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Posted by David Collins on August 19, 2009
Review: Shadow Complex (XBLA)

Review: Shadow Complex (XBLA)

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“It’s funny, as even though I had only met her a few months before, I felt like I had known her all my life. I was surprised it took me as long as it did to introduce her to Mamma. I rarely bring women to my parent’s place because I always felt like there was more scrutiny than hospitality going on. But Claire, she was special. I knew, I mean, I KNEW that mom & dad would love her the moment they shook her hand. The instant I met her I knew I would travel to the ends of the Earth for her, so I guess I just assumed that they would feel the same way. We sat down after the formal introductions & Mamma just stood there & looked at Claire, then at me, then Claire again. Next thing I know, I’m being asked to help her in the kitchen. She only said one thing: ‘That girl is nothing but trouble’. I told her that Claire was the best thing to ever happen to me & that I think she’ll change my life. Who knew that in a few short weeks, Fate would ensure we were both right…”

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And thus begins our story of Jason Fleming, an ordinary guy who just wanted an afternoon of cave exploration (& maybe a picnic afterward?) with the girl he loves. Unfortunately, this particular cave has much more to offer than pretty rocks & the occasional bat. No, this cave happens to be part of an underground complex operated by the Restoration. Jason lets Claire get a head start & within minutes she’s taken prisoner and accused of being a spy. Now it’s up to Jason to free her. Sounds simple enough, right? Well, everything isn’t as it seems…

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The first stage of the game doubles as the tutorial, introducing us to the Restoration & giving us just a taste of their plans. We can tell right away that they are very bad men who have some big plans for the United States of America. It’s short & sweet, showing us the basic game mechanics before being whisked off to some remote mountain where we pick up the story of Jason & Claire. In a tale straight out of a classic sci-fi/mystery/thriller novel, what begins as a rescue attempt turns into a battle against an organization who plan to “liberate” the United States through a modern civil war. In fact, even though the story was written by comic book legend Peter David, it’s derived from the Empire universe (created by Orson Scott Card). It’s said that this story will hedge between Empire & it’s upcoming sequel (although I can’t confirm that).

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Once Jason begins his quest, he’s armed with only a flashlight (which will become your best friend during the course of the game). As our hero delves deeper into the facility, he comes across weapons (with unlimited ammo), armor, & other items that will help him get through the massive complex as he searches for his girl. The enemies he’ll face will range from the standard pistol-packing grunt soldier to the large brute soldiers (aka wrestlers on steroids) armed with missile launchers & shields. Bosses (if that’s what you want to call them) are typically giant mechs that require a bit more than a standard pistol shot to eliminate. This is your basic side-scrolling action-adventure game: Guide the hero through each area, unraveling the plot & killing every bad guy he encounters. To spice things up a bit, there’re a couple of places where you can use a turret & shift into a first-person view along with some nifty cut scenes when you do a melee attack. The cut scenes definitely have that Jason Borne vibe to them. As a whole, the gameplay has classic Metroid written all over it. As you explore, you’ll find some areas aren’t passable until a specific weapon or item is located. Red doors require missiles to break through them. Purple hatches require the foam gun to pop them open. So on & so forth. This is where you’re flashlight will come in to play as you can’t tell the difference between a regular door & a ’special’ one without it. Even the grid-based map system is reminiscent of the old school NES platformer with room locations, color coded entrances (once you’ve discovered them) & question marks identifying hidden item locations. There’s no in game save option though, but for this style of game, you really don’t need one. What you do get is save rooms. Walk into one & the game auto-saves. It works for the most part since most of the main paths have a save room within it.

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Regardless of whether you like the genre or not, there’s no denying that this is one beautiful game. Utilizing Unreal Engine 3, Shadow Complex’s visuals will rival (& in a lot of cases beat) most full retail titles. You’ll gawk at the level of detail, from the explosion effects to the way the foam expands into voluptuous bubbles. The bullets zipping through the water as you swim for your life is just amazingly real (well, as real as Hollywood wants us to believe). The developer actually surprised me a bit as your not only going to fight guys in the foreground, but the back ground as well. Even though the game is a side-view platformer, enemies will come at you from every direction (except from the side you are viewing from, which would be just kind of weird). Don’t fret though, there’s an auto targeting system that worked surprisingly well. In fact, I only manually aimed (using the right stick) when I wanted to target the enemy’s melon for a headshot. Beyond that, your guns will find their intended targets with little difficulty. Now, you will find some texture clipping from time to time, but not often enough to detract from the play experience in any real way. The music is a soft dramatic score with light ups & downs. In fact, it was so soft that I didn’t even notice it most of the time. The voice acting is very well done & believable, if not a bit melodramatic.

