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Microsoft’s E3 strategy, as of late, has focused on the year in which the convention takes place, without making promises that dive into the future. This year, with the unveiling of Project Natal and the first gameplay footage of Alan Wake, they seem to have gone against that idea and focused on the second half of the console cycle. One notable exception was Shadow Complex, an Xbox Live Arcade game developed by Chair Entertainment Group, the creators of Undertow. Running on Epic’s Unreal 3 Engine, Shadow Complex was the last game in Microsoft’s heavily advertised Summer of Arcade, and had a lot to prove, especially when up against the other heavy hitters it followed. Thankfully, it manages to meet expectations, making it one of the best games on the Xbox Live Arcade.
Players control Jason Fleming, voiced by Nolan North, as he attempts to rescue his girlfriend Claire, who has been kidnapped by Progressive Restoration, an organization attempting to overthrow the US Government by starting a second Civil War. Early in the game they assassinate the Vice President, so it's obvious they mean business. These nameless, faceless opponents serve as good fodder for Jason’s ever-increasing arsenal, which moves up from just a flashlight at the beginning to a power suit by the end. From regular grunts to massive mechs, the Restoration has plenty of firepower, and will stop at nothing to make sure Jason doesn't accomplish his goal.
Playing as a regular guy (with a goodly amount of military training) is a nice change of pace from most shooters on the market. The game's story, while not all that impressive, is well written thanks to the work of comic book scribe Peter David. Orson Scott Card, the writer of Ender’s Game, penned the game's world and backstory, both of which help flesh out the experience. In a way, it's a bit like BioShock in that the actual story itself isn't as impressive as the history of the world and the events taking place around the main character. Even with constant chatter between Jason, Claire, and different members of the Restoration, little of interest is actually unveiled. Jason's story isn't all that important in the grand scheme of things, but this is something that's made up for by the actual gameplay.
The gameplay is best compared... well... Metroidvania. Let's get that out of the way at the beginning. It's hard to read anything about Shadow Complex without that phrase being thrown around, and it's mentioned in nearly every preview, interview, and review for the game. Those comparisons weren't misplaced. Set in a 2D plane, players move vertically and horizontally, utilizing different tools to help traverse the levels. At first, players run on a fairly linear path, constantly finding doors they can’t open or places he can’t reach. After attaining familiar upgrades like a grappling hook, missile launcher, and a double jump, these locations are opened, meaning more areas to explore. That's Metroid. That's very Metroid. It’s a tried and true method that requires a good amount of backtracking and fighting respawning enemies, but the gameplay is fun enough that it never becomes a chore.
That said, Chair does a good amount to make the experience feel fresh. Fully 3D turret sequences and occasional enemies that will fire from the background add originality, doing what couldn't be done in past years. It usually works out in the game’s favor, save for some difficulty with hitting opponents in the background, which can make some areas more frustrating than they were probably intended to be. The full game lasts anywhere from five to ten hours, depending on how much of the compound is explored. By wandering around, players can find additional items, weapons, and upgrades, giving reason for exploring old areas. A steady stream of new enemies and some massive bosses keep the campaign exhilarating, constantly finding unique ways to have Jason encounter the Restoration’s might.
Beyond the campaign, a secondary mode called Proving Grounds is available, which serves as a tutorial for the different abilities gained throughout the game. After completion, additional challenge maps are unlocked, each of which tie into Shadow Complex’s intricate leaderboards. Every punch, kick, and headshot is recorded, and while it doesn’t have the same built in competitiveness of Trials HD, it’s still fun to track friends’ stats. Sadly, that’s the end of any trace of multiplayer action in the title. It would have been nice to see some kind of competitive or cooperative play, but it’s hardly worth complaining about the omission. That said, if Chair leaves it out of a sequel it will be mighty disappointing.
Running on Epic’s Unreal 3 Engine, Shadow Complex is likely one of the best looking games on the Xbox Live Arcade. Even when viewed up close, character models are rendered extremely well, with body physics and particle effects that are usually reserved for full retail releases. While in-game animations are fairly impressive, cut scenes leave much to be desired, with items clipping through characters, random graphical glitches, and the Unreal Engine's signature texture pops. All in all, it does little to diminish the experience, and Chair has done a fantastic job at pushing the limits of a downloadable game.
Shadow Complex definitely managed to live up to expectations. There are a few hiccups along the way, but most of the faults are negligible compared to the overall quality of the product. Even when compared to other titles in the Summer of Arcade line-up, it’s more than worth the money, proving, once again, how much is possible within the limitations of digital distribution. It’s a must-buy for fans of the genre, and still worth investing time in for anyone else.