Crispy Gamer

DLC MC: Shadow Complex Is a Game Changer

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"Are we demented or am I disturbed?

The space that's in between insane and insecure."

-- Green Day, "American Idiot"

To help inaugurate this new column about downloadable games, Chair Entertainment?s Donald Mustard came over to the house to show off his twisting, turning Shadow Complex. His delightfully well-mannered six-year-old sat on the floor, completely engrossed in Cooking Mama DS as mom Laura played the PR game by answering e-mail on her Blackberry. I sat with anticipation on the leather couch as Mustard hooked things up to my Vizio: The revolution will be televised.

MC DLC: Shadow Complex Is a Game Changer
Look out below! You get to blow up a helicopter in the first minute or so.

Like many Joe Journoshmoes, I had seen 15 minutes of Shadow Complex at E3 and felt there might be something of note here: a downloadable, 2-D side-scrolling game made by a small team that somehow offers up the almost holographic mimetics of a full console game. How? With tight cut scenes and failsafe camera angles.

As Mustard took the game through its paces, I fessed up that I wasn?t the biggest fan of shooters. Brandon Sheffield's candid editor?s note in this month?s Game Developer easily summarizes how I feel about shooting games: "In first-person games, there is no reaction on the part of the character, and it becomes difficult to feel anything about him or her." I?ve felt the same about 2-D and 3-D shooters, too. With a few exceptions, it was utter anhedonia.

Yet during the home-office demo, I saw the exceptional heed paid to detail that had gone into the Xbox Live Arcade offering -- even with the soundtrack. The haunting and menacing first four notes of cello set the mood almost as well as those two suspenseful E and F notes from "Jaws," the movie. These four notes from Shadow Complex stay with you. That?s no small feat.

MC DLC: Shadow Complex Is a Game Changer
It's not shaving cream in a gun. This foam protects you, and not just from razor burn.

Artists often refer to work as their baby, a living, breathing creature they have made. Nowhere is that most perceptible than in Shadow Complex's careful arc of game design. Like the dramatic arc of a taut mystery novel -- basically a puzzle within a tightly woven plot that suspends disbelief -- the game's difficulty ramps up slowly.

It's not like the developer is treating you like a toddler, though, reaching down as a godlike parent and taking you by the hand. You almost don't notice the leveling up, the power of new guns or the fact that you learn to crouch down and search in dark ducts and past tiny bots to find power-ups like grenades. You almost don't notice the superheroic increase in character Jason Fleming's health so you can more courageously battle the science-fiction minions, those who would foist a new Civil War upon our nation, during the Big Push.

Yeah, they add a videogame staple: You have to find and free your girlfriend, Claire, as well. Jason's a little too macho in comic-book writer Peter David's riffing on Orson Scott Card's novel "Empire." The idea of the tough, strapping guy is terribly clich? in games, although Jason's issues with his father add some depth to his character. And Claire's too skinny and beautiful, another woman who needs saving. She does tell Jason what to do when he first finds her in one of the hundreds of rooms in the underground complex that comprises much of the game, so she's not that clich?. But I wish the dialogue in Shadow Complex were more multi-dimensional, more novel than comic book.

The difficulty ramps up seriously when you're 30-percent done in the 16-hour, $12.99 offering that runs under a gigabyte. Leaping to ledges becomes more of a precise skill. Enemies increase in number and power while their guns seem to become more accurate. Then there's this foam-spewing thing. Not being your No. 1 shooter fan, I love Chair's idea to use foam as a weapon. It lets you spray a cover for yourself and create bridges to areas you'd normally have to jump repeatedly to reach. And it disappears after a while, so there's a skill to using it. It's a strong and nonviolent weapon, perfect for the ambivalent shooter fan.

MC DLC: Shadow Complex Is a Game Changer
Bucolic scenery makes you want to take a real-life vacation to the world of Shadow Complex.

The one thing you can't do in Shadow Complex is move easily to and from any area you've already traversed. You have to walk or run, plodding to make your way back. And your guns move like ghosts through rocks or metal doors. Both these glitches temporarily halt that essential suspension of disbelief in my mind. Yet they didn't stop me from completing a game that made me feel I was part of something very new happening in downloadable content. I kept thinking about Shadow Complex even when I wasn't playing it: I could use that foam gun to get up to the Williamsburg Bridge in a straight line instead of walking a circuitous half-mile to get to the entrance.

Could it be that I actually love shooters now? At this point in my life? Am I now about collecting 100 headshots to unlock a ?Sploding Head Achievement? What's next, heading to Afghanistan to fight for real? I mentioned this briefly to a close friend from out of town as we sat on Coney Island Beach, looking at the cloud formations on a brutally hot summer afternoon last week. She kindly said, "Whatever it means, I like you anyway." That's the spirit, especially when an exceptional game like Shadow Complex totally sucks you into its pastoral-meets-industrial world of puzzles, mystery and Civil War-obsessed wackos. To quote Billie Joe in the pop-punk anthem/suite "Jesus of Suburbia,"

"And there's nothing wrong with me

This is how I'm supposed to be

In a land of make-believe

That don't believe in me."