When you combine 3D graphics wizardry, the artistic style of a '70s album cover, and gameplay that can't even compare to Raven's Necrodome, you get a couple of things. First, you get Shadow Master, Psygnosis' latest attempt to create the "next big thing" in 3D gaming. Second, you get a newfound respect for Necrodome.
Shadow Master is a first-person action-shooter that has received a lot of attention because it was designed using artwork and concepts developed by fantasy illustrator Rodney Matthews. Matthews is best known for his work on album covers during the 1970s, with Thin Lizzy, Scorpions, and everyone's favorite "supergroup," Asia, among his patrons. His unique style lends itself well to a fantasy game, and to its credit, Shadow Master makes excellent use of Matthews' vision and style.
The game revolves around a less-than-inspiring plot wherein the evil Shadow Master is waging a war with his mechanized cronies against the organic life-forms of the universe. He's running out of the natural resources needed to fuel his campaign, however, so he's now come to your planet for some fresh supplies. Your only chance to stop him is to hop aboard a big laser-encrusted six-wheeled buggy and drive it through his armies.
There's no question that Shadow Master uses a breathtaking graphics engine. Taking full advantage of 3D hardware (the game supports all major chipsets), Shadow Master presents you with an unbelievable array of fancy explosions and creature animations. It also makes good use of lens flare, alpha blending, and transparency to present a truly impressive look, which is somewhat similar to G-Police.
Gameplay, on the other hand, is neither new nor extraordinary - far from it, in fact. You control your buggy-o-war from a first-person behind-the-wheel perspective. You have a variety of typical action game weapons at your disposal, which you can pick up by running over the various pods you see throughout the game's 16 levels. In this respect, the game is a lot like Necrodome, except that you can't run the enemies over (so what good is this buggy if you can't ram a few aliens?).
The bad guys will come at you from every side, and range from tall Aliens-style creatures and plantlike laser cannons to floating heads with lasers for eyes. These creatures are well animated and each boasts a high polygon count. They also blow up pretty nicely: Each creature shatters into an array of tiny pieces, which quickly becomes repetitive, but the ensuing fireballs are truly stunning.
The level design in Shadow Master is relatively straightforward, with lots of simple mazelike maps. Unfortunately, the areas you must traverse with your hulking buggy are all too often narrow and confining, making navigation a chore. To make matters worse, the bad guys always seem to appear when you run yourself into a corner. Once they surround you, it's that much tougher to get clear. If ever there was a game that screamed out for a third-person perspective, this is it.
One other feature worthy of note is the music. For a shoot-em-up action game, it's really not that bad, but it can become annoying in a relatively short time. What's worse, the music plays over most of the sound effects. Your weapons make very little noise, while your enemies' attacks are nearly silent, save for the resulting explosions. If you turn the music off, you'll also miss the pre-mission briefings. How nice.
The game supports a variety of control devices, and using a joystick or steering wheel is recommended. Keyboard and mouse make the game much more difficult to play. Speaking of difficulty, this game has no adjustable difficulty setting. This is never a good thing. It also only allows save-games after completing a level. Both of these criticisms are minor, however, when compared with Shadow Master's instability - the game crashed on us frequently, usually taking the whole system down with it.
Though the game is supposed to require a 3D card in order to run, it does offer a software-only renderer. That came in handy, since Shadow Master refused to acknowledge the Orchid Righteous 3D card installed on one of our test systems (despite running with the latest Direct3D and Glide drivers). On our other test system, equipped with a Quantum 3D Obsidian board, the game ran fine - until we tried to network the two.
Shadow Master's network performance is reminiscent of the old-school IPX games, the original Doom and Origin's Wing Commander Armada in particular. Gameplay seems to slow down to the speed of the slowest machine on the network, which is a phenomenon I haven't encountered in quite a while. Our Righteous 3D machine chugged along at an unplayable pace, even with low-resolution, flat-shaded graphics enabled. The Obsidian system ran just as slowly, which made the two-player session boring, frustrating, and as far from fun as possible. Also, the game touts TCP/IP support, but this is not available from any menu. The only options were IPX and serial connections. With this kind of performance, however, the lack of IP support may be a good thing.
In the end, Shadow Master comes across as another barely average game that tries to earn its keep on looks alone. If you're looking for a cool-looking 3D game with good gameplay, skip this and go for Wing Commander Prophecy or Quake II.