Shadow Watch Review
By Jimmy Goldstein |
I have to say that Shadow Watch was a real surprise to all of us. The premise was intriguing, the action was intense and the look of the game was really eye-catching. But we didn't expect it to be so much fun. The turn-based gameplay reminds me of X-COM with troopers wandering over an isometric map of a building interior. There are action points and cool characters and a whole bunch of neat skills. But beyond the X-COM inspired gameplay, Shadow Watch also features a narrative driven by a unique interrogation interface.
The first thing that anyone notices about this game is the unique visual style. Well, not entirely unique. The game looks very much like a comic book (some people say "graphic novel" but I hate that term so it's going to be comic book from now on, get it?). It's a fantastic and risky direction to go in. While I love the graphic style of the game -- and the animations are great too by the way -- it's not as visually spectacular as most other games. Hopefully this notion that a game can look really, really good even if it's not pushing a million polygons a second will find sympathy among gamers. In any case, there's bound to be some crossover (what those in the mathematical professions call "intersection") of gamers and comic book fans.
The campaign takes place in the three cities of Baikonur (it's in Russia), Rio de Janeiro and Hong Kong and centers on your attempt to uncover a plot to prevent the construction of an international space station. There are three possible subplots for each city, and although each starts with the same event, the game will offer up new contacts and open up new paths through the missions. Each subplot has 25-30 missions but you'll move on to a new city after completing five missions. The game keeps track of the paths that you've taken in each campaign you've played and will make sure that no plot lines or scenarios are repeated until all the permutations have been exhausted. The replay value is further increased by the fact that the differing factions in the cities will be shuffled around. Each city has three factions. One will be friendly, one will be neutral and the last will be openly hostile. Since this is changed every time you play, you'll never really know whom to trust.
The game is divided into two distinct styles of play. At the beginning of each scenario, you'll have the chance to interview at least one suspect in the city. This interview leads to one of at least six separate missions. Completion of the mission leads to at least one (usually two) other branches of investigation. These lead to more missions which in turn lead to more investigations and so on. You get the point. Once you've run five missions, you move on to the next city and ultimately to the final game mission. The gang at Red Storm are hoping that these two different play styles will strike a chord with both action and adventure fans.
The investigation portions of the game are very well done. You meet contacts, get all sorts of hinkfo and plan the next phase of your operation. Faction and character dossiers are provided to give you the proper context for your conversations, but keep in mind that the roles of the characters and factions will change from campaign to campaign. After a brief introduction by the contact, you'll be given the choice of three responses. This prompts another little dialogue for which you will have two new responses. There are therefore six separate endings to any investigation. And how you deal with your contacts will determine not only the next available missions but also the shape of the plot as whole.
One of the problems here is that you can't do anything to lose the game at this point. While the team at Red Storm told me that they were going to allow you to be intentionally stupid in the game, each conversation leads to a mission and as long as you win the mission, everything is fine. Certainly you can wind up doing a harder or easier mission based on your decisions, but as long as you can get through the mission, you're fine.
But that's okay -- the missions are my favorite part of the game. There are 6 different locations in each city for the missions from a cathedral to an electronics factory to a town hall. The maps, although pretty small and only one level, are impressive in terms of gameplay. Each map presents different tactical options and decisions than the map before it. Whether it's the long lines and blind corners of the restaurant or the lethal spaciousness of the hangar in the Russian military base, you'll have to approach the maps differently. In the end it's mostly about setting up situations where your enemies will wander into your firing arcs rather than rushing into rooms and killing fools.
But for all their tactical distinction, the maps aren't that impressive visually. They certainly fit with the design of the characters, but the maps are fairly monochromatic and sparsely detailed. While there are some nice areas (the aforementioned hangar as well as the private condo complete with swimming pool), the maps are probably the least visually appealing aspect of the game. But in a game like this, that's not too great a criticism. The real danger is that the maps will grow old. Since each city requires five missions, you'll have played through all the maps all too soon. While it's nice to return to an area with some idea of what to expect, it tends to detract a little from the replayability of the game. This problem is only augmented by the smallness of the maps. A map rotation feature would also help improve the game a lot, but it's not a significant omission.
But there are plenty of different experiences to be had on the same maps as the eight separate mission types keep things from getting monotonous. You can either march in with guns blazing on the assault missions, or keep things more subdued with the theft or surveillance missions. You'll also have to hold off enemy assaults or kidnap certain individuals in other cases. One of the small shortcomings of the game is that you'll lose the entire game is even one of your characters is killed or if you fail to meet the mission objectives. And the enemy AI is good enough to make this a real possibility.
As I said before the play of the missions is a lot like a simpler version of X-Com and in this case the simplicity works. You can run the whole game with a few intuitive hotkeys. The whole combat system is designed so well that you'll be playing the game without having to make reference to the manual after the first few minutes. Each character has a certain number of action points and a certain number of morale points. The character with the highest action point total acts first. He can spend his points by moving, firing, opening doors and a whole host of other activities. For every traumatic event that occurs, nearby players have their action point total raised temporarily. If the action points ever exceed the morale points, the character panics and can no longer be controlled by you until their action points fall below their morale points.
Each character is extremely unique in terms of ability. They're also pretty different visually as well, making identification really easy. Archer is the leader and his ability to influence morale and initiative are extremely important. Lily, the martial arts expert, is good at killing people silently. Bear is the point man. He can absorb a ton of damage before he goes down and his shotgun makes short work of anything in his way. Maya the sniper excels at "incapacitating" shots but is limited in movement. Gennady is the sensor man, and although he has no weapon, his ability to detect enemy presence through walls and closed doors makes him a valuable member of the team. Who you pick to take on the missions is vitally important. Rafael and Bear kill lots of people very, very loudly so they're best for straight assault or defense missions. Lily and Gennady on th