Shadow Complex is a game from Chair Entertainment using the Epic Unreal Engine in the style of a classic Metroid game with full 3D graphics but planar gameplay. You go spelunking with some girl you met in a club then become a supersoldier and save the world. Or some bollocks.
***SPOILERS…of a sort. I would argue that it’s difficult to “spoil” a story this fucking incoherent, since none of the “reveals” have any weight when your only reaction to ANY development is “Wha?”***
Graphics – This is maybe the best looking Xbox Live Arcade game available. I don’t mean in terms of style, though. ‘Splosion Man and Geometry Wars Retro Evolved 2 are both beautiful in their own ways, but in terms of games that adhere to a more standard aesthetic, this is great. And I don’t mean standard as a bad or demeaning thing. I want movies like Star Trek as well as movies like Sideways. Different genres and aesthetics within a medium exist symbiotically. So, in terms of the sort of modern image of a “video game” (remembering that it’s an XBLA game) Shadow Complex looks really fucking good. It’s got detailed & varied character models and environments; an abundance of effects on guns and explosions; lovely water; great texture work; atmospheric lighting; fluid animation and a solid frame rate.
Overall Production Values – This kind of follows on from the first point, but the whole game feels like it was made by professionals. It feels like any full price game, but which has been made for a slightly different market. A lot of arcade games are sort of curios and I love that it’s a place for games like that to shine, where your game has to have a hook (literally with BC: Rearmed…ahohohohoho) to get you to play, but bigger games can now clearly have a home on arcade too. Everything about the presentation makes you know it was made by people who knew what they were doing. Even down to things like the menus and the voice acting, but more generally in scale and scope. It’s just bigger, grander than a lot of stuff out there and you really feel it when you play. It’s a good thing!
Metroid – This game is a modern attempt at the classic Metroid formula and it’s about time we had something take a stab at it. Why Nintendo haven’t put a team on creating a Metroid game with 3D models and, crucially, sold it cross-platform is beyond me. The market is there. It’s right there. It was nice to have a chance to revisit that style of gameplay but without any hint of nostalgia. This is a construct that works, and works well. Only having 2 Dimensions to consider allows a certain focus of gameplay and design. Look at Bionic Command: Rearmed and Bionic Commando: in the former timing the swings is a huge part of the gameplay because you’re able to implement it on a plane, but in the 3D sequel you just hold down the grapple button and you’ll latch on, so the focus of the challenge is shifted. I think we need to see more games that use constructs we know work, even if they seem old.
Size – The point I’m making here is not that the game is unbelievably huge, although it is for an XBLA game but that it is a good size. It feels right. It’s not too big to make backtracking feel daunting (although the way some of the areas connect, or don’t, is questionable at times) but it’s big enough to feel like an entire setting. Also a small point, the overworld does feel like there’s more world out there, in Metroid games I always felt confined.
Upgrading the Suit – Obviously inspired by Metroid you have the ability to add different abilities to the suit. These then open up new areas and give you new options versus enemies. I thought most of the upgrades in the game were well-implemented and were made use of in ways other than letting me access new areas (and running across the lake for that achievement was AWESOME!) The melee attacks also became delightfully more blunt and vicious as the need for finesse disappeared. They all looked cool and they were fun.
Power Progression – What I mean by this was I felt the difficulty curve of the game matched with how powerful my character was becoming because of the upgrades. Now I don’t mean that enemies were always as tough, since doing that basically negates all of the upgrades, but I felt they were all tough enough for long enough and I like being able to go back through the game as a walking death machine, which I was able to do here.
Highlighting – I really appreciated the ability of your flashlight to highlight vulnerabilities in the scenery or what needed to be used to activate a switch or whatever. I read an interview where they talked about Metroid games being built around tiles, so it would be obvious where openings were likely to be etc. but they had to think of something new and this really worked. It was subtle, but easy to spot, although I would have appreciated the game explicitly telling me about this feature instead of realising it after some frustrating time with the game.
All of the upgrades are marked on the map – Now I know this won’t be all that popular, and I’m a fan of the challenge presented in Metroid games of finding all of the upgrades but this is born out of one my big problems with the game: I didn’t know where the fuck anything was in relation to anything else. If you’d asked me to search that map I wouldn’t have had a clue and it would have been an absolute slog to search for the items and I definitely wouldn’t have done it. With everything marked on the map, though, disengaging as it may have been, I was able to navigate using that and it got me a couple more hours gameplay, which actually turned out to be the period I enjoyed the most.
