Saturday, May 13, 2006

Shadowgrounds Review

Shadowgrounds, developed by Frozenbyte and published by Meridian 4.
The Good: Excellent graphics, nearly constant action, some cool weapons with customized upgrades, feels different due to overhead angle, multiplayer cooperative mode (on the same computer)
The Not So Good: Very difficult due to being greatly outnumbered, overhead viewpoint annoys me, a lot of cutscenes interrupt the gameplay, only saves at the beginning of a level if you exit, on the short side
What say you? A passable creepy action game from a refreshing perspective: 6/8

In the future, mankind will come into contact with alien creatures on faraway worlds and have to fight them to the death. Wait, wasn’t that the plot of Doom? Wait, wasn’t that also the plot of Quake? Wait, wasn’t that also the plot of Aliens? Well, it’s also the plot of Shadowgrounds, a new action game featuring battles against aliens on faraway worlds. We just can’t get enough killing strange and interesting creatures. Shadowgrounds is slightly different from the rest of the first person shooter pack because it’s not a first person shooter: it’s played from an overhead perspective, something we’ve not seen for quite a while. Will this throwback to classic action games prove enough of a novelty to make Shadowgrounds a distinctive title?

Maybe it’s because you’re playing from a fixed overhead vantage point, but Shadowgrounds looks darn impressive in the graphics department. The game uses all of the latest graphical enhancements to create a believably frightening environment. The levels are detailed, objects can be destroyed (such as windows or computer monitors), and there’s enough blood to satisfy even the most discerning violence junky. There are also some nice touches you can spot around the maps, such as dynamic lighting from your shoulder-mounted flashlight and heat ripples from areas on fire. Shadowgrounds is probably the best looking non-first person shooter I’ve seen. The sound is not quite as impressive, as just the basic weapon effects accompany the action. The voice acting could be a lot better, and it’s almost laughably bad at times during the game. Still, most people will be drawn in by the nicely presented graphical effects of Shadowgrounds.

Shadowgrounds features a handful of missions (around 10) where you battle aliens at several different locations. There is cooperative multiplayer, but only on the same computer. The game supports up to four players, but unless you have enough gamepads to go around, it’ll get quite crowded on the keyboard. The low number of missions is disappointing, as the game is quite short, although a single mission can take upwards of 30 minutes or more. Of course, Shadowgrounds only saves at the beginning of a level if you exit, something that annoys me immensely and is my biggest issue with the game. What if I have to leave? Should I be punished by having to replay parts of a level I’ve already completed? This is the kind of thing that makes you want to stop playing a game, but luckily Shadowgrounds is a pretty entertaining ride. The game plays like a first person shooter except for the nearly overhead perspective. If your health reaches zero, you can restart from the last automatic save point, which, thankfully, is not at the beginning of the level. Why it resets to the beginning of a level if you exit is beyond my level of comprehension. There are health packs scattered around the map in believable locations unlike, say, ƜberSoldier, where health was every five feet in the middle of a road. You’ll need your health packs because the game is very difficult, even on “easy” mode. This is because you are greatly outnumbered and the aliens swarm towards and back you into a corner. Adjusting to the overhead view, including effective movement and aiming, takes time to develop and re-learn from the relative easy of first person shooters. It’s not that an overhead perspective is bad: it’s just different. Because of the overhead view, the game’s cutscenes stop the flow of the game because they take place from a more conventional viewpoint. Unlike most game where the cutscenes take place during the game, they occur in between the game in Shadowgrounds, which is slightly annoying. Continuing the Aliens theme, you are equipped with a motion sensor that detects any moving objects. This is a great addition: you can “see” approaching enemies on your radar before you can actually see them, increasing the tension of the game. The sole original element of Shadowgrounds deals with the game’s weapons. Enemies can drop upgrade credits that you can spend upgrading each of the game’s ten weapons: pistol, rifle, shotgun, flamethrower, grenade launches, minigun, laser rifle, railgun, rocket launches, and electric gun. Upgrades can give more damage per shot, more bullets per clip, or allow for a secondary weapon. The order in which you choose to do upgrades (and which guns you apply them to) can change your tactics in the game. Of course, I always end up running out of ammo for the gun I just upgraded.

Despite it’s short length, Shadowgrounds is a fun game to play. Featuring outstanding graphics, Shadowgrounds goes old-school with an overhead perspective that takes some adjusting. Honestly, I think the game would have come off much worse if it stuck to a first person perspective, since there are so many games like that. The fact that Shadowgrounds uses an overhead view actually works for its benefit, making it a unique title in the current action ranks. There are some small issues with saving progress during a game, but these are relatively minor as long as you intend to play the game in semi-long stretches. The weapon upgrades are a nice change of pace and interesting strategic decision you have to make during the game. Shadowgrounds does make itself easy to play, clearly indicating important objects in the game and featuring a low number of controls. It’s nice to play a game that’s just plain fun without all that thinking required in other titles. Those looking for a slightly different but still familiar action game will find plenty to enjoy with Shadowgrounds and its almost budget price.