All politics aside, cast your vote for Shadow Complex.
Available from Chair (Undertow) and Epic Games (Gears of War) via the Xbox Live Arcade, Shadow Complex is proof that original downloadable games do not have to be esoteric quasi-art pieces or simple puzzlers, but a full-sized, neo-classical gaming experience.
Shadow Complex, scripted by comics’ Peter David (X-Factor) shares a universe with famed writer Orson Scott Card’s (Ender’s Game) currently incomplete Empire duology, dealing with a near future second American Civil War between the ideological left and right, plus giant robots.
To get it out of the way, this game’s only serious misstep is its weak premise. Without giving too much away, our hero is of the groaningly stock variety known as: “regular guy who despite his Solid Snake level military training just hasn’t found a cause worth fighting for.” Fortunately, when his girlfriend is captured by members of the Progressive Restoration Army operating out of a massive ‘Hidden Compound’ under the mountains of the Pacific Northwest, our hero finds the will to start putting bullets in brainpans. Thankfully, the stock motivations and self-moralizing monologues take a back seat to tight and fun gameplay.
Shadow Complex is a side-scrolling action-adventure game set in the exploratory/find-items-to-open-doors mold of Metroid and Castlevania: Symphony of the Night that amazingly enough, manages to actually build on the concept. Using beautiful 2½-D visual effects (2 dimensional movement with 3 dimensional character models and backgrounds), enemies that vary from troopers to armored mini-walkers, can appear out of doors and hallways set into the background, and engage in combat while they run into the primary movement plane, punishing players for dismissing the detailed backdrops. The camera, which will sometimes automatically push in too tight to see an enemy just a few steps away off screen, will occasionally swing up to an isometric perspective to give depth to long drops/climbs. It will also zoom into third-person mode when you’re using a turret, allowing you to target foes in any direction, including those against the usually invisible “fourth” wall.
The challenge is definitely in place, after selecting one of four difficulty levels, you start out with only a very handy flashlight (and some Jason Borne-style takedown skills) and the option to not only never use the area map download stations, but to turn off your objective breadcrumb trail. In combat, where you almost always have the advantage of surprise(and a stealth attack option), you are still perpetually outnumbered and outgunned, requiring some planning for assaults since dropped heath packs, otherwise mostly stored in autosave rooms, only have a mild restorative effect. Also, while the auto-aiming works if you’re willing to spam with the unlimited ammo for the default weapon, the right stick controls a laser sight, allowing you to draw a better bead.
With exploration and efficient combat (i.e. headshots) you will gain levels that will allow you to run further, aim steadier and reload faster. If you can find them (and you’re going to love looking for them), your weapons gradually improve from your fists to a pistol, machine guns, grenades, rocket launchers and more science-fictiony armaments like foam guns and power armor (optional tutorials for their use are built into the main game). Each upgrade helps you progress, find hidden rooms, obtain weapon and health capacity upgrades and can reveal alternate routes and shortcuts that can let you get the drop on your enemies, which is especially useful against the bosses, who are mainly variations on the spider-tank, mecha or helicopter model. Although it is distracting that the game slows down to announce when you find an item or gain a level, particularly when you are swimming/drowning.
The Unreal Engine 3 visuals are striking. Caves are gloomy and damp, high-tech labs are clean and sterile and back rooms are often lit incidentally, silhouetting the action. Each area, inside and out, has its own visual flavor, even to the point of keeping a row of pipe rooms and hangar bays from looking like copy and paste jobs. Crates crumble under fire when used as cover and grenades bounce realistically, reducing their targets to ragdolls. Character animations are amazingly varied and smooth, especially for the lead; crouch walking though narrow air vents, his flashlight casting shadows, or fluidly swimming in a murky green lake where each bullet fired at him tunnels though the water individually and as far as its momentum will let it. On the auditory side, what music is in the game is mostly incidental, like a crescendo after a big fight. The sound effects are stock, and the voice acting, of which there is little, is passable.
Shadow Complex also features a set of twenty-one challenge rooms, ala Bionic Commando: Rearmed that let you show off your skills on an Xbox Live Leaderboard. For $15 dollars worth of Microsoft Points (1,200) you can get a fantastic, original game done in the style that’s featured in every console generation’s Best Of list since the NES.