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Shadowgrounds Survivor

Platform(s): PC
Genre: Action
Publisher: Meridian 4
Developer: Frozenbyte


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PC Review - 'Shadowgrounds Survivor'

by Keith Durocher on Jan. 18, 2008 @ 5:18 a.m. PST

Shadowgrounds Survivor tells the story of three survivors who join forces with the last remaining human resistance in the heated battle against the ongoing alien onslaught. The acclaimed atmosphere and gameplay mechanics of the original Shadowgrounds make a triumphant return armed with a new feature set!

Genre: Survival-horror
Publisher: Meridian 4
Developer: FrozenByte
Release Date: December 6, 2007

Ganymede. The largest satellite in our solar system, it's basically a big ball of ice and salt water. Why on earth (pun intended) would humanity want to inhabit the place, much less a warlike alien race? Why ask why? Colonize it we did, and invade it they did. This was the basic premise of Shadowgrounds, a fantastic budget shooter released in 2005. Rather than leap straight into a sequel (Shadowgrounds II: Pick up a mop!), the Finnish developers decided to “remix” this game and release a hybrid expansion/follow-up. The result is Shadowgrounds Survivor, and it's every bit as good as the first release.

Like its immediate predecessor, Survivor is a top-down shooter that hearkens back to the days of Smash TV and Total Carnage, except that there is a much more detailed plot and a heavy nod to role-playing games. As opposed to the blanket machine-part upgrade system of Shadowgrounds, Survivor has implemented a more refined approach, with unique class abilities, general class abilities and weapon abilities tailored to each of the three characters. While not as insanely detailed as say, The Witcher, the extra depth is a velvety smooth addition to this budding franchise.

In Shadowgrounds, you played a mechanic named Wesley Tyler, an unlikely hero thrust into an epic tale of survival against impossible odds. A long-standing colony on the Jupiter moon of Ganymede is overrun by unending hordes of infernally chitinous aliens, and Wesley fights them and saves the day. In Survivor, you play as three different, isolated survivors as they battle through the same invasion. It's the same events and the same basic story, just different peoples experiencing it.

This time through, you begin as Luke Giffords, one of the last remaining marines on Ganymede. Your weapon options are a pistol, an assault rifle and a rocket launcher — not all at once, mind you, but these are what you'll have to work with as you find them. After a few levels, you switch to a maintenance worker by the name of Bruno Lastmann. This grizzled old Russian has adopted an interesting way of staying awake — he drinks flamethrower fuel. This avatar employs a flamethrower (as you may have already guessed), a shotgun and a mini-gun cannon. Finally, you take control of Isabel Larosse, a special-ops sniper who remains dangerously close to a full psychotic break the entire time you're controlling her. Isabel uses a pistol, a rail-gun sniper rifle and a plasma cannon. All three of these unlikely heroes share the same goals: get to the New Atlantic Colony before the alien hordes do, get the city's defenses up, and pray that it's enough to keep the monstrous things at bay long enough for help to arrive.

Basic gameplay is still kill or be killed, run and gun, etc. Every kill nets you some experience, which is banked toward increased levels, and each level brings with it some upgrade points. Weapon upgrade parts are still found on the battlefield, dropped by enemies, but now you also get class-specific abilities and character tweaks. These are what increase with each level. Using the marine as an example, you'll be able to buy quick weapon reloads, tough skin and fragmentation grenades. This is in addition to the basic set of character improvements that all three avatars have: radar display, increased health, critical hits, and an "auto-doctor" that will dose you with a health kit (if you have one stockpiled) if you fall below 50% health at any time.

The weapon upgrades are, simply put, fantastic. I've never seen a game so eager to make the default sidearm so ruthlessly effective. Both the marine and the sniper get a pistol, but they have different properties when enhanced. Luke can upgrade the clip size, add on a Taser stun, and tag on a smartgun link that, once locked on, will kill in one shot whatever alien at which it's targeted. Contrariwise, Isabel gets to coat her pistol rounds in tranquilizers (slowing the movement of all opponents), further coat her rounds in fast-acting venom, and her trusty pea-shooter gives her a temporary energy shield. In both instances, these weapons become among the most powerful in the game. Most of the upgrades are similar to those that were featured in the original Shadowgrounds, but because they're split between the characters and often between the weapons, they carry the illusion of being totally different.

