et­ro­spec­tive: shadow com­plex

Pub­lisheR Mi­crosoft Game Stu­dios / De­vel­oper Chair En­ter­tain­ment, Epic Games / For­mat Xbox 360, Xbox One (Re­mas­tered)

XBox: The Official Magazine - - START - Robert Zak

As a date iso­lated from his­tor­i­cal events, 2009 doesn’t seem so very long ago. Why, it’s this side of the mil­len­nium, even this side of the noughties, and now we’re only… ah. Of course. We’re now on the brink of the 2020s, and I barely no­ticed that an­other decade’s gone by. But games are a great way to gauge the pas­sage of time, and when you com­pare what they were like in 2009 to to­day, sud­denly that tem­po­ral blur starts tak­ing on shape. Shadow

Com­plex is, in one way, very much a 2009 game, how­ever it also laid the (non-lin­ear) path for Metroid­va­nia games to make their big come­back.

Shadow Com­plex was rad­i­cal, adopt­ing a Metroid­va­nia frame­work when the genre was non-ex­is­tent on home con­soles. This was a time when pub­lish­ers and de­vel­op­ers were bat­tling to en­trench big-bud­get block­buster fran­chises for the sev­enth con­sole gen­er­a­tion. In 2009, we were in­tro­duced to the Bat­man: Arkham, Dragon Age and Border­lands se­ries.

“Our in­tent with Shadow

Com­plex was to take the non­lin­ear side scroller genre of such beloved games as Su­per Metroid and

Castl­e­va­nia: SOTN, and to de­liver a new ex­pe­ri­ence with mod­ern graph­ics and de­sign sen­si­bil­i­ties,” ex­plains Don­ald Mus­tard, Epic Games’ world­wide cre­ative di­rec­tor when we speak to him about Shadow Com­plex. “We thought it was a genre that had been aban­doned by the ad­vent of 3D graph­ics and the FPS and ac­tion games that fol­lowed.”

Epic idea

Amidst the chaos, Epic Games found it­self in a cosy po­si­tion, hav­ing al­ready es­tab­lished the first big IP of the en­tire gen­er­a­tion in Gears Of

War, and en­joy­ing ex­cel­lent early sales of Un­real Tour­na­ment 3. The com­pany had the lux­ury to ex­per­i­ment a little, and in 2008 ac­quired Chair En­ter­tain­ment, a small in­die de­vel­oper that owned the rights to Or­son Scott Card’s The Em­pire Duet. Shadow Com­plex, set in the Em­pire uni­verse of con­spir­a­cies, right-wing para­noia and civil war, was al­ready un­der­way when Epic ac­quired Chair. The game was made in Un­real En­gine 3 and penned by comic book leg­end Peter David ( The In­cred­i­ble Hulk, Spi­der-Man 2099).

Not that Peter David had all that much to write. For a game with such a strong lit­er­ary her­itage, Shadow

Com­plex is thin on story. It casts you as or­di­nary hunk Ja­son Flem­ming, who goes hik­ing with his girl­friend Claire in the Olympic Moun­tains, then stum­bles upon a se­cret un­der­ground base where an army of hench­men and mechs is pre­par­ing to take over the world; like Metal Gear Solid with­out the con­fused plot and ec­cen­tric bosses. Claire gets kid­napped, and Ja­son goes in search of her, though their re­la­tion­ship only goes as deep as spo­radic cutscenes where the cou­ple quip one-lin­ers at each other be­fore Claire gets kid­napped again. Sorry Ja­son, your princess is in an­other chrome box room. It’s silly stuff, right up to that bizarre end­ing where Claire turns out to be an NSA agent who tricked Ja­son into sav­ing the world. His re­sponse? To shake his head in mild an­noy­ance, shrug, then obe­di­ently fol­low his fake girl­friend onto the es­cape chop­per. There’s a nice self-aware­ness to the di­a­logue and goofy machismo, just don’t ex­pect the au­tho­rial touch of Mr David to shine through.

