When it comes to giving bang for your buck, Undertow creator Chair Entertainment has hit the sweet spot with Shadow Complex. At just 1,200 Microsoft points (barely over £10), this feature-rich, surprisingly smart ‘Metroidvania’ game seems an absolute steal. Yet with rough edges, the odd malfunctioning cutscene and some undisguised debts to a bygone era, it doesn’t exactly feel underpriced, either. Coming just days after the scandalous GI Joe: The Rise Of Cobra, it’s something more important than a mere old-school revival: it’s a much-needed revaluation.
As grotesque a term as ‘Metroidvania’ is, it’s been used by both developer and platform holder to describe a game that indeed delivers its giant single map piecemeal as you blast open doors, sneak through ducts and cut a 2.5D swathe through enemy patrols. While we wouldn’t like to work Contra, Switchblade, Flashback and Metal Gear Solid into a more accurate portmanteau, there’s more than a hint here of all of them.
The plot. Jason Fleming is on a holiday hike with his girlfriend, Claire, and is doubtless wondering why he wasn’t just called James Bourne for the sake of clarity. We, meanwhile, are left to wonder if his looks and personality were imported directly from Uncharted or simply copied in painstaking detail. Moments later, they stumble upon the abysmally concealed hideaway of the game’s title, where a dastardly militia called Restoration plans the overthrow of the US government. Claire is abducted and tortured, yet seems to be having the time of her life thanks to a bizarrely upbeat voiceover.
Though its default difficulty pales in comparison, the hardware and style of Shadow Complex bear much in common with 2002’s excellent Contra: Shattered Soldier. It can look a bit like the bowels of Heathrow Airport at times (which given that Heathrow is entirely bowel-like is really saying something) but Unreal Engine 3 lends it plenty of charm. From crumbling mineshafts to spooky flooded hangars, its venue is more than just a checkerboard of cut-and-pasted rooms.
Its watchword – and the reason it compares so well to other downloadable actioners – is evolution. As Fleming makes his circuitous journey, he’s forever improving, acquiring and scoring. There’s no switching between multiple primary weapons but his one active rifle is regularly upgraded. An XP system rewards more active, explorative play with increased speed, armour and precision. The Achievements system from Gears Of War goads you into using different strategies, keeping you updated with pop-up stats and friends list comparisons. And the secondary weapons, each of which destroys its own colour-coded obstacle type, wreak spectacular havoc on enemy ragdolls.
The gun and melee combat is so thrilling, in fact, and portrayed with such energy that you could merrily charge and blast through the game all day, which is just as well as that’s exactly what it demands. A timid respect for Super Metroid’s age-old design means that even its tiniest quirks have been inherited, particularly when it comes to navigation. An important tip, then: follow the route-finder to the next objective without question, because misadventures to the wrong side of the map can mean a galling trip back. The signposting in both world and map is generally excellent, but not quite enough to be foolproof.
There’s also the rather sorry tale of the game’s bosses, most of which can be exploited to absurd degrees. We baffled one ‘deadly’ mech by just standing on its back and dropping grenades on its head, inflicting such shame that, with its last chunk of energy still intact, it scampered off and blew itself up. It seems that whatever the unique weak spot, every boss suffers one overriding flaw: the 30-odd missiles and bombs you can calmly pile into its face, again making the default difficulty a bit of a pushover.
But would you rather have difficulty spikes and Capcom-esque bullying? Yes? Then thankfully you’re in the minority. Gentle challenge and endless fun make a great and familiar couple in this game, betraying the involvement of Epic Games, whose grasp of modern playing habits is improving all the time. Proportionally, far more casual players will finish this than ever finished Super Metroid or Contra III, and their enjoyment might even compare. Sat nobly between emulated coin-ops and overpriced turkeys on high street shelves, Shadow Complex is something of a Live Arcade landmark.