Our second overseas specimen is Shadowgrounds Survivor, Frozenbyte's follow-up to their 2005 release, Shadowgrounds. Shadowgrounds Survivor scores points right out of the gate for giddily reveling in the kind of gameplay that's been all but forgotten since Origin's classic Crusader franchise. It takes the crazy monster-killing action of Doom and Aliens vs. Predator and throws it into an attractive and explosive isometric environment that has only one rule: Shoot everything.
For fans of the original, it'll be like riding a bike, if you recently traded in your old 10-speed for one of those $7,000 Italian racing models. The core gameplay (shoot everything, remember?) is intact, but wrapped up in a tweaked, enhanced and very hot-looking graphics engine with integrated physics, an all-new soundtrack and included editor tools for custom-built xenomorph butchery.
The mechanics are very simple. As a top-down game, everything occurs on a single plane, so as long as you're pointing at something, you can shoot it. The game's campaign mode includes three characters, each possessing a different loadout of weapons and character traits. There's Luke "Marine" Giffords, the general-purpose starting character who carries an assault rifle and a rocket launcher; Bruno "Napalm" Lastmann, a Father Grigori-style maniac with a flamethrower and a minigun; and Isabel "Sniper" Larose, a precision death-babe packing a high-tech railgun and plasma rifle. Along with the different weapons, each character can be developed via an "RPG-like upgrade system," which makes different skills available to the characters as they progress. And yes, "Marine" and "Sniper" are nicknames provided by the game, just one of the more obvious examples of the risks inherent in translating a European game for American shores.
The levels in Shadowgrounds Survivor are considerably more varied than those of the original, although aside from making enemies slightly harder to see in certain areas, their impact on the game is minimal. Snow-covered outdoor levels and underground caverns help to break up the scenic monotony, but they're also the least-interesting levels in the game, due in large part to a relative lack of things that blow up. Survivor is all about destructive mayhem, and anything that attenuates that quality - fewer explosions, for instance - serves only to weaken the game. Wisely, the Frozenbyte team kept the focus on the human settlements and outposts, using the outdoor environments as relatively brief interludes.
The visuals are impressive, particularly for this type of game. The lighting and shadow effects are as good as any I've seen, and the attention to detail given to video screens, computer consoles and other futuristic-looking paraphernalia scattered throughout the game is admirable. The environments aren't quite as destructible as I'd have liked - glass shatters and fuel barrels explode, but just about everything else is static - but it's definitely easy on the eyes. And the music, as I've come to expect from anything thrown at these shores by our European brothers and sisters, is absolutely top-notch.
Progress is saved automatically between levels, and in-level saving isn't allowed. It's an odd choice for a PC game, but not as restrictive as it sounds, because the levels are very short, typically running five to 15 minutes each. And even on "Hard" difficulty, the game is relatively easy; there are a few dicey bits here and there, but nothing that's going to hang anyone up for very long. Relentless slaughter is the priority here, rather than hard-nosed difficulty and a struggle to stay alive. Humanity itself may be threatened by this murderous alien onslaught, but the three humans at your disposal are most definitely not.
A new game mode introduced in Shadowgrounds Survivor is called "Survival," which distills the already simple concept behind Shadowgrounds even further: You're locked in a room, monsters come into the room, and you kill them. The longer you live, and the higher your body count, the better your score. New Survival levels will be unlocked as you progress through the campaign, typically composed of small areas taken from the game itself, but otherwise it stands complete separate from the game itself. It's fun in short bursts, but not the sort of thing you'd want for an all-weekend gaming marathon.