Shadow Warrior for the PC and current-gen consoles is a reboot of the original 1997 title, bringing some classic FPS design philosophy into the modern era, and is often a showcase of both the best and worst elements of that era. With the recent release of Shadow Warrior 2 (the first game is bundled in with the launch edition), I thought it would be a good time to go back and play the original title that I remember enjoying at first, before fast losing interest as other releases caught my attention. As the story in the second game follows on from the events of the first, it was a worthwhile exercise but I soon realised there are some FPS designs that should remain in the past.
You play as “Lo Wang”, assassin for the shady Zille Corporation, sent on a quest to claim an ancient sword that goes horribly wrong. It turns out the sword in question is but one fragment of a weapon that can slay ancient immortals, and these beings summon demons into the realm of humanity to claim the pieces before they can be merged and used against them. Captured and injured during his escape, Lo Wang joins his soul to that of an exiled immortal, Hoji, and sets off to hunt down the agents of his immortal brothers and sisters, to reclaim the sword fragments and save the world.
For a game that places gameplay front and foremost, the story and constant banter between Lo Wang, Hoji and other NPCs is surprisingly engaging and a much-needed modern take on storytelling. A huge improvement on the classic loading screen text dumps of the past at any rate. In addition to the in-game banter and cut-scenes, there are a string of animated scenes that slowly reveal the complex history of the immortals and the reason for Hoji’s exile. Disparate events slowly come together to tell an interesting and tragic back story, the impact of which is completely lost as soon as Lo Wang opens his mouth to spew out another juvenile curse or snarky response centered entirely around dick jokes. The clash of the serious story with Lo Wang’s irreverent attitude is fantastic and I couldn’t help but laugh a few times, no matter how crude the dialogue.
Just as in classic FPS games of yore, there are secrets to find everywhere, including locations from the original game with crude humour intact.
Of course this detailed backstory and Lo Wang’s amusing banter is hard to appreciate when long stretches of traversal and combat break up the bits of narrative.
If you’re looking for fast-paced gunplay or brutal sword-on-demon action, at an almost solid 60FPS, Shadow Warrior has you covered. Movement feels far looser than most first-person titles and the addition of a dash button, which can rapidly fling you in any direction, ensures combat is fast and furious. Hordes of demonic enemies and hapless humans often fill the screen with their sheer numbers, along with a myriad of projectile attacks, making for some chaotic encounters. Thanks to responsive controls and great movement, you can happily run, jump and dash through this carnage, cutting down enemies from behind or moving in close to unleash a load of buckshot in their faces.
Shadow Warrior places a lot of emphasis on movement but also careful targeting of weak spots. For the average lowly demon or human opponent, snapping up your pistol sights and popping heads is the way to go. For larger foes, it can be worthwhile taking off limbs first, crippling movement or reducing their attack options. The swordplay system, with numerous control options, unique attacks and upgrades, allows you to pick your slicing direction to ensure the appropriate limbs go flying. Or you can just leave it on “casual” mode as I did, rather using a close range shotgun blast to achieve much the same effect.
It’s easy to slip into an almost meditative state as you butcher your way through hordes of demons, in full control during battles that look chaotic from an observers perspective.
Flexibility in how you deal with enemies is one of the best parts of Shadow Warrior and every weapon, from the starting pistol to late-game rocket launcher, remains effective for specific enemy types. Investing upgrades into weapon mods, skills (passive abilities) and powers (think magic), allow you almost exclusive use of the sword for the bulk of the game, aside from encounters with annoying flying enemies and the formulaic boss battles that I’ll tackle later.
The upgrade system is tied to one of three resources. Money, used to unlock weapon upgrades, is dropped by enemies or found in containers scattered throughout levels. Karma, which unlocks new skill points at fixed intervals, is gained by slaying enemies, preferably with brutal combos. Powers are unlocked using Ki Crystals, found at demonic shrines. In classic FPS fashion, you’ll only manage to max out all your abilities by searching for additional cash, karma and Ki Crystals secreted away off the main path. Some of these secrets are obvious, others incredibly well hidden, and many lead to areas recreated in the style of the original 1997 title.
Although often huge and intimidating to look at, boss fights are far too formulaic and, much like the game itself, drag on too long.
Unfortunately, leveling up your weapons, skills and powers can feel insufferably slow thanks to the lengthy levels and repetitive combat encounters. A classic design that should’ve been left in the past is the overlong levels, which follow a predictable pattern of linear corridor followed by combat arena, with the path often tortuously looping back on itself to use every square inch of an environment. The game does introduces new enemies and more hazardous arenas over time but, by the end of the first third of the game, you’ll have encountered all the basic demon types and the rest of the game just throws in tougher variants, or more of them at once. The limited number of weapons, skills and powers only exacerbates this feeling as you spend far too long between upgrades – by modern standards at any rate.
At this point, the aforementioned boss battles could provide the player a reason to push on but they all follow the same pattern, with only their attack patterns changing up slightly. Shoot the glowing armour, expose the crystals inside, shoot the crystals, and move onto the next armour piece. Only two late game sword fights change up this pattern but even those fights are fairly mundane and predictable. Dealing with hordes of demons and humans that mix up melee and ranged attacks remains more entertaining.
Simple geometry and repetitive locations aside, the use of colours and lighting still make this an attractive game.
At least the visuals, audio and soundtrack will do their best to keep you entertained during another long slog down a demon infested corridor or rote boss encounter. Although geometrically simple (and you’ll often see repeated rooms and textures), the combination of garish colours with a beautiful lighting system make for some impressive looking environments and spectacular battles, with exploding scenery and demon projectiles flying through the air. The audio is great, with loud weapons, rumbling explosions and the gruesome sound of dismembered foes. All of this is backed up by an awesome oriental-rock fusion soundtrack that fluctuates between strangely calm and head-pounding chaos. The voice actors, many of whom are putting on a terrible stereotypical East Asian accent, churn out ridiculous, juvenile lines and I doubt anyone will feel particularly offended.
In retrospect, I can see why I lost interest with Shadow Warrior back in 2014; the game starts off incredibly strong but its gameplay mechanics don’t evolve enough to support what is easily a 15-hour game on the traditional “You Want Wang?” difficulty. That said, I kept going back to it this time and found myself getting swept up in cathartic violence and juvenile insults for hours at a time.
There’s certainly a lot of game here, including NG+ modes for the dedicated, with some classic mechanics and level design that highlight both the good and bad aspects. If you’re after a fast, responsive and gory shooter that you can pick up at a low price, Shadow Warrior is a great option. If you’re someone who tires of repetitive gameplay mechanics quickly, just be aware it loses steam towards the end.
Enjoys games with awesome stories and characters, along with new and interesting hardware. Dislikes day-one patches and driver updates.
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