Saturday, May 7, 2011

REVIEW - Shadow Complex.

While on a date with a suspicious young woman, Jason Fleming does some light spelunking and ends up discovering just how deep the rabbit hole goes. As it turns out, some caves can be very, very deep - and that's just how we like 'em.

One look at the game's map immediately brings its source material to mind. Word is, the first step in developer Chair Entertainment's planning stage was to replay all the old Metroid games. At the very least, Shadow Complex gets two things deliciously right - its navigation and exploration more than hold their own against Metroid's gold standard.

The title is at its best when the player is courting and negotiating its twisted labyrinth, ferreting out power-ups and snagging new gear. It perfectly strokes our gamer need to explore and platform our way through a two-dimensional maze - and be rewarded for doing so.

Name-dropping a title like Metroid may be intimidating to some, but the casual demographic need not fear the Complex. You are gently reminded of each missed or missing collectible by question marks dotted across the map, which invariably tug you by the nose to return to areas previously scoured with your updated arsenal.

This is a wonderful thing when you consider how fun the game is to actually play. The early platforming is simple, wholesome fun - but by the endgame it transforms into pure kinetic pleasure as you blast through environments like a rocket-powered jackrabbit.

It's also a very graphically impressive title - freakishly so, given that it's a 2-D title which runs on Unreal Engine 3. A bit of a shame, really, that it's not uniformly fun to look at.

The (rare) outdoor environments pictured above looks great - everything looks great, to be honest - but Shadow Complex is a bit too reigned-in when it comes to art direction. Aside from some caves and the occasional dip underwater, the environments are very one-note. You're running around a military-industrial complex - and while rooms are often constructed differently, they all feel rather similar to what came before. It would have been lovely to have some more variety in the environments - but the occasional clever use of lighting, or watching the way bullets whiz and curve off-target as they cut through water is still very cool.

Combat is perfunctory - a necessary step to further your exploration and collection initiative - but hardly the star of the show. It's fun to wipe the floor with a bunch of traitorous goons, and taking on Tachikoma-like spider tanks and bipedal walkers retains its Robocop-era thrill - though these fights still feel like what they are - a way to break up the pacing, keep the game from being nothing but exploration, and make you feel like a badass.

In terms of graphics, it's fantastic. In terms of art direction it's merely good. Sound design is great, but even some of the best voice actors in the business can't make this stinker of a story work.

The narrative was heavily hyped as adhering to the world of the Empire novels, penned by Ender's Game scribe Orson Scott Card, but let me be clear - this game's story sucks. More than that, the dialogue is cringe-worthy. Here, let me give you an example:

Bad Guy: "Who the hell are you?!"

Good Guy: "Jason Fleming - I'm no one . . . and everyone!"

The game's final "twist" is blatantly obvious from the first ten seconds of meeting our protagonist, and the dialogue will make your skin crawl to the point that you're worried it may just leap off you and flee from this abysmal excuse for context. Honestly, it would have been wiser to save the money spent on Nolan North (for even his sizable talents cannot save this shlock) and make the whole thing a silent movie.

As I scan the critical consensus for Shadow Complex, it's clear that I'm largely alone in these complaints. Perhaps I'm holding it to a higher standard because I've seen what's been done elsewhere with digital distribution on consoles - smaller games with great production values and a valuable narrative - but disappointment with its story isn't the lasting impression this game leaves.

The single most important part of the title - exploring a massive maze and discovering new toys which allow you to explore further - is a huge success. The combat is acceptable - and often better than that - but the core experience of Shadow Complex is an absolute pleasure.

Chair Entertainment perhaps bit off a bit more than they could chew in terms of scope, but in terms of game design, mechanics and execution they have revealed themselves to be a developer worthy of attention. Despite the occasional lack of imagination and a thoroughly disappointing story, Shadow Complex is a worthy way to spend your gaming time and dollar.

It's occasionally great to watch, and always fun to play.

-excellent graphics
-it's Metroid with pistols and hand grenades
-wonderful exploration
-wholesome, 2-D platforming pleasure
-fun combat
-I love the way the camera zooms in when you do some kung-fu on a dude
-fantastic sense of progression
-a reasonable challenge
-Nolan North

-the story is awful
-the dialogue is worse
-samey environments
-the combat is never as interesting as the exploration
-the difficulty curve is inverted
-oh, and instead of using the d-pad to cycle through your four available power-ups, why not just map each power-up to a different direction? What, was that idea scrapped as too user-friendly?

The destination may be a downer,
but the journey is a blast.

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