But then Shadow Com­plex isn’t re­ally about the story; it’s a self­de­clared homage to Su­per Metroid, al­beit lay­ered with the stylis­tic and de­sign trap­pings of the time. So you get won­der­ful abil­i­ties such as wall-jump­ing, grap­pling hooks and su­per­sonic sprint­ing, but you also do a lot of cover-shoot­ing and melee in­stakills. The game world is a vast, non-lin­ear grid filled with sneaky vents

and se­cret rooms, yet it’s also a cold, generic-me­tal­lic en­vi­ron­ment of greys and browns, and there’s al­ways a big red ar­row point­ing you ex­actly where you need to go.

It’s fas­ci­nat­ing see­ing this ten­sion, as Metroid­va­nia de­sign col­lides with me­chan­ics and con­ve­niences from the ‘se­ri­ous shooter’ era. It makes you won­der, had Shadow Com­plex come out just a few years later, with the in­die rev­o­lu­tion in full swing and grey-brown shoot­ers los­ing their in­flu­ence, would it have in­cluded these me­chan­ics? Would it even have been made in a 3D en­gine? That’s not to say that Shadow

Com­plex feels par­tic­u­larly dated to­day. It’s a fluid, re­spon­sive plat­former, cre­at­ing plenty of mo­ments where you can string to­gether your arse­nal of abil­i­ties to spec­tac­u­lar ef­fect; you can hang off a ledge and use your hook to shoot a sniper in a high po­si­tion, be­fore ground-stomp­ing the two men be­neath you and su­per-sprint­ing across the room to send the fi­nal chap rag­dolling into the abyss, for ex­am­ple.

Shades of Metroid

The joys of such per­fectly ex­e­cuted ac­tions still hold up, and it’s a tes­ta­ment to the abil­i­ties at your dis­posal that you’re vir­tu­ally un­re­stricted in how you tackle a room full of goons. No an­gle of ap­proach or grav­ity-de­fy­ing move feels off-lim­its, yet some skill and plan­ning is re­quired for it all to come off. When you en­ter a room, it pays to hun­ker down be­hind cover, plan a se­ries of ac­tions – sprint, melee, grap­ple, shoot, drop melee – then ex­e­cute them. Shadow Com­plex is not quite as mind­less and brazenly guns-a-blaz­ing as all those ex­plo­sive trail­ers would have had you be­lieve.

For all its al­lu­sions to con­tem­po­rary ac­tion games, Shadow Com­plex is also sin­cere in its rev­er­ence to Su­per

Metroid. This was no mis­take, as Mus­tard tells us. “A few months be­fore

SC came out we had the op­por­tu­nity to show an early build to Ken Lobb,” he ex­plains. “Ken is a Part­ner Cre­ative Di­rec­tor at Mi­crosoft, but ear­lier in his ca­reer was one of the key team mem­bers at Nin­tendo who worked on Su­per Metroid. We spent a whole day to­gether play­ing through the game, and Ken gave us in­cred­i­ble tips and feed­back based on lessons learned on SM. The best part was that he shared two very spe­cific ‘se­cret sauce Metroid de­sign in­sights’ that blew our minds! We re­turned home and im­me­di­ately in­cor­po­rated them into the game.“Not only are the two struc­turally sim­i­lar, Shadow Com­plex also gives the player the tools to do a bit of good old-fash­ioned Metroid se­quence-break­ing. I re­cently gushed in OXM about

Prey’s GLOO Can­non, and how it demon­strated the de­vel­op­ers’ con­fi­dence in their own world de­sign. Well, the Foam Gun in Shadow

Com­plex is its spir­i­tual pre­de­ces­sor, let­ting you shoot clus­ters of glob­ules to cre­ate bridges, climb to oth­er­wise un­reach­able ar­eas, and freeze en­e­mies. Arkane’s sys­tem de­signer Seth Shain even lauded the Foam Gun in the past, ad­mit­ting that it was more ro­bust than the GLOO Can­non, which didn’t al­low you to at­tach clus­ters to other clus­ters due to tech­ni­cal is­sues it caused for the en­gine.

Shadow Com­plex has a cu­ri­ous sense of mo­men­tum, too. Yes, it is sat­is­fy­ing to ac­crue new pow­ers for lug­head Ja­son, but un­til you had quite a few of them to play with (the triple­jump­ing Thrust Boots spring to mind), it doesn’t

“It’s a tes­ta­ment to the abil­i­ties at your dis­posal that you’re vir­tu­ally un­re­stricted in how you tackle a room full of goons”

feel like you are play­ing the game as it should be played.