The Prologue – Although it did nothing but bewilder in terms of story I liked the little prologue (which was also in the demo) where you play as a somewhat upgraded agent. I enjoy a game giving me a look at what I will be able to do and beyond. Many games are crippled by very tedious openings where you really feel limited in what you can do and I think giving you this glimpse and this little bit of fun beforehand helps to avoid that.
The Weapons – Although it would be easy to complain about the fact that the weapons just get better and better with no scope for variety I enjoyed that streamlined nature of the gameplay. I liked the look of the weapons and I enjoyed the crazy final weapon you end up with. It feels like a…pulse…shotgun or something and it’s a lot of fun to use. By collecting all of the gold bars you can unlock a secret room that lets you use a gold version of any weapon in the game but I stuck to my shotgun thing
The Fusion Helmet – You need to collect all of the key cards before you can get this final upgrade and I would actually recommend that you complete the game before you get it because it makes the last battle a fucking joke, but in a cool way. The Fusion Helmet has a wonderful conceit that necessitates your looking even cooler when you use it than you already would. It makes you 100% invulnerable to damage (cool) whenever you stand still or WALK (fucking badass). The net result of this is that in the last battle you can fucking stroll through a barrage of plasma, bullets and missiles, unharmed obliterating everything in your path. It doesn’t sound it, but it is unbelievably fucking fun and it just looks so badass; one of the most rewarding optional final upgrades I’ve ever seen in a game.
The Flooding Sequence – There’s a bit in the game where you walk past a big mess hall filled with bad guys that you can’t enter, but you’re like “Oh Shit, that’s a lot of dudes” but you end up flooding that entire floor and presumably murdering every last one of them, but as you swim back through the area, as your path demands, all of the furniture and incidental items are floating and there are fucking drowned corpses that you have to move out of the way to get through. Now I don’t know what the intention of the designers/writers was here, but I found this very affecting. It really made me think about the cost of what I was doing and the apparent callousness of my character. It’s accompanied by a wonderful bit of music as well and it was a moment that I enjoyed so much, I wish it had been in a better game.
The Final Boss – I thought the last battle was a fucking blast. It’s a semi-scripted sequence where you have to trigger a number of events to kill the giant, main, non-interactive boss while everything is thrown at you, but you’re so strong by this point that you can take it and, as I said, with the fusion helmet it’s fucking hilarious. I thought the sense of necessity in destroying the thing was cool. The way you use the Shadow Complex’s own defenses to take it down was neat and I just found it a suitably dramatic battle, regardless of difficulty. I didn’t think it was “too easy”, I felt that it in all ways it was an appropriate conclusion.
The Last Challenge – The game has a whole bunch of challenge maps that I played through as well. I’ll go into more detail in the next section but I really enjoyed the very last challenge. it’s basically a little level peppered with upgrades but you have to choose where to go first, when to upgrade what, use health upgrades as regeneration as well as expansion and think carefully about how you use your ammo. It’s basically an assault course for all of your skills from the main game as well as adding a bit more planning. It was challenging and very rewarding to play and complete.
Story – Jesus Fucking Christ. Where to begin? This game has one of the most incoherent, poorly told and oblique stories I’ve ever come across. The only thing that saves it is that it’s barely detectable throughout the game, unlike Bionic Commando where it’s just being shit in your face every goddamn second (more on that soon). Ultimately, I think, there’s a group called “The Restoration” who want to rule America (the world?) for a reason I can’t remember, mightn’t have been there and if it was there, it was fucking stupid anyway. They have a three-step plan for doing this:
1. Build a “Shadow Complex” with all of the most ridiculous weaponry in the world, including the aforementioned invincibility helmet and build it under a mountain without anybody noticing. Then connect every room with a vent.
2. Kill the Vice President with an attack helicopter. Y’know, to keep a low profile. (This happens in the prologue and is barely mentioned again but it seemed to be a pretty big part of the story)
3. Launch an hilarious Airship of Doom from the depths of the Shadow Complex by draining what was presumably a natural lake to reveal the launching bay. If they put the lake there themselves, then that just raises even more questions. Then use this to go and destroy a city. But what that’s going to do is somehow start a new American Civil War, the chaos of which “The Restoration” will step into to restore order. And by the way, that Airship of Doom gets shot down by the Shadow Complex’s OWN FUCKING TACTICAL NUKES, which they don’t think to use instead of the Airship. And finally, even after you hit the bastarding thing with the first missile, instead of fucking off it just hovers above the base taking it. The dude SAID he was on his way to the target. WHY DIDN’T IT LEAVE!?
