Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Shadowgrounds

I recently received a copy of the latest Humble Indie Bundle as a gift; this particular bundle was entitled the “Humble Frozen Synapse Bundle,” after one of the games in the bundle.  For those of you not yet familiar with the Humble Indie Bundle, they’re groups of DRM-free games published by independent video game developers that users can pay whatever they want for.  There have been 5 bundles offered as of this article, and the two that I’ve played have offered some really interesting games.

I don’t usually know what to expect from these bundles of games.  They are often groups of 5 or 6 games that I’ve never heard of before, and this time was no exception.  I tried one called Frozen Synapse first, as it was the titular game, and I figured it would be a good bet.  Unfortunately I didn’t love it, and so I put the bundle on hold for a few days.  When I got back to it, I tried a game called Shadowgrounds, and after about 10 minutes I was hooked.  This game was a blast.

The game is a top-down shooter, which is a genre that isn’t very popular these days, but still survives in certain corners of the gaming world (among them is another game I love to play from time to time called Alien Swarm).  Shadowgrounds was initially released in 2005, but has a sequel released in 2007, and a Linux port released in 2009, so while it’s not exactly cutting-edge, it's not ancient either.  It tells the story of Wesley Tyler, a mechanic on a colony on Jupiter’s moon, Ganymede, and the plot, well, you've probably seen it before.  Apparently aliens are attacking.  That’s all you need to know (ok...  there’s a bit more subtlety than that, but this really is all you need to know to get you started).

One of my favorite parts of the Humble Indie Bundle is that, in addition to downloading the game itself, most games also allow you to download the soundtrack at no cost.  In my opinion, these soundtracks alone are worth the cost of the bundle, but for this bundle in particular they were exemplary.  The music for Shadowgrounds was composed by Ari Pulkinnen, an award-winning composer and musician (who incidentally composed the theme for Angry Birds).  At several points while I was playing this game, my wife stopped by and just listened.  The music is outstandingly good and certainly stands on its own.  After this first playthough, I’ve been using the soundtrack as ‘work music’ -- it’s energetic and fun and great music to program to.

The game itself is simple.  You follow orders from various military folks that direct you along checkpoints, killing aliens along the way.  Weapons are picked up off the ground, and can be upgraded by using aptly-named “upgrade parts” that drop randomly off of aliens that are killed.  The boss fights are fun and creative, as well as challenging, though not frustratingly so. 

I can’t exactly say that this game is beautiful.  The graphics are certainly not going to win any awards today, but they are good enough to present a very compelling environment and are never a distraction.  Shadowgrounds also makes good use of darkness and light.  Tyler is equipped with a flashlight, which is a vital tool in some maps and makes the environment feel more immersive.
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The game is not without glitches, of course.  The shotgun seemed especially quirky -- for some reason it sometimes failed to fire the first time, but after frantically clicking it’d be back, apparently no worse for the wear.  The mothership was beautiful, but for some reason I consistently got hung up on the walls of the corridors there.  Very problematic while trying to dodge alien bullets.  The wide variety of weapons got a bit cumbersome by the end.  I would normally equip the pistol, but when a big group of aliens appeared, I’d be forced to frantically backpedal while I scrolled through weapon after weapon to find the one that I wanted.  There are 10 weapons in all, and to me that felt like about 4 or 5 too many.

The alien AI was generally good, but there were a few situations where they would get confused and could be easily killed without fighting back. 

The only other complaint is the weapon upgrade system - I love the fact that it existed, but I didn’t know that it existed for way too long.  I happened to stumble upon it after maybe 3 levels, and was thrilled to be able to quickly upgrade my weapons a bunch of times.  It sure would have been nice if the game authors had pointed me to it right away rather than hoping that I’d find it on my own.  I would have found this game intensely frustrating if I’d never found it, as some of the weapon upgrades come in very handy.

This game is fantastically fun, particularly for the price.  I’d strongly recommend that you try it out.  It can be purchased at gog.com or amazon.

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