I’m revisiting some of my favourite games of the year. Here's part 1…
WHAT IT IS
Shadow Complex (Xbox 360) is a 2D exploration shooter, but with 3D graphics. You play a civilian forced to rescue his girlfriend from an underground base discovered during a trip to the local caves. Warmly received on its Summer release on Xbox Live, the game currently has an 88 score on Metacritic.
WHAT I LOVE ABOUT IT
What I love about it is that it’s a coherent thing. You can’t grab at any one thing in this game and say “that doesn’t belong”, because everything just fits perfectly. It’s the game equivalent of that tightly plotted thriller where you come out of the cinema without a single loose-end at which to pick. It’s like a puzzle box that clicks perfectly into shape on completion.
The star here is the underground complex – the gamespace itself. As you start the game you think you have it figured out fairly quickly – you just have to navigate in linear fashion, blast a few baddies, get from A to B. But the place itself is slippery and disorientating – as you progress and unlock more skills and weapons you realise that familiar places become gateways to new ‘unlockable’ locations and new routes and methods of navigation come into play.
The mastery here is familiarity – you get to know the place you’re in like the back of your hand, all the little tricks to get from one place to the next in the quickest time. It gives a weak central story a sense of unity that it probably doesn’t deserve – it’s not a question of moving on to the next level, it’s a question of learning to utilise the space that you know in a new way. By the end of the game the whole place is a sandbox that you feel in command of. And that’s how stories should always end – with a new perspective on what has come before.
Perspective is the game’s other major triumph. Using the Unreal 3D engine it manages to breathe life into a 2D shooter by having the background scenery come to life. It never ever feels flat – soldiers advance from distant tunnels and platforms. And it can hop in and out of 3D whenever it chooses, to give emphasis to dialogue or a melee attack. The key here is variety – from a close-up shimmy through a vent, to a super-scale pitch battle in a vast hall, the game knows how to mix it up and surprise the player from start to finish. There’s not a false beat in the whole thing.
THE GAME’S LEGACY?
I don’t expect there’ll be a huge number of new 2D Metroid-vania style games. I think its influence is simply in that it is a superb example of a whole that is absolutely the sum of all of its parts. From the smallest detail to the overall picture, the whole thing is absolutely integrated in a way that few games ever manage.