While the Metroid series has been taken into 3D on the GameCube, Wii and DS to critical acclaim, there has always been a strong lobby for another proper 2D version. With Nintendo unwilling or unable to deliver the platforming goods here, in steps Chair Entertainment and the Unreal Engine 3.
Two surprises here. Firstly that Epic (Chair is a subsidiary) is turning their hand to smaller scale experiences. Secondly, that they are using the Unreal Engine 3 to do this. These two facts combine to promise an experience that both plays and looks good.
In our recent walkthrough session we got to see just how well the game was looking and playing. We were first taken through the basic concept by our representative. Shadow Complex is an old school side-scrolling action-adventure that will be published by Microsoft Game Studios via Xbox Live Arcade. The story behind the action comes from Orson Scott Card's novel Empire. There, present-day America faces imminent civil war. In Shadow Complex we track a young couple away on a camping trip who stumble upon some suspicious and tech-infused goings on. While our male lead heads off to retrieve his rucksack, he finds a complex of underground caves. What's more they are populated by gloomy looking armoured soldiers, who, it turns out, have kidnapped his girlfriend.
While we are talked through all this, we can watch events unfolding on screen in real-time 2D action. The storytelling is a little reminiscent of the Metal Gear series (a theme that is picked up on further into the game with sneaking and peaking sections a la Kojima's creations).
This style and presentation gives the game added weight. Although sticking to its 2D remit, Shadow Complex draws in full 3D visuals and a sense of depth that is not just window dressing. Players can shoot and interact with the game on various plains - something that the engine cleverly manages to deliver without any direct interaction choices from the player apart from pointing and shooting.
But for all its visuals and alternative play-styles Shadow Complex is firmly in the old 2D Metroid genre. It provides the same map view to help you navigate through the maze of rooms. You enter and leave spaces by walking to the screen edge. You start underpowered by slowly pick up more weapons as you progress. There is a combination of vegetative and man-made materials and enemies.
All these combine to create what many have cried out for, for the last few years - a next generation 2D Metroid. From our first impressions it doesn't look like many will be disappointed - apart from perhaps having to own a Microsoft system to play it.
Progress through the many chambered space is at first restricted by both your firepower and abilities. As you pick up more weapons and ability granting backpacks you can interact with the environment in whole new ways. Of particular note was a Splurge gun (not its official name) that enabled you to shoot gooey blows of matter around the place. These could not only be used to disable enemies before finishing them off, but also to extend platforms, build stairs and generally adjust the levels to suite your needs.
It's innovations like this that make the game more interesting. Sure, an updated Metroid is a mouth watering proposition no matter what, but there are only so many times you can play a game for pure nostalgia. For Shadow complex to have legs, so to speak, it will need to keep doing new things. On this front, the range of interesting weapons, massive boss battles and interesting interplay of the 2D/3D environments look like it has the bones of a compelling experience.
We will keep our eye on this one, eager to get some hands on time and report first-hand how well the game stacks up to one of the great franchises of 90's video gaming. Chair and Epic certainly are aiming high.