Topping off 2009′s Summer of Arcade event for Microsoft, Shadow Complex wasn’t given much of a reveal until earlier this year at E3. It would be cynical to assume that the subsequent buzz it generated was all thanks to an appearance by 360 fanboy favourite and Epic poster boy Cliff `don’t call me Cliffy B any more!` Bleszinski, who was rolled out on stage to help introduce the game. Now that the finished product has arrived, it’s clear that there’s a lot more to it than that.
When a spelunking trip into a cave leads them to stumble across a secret base and home-grown terrorist plot, Jason Fleming and his girlfriend Claire decide to thwart the technologically advanced group who are planning to destroy major American cities. Shadow Complex is a game that is readily, but accurately, compared to the 2D Metroid and Castlevania titles. Taking control of Fleming, the player must explore and fight their way through the labyrinth of caves, corridors and outside environments that make up The Restoration’s base, finding weapons, items and power-ups as they progress.
Based on the work of writer Orson Scott-Card, the game is heavily sci-fi orientated, so while players may bemoan the fact that Fleming starts out as a simple man with a flashlight and backpack, he eventually comes across hi-tech gadgets and parts of an enhanced suit which allow him to do all sorts of extraordinary things. In genre-typical fashion these are drip fed to the player, so eventually Fleming will be able to make impossibly high jumps or run straight up the sides of walls. In turn these abilities allow him to explore previously unreachable parts of the map and find new upgrades, weapons or just to progress the story. Anyone who’s played and loved a traditional Metroid game will instantly be at home with all this; it even includes the staple requirement of backtracking through sections once new features are unlocked, but for the most part cleverly avoids forcing the player to do this if they don’t want to.
The instant Shadow Complex starts, there’s the realisation that it’s a bit more than the usual fare we’ve come to expect on the download services. As a button press on the menu screen sweeps the camera from the exterior through to the interior of the base, complete with stomping Mechs and soldiers milling about, there’s clearly a visual fidelity and attention to detail that puts Shadow Complex above most of what has come before. Powered by the Unreal Engine, it’s staggering what Chair Entertainment and Epic have achieved in such a small file size (around 800Mb), with everything from detailed character models, huge enemies and grand environments, all topped off with an automated but highly flexible camera that allows it to zoom in and out of the action with ease. There are also some incredibly well done set pieces that, without spoiling anything, are orchestrated with a gravitas that is missing from some titles that held a much grander budget.
The game is heavy on action as well as exploration, deftly managing to make both extremely gratifying. There’s nothing quite like the satisfaction of reaching a previously inaccessible area or the carnage of bursting into a room, slugging an enemy in the face with the butt of your rifle and then blowing his colleagues off the screen with a well placed grenade. It’s to the designers credit that the initially floaty control of Fleming quickly turns into an asset, allowing the player to traverse the environment and engage in combat with ease.
Shadow Complex doesn’t stick to just the traditional 2D viewpoint either, with enemies often coming in from doors located in the background or shooting at your from gantries and catwalks. This is where the game makes use of its pseudo-3D controls, with it automatically selecting enemies when you aim towards them with the right stick. It can take a little while to get used to (along with getting your head around not being able to interact with these areas and still only being able move in 2D) but once it does, older players might be struck by a strong burst of nostalgia for 8-bit titles like Cabal and, to a lesser extent, Operation Wolf.
Throw in some clever achievements (handled with Epic’s usual attention to detail in allowing players to see how far they’re progressing), leaderboards for the challenge rooms and in-game stats which show you how you’re measuring up against your friends, and Shadow Complex even manages to insert a competitive streak into what is essentially a single player title.
If you wanted just one example of how far the download services have come in such a short space of time, then Shadow Complex is it. With its big set pieces, hours of gameplay and high production values it’s proof, if it were still needed, that download titles can stand shoulder to shoulder with traditional big budget releases. Chair Entertainment have set a high benchmark for anything that dares to proceed it.