In early 2006, Finnish developer Frozenbyte introduced themselves to the rest of the world by way of an odd little action game called Shadowgrounds. Its North American release was a quiet affair that went largely unnoticed, due at least in part to the fact that at its core, Shadowgrounds‘ gameplay could be quite adequately summed up in two words: Isometric Doom. And while that sounded pretty damn cool to me, there was an apparent and not-entirely-surprising lack of mainstream appeal in such a concoction. People weren’t exactly beating down the doors to get their hands on it.
But despite that lackluster response from North American audiences, Frozenbyte has seen fit to offer up a sequel: Shadowgrounds Survivor, another over-the-top killfest that promises a few new twists on the same old critter holocaust.
The game presents players with roughly a three-quarter top-down view of an obviously Aliens-inspired game-world: A dull, utilitarian terraforming colony on the Jovian moon of Ganymede. Stepping into the boots of one of three characters who have taken over for Shadowgrounds‘ original protagonist, players will find themselves caught up in an swarming infestation of aliens that quickly overruns the human colony, leaving a bloody swath of mangled bodies and destroyed machinery in its wake. And since nuking the place from orbit is out of the question (the installation does have a substantial dollar value attached to it, you know) there’s only one option left: bug hunt.
There’s no question that Shadowgrounds Survivor is not a game for the sophisticated palate. It has the subtlety of a kick to the groin and the emotional range of Dolph Lundgren, and obviously the story isn’t going to win any awards for creativity. Instead, epitomizing the principle of doing one thing well, it offers intensely-focused action for an intensely-focused audience: guys who like shooting stuff.
Perhaps concerned that people weren’t getting enough alien-killing action with just the campaign mode offered in the original game, the gang at Frozenbyte has come up with a new game type that does away with the story in favor of much more to-the-point mayhem: The somewhat ironically-named “Survival.” The irony comes from the fact that in Survival, you will inevitably die; the name of the game is simply to see how long you can survive and how much killing you can get done before your ticket gets punched. Survival matches take place in small, confined areas, rather than standard game levels, with spawned enemies appearing on a timed basis. Some levels will include fellow humans who will stand and fight at your side; in others, you’re on your own. Either way, the action is fast and furious, and when you’re finally overwhelmed, gutted and torn to meaty chunks by the ravenous horde, your time and body count will be recorded for posterity and bragging rights.
As well as offering three new character types – a far-seeing sniper, a flamethrower-and-chaingun wielding brute and the obligatory jack-of-all-trades marine – Shadowgrounds Survivor throws in another new twist in the form of RPG-style character upgrades. Similar to the weapon upgrade options found in the original game, characters in Shadowgrounds Survivor gain experience as they progress, which can be used to “purchase” new stats and skills ranging from increased maximum health to greater weapon accuracy and devastating special attack types.
New environments have also been added; instead of being confined to a single, remote outpost, the sequel takes place across numerous environments and locations: Included in the preview build were an outdoor canyon level and a Mount Doom-like trek through the sweltering guts of a burning hot cavern complete with lava rivers and falls. (And it really was sweltering. Quite a nice visual effect.) While not having any real impact on gameplay, the environmental change-up does provide some nice eye candy, and some gamers may find the variety a relief from level design that can occasionally grow monotonous.
Like its predecessor, Shadowgrounds Survivor is particularly noteworthy for its lighting effects. Many of the game’s environments are very dark – big shocker there – and the shadows cast by the interplay of the flashlight and the landscape are as impressive as any I’ve seen; there’s a powerful little engine under all this, and it shows. And unlike a certain other game whose name rhymes with “Doom 3,” the flashlight in Shadowgrounds Survivor is actually useful: It casts a reasonably wide cone of light that properly illuminates what you’re shooting at and works regardless of the heat you’re packing. Making it even more fun, a few of the enemy creatures you’ll encounter are afraid of the light and will flee if caught in its beam. Early in the game you’ll run into beasts resembling giant subterranean starfish, and while not especially dangerous on their own, they have a nasty habit of roaming in packs and sneaking up on you from dark corners. Fortunately, they’re also either terrified of or allergic to bright light, so judicious use of the flashlight will allow you to hold them off or herd them together for simpler and more efficient killing.
It’s unfair to be overly critical of unpolished preview builds when encountering glitches or bugs, because typically they’re still very much works in progress. But there are areas of concern beyond the “known issues” list included with the preview. Enemy AI appears suspect, for one thing: Alien creatures at times exhibited some very fundamental oddness during encounters, and while their “close and kill” behavior was hardly complex in the original game, in the Survivor preview it seems particularly dodgy. Often, enemies seemed to have trouble tracking me, and after missing a charging attack, could take a few seconds before reorienting and moving toward me again. In a few circumstances, they seemed entirely unaware of my presence; in one particular round of Survival, the aliens actually deviated away from me to move toward what appeared to be a predetermined rendezvous point in another room. Clipping issues also turned up from time to time; while it’s easy enough to ignore the rare instances in which an alien appears unable to navigate around a sharp rock outcropping, it’s a bit harder to overlook enemies who can not only see you through closed doors but can also come partway through them in their attempts to reach you.
There isn’t a whole lot more to be said about Shadowgrounds Survivor because there isn’t a whole lot more to it: That which moves will die, usually accompanied by the meaty smack of bullets against flesh. The appeal is obviously not universal, but for the select, elite few who just cannot walk past an alien horde without pumping it full of lead, this is worth at least a second look. Shadowgrounds Survivor is expected to go for around $19.95 when it hits shelves, and if Frozenbyte can straighten out the spotty AI and occasional bits of strangeness, it’ll be a pretty fantastic xenocidal bargain.
Special note: This is a preview for Shadowgrounds Survivor and I hope I don’t get fired for deviating from the flight path, but it’s worth mentioning that not only is a demo for the original Shadowgrounds readily available for the uncertain types out there, but the full game can be had over Steam for $9.95. It doesn’t offer the variety of play options found in Shadowgrounds Survivor, but it’s 10 bucks! For a healthy dose of old-school alien ass-whompin’ fun, you can’t go wrong.