Friday, May 13, 2016
Shadowgrounds - Thoughts
The demo for Shadowgrounds was one of the first games I remember playing courtesy of the Steam storefront. Back in the days where Valve's marketplace was diminutive and I was curious what (non-FPS/Blizzard) wonders lurk within the unexplored jungles of PC gaming, I happened upon this gritty top-down shooter and decided to give it a whirl. I greatly enjoyed what I played, but it wasn't until the Humble Frozenbyte Bundle that I was able to nab both it and its sequel. Nearly a decade later, I finally set aside the time to play through it, and boy, it sure is an action game made in the '00s.
If that's not an enriching description, allow me to paint a better picture by asking some questions. You know how The Matrix had a massive impact on everything that tried to be cool post-1999? And you know how Halo: Combat Evolved (or Starship Troopers if you will) helped popularize placing the American military into sci-fi settings? And ya know how Doom 3 tried the whole horror in space thing? Mix those three things together, add this music to it, and yeah—that essentially covers all six hours I spent with Shadowgrounds.
To its credit, the game doesn't play like anything I mentioned above. The lofty camera angle may fool you into thinking it's a twin-stick shooter but Shadowgrounds isn't as kinetic or exciting as one might think. As strange as it sounds, the game strikes me as more of a bizarre Doom clone. You have an arsenal of ten weapons, your hellish foes require frequent strafing to avoid projectiles, and the nonlinear maps encourage room-by-room sweeps and munitions scavenging. The game doesn't come anywhere close to touching Doom's immaculate design or mechanics, but it echoes its bold style; the best praise I have to heap upon Shadowgrounds is that at times it feels like a European reimagining of id's classic.
Of course, the opening missions of the game do little to convince the player of that. Shadowgrounds has a slow build towards the meat of its gameplay, unapologetically forcing the player to engage in some very boring gunfights until their arsenal begins to expand. Right around when the grenade launcher is introduced and the game replaces its monster waves with patrolling guards is when I found myself most appreciative of the experience. The purchasable skills linked to each of the weapons gives you something to look forward to while you're mowing down countless hordes of faux-Shamblers, and while it may be a bit of a lottery trying to figure out which ones are helpful and which are duds, their inclusion keeps things interesting.
There's not much to the Shadowgrounds besides that. The story is what I'd lovingly refer to as the polar opposite of Deus Ex: Human Revolution: each character, cutscene, and journal entry are wholly meaningless and shockingly boring, to the point where I wouldn't be surprised if a high schooler secretly wrote it. There's not a lot of variety to the setting, and when you do get a change in locale the game tries to be Halo so hard it hurts. The flashlight mechanic is interesting in theory but comes across as irritating (please let me upgrade its battery!), the end of the game introduces shielded enemies that are impossible to fight, and the dodge roll is downright pitiful. None of these issues are worth getting your panties in a bunch though—this is prime C-grade material, so it's prudent to expect some ugly bumps along the way.
There is a mindless joy at the center of Shadowgrounds. The gunplay is decent and the campaign is competent... but it's not anything I'd earnestly recommend. Perhaps it was better off being a gilded memory locked between some synapses in my skull, but hey, at least it was kinda entertaining while it lasted. It's an unremarkable blast from the past that served as a good diversion between the bigger titles getting released this year.