Shadow of the Colossus Hands-On

We get some exclusive quality time with Sony's upcoming action game from the team that brought you ICO.

The newly renamed Shadow of the Colossus is the eagerly anticipated second game from the Sony Japan development team who brought us the stunning ICO. Originally known as Wanda and the Colossus, the game was first announced in September of last year, and it garnered a fair amount of attention when it was announced because of ICO's beloved status with industry critics and gamers alike. For its next outing on the PlayStation 2, the ICO team has served up an intriguing new action game that isn't a direct sequel to ICO but shares many of the same sensibilities. After having been teased by a trailer late last year at the 2004 Tokyo Game Show, we've finally managed to get our hands on a work-in-progress version to see what new magic the team has cooked up.

Shadow of the Colossus' story features the same timeless fairy-tale quality as ICO, albeit with a more mature theme. The story here is essentially one of love. You're cast as a nameless hero on a quest to save a loved one, and your journey will take you to an ancient temple where you discover the power to save your love's spirit. However, in order to unlock this power, you must obtain the essence of 16 colossi, mountainous gargantuan beasts that roam the land. How can a man who's about the size of an ant next to these beasts do such a thing armed with only a sword and a bow and arrow? That's for you to find out.

The short demo that we tried opened up in what we assume is the temple where you'll get your marching orders. You'll gather your wits, mount your faithful steed, and head out onto the open plains surrounding the temple. You're dwarfed by the massive world that looms before you, which you can explore to your heart's content if you like. Once you get over the initial shock of the world's scale, you can get to business. Shadow's structure appears to be a linear series of quests that target each of the colossi. Your sword will possess mystical properties that will let it reflect sunlight when held above your head, which points you in the direction of the colossus.

Once you know where to go, you'll have to navigate the landscape in order to get to your destination, which serves as a subgame unto itself. In our demo, we had to figure out a way to get up and over the walls in a valley by jumping and climbing along a series of cliffs and vines. Once we got near the colossus, a real-time cinematic triggered and we got a full view of the massive creature, which is sure to cause some deep gulps in players the first time they see it. At that point, the next aspect of the game experience kicked in, which is best described as equal parts puzzle and action. As we mentioned, you're not exactly packing a bazooka, so you'll have to use your wits in order to defeat the mighty creature.

To save the life of your lost love, you'll square off against 16 truly massive, imposing beasts: the colossi.

We won't spoil the specifics on how to kill the beast, but plan on spending some time just observing its movements and scrutinizing the makeup of its body. The tools you need to defeat the creature are always in plain sight--the challenge for you is to figure out how to use them. Of course, knowing what you need to do and actually doing it are two very different things when it comes to taking down a mountain-sized foe. The colossi aren't exactly going to let you scamper about and kill them, as evidenced by our fun romp with the one in the demo. They'll move around and try to stomp you once you get their attention, so you'll have to be quick on your feet.

Avoiding stompage is actually feasible thanks to the game's control scheme, which is laid out simply. You'll move around with the analog stick, jump with triangle, use your sword to reflect light with the circle button, attack with square, call your horse with X, and use R1 to hold and climb. It's a simple system that lets you perform actions quickly, which is always nice when a massive foot is looming over you.

ICO is remembered fondly by many gamers for its beautiful, subtle production values and strong aesthetic effort. How does Shadow of the Colossus stack up in the looks department, given the pedigree of its illustrious predecessor? Read on to find out.

Iron Giants

Shadow's visual presentation shares the same stunning artistic flair that gave ICO such a powerful presence. This new game is by no means derivative of its predecessor, however. Shadow has its own unique look and feel that's conveyed by richly detailed environments and savvy use of color. The nameless hero sports an impressive amount of fine detail (such as patterned clothing, a cape, and lace-up sandals), and this gives him an almost Native American look. His faithful steed, amusingly named Agro, is equally outstanding, thanks to a comparable level of detail and smooth, lifelike animation. His tail, mane, and bridle sway convincingly as you make your way across the massive landscape.

The development team is bringing its audiovisual chops fully to bear with this new game.

The detailed pair fit snugly into the rich landscape crafted for the game. The most striking aspect of the world you'll be exploring is its sheer scope. The start of the demo had us leave the familiar confines of a temple by descending a path that led to a vast open area where you could see for quite a ways. The outdoor setting of the game lets Shadow's art team play with all manner of subtle conventions in color and scale, and they seem to be doing an outstanding job of conveying the hero's place in the world. At the same time, some of the structures we've seen--vast bridges that feature swirling architecture, for example--are equally effective at making you feel smaller than an ant.

But, as impressive as all of this is, the game isn't named after the hero, his horse, or the stunning landscape. The stars of the game are the 16 colossi who you'll be hunting and bringing down. While we only got a glimpse of two--the one in the demo and another in one of the game's cinematics--it must be said they are arguably some of the most impressive video-game beings we've seen in ages. The massive creatures are a stunning mix of art and technology. The two beasts we saw featured patchwork designs that mixed natural elements, such as rock and grassy earth, with more mechanical elements, like gears and metal, into dazzling creations that are both dangerous and awe-inspiring. Their presence is complemented by their effect on the world around them, which is most obvious when you run up to them, as dirt and debris are kicked up while they make their way through the world.

On the technical front, Shadow of the Colossus' visuals are definitely a step beyond what was seen in ICO, although you'll see some obvious similarities. Shadow will employ the same sweeping style of camera, with shaky-cam movement and ghostly after-image filters thrown in for effect. Given the more-dynamic nature of Shadow's action, the camera has been adjusted a bit to ensure that it keeps up. You'll see more color and lighting effects used to make the world a richer place than what was seen in ICO. From a performance standpoint, the demo we played ran comparably to ICO, with occasional bouts of minor slowdown, which was perfectly acceptable.

The audio in the demo shared the same minimalist sensibilities used in ICO, which suits the action well. In many ways, moments of total silence punctuated by ambient noise are some of the most common themes you'll hear. While this may sound a little weird, it absolutely works and is an invaluable aspect of the experience. However, the game isn't all just wind noise and meaningful silence--you'll hear sweeping music tracks that underscore key moments, such as when you're solving a puzzle or fighting a colossus. As you'd expect, the music tracks are subtle but powerful and ably direct Shadow's emotional tone. As far as voice goes, Shadow of the Colossus is a game of few words. You'll hear some key emoting from the hero, his horse, and the colossi, but based on what we've seen so far, there isn't going to be lots of chatting going on. Finally, the sound effects that are sprinkled throughout are sporadically used like the voice, but they nicely suit the experience.

Anyone who appreciated ICO should be getting very excited for Shadow of the Colossus right about now.

Based on what we've seen so far, Shadow of the Colossus will be a game that offers a rich experience on the PlayStation 2, the likes of which hasn't been done since ICO. We're a little curious as to just how long it's going to be, but we're hopeful it will live up to its promise and be one of those truly special games that's long remembered. The unique premise, rich audiovisual presentation, and engaging gameplay should make it one of the most compelling PS2 titles of 2005. If you liked ICO or are looking for an experience like no other, you should certainly keep an eye out for Shadow of the Colossus when it ships this fall for the PlayStation 2. Until then, look for more on the title next month at E3 and in the months to come.

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