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GamingOnLinux Reviews - Shadowgrounds

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Game Information:
Name: Shadowgrounds
Released: November 11, 2005
Developer: Frozenbyte
Rating: 7.5/10

Hardware Specifications:
Processor: AMD Sempron 140 2.7 Ghz
Video Card: Diamond AMD Radeon HD 4670
Memory: 4 Gigabytes DDR2 1066
Hard Drive: 2 TB Western Digital Caviar Green

System Specifications:
Distribution: Fedora 16
Kernel: Linux 3.4.4
Graphics Driver: R600 Gallium3D Driver
Desktop Environment: Xfce with compositing


If there is one thing that the explosion of indie developers in the past few years has accomplished, it has been the revival of previously dormant genres and game types. Genres which at one point had defined gaming, such as platformers, adventure games, top-down and turn-based games in general, had at first glance entered the twenty-first century as battered shells of their former selves, unable to attain commercial success or representation. But then came the hobbyists and the independents who, intent not to let some of their favourite game types die out or were simply lacking the budgets to explore the more widely touted genres of the day, saw these older formulas and staples as their means to enter the industry.

In this, Shadowgrounds stands out as being more of an example of the former than the latter. Being the first commercially released product from the developer Frozenbyte, it brought the top-down shooter back with a bang, featuring high graphics, an expansive soundtrack, fully voiced characters, and a developed if somewhat derivative story line. One could be forgiven for confusing it with the mainstream well-funded first person shooter games with which it would compete with, but Shadowgrounds also showed its indie roots as well; it was developed by a relatively unknown developer in Finland of only about twenty people. With that in mind, it is actually quite an achievement.

The game takes place on Ganymede, a satellite of Jupiter and, just so you can actually learn something from reading all of this, the largest moon in the Solar System. It follows the story of Wesley Tyler, a senior mechanic at the IGTO Repair Base,with the IGTO being the murky, faceless conglomerate responsible for governing the colony of New Atlantis. The game starts of with a long introductory video giving a less than brief overview of the setting and the history of the colony, before switching focus over to the player character. You and two other mechanics are sent to fix some broken equipment, but soon everything starts to go horribly wrong. Yes, you could be forgiven if you think you have already seen all of this before. In fact, Shadowgrounds often comes across as the poor-man's Doom 3 (2004) in more ways than just the opener.

At any rate, on your way there the other mechanics start to gossip, conveniently fleshing out the back story for the player character. Apparently Tyler started out in security and was only forced to become a mechanic after being blamed for a mishap. This is actually a surprising bit of literary genius on the part of Frozenbyte; it may not actually add much to the game's narrative in of itself, but it at least explains why he is one of the few people on the base who actually knows how to shoot straight. From there, the three of them get separated, and it is assumed that Tyler is the only one to get out of there alive.

For those unfamiliar with the genre, a top-down shooter is basically the same as any other shooter game, only with you staring down from above at the game world, instead of seeing it through the character's eyes as in a first person game, or from a view of the character's rear as in most other third person games. This means that you only have limited control of the protagonist, although this controlled perspective does have the advantage that it lends itself well to dodging and other evasive moves. It also allows you to better navigate large mazes, not to mention render them. To the games credit, Shadowgrounds knew full well about these strengths and this is essentially what the game is about: fighting and dodging monsters while navigating mazes. The occasional fetch quest or repair mission is of course thrown in for flavour, but for the most part it sticks admirably to the original recipe.

Like with Doom 3, the baddies, in this case aliens rather than demons, are not introduced right away. Even after the assumed demise of your partners, you do not get to fight the alien hoards immediately. It starts off with just you, alone with your trusty flashlight, as small spider like creatures start appearing out of nowhere. This is accompanied by a number of rather cheap horror tropes being gleefully displayed in cut-scenes or in other scripted sequences. While expected, this is not exactly the game's strong suit. At any rate, after dodging and running away from the increasingly hostile bugs, you eventually find a pistol, and start to to take the fight back to your pursuers.

Tyler can move about in two dimensions, but the third will always remain a mystery to him. You can not jump and you can not run, though you can of course casually walk around the map and as was mentioned earlier dodge, causing Tyler to quickly execute a fast ground roll. This can give you a quick boost of speed if or when you need it. In the end, this results in an almost claustrophobic kind of gameplay with your options always seeming somewhat limited, resulting in some rather hectic stand offs. Even with the ability to swerve, you often end up dodging away from the thrashing claws of one beast into the waiting jaws of another. This is not meant to come off as a bad thing; it is what makes the game work so admirably as a pure adrenaline shooter. The top-down perspective also prevents some of the jarring camera angles and wonky views that plague some other third-person titles, making Shadowgrounds a much more smooth experience.