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Beyond the obvious nostalgic hook that the gameplay provides, some of the best features are the replay incentives. Shadow Complex tracks not only how many items you’ve unlocked, but how much of the map you’ve explored as well. This way, you can see exactly how close you are to gaining 100% completion. In addition to that, it tracks other things like how many head shots or melee kills you’ve made, how many Bombots (small exploding robots) you’ve kicked (yes, I said kicked) & what your best completion time is. As you add to your tally, a small pop up (similar to the achievement tracking pop-ups in Gears of War 2) will show how your counts compare to those on the leaderbard (which is defaulted to your friends list). As you pass up one of your buddies, it’ll switch up to the next highest person so you can follow your progress to the top of the leaderboards. On top of all that, (developer) Chair Entertainment added an RPG element to the mix. As enemies are defeated, portions of the map are explored, & items are gathered, you’ll gain experience. Each time you level up, perks like better accuracy, stamina & precision are gained. Later levels will unlock even better stuff that I won’t spoil for you here. Once you’ve eliminated the shadowy threat, you can start a new game, keeping all the experience you’ve earned (but sans any items or weapons). I managed to get to level 19 in my first jaunt through the conspiracy, so I can confidently say it will take 2-3 play-throughs minimum to max out a character. That’s just for the story mode! There’s another mode called Proving Ground. It’s sort of like the Shadow Complex equiliviant of the VR Missions from the Metal Gear games. You have a set of goals to achieve & the game records your best score to the leaderboards. It’s another opportunity to knock a buddy down the list & gain bragging rights. With four difficulty settings along with the tough VR Miss..erm…Proving Grounds missions, there are plenty of reasons to keep playing.

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I’d love to tell you that Shadow Complex is perfect, but as any gamer will say, that holy grail doesn’t exist (even though some games get very close). First, make sure you have your running shoes on as there is no way to quick jump from one side of the map to the other. The game pretty much requires some backtracking just to finish the storyline (and quite a bit of backtracking if you’re shooting for that 100% completion achievement). Going from the right side to the left is almost a one way shot. To get back, you have to take a longer, more round about way. That gets old pretty quickly. Speaking of getting 100% completion, I don’t know if this was intentional or just a design flaw, but if you’re not careful, you can block yourself from getting all the items. As you venture toward the end, the storyline will block off a couple of areas. Once they are blocked, that’s it. There is no secret wardrobe entrance or magic looking glass that will zap you back in. So if you have any items that you have yet to pick up in those locations, kiss ‘em goodbye. The best advice I can give is to make sure you go back & get as many of the optional items as possible before you push the story forward. Th last thing that didn’t really bother me too much (I found it more funny than irritating) but may bother some of you is the item floating glitches. Sometimes an item will be left floating in the air when the structure beneath it is destroyed. Other times, it may be flying through the air & then just stop. In my experience though, this isn’t really an issue with Shadow Complex or the developers at Chair. It’s more of an issue with the Unreal technology. I’ve seen it a lot across many games using Unreal Engine 3. It wasn’t so frequent that it affected the gameplay, but it did happen enough that I remembered it once I was done playing.

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All issues aside, Epic has a winner here. The narrative is a bit predictable (Claire finds many reasons to keep you fighting the Restoration….hmmmm….), but the whole freedom-fighters-creating-a-civil-war theme felt fresh. Fortunately, it didn’t need to be a literary smash as the gameplay is an addictive jar of nostalgic fun that pushes the storyline very effectively. I played straight through in one sitting, picked up all but 5 or 6 of the items, & had 97% of the map explored in about 10 hours. Not that it felt like 10 hours. One minute I was starting a new game & the next minute I realized everyone was in bed & the house was quiet. It really is that engrossing & the pacing is just perfect. From the irritated devotion of the main hero to the Cylon-lite look of the enemy troopers (classic Battlestar Galactica, not the new one), Shadow Complex will suck you in & not let go, despite it’s flaws. I’ve seen a lot of comments (understandably) balking at the $15 price point a lot of Arcade titles are launching with. In this case, it’s worth every cent. Even with the bevy of truly great Arcade games that have launched this year (Splosion Man, Trials HD), Epic’s debut XBLA title is pretty much a shoe in for Arcade Game of the Year. Shadow Complex is available now from the Xbox LIVE Marketplace for 1200MP.

Purchase: Shadow Complex
Trailer: See Below
Developer: Chair Entertainment Epic Games
Publisher: Xbox LIVE Arcade
Genre: Action & Adventure, Shooter
Game Rating: T (Teen)
Rating: ★★★★★★★★★☆

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One Response to “Review: Shadow Complex (XBLA)”

  1. [...] Shadow Complex has deservedly sold more than 200,000 copies in it’s first week. Hit the link to check out my review… [...]

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