If you're remotely interested in action games with a healthy dose of exploration, Shadow Complex is for you.

User Rating: 9 | Shadow Complex X360
In the last year, titles like Braid, Bionic Commando Rearmed, and 'Splosion Man have really propelled the Xbox Live Arcade forward in terms of quality and value. Cynics that claim the best of the arcade caters only for those who appreciate the quirkier and artier end of the spectrum might have had a case, but with Shadow Complex rounding off a strong Summer of Arcade 2009, we have an A-grade action-adventure that (cliché warning) has genuine mainstream appeal and quality craftsmanship underneath.

Weighing in at nearly a gigabyte and priced in the upper-echelon at 1200 Microsoft Points, Shadow Complex is a behemoth compared to most of its arcade brethren. The mainstream appeal will become apparent from the moment you start the campaign; visuals that could easily be mistaken for a retail price game, and a story that wouldn't seem out of place in a Hollywood-blockbuster. The short prelude that allows you to get a grip on the control scheme concludes with the vice-president of the United States being assassinated. Meanwhile, seemingly run-of-the-mill Jason Fleming and his girlfriend, Claire, get caught up in the conspiracy when a cave-exploration trip goes wrong. As he fights his way through the underground complex to rescue her, Jason will discover the nefarious plans of the mysterious Progressive Restoration movement.

Equipped for cave-exploration and not armed combat, Jason begins with only a flashlight. Definitely not the most exciting piece of hardware you'll accumulate, but undoubtedly one of the most useful. Apart from the obvious use, shining the flashlight on obstructions will reveal how to get rid of them. A colour-coded glow will indicate what tool you need to pass, so, for example, a green door can be blown open with a grenade and an orange vent can be broken with gunfire.

In the early stages you'll encounter numerous blockades that require exotic weapons, such as the missile launcher or foam gun, to dispose of. Naturally these can be removed later in the game, giving Shadow Complex a very similar feel to the classic Metroid and Castlevania franchises. Only time will tell if Shadow Complex can stand up as well over a period of years, but it's clear now that it inspires the same curiosity in the player that they did. When you encounter an obstacle that obstructs a power-up, you can't help but wonder "when am I going to get it?" Similarly, looking at the map and seeing a room you haven't been to really brings out the explorer in you.

Surprisingly, the sprawling complex has a good variety of environments. Rather than being rooted in a predictable military theme characterised by dull greys, there is enough diversity and colour to keep everything looking fresh. The city street in the prelude progresses to the mossy cliffs that Jason and Claire are visiting, which soon become the murky depths of military compound. In addition to clinical and high-tech areas, there are plenty of places that feel run-down and industrial, not to mention additional outdoor areas.

Indoors or out, there is usually a lot going on in the background. Although you're strictly limited to 2D movement, enemies often attack you from beyond the dimensional limit. In these instances, you can target hostiles in the background or foreground simply by aiming with the right stick. That means you're not always safe behind cover, even though you're playing in 2D! Admittedly aiming in these situations isn't always as accurate as you'd like; sometimes you have to move around and wiggle the right stick to get a lock on distant foes, but it rarely becomes more than a minor annoyance.

Excluding minor targeting hiccups, combat in Shadow Complex is satisfying and simple, with a lot of ways to dispose of your enemies. If you don't feel liking taking the most direct route (guns and bullets), there's often something in the environment that can be used, like explosive canisters or grenade-activated furnaces. Close-quarter combat is always an option too, complete with close-up animations of Jason kicking terrorist behind. Saying that, getting up close and personal with the military-mech bosses isn't advised.

Taking down robot spiders or bi-pedals can usually be tackled by manipulating the environment, but piling on the grenades and missiles is equally effective. As a result, these 'boss' battles seem more akin to high-powered enemies. Taking into account the upgrades you'll acquire for strength, defence, and ammo capacity, it's a shame they weren't a little more fleshed out and challenging.

For your 1200 points, you're going to get somewhere around ten-to-fifteen hours on your first play-through. The replay value comes with uncovering the entire map and collecting all of the numerous upgrades. Perfectionists after the achievements and four master challenges will get a fair bit of extra mileage; levelling up to fifty will keep you occupied considering you'll probably finish your first game at around twenty. And it also serves as an incentive to try the harder difficulties that come with greater experience bonuses.

Fans of Metal Gear Solid's VR missions and Bionic Commando Rearmed's challenge rooms will enjoy the proving grounds mode, challenging you to reach the exit by navigating various enemies and obstacles. Bonus points are awarded for meeting certain criteria (e.g. take no damage), and you're going to need them if you want gold medals on every mission. One more point of interest is how the leader-boards are integrated into the game; rather than staying in the background as in most games, you'll actually get pop-ups showing how you rank against friends in things like headshots, bomba punting, and making enemy soldiers scream (don't ask about the last one).

After so much good, something has to give... and considering the plot is tied in with a novel, it's strange that it ends up being the weak link. It certainly starts promisingly, but you'll quickly discover how fragmented the presentation is. It's very much "go to map-marker, witness story cut-scene, rinse and repeat". Luckily, the exploratory nature of the game will always win out against poor story planning. But that's not the worst part. No reasoning for the Restoration's action is ever given, and the chief antagonist has zero personality in addition to making a total of two or three appearances throughout the entire game. The end-game events that tie up loose ends are very weak, and after seeing the seeds of a potentially gripping plot sowed, you'll probably be disappointed with the harvest.

Here are the facts: Shadow Complex is a quality game, with wide-reaching appeal and lots of bang for your buck. Although it fails to deliver on the early promise of its story, nothing else on the arcade has offered such a comprehensive experience for such good value. The niggles – occasionally erratic aiming, some minor graphical clipping, and nothing remarkable in the audio department – are negligible and will do no harm to your overall enjoyment. There's little else to say... if you're remotely interested in action games with a healthy dose of exploration, Shadow Complex is for you.
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