Release Date: March 2006
Longtime readers of WorthPlaying may recall that I recently made mention of one of my all-time favorite movies, a B-grade post-apocalypse splatter film called Hardware. Its relevance in regards to the game I'm about to discuss lies in its theme. Hardware isn't particularly original; in fact, its story is essentially a re-working of the Terminator movies, yet I adore it regardless. The upcoming top-down shooter called Shadowgrounds is likewise unoriginal in concept, yet it in no way suffers from this deficit. Point of fact, this game is awesome. I'm getting ahead of myself, however.
When I think of chiseled, Greco-Roman heroes, I don't usually imagine them having a name like "Wesley." In fact, about the only name I can think of that's less Adonis-inspired would be, well, "Les." (All apologies to those reading this who may be named Wes or Les; I too am tagged with a less-than-majestic name. I haven't crossed paths with too many glistening studs named "Keith," so I can relate.) Perhaps in Europe, there is some bolder connection to the name, though, as Frozenbyte chose to name the protagonist of Shadowgrounds Wesley Tyler. In this instance, our hero is naught but a vehicle mechanic in a dilapidated outpost on the Jupiter moon of Ganymede – certainly an inauspicious beginning for one who will have such a bold impact on the future of this celestial rock.
It seems that the International Space Exploration Union took it upon themselves to terraform this particular moon in 2050, opening the New Atlantis colony for habitation in 2072. It's had a less than serene lifespan, and all those who live there do so under fairly harsh and militaristic conditions. It thusly comes as no surprise to our intrepid grease monkey when the power goes out one dark and stormy night, and he's saddled with repairing the generators. Nothing is ever simple, and shortly thereafter, Mr. Tyler discovers that it was hordes of bestial aliens causing all the ruckus, and not just insufficiently funded corporate technology. Alien tomfoolery, will it ever end? It seems that a large portion of the Ganymede military aims about as accurately as a Storm Trooper, and most of the grunts are dead by the time the power even goes out, so there's little left to do but grab a gun and get to work. Sound familiar? It should, as it's more or less the same story as the Doom games. Wesley Tyler is also decked out in an orange jumpsuit that looks eerily similar to the one Gordon Freeman favors. Talk about wearing your influences on your sleeve.
Shadowgrounds has been lovingly crafted in 3D, but not first-person 3D, so it takes a couple of minutes to adjust to the fully top-down point of view. Once you've rewired your perspective, you can take in what's offered by Frozenbyte, and initial impressions are good. The detail is exceptional, and there is solid artistic direction present in this game. With the power out or faulty throughout the entire New Atlantis colony, it's naturally quite dark just about everywhere you go. You have a flashlight affixed to your shoulder that operates off of a recharge timer, so for limited periods of time you can illuminate a cone of visibility directly forward. Doing this really brings to focus the superlative lighting and shadow effects, and it really helps underscore the overall sense of tension and suspense. Flickering movement can be aliens; it can also just be the lights playing tricks. Often it's both. It's worth mentioning that you can have this light on at the same time as you have a weapon in hand. Anyone who's played Doom 3 will understand the significance of this point.
It would have been very easy for Frozenbyte to make this a shallow shooter, devoid of anything more than bullets and gore. Don't get me wrong, there is a glorious excess of both. There is more though, and it is this "TLC" that endears Shadowgrounds to me as a "must have" when it's released. Throughout your travels in the New Atlantis colony, you'll encounter computers and PDAs you can access and read, all of which include background story that adds life to the world created by this new development team. Not only that, but there is a great deal of care put into the level design that just makes sense. The environments feel right, like the kind of cellular living to which a large community would adapt. There are more than just research labs and office spaces; there are lounges, living quarters, restrooms, and even a nightclub that blasts house techno. Where most other titles that adapt the "colony" setting tend to be sterile, Shadowgrounds feels vibrant and alive, even as it's abandoned in the face of a horrifying infernal invasion.
Like all great action-shooter titles, an ever-increasing arsenal is all-important. Shadowgrounds doesn't break this tradition in the least, and you'll have plenty to chew on by the time all is said and done. You'll start with a basic eight-round military sidearm, over time gathering such crowd-pleasers as the assault shotgun, the railgun, the Vulcan chaingun, and even a "tesla"-cannon that sprays electricity across the screen in a fantastic display. All told, there is a total of 10 different weapons you'll find throughout the New Atlantis colony. That's not all! Shadowgrounds also includes a sweet little upgrade feature for each gun. Sometimes aliens cough up little glowing disks as they die (what are these things eating and why?), and these "upgrade parts" can be used somewhat like munitions currency. Once you've accumulated enough of them, a little arrow icon pops up on screen and you can tap the "Enter" key to bring up the upgrade window.
Each weapon has three levels of advancement that can be purchased, and these have a massive impact on how Shadowgrounds plays out. These are so much more than just cosmetic changes; the basic pistol alone becomes an extremely potent weapon once bolstered into a hand-cannon. It's not often that the default gun sees use past the first level in a game like this, but I found myself relying on it almost constantly as I worked through this preview build. Some of these tweaks include advancements like increased damage, increased clip size, and the occasional "special" attack like the right-click auto-fire that the shotgun has. (In combination with the increased clip, this attack is monstrously powerful, but requires downtime as you manually slot in 12 shells to replenish the chamber. In a bottleneck though, there's nothing left alive to worry about. Reload at your leisure.)
The aliens you encounter are a mixed bag of creatures we've seen in pop culture for some time now. Many-legged skittering things, dog-like plated beasts, hulking skinned bi-pedal demons with pulse-cannons for arms, half-man, half-spider bio-mechanoid aberrations with scoped vision and more of those pulse-cannons we love, and the occasional "boss"-monster too! This build only featured one of these, a towering worm in the water-treatment facility that harfs (yes, I invented that word) up caustic bile at high velocity. This goo hurts and impedes movement, so it's win-win for the inhumans!
All told, my first impressions of Shadowgrounds have been just about completely positive. My only desire is for the addition of a "savegame" feature, which at this point seems to be absent. Each level has an auto-save, but it's inconvenient to replay all of a level when you need to log off halfway through. Other than that, I've greatly enjoyed what's on display; it looks great, it has an engaging plot, and its action is a good blend of straight gunplay and creepy suspense. As I was mentioning earlier, just because a story isn't unique doesn't mean it can't deliver. In all honesty, I think Shadowgrounds out-"Dooms" Doom 3, and I can hardly wait to get my hands on the full version to see how it all ends.
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