Each of the three different avatars also has a unique special attack. These are fairly expensive upgrades to purchase, but all are exceptionally potent. The marine gets a one-shot, one-kill attack against the massive walking flesh-hulks called Brutes. When used, Luke jumps on the back of one of the massive aliens and puts a single pistol shell through its brain. The fuel-guzzling maintenance worker gets to blast out a halo of napalm at will, which is particularly effective against massed groups of opponents. Finally, Isabel has a "bullet time" reflex tweak that slows down the world while she retains all of her speed and function. It's as if she got a tax refund and decided to spend it on a hundred cups of coffee!

Finally, I'm really quite happy with the collectible feature. Each level has a "secret" to it, a little medal that can be challenging to find. As you thoroughly explore each area and pick them up, new options open up that go into effect when you replay Survivor. So far, I've only opened up two of these: I can replay the game entirely in black and white (an interesting, if somewhat vestigial, feature), and I can play with a low-grade God mode. Each level gives me 100 weapon parts and 100 character upgrade points to spend as I wish. It also unlocks all weapons right off the bat. These 100 parts refresh with each level loaded, so it effectively means that I have access to all upgrades the moment they become available! This was the first "secrets" upgrade, so now I've been slowly replaying the game trying to find them all, to see what else I'll be able to do. In an age when replayability seems to be extremely low on the priority list, Frozenbyte has decided to defy trends and make Survivor one of the single most replayable games on the market.

Survivor really beefed up the graphics. Lighting, already a major element of the ambience of Shadowgrounds, has been used to even greater effect this time. I lost count of how many rounds I wasted shooting at flickering movement that I thought was an enemy but was really just shadows playing off of my flashlight beam. Shaders have also been given some love, textures and particle effects. The overall effect is beautiful, but you can expect a pretty heavy load on your system to run it all at maximum settings. You can also expect some instability as a result of this new visual acuity. I experienced several game freezes during the loads between levels, and this only went away when I stepped down the graphics settings one notch. I was somewhat let down by the lack of new enemies, however. It can be argued that, because this game is taking place at the same time as the original, it wouldn't be entirely logical to have new opponents that weren't in the original. However, I would like to have seen at least a little more variety in models.

Survivor uses Ageia PhysX software. I have decided, based entirely on this game, that Ageia is my favorite physics solution for gaming; unlike Havok, the subtle realism of Ageia just works. Sure, there are the ragdoll effects, and the giblets falling like rain, but what really grabs me about the physics in this game is the way it approximates weight! Objects on Ganymede actually seem like that have mass to them, and on a very intangible level it brings this world to life in a way Havok never could.

The other new features are worth mentioning, too: point of view control (Shadowgrounds had a fixed camera, now you can swing the screen around for much greater freedom) and the ability to stockpile hand grenades and up to five med-kits to use as needed. This last addition makes a huge difference in a firefight, leveling the battleground quite effectively. Finally, even though I myself will probably never use it, the full mod tools that come straight out of the box have to be given respect. At one point, this feature was so common it wasn't even really worth mentioning. However, 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 also tutorial videos and a how-to wiki 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. While almost everything has been revamped, tweaked and improved, there are still a few tiny flaws that must be illuminated. To begin with, it's still ultimately the same game, story and setting — just with new characters. This isn't all that bad really, but it can lead somewhat to a feeling of "been there, done that." Also, the ending is very anti-climactic. Shadowgrounds ends on an epic high note, while Survivor just sort of … ends. However, before I rain too much on this parade, I must reiterate that this is the most fun you're likely to have outside of an A-list, big-budget title. Like the scrappy movie crew that feels so much passion for a project that the team manages to create true art regardless of finances, FrozenByte similarly has risen up from near obscurity to release two of the most engaging action games I've ever had the pleasure of playing. Survivor, the extended remix of Shadowgrounds, is a must-have for any fans of action-horror.

Score: 8.9/10

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