Of course, the steady buildup of your char­ac­ter’s abil­i­ties is clas­sic Metroid­va­nia stuff, but ide­ally you’d want to have a good chunk of play­time when you’re fully pow­ered. By the time

Shadow Com­plex reaches ter­mi­nal ve­loc­ity and you’re a grav­ity-de­fy­ing su­pertrooper, the game abruptly ends. Dur­ing its seven-hour length, you prob­a­bly spend about one hour with all the game’s me­chan­ics at your dis­posal, while for the first three hours you’re a bit short on the fun stuff. By the end you’re left want­ing more, or rather wish­ing that more came sooner.

Long Shadow

But it would be re­miss to hold too much against Shadow Com­plex for its less har­mo­nious el­e­ments, or to com­pare it to the stan­dard of the best Metroid­va­nia games to­day. This is a game with­out much to look to in the way of in­spi­ra­tion. It’s a Metroid­va­nia that ar­rived at a time when sidescrollers were con­sid­ered some­thing that peo­ple had stopped play­ing two con­sole gen­er­a­tions ago.

With its mech-lab en­vi­ron­ment of con­veyor belts, steel walk­ways and ex­per­i­men­tal tech, it feels apt to call

Shadow Com­plex a pro­to­type for the new wave of Metroid­va­nia ti­tles. Even if sub­se­quent games in the genre didn’t ex­actly fol­low its shooter­in­flu­enced blue­print, you could very eas­ily make the case that its suc­cess reignited in­ter­est in Metroid­va­nia among both gamers and pub­lish­ers, and let to the genre’s re­vival.

For years, Nin­tendo and Kon­ami con­fined the 2D Metroid and

Castl­e­va­nia se­ries to hand­held plat­forms, wary of com­mit­ting re­sources to a genre that al­ways at­tracted more crit­i­cal than com­mer­cial suc­cess. Xbox Live Ar­cade opened the in­dus­try up to in­die de­vel­op­ers and their pas­sion projects, but in the four-odd years be­tween the launch of the Xbox 360 and Shadow Com­plex, there were no new and note­wor­thy Metroid­va­nias on XBLA. “When we be­gan de­sign­ing SC, games were still very much stuck in the old tra­di­tional re­tail model of $60 boxed games and pub­lish­ers un­able to take on much in­no­va­tion and po­ten­tial risk,” muses Mus­tard. What was needed was a Shadow

Com­plex – a dig­i­tally dis­trib­uted game made by a small team (nine peo­ple), yet with the fi­nan­cial and mar­ket­ing sup­port of Mi­crosoft be­hind it, and the ex­pe­ri­ence of Epic, who al­ways had a knack for un­der­stand­ing the zeit­geist. It felt like an in­die, yet re­ally it was in a more priv­i­leged po­si­tion, from which it prop­a­gated the idea that Metroid­va­nia can grab the at­ten­tion of a mod­ern gam­ing au­di­ence.

“The de­sign lessons we learned mak­ing SC formed the core phi­los­o­phy of de­sign that we now ap­ply to all of our games – ev­ery­thing from In­fin­ity

Blade to For­nite,” says Mus­tard. “Plus, it en­cour­aged other game de­sign­ers to con­sider the larger po­ten­tial for down­load­able games”

Look­ing at Shadow Com­plex to­day, it looks rather murky next to the bold, su­per-stylised ti­tles that cham­pion mod­ern Metroid­va­nias, weighed down as it was by the pre­scribed for­mula for how a suc­cess­ful game should look in 2009. Look past the aes­thetic, ig­nore the story, and for a cou­ple of hours in the buildup to the game’s cli­max, you’ll ex­pe­ri­ence a weird, scin­til­lat­ing cock­tail of fizzing all-out ac­tion and Metroid­va­nia de­sign that’s quite un­like any­thing else out there.

Above Ja­son Flem­ming, your reg­u­lar noughties dude with a longsleeved shirt un­der his tee. It was all the rage back then.

above If a hiker wear­ing a ruck­sack can take down your giant mechs, you may want to re­con­sider us­ing them in your plan to take over the world.

Top We’re not sure that hel­met is re­ally giv­ing Ja­son the best head pro­tec­tion.

Above There are plenty of ex­plo­sive high­lights in this Metroid­va­nia re­vival.

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