Even with its sharp focus, Frozenbyte still managed to find a few ways to be somewhat innovative. All of your weapons are upgradeable in a fashion similar to role-playing games; the more dropped upgrade parts you collect from your fallen foes, the more upgrades become unlocked. It is essentially a skills system for guns, and it helps give life to the otherwise fairly standard arsenal. Starting with your basic side-arm, you later get to utilize the power of shotguns, pulse-rifles, grenade launchers, rocket launchers, flamethrowers, and the aptly named “Electric Gun”, which fires bursts of searing electricity. Each has various different upgrades that you can use, with the most useful in my opinion being available for the grenade launcher. Utilizing this upgrade, you can fire multiple explosive rounds at once, decimating even the largest extraterrestrial. Another nice addition to the game are certain sequences where the player gets to set up automated turret guns, allowing for a satisfying high enemy death count.

One part of the game that is not nearly as flexible is the save system. In a less than welcome throwback to the past, you are not allowed to save during a level. Instead, you have a limited number of lives which you must conserve until you can progress to the next area. While the amount of lives you are given is fairly generous, it turns a game which would ideally be best played in shorter bursts into a marathon. The game only consists of eleven levels, and to make up for this each area is surprisingly large, which would be absolutely fine, if you could save in the middle. As it is, you spend a large chunk of the latter half of each level getting increasingly frustrated while looking for the level end and watching your lives run out.

At least this does give you the advantage of having each level you have played easily accessible from the load screen for when you would like to revisit an area. The levels themselves consist of a number of science fiction and action game tropes, ranging from military bases, secret research labs, living quarters, mines, and even some outdoor areas where you venture forth onto the surface of Ganymede. However, unlike in a certain similar game the moon was fully terraformed, meaning you will not need to watch your oxygen levels. Each level also presents Tyler with specific challenges, such as finding and rescuing a scientist, fixing broken equipment, and fighting and dying alongside other survivors. Even with this apparent variation the similar colours and lighting can lead to each area looking much the same as the one that came before it, although it does have a few nice mould breaking visual scenes on occasion.

The same holds true for enemy variety. There are three basic types of opponents: spider like monsters, worm like creatures, and bipedal cybernetics. Shadowgrounds will cycle through these types with some regularity, giving you several permutations but very little real variety. Of these, the most cleverly thought out beast is actually from the worm variety. Making full use of the flashlight mechanic, these foes can faze in and out of sight, with only carefully placed beams of light and their distinctive shrieking sounds revealing them to the player. This idea would have been perfect for id Software to have implemented into Doom 3 as the original game in the series had a special kind of demon called Spectres which operated under much the same principle. As such, it would have been the perfect mechanism to have brought these creatures back for the reimagining, as well as presenting a great way to better integrate the new flashlight mechanic into the game as a whole.

As it stands, Frozenbyte managed to beat them at their own game. They also deserve full credit for being able to implement many of the same graphical tricks that Doom 3 had wowed the world with only a little over a year before. Their engine, internally dubbed as Storm3D, featured both dynamic lighting and shadowing techniques as well as procedural texturing. The engine also later received a flexible in game physics system, although being flexible does not always equate to being realistic; it can actually be quite disconcerting to be able to nudge vending machines around as if they were paper waste baskets. Still, they definitely did try and reach their full potentials technically and it thankfully does show in the final game. What is less excusable are the ever present bugs, and I am not referring to the little scurrying things that they are expecting you to shoot at.

The game has through the years acquired quite the reputation for being unstable and glitchy on all the platforms it was available on, and not without good reason; these problems at one point got so bad that Frozenbyte had to respond by distributing completed saved games of some of the levels just to allow certain players to be able to complete the game. Even the version I first played, which was acquired though the Humble Frozenbyte Bundle (2011) years after the game's original release was not without faults. There were some texturing and lighting glitches in certain configurations, and after extended play the sound effects would slowly start to fade away and die. This got to the point that by the end of a level there was little to no sound being played at all, forcing you to restart the game before moving forward. This was thankfully improved in later versions, however.
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The comments on this article are closed.
Rustybolts 13 July 2012 at 3:37 pm UTC
Nice review very well written, although i think prob deserves a slightly higher 8/10 given that there really isnt that much better on our OS. I found it to be a decently polished shooter which was quite good fun to play.
Bumadar 13 July 2012 at 6:26 pm UTC
found it an enjoyable game, if you look at it purely from a Linux view then 8 might fit but only if you sequel gets a 9
Hamish 13 July 2012 at 6:30 pm UTC
The thing is Rusty, I am trying to write these from the perspective of Linux gaming being a distinct industry. As such, I am not so concerned about it being the best we can get compared to others we do not have becasue they are not on our platform, but rather want to view it simply on a game by game basis.

It does have faults (like I wrote in the review) and I also wanted to save that extra 0.5 percent to give to Survivor when I get around to reviewing it. Not meant to be unfair but I do have to be realistically critical.

Still, thanks for the feedback Rusty and Bumadar. The best thing to come out of these I think would be more in depth discussion on the games themselves. :cool:
Digit01 14 July 2012 at 8:51 am UTC
Well the one thing that was lacking I believe was the ability to truly jump. Besides the game and the sequel are great and worth the money.
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