And all of this under the apparent leadership of a man who we only meet five minutes before the end of the game but is apparently hella bad and makes Cobra Commander seem like George Fucking Patton. There is also a distinct possibility that your character’s father is the President, but that’s unconfirmed. Now, thrown into this mix is you. I can’t remember the character’s name and I’ll be damned if I’m going to look it up. You were trained by the secretest organisation there is, but turned your back on that life much to President Dad’s chagrin. You go on a rock-climbing trip with a girl who I assumed was a long-term girlfriend. Now, it turns out later on that you met her at a club. Once. And as I said it’s not even clear if you fucked her, or you thought a rock-climbing trip was what it was gonna take to get into this woman. I don’t know. There’s very little exploration of this point. Now while you’re out there she gets captured by a couple of robot-looking motherfuckers and your derring-do hero follows the bastards in. If I’d known that the extent of the relationship was a shared phone number in a club and then a pathetic attempt to get laid by going on this trip I would have had great difficulty just following those guys inside. At that point anyone would have just fucked off and TOLD THEIR PRESIDENT FATHER and gotten the whole mess sorted out. I really thought they were like long-term partners or something to justify diving in after her. The central character spends the whole game with almost no motivation. Anyway, so you use your black-ops or whatever training to make your way to her. And when you find her, what happens? You say, “Claire, we need to get the FUCK out of this place, like NOW. I can fucking DOUBLE JUMP in the air. Do you understand that? I don’t know what the fuck is happening or what the fuck I’m doing wearing this insane armour but I came to rescue you and we have to go.” Then she basically says, “Um…nooooo. We need to, like, stop these super bad guys. But what’s going to happen is I’m going to sit here and possibly hack something that will be of no use to you whatsoever and you’re going to go stop them.” So after this exchange we’re supposed to be surprised when it turns out that she’s actually an NSA agent. But she chooses not to give you any information about anything. It also transpires that she looked you up and seduced you in the club to make you do this mission. I can’t even remember the bullshit reason they gave for this. Maybe the restoration had people everywhere or something. I have no fucking clue. But at the end this is supposed to be made all better by the fact that she gives you a single line of flirtatious dialogue and then fucks off in a helicopter. But that’s after she puts a bullet in Motherfucker Commander’s skull. And THAT’S after you, who has been murdering people in a full HEMISPHERE of ways from Sunday, hesitate to pull the trigger on the asshole RESPONSIBLE for the whole mess. I’d feel sorry for your guy for falling victim to a woman who is clearly the biggest cocktease ever recorded if he wasn’t so stupid himself. The entire game makes no sense.
You see all that plot I just laid on you? All of that is delivered through one brief monologue (from guess who) and incidental dialogue. That’s right, the guards’ conversations are how you get the story. The guards that you will have to kill and almost certainly will kill immediately. It isn’t difficult to see why this isn’t a more widely used story-telling device. But, as I say, this story is barely there. The first time the villain appears, cackling, is so late in the game that it’s impossible not to just go “What!?” and laugh. The fact that it’s barely there is the only thing that makes it tolerable. Otherwise it’s utter bullshit. Maybe a lot of people don’t expect anything more than this and I’m familiar with video games having rubbish or silly stories, but I expect them to be competently told and constructed. If you’re going to have a villain with no depth who’s just a big badass then do it like RAMM in Gears of War. Have him show up, kill someone, grunt a bit and look mean. Then have someone state who he is. Then kill him at the end. These are all standard techniques. When you use them, the story/character can still be rubbish, but at least it’s coherent. Also the last line is, I-shit-you-not, “I am everyone. And no-one”. Boom.
There’s also an idea that this is meant to be a cross-media story with some novel Orson Scott Card wrote with the express purpose of tying into the video game, but the game really ought to stand up by itself and either tell me I need to read the book or give me a recap because I had no idea it existed until afterwards.
