Publisher: Meridian 4
Release Date: Q4 2007
In Feb. 2006, I previewed a game from a Finland-based development team called FrozenByte. The title was Shadowgrounds, and Rainier & I loved it to bits. As a combination of old-school, cabinet-arcade action and modern survival-horror science fiction, it was sublime. It truly did out-Doom Doom 3. Understandably, when I heard that there was a hybrid expansion/sequel being worked on and that WorthPlaying had gotten a press beta to chew on, I was all over it. What makes Shadowgrounds: Survivor a hybrid and not just some additional content? Read on, and I shall explain.
The preview build is a collection of levels randomly selected from the full build, so it doesn't give me any idea whatsoever of the story arc. The official press statement from publisher Meridian 4, however, states that the events in this iteration are occurring simultaneously with those of the original Shadowgrounds. In effect, this is just fleshing out and expanding upon the New Atlantis colony on Ganymede.
Right out of the gate, the differences are startling. The graphics slap you in the face because they are so much more detailed. This isn't just a massage for the texture files; this is a completely revamped system for lighting, models, shaders, textures and particle effects. The terrain is crisper, and the lighting and shadows more realistic; models have higher poly counts, and the new atmospheric effects are cold and wet. Snow and rain does tend to be this way. The trade-off is that the hardware needed to show off all of this needs to be much more sophisticated. The original game looked excellent and performed reasonably well on older rigs; Survivor pushes my current setup in ways few current titles do. Alongside the graphics is a new physics update, courtesy of Ageia PhysX software and hardware support. I don't have an Ageia card, so I haven't seen the full differences yet, but the increased giblets from alien corpses explosively decompressing is a gruesome improvement.
There are three characters to play this time, instead of just the one heroic mechanic from the original Shadowgrounds. There are a marine, a napalm specialist and a sniper. There is also at least one occasion where you get to play a massive twin-autocannon-wielding mecha based heavily on ED-209, only without the, well, constant malfunctions. Glee! However, I don't believe that you just select which class you want and go through the whole game with them; it appears that certain levels require certain classes to complete.
Complementing this is the new level system, which tips the hat to some RPG elements. Now, as you slay alien enemies, you generate experience toward levels. Each level gives you two upgrade points that can be put toward avatar upgrades, and these tweaks expand as you level up. For example, the marine, which was the only playable class in the press build, starts out with the potential to unlock a health upgrade, a motion-sensor HUD (this was on by default in Shadowgrounds, but now you need to purchase it) and an auto-doctor that applies a med-kit (if you have any in storage) the moment your health drops below 50. At level four, another upgrade becomes available, a quick-reload. I presume that more of these options continue to unlock as levels build up. Some of these are easy to obtain (it only "costs" five upgrade points for the health and motion sensor upgrades), while others would take some time (25 points for the auto-doc and the quick-reload).
One of the things about Shadowgrounds that I really loved was the weapon upgrade system. Defeated enemies would sometimes drop machine parts that you would use to improve your arsenal. This feature has been maintained in Survivor, but the options have been revamped and, in some cases, folded into the level system. As an example, the pulse rifle in Shadowgrounds could be given a larger clip, greater damage capacity and a taser. The pulse rifle in Survivor can be given a larger clip, increased damage capacity and a grenade launcher. Similarly, the pistol in Shadowgrounds could be given a bigger clip, increased damage and be outfitted with a poison dart, whereas the pistol in Survivor can be tagged with a taser, gain increased damage and a smartgun-link.
The auto-target lock is surreal. All you have to do to activate it is place your target reticle over an enemy until it clicks. Once you have a lock, it's a one-shot, one-kill process, regardless of the size of enemy~ Larger enemies take a little longer to lock onto, but it's not a huge difference, and the power the pistol gains from it makes it a must-use weapon throughout the entire game. This is not to say there is no need for the other weapons, since the targeting system still needs to be optimized; in the press build, it falls apart whenever there are masses of aliens swarming you, and this happens a great deal on Ganymede.
There are other new features too, such as the point of view control (Shadowgrounds had a fixed camera, but now you can swing the screen around for much greater freedom), the ability to stockpile med-kits and hand grenades to use as needed and the full mod tools that come straight out of the box. At one point, this feature was so common that it wasn't even really worth mentioning, but in this day and age of console-proprietary development, it's very rare to see a development team so eager to establish a working relationship with end-user enthusiasts. FrozenByte has not only included mod tools, but there are tutorial videos and a how-to wiki set up to help out novice level designers.
As you can see, Shadowgrounds: Survivor is far more than a mere expansion, but it also doesn't quite fall under the auspices of a sequel, either. Almost everything has been revamped, tweaked and improved, but it's still ultimately the same game, story, setting and characters. Meridian 4 describes it as a spin-off/sequel, but even this doesn't quite describe it accurately, so I like the term hybrid. All told, I feel very confident that Survivor will live up to and exceed the precedent set by Shadowgrounds. It carries all of the mood and terror of the original, with a host of innovations and improvements. In many ways, European game development is still in its infancy, with hit-and-miss titles that rarely deliver consistent fun. FrozenByte completely defies this generalization, and they're easily the best gaming export from their native country of Finland. The proof is in Shadowgrounds. If you love action, suspense, Space Opera sci-fi and killing aliens, then you'll love Survivor!
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