Release Date: April 25, 2006
Gamers don't like new things. For all that we may deny it, and for all that we may pretend to relentlessly search for the next horizon of the art, we as consumers tend to shy away from games that lack the genre continuity or feature list to which we are accustomed. Our tendency is to blame publishers for the lack of revolutionary games, but common sense must be applied; publishers avoid non-standard titles because they don't sell. We, the fans, are to blame for the current situation of decline of our hobby.
That being said, I have taken it on myself to single-handedly reverse this downward trend. When a game comes along that does defy the paradigm, I consider it my responsibility – nay, my duty – to give it a day in court. In most cases, I am sorely disappointed. Because of this, I was somewhat hesitant when it came to reviewing ShadowGrounds. While not a new genre per se, the top-down third-person shooter has enjoyed little attention in the modern age of 3D graphics cards and DirectX 8 billion. Other than Alien Swarm, a reasonably successful mod for Unreal Tournament 2004, the genre hasn't made much of a stir since the esteemed GTA series first hit the scene.
When I first turned the ignition switch on ShadowGrounds, I was pleasantly surprised by a very nicely detailed, thick, atmospheric world that strongly resembled the Gigerian "Alien" films. With my interest piqued, I turned my lights down, my volume up, and my attention was directed at the screen. I was greeted to a break from gaming custom. While it is the tendency in today's story-driven era to begin games with lengthy expository segments, ShadowGrounds began with only a very short scene, and then tossed me the controls of the character. As I bumbled around in the darkened interior of what appeared to be some sort of futuristic garage, I was repeatedly berated by a stern voice, which was insistent that I search out its source. Upon finding the communication device from which I had earned such derision, I was ordered out to fix a broken power line, and the story began in earnest.
That story is, admittedly, a formulaic ordeal that hearkens back to every single B-list sci-fi movie or game made in the last few decades. As a corporate senior mechanic, Wesley Tyler has been assigned to a colonized extra-terrestrial mining planet. For the most part, he's just fine with his current employment situation. Unfortunately, and exactly as is to be expected in such a circumstance, a strange ionic storm has recently engulfed said planet, bringing with it a plethora of strange happenings. Power lines have gone down, people have gone missing, and by some strange twists of fate, mechanics have armed themselves to the teeth and gone all "John Rambo" on a startling array of biomechanical alien badness.
However difficult you may find it to accept that an experienced Marine officer would send an unaccompanied civilian out into hostile territory to retrieve a damaged vehicle, you can't fault the action and mayhem that such an obviously flawed decision provides. That action completely excuses the limp noodle story. ShadowGrounds is shocking in that it manages to find a razor's edge balance between near-constant, pulse-pounding, face-shredding combat and edge-of-your-seat, running-low-on-ammo, heart-fibrillating terror. More than a few times, after a particularly intense battle, I would find myself desperately in need of a few moments of recovery. I'd stand in the half-light of a nearby computer terminal and try to calm my rattled nerves as I shakily fumbled through my raped inventory of grenades and plasma rounds. After taking stock of my supplies and glancing apprehensively at my dangerously low health, I'd step carefully through the next doorway ... and have my face ripped off by a horror-movie spawned pit bull.
Monsters run the gamut, from poodle-sized arachnid critters to building-sized abominations of steel and sinew, and are very nicely done. While quite a few of them, like the ubiquitous headcrab-esque spider thing and plasma cannon-wielding cyber-demon are obvious throwbacks to the menageries of other action shooters, most of them are completely unique to the established setting. The geography is similarly attractive, with intricately textured corridors and dimly lit alcoves cluttered with destructible objects such as crates and shelves. Unfortunately, whereas the baddie models are nicely designed and detailed, the human models are rather flat and goofy looking. Since they are the only aspect of the graphical palette so afflicted, and since the verisimilitude of the game is only barely nudged by this oversight, it is arguably forgivable.
Adding to the graphic ambience, the sound design in ShadowGrounds is excellent. The sounds of the storm are muffled when inside the buildings, and various scratches and clinks are guaranteed to heighten the near-oppressive sense of dread already woven. The weapons bark thundering reports as the creatures at whom they are directed respond with snarls and weapons of their own, and combat is fueled by a pulsing heavy-metal soundtrack.
The weapons employed by our intrepid wrench-monkey to spew forth the death he so generously bestows upon the alien horde are, again, rote in concept. Just as is this game's genius, however, the previous standards of chaingun, flamethrower, assault rifle, etc., are vastly improved upon by the addition of a relatively simple upgrade system. Metal chunks ripped from the still quivering corpses of slain monsters are saved up and used to purchase up to three improvements per weapon. As the challenge ramps up, it become absolutely necessary to possess these upgrades, so as to become the most efficient mass-murder machine possible. The system, though interesting, could still have used either more upgrades, or more difficulty in acquiring them. It isn't rare, due to the massive numbers of enemies present, to completely finish a weapon's advancement tree within an hour of finding it. While this certainly leads to a palpable sense of power progression at first, it means that by the end of the game, you have effectively smacked into a hardware ceiling.
Besides the few minor complaints addressed heretofore, there is only one huge grievance to be had with ShadowGrounds. There is, so far, no internet access multiplayer mode. While there is a console style co-op mode (which is a blast, by the way), if you don't happen to have a few buddies with alternate control methods for one PC, you can't partake of the fertile fields of bloodshed with your pals. This is counter-intuitive in any action game, especially one which so obviously begs for an easily accessible co-op mode. Though the single-player game is no doubt solid in its presentation, the addition of an internet multiplayer is nonetheless sorely missed.
Altogether, ShadowGrounds is a fantastic game, replete with many of the elements that even many big budget games have somehow managed to miss. With strong gameplay, outstanding design, and intense action, the game definitely fills the void left in many players by the somewhat-disappointing Doom 3. Other than the silly-looking human models, the graphics are nicely textured and smooth, even on lower-end machines, and the sound is magnificent in its presentation. On the other hand, the game does nothing innovative in the way of story, and though its arsenal is made better by its upgradeability, the improvements are far too easy to come by. Even with its largest drawback, the lack of an internet multiplayer element, ShadowGrounds is still a great addition to any action lover's library.
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