This is where the comparisons with Super Metroid are most applicable. Each new item found leads to new possibilities. You find yourself scouring the grid-like map for unexplored areas, previously impassable structures and rooms with question marks – legend for unfound item. There’s loads of backtracking – a hallmark of the Metroid series – but it never feels frustrating because new goodies are always just around the corner. Shadow Complex is in a hurry: new weapons and armour upgrades come thick and fast – evidence, perhaps, of Chair’s mindfulness of the modern day gamer’s attention span.
Underpinning the item-hunt gameplay is an experience point-based levelling up system that quietly gets on with its business without ever making the player a slave to it. You’ll level up almost without noticing, improving your accuracy, health and armour along the way. But if you bother to get your hands dirty with the system, you’ll find a meta-game hidden underneath. Spectacular kills score experience gain multipliers. Kill a bunch of goons with a falling shipping crate, for example, and you’ll get a huge amount of XP. String melee kills (press B up close) and headshots together for more bonuses. Kill a boss (the boss fights are great) by way of its weak points and you’ll be rewarded appropriately. It’s not just the doing, but the way of doing, that counts.
Critics will say Shadow Complex is just a rip-off of a genre once dead, but they’re missing the point. It’s executed so perfectly that accusations of plagiarism are easily forgiven. At a time when so many games feel like little more than re-skinned versions of Gears of War or Halo, Shadow Complex’s somewhat archaic mechanics are like a breath of fresh air.
Critics will also point to the brainless Hollywood blockbuster plot, but they’re also wide of the mark. Shadow Complex is perfectly pitched. It’s based on Empire, the Orson Scott Card novel, which might be improbable and unrealistically gung-ho, but it fits. When Jason talks to his girlfriend or himself, or eavesdrops on enemy chatter, it comes off as wonderful attention to detail on Chair’s part, not clichéd dialogue.
Chair’s greatest triumph, though, is that it’s nailed the platforming. It feels just right – only rarely frustrating. The collision detection is spot on – absolutely crucial for precision platforming, and the controls are as tight as a drum. The animations are gorgeous – from the holstering of weapons to the clambering up of walls – every action flows together seamlessly.
For a downloadable game, Shadow Complex is packed to bursting point. The main campaign, on the normal difficulty, won’t take you more than five or so hours to complete, but that’s only half the adventure. You’re compelled to reload and hunt down every single item, explore every nook and cranny of the massive complex in search of that final piece of armour. And when you’re done with that, there’s a raft of time-based one-off challenges to pit your skills against. Online leaderboards will only fuel high score obsessions.
In short, Shadow Complex is a triumph, a new standard for downloadable games. It’s a game in the purest sense, but is as “next-gen” as any Xbox 360 owner could hope for. And at 1200 MS Points it’s an absolute bargain guaranteed to fill rival XBLA developers with fear. 2009 has already seen a raft of quality downloadable games, but Shadow Complex could well be the best.