Shadowgrounds is a throwback to the days of top-down arcade games. Though many comparisons spring to mind, such as Ikari Warriors, perhaps none is more apt than Smash TV. True, the areas your character runs through are not merely repetitive square rooms, but the basic concept remains the same - kill the baddies here, find more critters, and kill them there.
Shadowgrounds uses a basic WASD control scheme like a first-person shooter, with the mouse aiming, but of course you are viewing things from a top-down perspective so there is no vertical dimension for aiming. There exists a vertical, with slopes, but vertical aim is not under the player's control. It's just as well, since Shadowgrounds is difficult enough without having to worry about missing because you shot too high. If you can imagine the original Doom viewed from the top, that's about the pace we're talking about - constantly clearing rooms of enemies, or worse, those prolonged periods of quiet when you know something really, really bad is waiting for you up ahead.
There are ten weapons, each with three upgrades. They are fairly standard fare, with a pistol, assault rifle, shotgun, flamethrower, grenade launcher and rocket launcher being the headliners. Each is of course useful in a variety of situations and especially suited for some. While ammunition isn't technically scarce, I often found myself running around with the pistol rather than wasting grenades or rockets unnecessarily. The pistol is surprisingly powerful and requires no ammunition, with its main weakness being a small clip and relatively low rate of fire. Shot for shot, it is easily more powerful than the assault rifle, a fact that may confound weapons purists. Regardless, conservation of supplies - especially health - is a key point to the game.
Combat can get very hairy in a flash. What seems like a routine fight against some melee critters can suddenly become a life-or-death battle if ranged monsters appear from behind. The game doesn't "cheat" as obviously as Doom 3 with monsters-in-the-closets, or respawning enemies like in Soldier of Fortune, but there are moments when you know you cleared everything behind you and enemies still pop up there. Fortunately, the motion detector (think Aliens
) gives fair warning for 360 degrees around you, allowing you to prepare for your upcoming funeral.
In fact, that is the key drawback to the game - it just doesn't seem like it was play balanced. Given how amazingly bug-free it is, this is quite mindboggling. Obviously effort went into the technical aspect, and the gameplay was thought out with a fair balance of weapons, but there are some glaring omissions. There is no in-game save option, saves occur only at the beginning of a level, and levels are long - we're talking at least fifteen minutes. Most of that time you are under attack, and you never know how many hits you can get away with. Will there be a health pack up ahead, or a supermonster? You might spend seventeen minutes playing, get to the end with 20 health and find out you have to destroy a giant robot that doesn't even seem like it's taking damage. Oh, and the best part? Respawns are limited.
Shadowgrounds seems targeted at a very, very specific audience. These are the kinds of gamers who like action puzzles, difficult action puzzles with serious consequences for failure. The game isn't just an action game where you run and gun, killing everything in sight and picking up health packs along the way. No, it's too difficult for that. Rather, you need to figure out how to kill enemies efficiently, how the levels work, and if you die, how to go back through without dying again. We're a long way away from the days of 80s arcades, Atari, and the NES. Most gamers today don't have the desire to be punished repeatedly, told to start over, and then after successive failures - told they cannot even start over again. Of course, for the target audience of the masochistic perfectionists, Shadowgrounds is doubtless perfect.
The visuals in Shadowgrounds are something like a late DirectX7 or early DirectX8 game - textures tend to be on the smaller side and models are simplistic, but the lighting and shaders are fairly well done. Performance is fantastic and the game runs well on slow computers, with details turned down of course.