It’s only LIKE Metroid – Yeah, so I said it was nice to see another game taking a stab at the Metroid formula? That didn’t mean this did it well. I just got this feeling the whole way through that someone made a list of all the things everybody liked about the Metroid series and they just ticked them off as they went along and then connected those bits quite blandly in the game. It just didn’t feel as intricately designed or as fun to play as Metroid. When I started just running about trying to get the upgrades I came to enjoy the game a bit more and there were some nice little puzzles but the whole time I was playing it just felt that there was something missing and I’m reasonably certain it wasn’t playing in the knowledge that under the armour was a hot, sweaty blonde in a bikini.
Shooting – Ugh. The shooting in this game just did not work for me and I am willing to admit that this may be partly to do with the fact that I wasn’t great at it. There were a number of problems with it: I thought the use of the second analogue stick was a little imprecise. I found it hard to land headshots consistently. The fact that you have this panoramic aiming mechanic also so means that they didn’t implement jump-shooting unless you wanted to use my patented “The Claw” position and break your hand. Not being able to jump and shoot feels very unnatural in a game like this and it made the combat move at a much slower pace as I had to stand still and shoot at enemies before i could move through the room. Then there was the big innovation in the game. One of the hooks for playing it. There are enemies in the BACKGROUND! Because the game is pretty much full 3D enemies can come up corridors in the background and can shoot at you from there. You can use cover that’s displaced from you a little bit. Sounds like a cool idea. But the way you shoot into the background is by sort of putting your cursor at the right height and then the game aims for you. And it doesn’t fucking work. Sometimes the thing just fucking refuses to shoot into the distance and when it does you have no control over which target you select. It’s a very neat idea but I thought it was very poorly implemented and caused nigh infinite frustration: there’s nothing worse than feeling that your failure wasn’t your fault.
Bosses – Most of the bosses in this game are get out of range and lob grenades at it affairs, but there are a couple of walkers which the game seemed to suggest had a knack to killing them, like pulling out circuitry or something, but I couldn’t get it to work. They’re not fun and they don’t feel very imaginative. Apart from the fucking wheel. That was crazy.
Experience Points – Apparently you spend this game levelling up. I never noticed it.
Zelda Syndrome – As much as I praised the upgrades, one or two of them only serve the purpose of opening a new area and doing very little else.
The Shadow Complex – I didn’t like the whole feel of where the game was set. It didn’t have any character of it’s own and I never felt absorbed in it. I could never have navigated it without the map. On the map the different sections have different colours, like in most metroid games, but unlike those I wouldn’t have been able to tell you when I moved from one colour to the other. The areas didn’t have any individual identity, maybe apart from the factory bit, but it feels fractured. In Metroid the areas all look and feel different and they have their own wonderful music cues and atmosphere and enemies. Here, everything just felt a bit generic and there are vents fucking EVERYWHERE. You spend a good 15-20% of this game crawling through vents which is boring and serves to make the entire map feel very disjointed because a vent is not a memorable transition. However, I did like that you couldn’t miss any of the items. I hate it when that happens.
Goals – Symptomatic of the storytelling I never had any idea why I was going anywhere. I was just following the magical blue line, which I was immensely grateful for.
The Challenges are way too easy – As much as I enjoyed the last challenge and a few of the others the bar was set really low here. I don’t know if this was just an honest misjudgement but some of the tasks were so banal or simple that it either wasn’t fun or I got a platinum medal on my first go. You should never get a platinum medal on your first go at anything. They’re supposed to be fable, mythical. I should be questioning whether or not I can get one and feeling insecure about my golds, not being king of all things on my first go!
Last Boss Trigger – I’m pretty sure anybody that played this last game walked into the final boss by accident, I know I did. It isn’t really signposted and it sort of just happens. You’re walking along and then suddenly there’s a cutscene and boom the game is over. Really strange.
Nolan North: – Video Game Industry. HIRE SOME OTHER FUCKING VOICE ACTORS! I like Nolan North. I like how he plays a lot of his characters, but for the love of God, games are generic enough at times without them having the exact same fucking main character. He does loveable rogue really well. But there are other voice actors out there who can do it too. Please stop having me play as the same dude in every game. Please. Please.
I paid 600 MS points for the game and I think it’s probably worth that just for the experience of an Arcade game this well produced, but there are a number of elements of design that I felt were flawed and an utterly impenetrable story, so watch out.