Review by Mephistofun
The Game That Changed XBox Live Arcade
I have been very cynical about XBox Live in the past, particularly the Market Place. It was fuelled by the relentless hard sell Microsoft insisted on using and the sheer volumes of dross churned out to 'extend' the life of games artificially. Just how many people really want to pay REAL money for Virtual car parts in EA's Need For Speed?
Live Games have been a mix of old Classics with varying successes with face lifts or control tweaks but more recently we have been treated to a range of new games. This is the first really, truly great, original title on XBox Live Arcade. It is genuinely worth the money and, for the first time ever, I recommend it from the bottom of my gaming heart. I have been telling everyone that'll listen to me how fantastic it is, even my parents! They told me to get out more but they're missing out I tell you! It's that good!
If you have ever played Super Metroid on the Super NES you will recognise the gameplay instantly. You are given an excuse to go exploring by a decent plot as far as action games go and, as you wander the secret base, you will see secret little spaces, or locked doors every so often above, below and around you. The game teases you with these constantly. You will often be unable to get to them at first but further exploration reveals items that level your character up, giving you a new ability with which to go back and try and get them.
It is pure Super Metroid, right down to the opening five minutes where you get to play with a fully powered up character first, just to show you what you can unlock later. Unlike Super Metroid it doesn't resort to the 'oh I've fallen over and all my upgrades have fallen off .... Again,' mechanic but finds its' own reason to reduce the abilities of the player character. I won't spoil it for you but unlike the various sequels in the Metroid series where you might feel a little cheated by the initial levelling down after the first five minutes of play this has a slightly more clever way of dealing with the gameplay trick.
It is such a small change to the familiar that even though Shadow Complex is clearly heavily influenced by the games that have gone before it, the developers have done it their way, just enough to keep the game fresh whilst not going over the top.
The core of this game is to explore. You level up, remember bits you couldn't reach before, go back and make yourself stronger. You can play this by just following the way points through the map. You'll still have a great time and the game will be a little tougher but the real pleasure is from solving all the clever little puzzles, designed around getting hold of every last little upgrade you can get your hands on and you find yourself going back to the harder items over and over until you crack them.
The shooting is usually spot on, though I was let down once or twice my the targeting system. The game is played on a 2D plane but the graphics are rendered in 3D via the Unreal 3 engine (More about the graphics later). This opens up loads of neat little perspective tricks the game throws at you but at the same time it can make it difficult to aim as the bad guys will come running towards the camera. On nearly every occasion the game guessed that I wanted to shoot into the background and not sideways at the right point but it did get it wrong twice in my first playthrough. It doesn't happen often, and it wasn't a game ruiner as there is plenty of health to go looking for but it is something that you will notice.
The narrative is suitably involving in that it engages you with the character, particularly when you are sneaking around in air ducts and over hear soldiers talking about you. It's not a new thing but it it helps keep you caring about your character. At the same time the plot is thin enough so as not to ever 'over explain' anything. It could never be accused of being deep but then neither are the action-espionage films it borrows its' theme from. The game is based on a book apparently.
The upgrades are almost torn from the Super Metroid handbook but have a Shadow Complex character to them all of their own. Your main gun gets stronger, you get a speed run, not dissimilar to the one Samus got, grenades, rockets and a piton gun, swinging tool. The most interesting of the bunch looks like a freeze gun at first until you realise you can stick grenades into the blob you left behind. then you work out that you can stand on the blobs. Then stack them and then.... it'll help solve so many of those problems you thought were impossible. You only have to level it up enough to stick enough blobs down to build that blob-bridge and....
You get the idea. What looks like a simple tool at first is actually a game changing device that'll have you trekking all over the place looking for new ways to use it. This game is game-design excellence. The character handling is nailed, near perfectly, doing exactly what you intended to do every time.
This game is beautiful. It uses light and shadow to add depth as well as giving you a real sensation of sneaking into a place you shouldn't be. The enemies are armoured up so that the fact they all look the same doesn't stand out but this game takes up less than 700MB of disc space and it isn't a small map. The zones are all very distinctive and yet familiar enough so that you can read every wall, ceiling and ledge and navigate effectively.
They could have gone over the top with the 3D space in this game but when they do drop the player into a full 3D mode of play it is subtle. Never does it overwhelm the player, never do the controls switch too jarringly. There are points where the player can take control of a turret and, in these sections the change from shooting across the screen to shooting into the screen is so gentle that you barely realise. I know of no other game that does it so well.
There is also a pop up map. If only every game was this clear. A blue line traces your main objective but you can turn it off and go exploring. The map is the clearest, most cleanly designed map I have ever had the pleasure of using any where.
With a few more textures this game would be a contender for best looking game of the year on the 360 at times and I do mean all the full price, DVD releases too.
Sometimes you play a game for a day and never notice the music. You feel what the game wants you to feel but you don't notice the sound as music until you really start looking for it. The voice acting is, quite incredibly, better than most games manage to mumble onto a full sized DVD. No phoned in voice acting here. Absolutely spot on.
I really love this game. It has kept me hooked through two play throughs and I'm going to play this again. It has been accused of being short but even the main story mode speed run is worth the price. Going for 100% and you have a game that eclipses Gears and Gear 2 in terms of game-play time.
There is a surprising multiplayer angle too. You can't play the same game at the same time, that just wouldn't work in this sort of game (there's laying down the gauntlet though) Imaginatively, you are encouraged to compete with friends that also have the game. Who's getting the most kills, who's the fastest, who's unlocked what? All this is tracked and shared with your competitors.
This game needs a sequel, not because it didn't get things right but because it is so good that I want to play it again and I know that one day I'll be playing it blindfolded.
I bet I'll still be enjoying it though.
Rating: 4.5 - Outstanding
Product Release: Shadow Complex (US, 08/19/09)
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