which is probably the majority of people, Shadow Complex’s story stems from Orson Scott Card’s Empire Trilogy of books. The activities that transpire in the game itself actually serve as a tie-in to the second book in the trilogy entitled Hidden Empire, due out later this year. The world of the books and game is a rather bleak one, with extreme liberal and conservative political beliefs polarizing the United States to the point of starting a second Civil War.
Perhaps the best part of the game’s story is in the way that it is delivered. The game starts off with you briefly controlling a super-powered soldier who is trying to save the Vice President from a radical faction called the Restoration, which serve as your adversaries throughout the game. This short scene not only introduces you to the abilities and weapons you’ll gain access to later in the game, but it also does a great job of letting you know who you’re up against and what they’re all about.
Shadow Complex puts you in the role of Jason Fleming, a typical everyman character on a hiking trip with his girlfriend Claire. As the two of you begin to explore your surroundings with nothing more than a flashlight, Claire is grabbed by some Restoration goons in hi-tech military gear, and it is up to you to track her down in the belly of a nearby secret military base and escape in one piece. While this may sound like your standard video game story fare, there are some twists throughout to help keep you interested. Also, while playing as Jason, the game’s story is told through an intriguing mix of cutscenes and overheard conversations that gradually pull back the veil on the Restoration’s sinister plans. This enlightening eavesdropping is a great delivery method for the story because it not only makes you feel as though you are outsmarting your opponents, but it also keeps your discovery of the storyline feeling more natural and less like you’re being beat over the head with the game’s narrative.
The game itself is a 2D side-scrolling action game, somewhat similar to a classic Metroid or Castlevania title but with some notable differences. Perhaps the biggest differentiation comes in this game’s use of 3D graphics provided by the Unreal Engine 3. While the game is essentially just a 2D side-scroller, all of the game’s characters and environments are fully modeled in 3D. This helps to make the game look more realistic and also provides a surprising sense of depth for the game’s backgrounds. There’s no question that this is rather appealing visually, but it also makes for some rather interesting gameplay elements.
Since the backgrounds are fully modeled rather than just being static 2D images, enemies can actually run around, take cover, and fire at you from these areas. This helps to keep things fresh, since you’ll never know if a room is completely devoid of enemies or if a door in the distance might just open and have a group of Restoration soldiers pour out and begin attacking you. However, in order to take out said enemies, you are able to use the right analog stick to aim your weapon, which will actually aim three dimensionally into the background when necessary in order to hit enemies and certain objects. While this is an interesting idea and approach, it is also one of the only real problems with the game.
Aiming on a 3D plane in a 2D side-scroller isn’t exactly ideal. It can often be difficult to judge exactly where you need to have the analog stick pointed in order to shoot an enemy, even with the provided laser sight that helps significantly (especially if the enemy is entrenched directly behind your character). Things get even trickier when you have to adjust for objects in the background and foreground that get in the way. For example, I’ve had several firefights where I couldn’t figure out why I wasn’t hitting my adversary until I noticed my gun was firing into a miniscule piece of railing directly in front of my character.
As I stated earlier, Shadow Complex starts off with this genre’s obligatory “here’s how super-powered you’ll be by the end of the title but you’ll need to gradually re-earn every piece of it by playing through the game” type beginning. There is a good amount of different weaponry and abilities to discover throughout the game that help to make quick work of even the game’s larger, more intimidating enemies. For instance, you’ll find grenades, missiles, and a foam gun that can be used to create jumping platforms or to freeze enemies in place.
However, the game isn’t entirely resigned to just running and gunning, as progressing through the title requires equal parts exploration and combat. The map that Shadow Complex takes place on is quite massive and encompasses the hidden Restoration military base as well as the outdoor wooded area surrounding it. While the game can seem pretty linear, the map is filled with hidden passageways, alternate routes, vents, and crawlways just waiting to be discovered by the player. As with most games of this genre, certain areas can only be accessed once you’ve gotten the item necessary to be able to open the way. Fortunately, Shadow Complex makes this easy to follow, as each obstruction will appear in a different color when hit with light from your flashlight that denotes what item you’ll need in order to open it. This is incredibly useful and user-friendly, seemingly even for potential newcomers to the genre.
While there aren’t any multiplayer options in Shadow Complex, the single-player campaign should take you between five to seven hours to complete. However, once you’ve made your way through the campaign, there are still a series of twenty one challenges to take on in the game’s Proving Grounds. These are timed challenges based on the skills and abilities you’ll acquire throughout the course of the campaign. The quicker you successfully complete these challenges, the better your rank and score will be, and the higher on the online leaderboards you’ll appear. These challenges start off fairly simple but can get rather challenging by the end, so the competition for leaderboard supremacy should provide a worthy distraction between multiple trips through the campaign.
I honestly just can’t say enough good things about Shadow Complex. Except for a little wonkiness when trying to aim into the background, this is a truly phenomenal title. For a fifteen dollar arcade game, the production values are almost unbelievable. The graphics are great, the level design is fantastic, the gameplay is fun and involving, the sound effects and voice acting are well done, and the story is even interesting. It is nice to see such an impressive take on the old Metroid/Castlevania formula. Here’s hoping we’ll get more games in this series, as the Empire Trilogy of books continues to be released.
RATING OUT OF 5 RATING DESCRIPTION 4.7 Graphics
Everything looks great in the Unreal Engine 3 including cinematics, melee-induced close-ups, and while just playing the game. 4.2 Control
While aiming into the background can create some issues, they’re rarely fatal. Everything else works well and as you’d expect from this type of game. 4.5 Music / Sound FX / Voice Acting
The sound effects are great, the slight amount of included music fits the game, and the voice acting is well done, especially from actor Nolan North – Nathan Drake from Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune – as the main character. 4.4 Play Value
The five to seven hour campaign is great fun, with a good amount of replayability if you’re interested in finding 100 percent of the game’s items. The Proving Grounds also supply a reason to revisit the title in order to try to work your way up the online leaderboards. 4.5 Overall Rating – Must Buy
Not an average. See Rating legend above for a final score breakdown.