“At least the vice president is safe, you bastard!
*explosion in the background*
“You mean that vice president?”
That’s part of the dialogue with which the downloadable Shadow Complex opens. You start off as an agent approaching a firefight between FBI agents and bad guys squaring off in the open like red coats versus insolent rebels. The side scrolling segment lasts for about two minutes and ends with a helicopter boss showdown. Thrilling. Oddly, you’ll neither see this lousy secret service agent again nor hear much more about a poorly guarded vice president. Both of these glaring omissions are apparently a good thing because SC went on to completely blow my snobby expectations away.
With the Wii’s retro lineup, I know what to expect when I fork up my credit card number. And for the 360, I’m the first in line for add-ons to extend the life of an already enjoyable game. However, I’ve been skeptical when it comes to downloadable new releases. I just haven’t been too impressed. Games like World of Goo, Lost Winds, and Braid have been the exception rather than a rule. Battlefield 1943 was a leap forward, but if you want to know how I really felt about it, read my review.
Like many downloadable new releases, SC offers a modern visual take on classic 2D style. This is usually accomplished by offering pretty 3D backgrounds and obstacles in a 2D world. But that’s where the similarities SC shares with other recent titles end. Although an awkward aiming mechanic nearly cripples the game, fluid pacing, fantastic level layout, and a visual shine make SC one of the most enjoyable titles to come out this year - and not just on XBox Live Arcade. I mean, even without a fifteen dollar price, SC is one of the best titles this year, period.
After the false start you take the role of a gentleman taking his new lady friend to explore a cave. Shortly thereafter, she’s kidnapped, and you have to play Mario to get her back. It just so happens you’re a highly trained operative who disappointed daddy by not wanting to kill people; “You just can’t handle that!” Along the way, you uncover a shady, subterranean military complex and must stop evil x from doing naughty y. Loathers of Ursula La Guin, have no fear. The shadow complex could refer to the protagonist needing to embrace his super killing abilities to achieve completeness, but it’s not much thicker than that. The “complex” is just the military installation setting. And “shadow” means that something unscrupulous is amiss. Simple, really.
Though a stark military compound sounds dull as dirt, presentation in SC is wonderful. The game constantly shifts among industrial, cavernous, and aquatic environments. The first time you splash through an underground waterfall, you know you’re in for a special visual experience. Hell, at first you’ll have to stop from trying to turn down hallways that are just a part of the background. Slick lighting effects also play an important visual role. The flashlight adds nicely to the aesthetics and serves to illuminate secret passageways. In addition, character and AI animations are performed smoothly and with rag doll effect. A crowd of guards looking down at a live grenade before being blown sky high never gets old.
Level layout is classic Metroid style; action is not a twitch-fest ala Contra. Emphasis is placed on exploration and finding the next power-up that will enable the player to reach previously inaccessible areas. For anyone that likes the concept of Metroid but not necessarily the frustrating monotony sometimes associated with the franchise, SC is a welcome upgrade. You’ll rarely (if ever) get stuck and not know where to go next. The map is clear, and safe/save points are plentiful. And once you understand the game’s template, discovering secrets is challenging but not mind numbing. Only a few obstacles will make you want to hop online and see how others overcame them. Furthermore, the environmental obstacles actually make sense. It’s not just red door versus green door. An air duct cover will logically buckle before a wall of rocks. In addition, the hidden power-ups have a major impact. later in the game, the weapon, health, and armor upgrades of ever increasing bad-assary are definitely worth the effort.
Because it’s basically Metroid on steroids, SC requires backtracking to get the most out of the game. This gameplay mechanic is a major turnoff for some players, but the game is so damn fun even the naysayers shouldn’t care. Chances are high that along the way to your original destination, you’ll get sidetracked and find additional secrets along the way. I think the fastest speed runs are under twenty minutes. While the game can be completed quickly, it’s an addictive experience that will leave most players salivating to find every nook and cranny. I wanted to find everything on my own and probably spent ten hours or more doing so.
Even though exploration is where SC most shines, the action is varied and entertaining enough that it could stand on its own. Similar to Metroid, you’ll carry one primary gun at a time; each subsequent weapon found is essentially an upgrade from the previous one. However, there are several, more powerful secondary weapons: grenades, missiles, enemy restricting foam, and some weird ass device that gives you Sonic the Hedgehog powers. All can be used to more effectively dispatch enemies but also serve as means to unlock blocked areas. In addition, the jet pack and grappling gun add tons of kinetic action and exploratory potential.
Even though you can’t move out of the 2nd dimension, your enemies can. Patrolling soldiers sometimes pace in and out of the background. If you’re spotted, they’ll begin firing, and you’ll have to return the favor. Using the right thumb stick to aim is just too wobbly. Trusting the auto aim goes a long ways, but it’s still inconsistent. Sometimes you pop up from cover, shoot, and the auto aim locks onto a target; sometimes it doesn’t. I’ve had many instances where I’m being turned into Swiss cheese, and my laser sight just can’t seem to make it into the 3rd dimension. Resembling the shambling dance antics of the Peanuts gang, I'm just able to erratically shoot hard lefts and rights. Tightening up the aiming system and providing a simple lock in/out mechanism would have done wonders. A great game could have become a melt-in-your-hands experience.
To complement the quirky aiming, the weapons and upgrades are fun but are all things you’ve seen many times before. It would have been nice to see a few more unique items and upgrades. Really, now, who’s going to run out of a combined total of 120 grenades and missiles when there’s an ammo pile around every corner? If this shadowy organization is going to invade major U.S. cities, what other toys do they have to play with? There’s also a cool Solid Snake/Sam Fisher melee attack. But since ammo is mostly infinite, it serves little strategic value.
A worthy sequel to Shadow Complex will need a few tweaks. While cool in theory, enemies lurking in the 3rd dimension will require a better aiming mechanic. And I’d love to see some added challenge with a less forgiving enemies:bullets ratio. Nevertheless, Shadow Complex’s visuals, vast map, and price point make it a top notch experience. It’s a ton of fun and worth every one of your fifteen hundred pennies.