Shadow Complex Preview: Where's The Morph Ball?S

Does Xbox Live Arcade need a game inspired by 2D Metroid? Sure, unless Microsoft plans on buying Nintendo.

Shadow Complex is the third exclusive game from Epic for the Xbox 360, a dramatic stylistic shift from two Gears of Wars. This one's a just-about-modern-day side-scrolling adventure for Xbox Live Arcade primarily designed by Epic's newly-acquired Chair Entertainment, whose design lead, Donald Mustard has distinguished himself as a big ideas man.

The game comes together as the developers may finally be coming into its own. The Chair principals' first game, the ambitious, cosmic Advent Rising, disappointed many and is one of the first installments of a planned trilogy that stalled at one. But Chair's second effort, the underwater combat game Undertow set graphical benchmarks for an XBLA game, which Mustard believes this new game can now surpass.

He predicted to Kotaku during our hands-on session that this will be the biggest XBLA game yet — at least in terms of size.

What Is It?
Shadow Complex unabashedly plays like a 2D Metroid, with its hero traversing 2D levels and backtracking to previously inaccessible areas once he gains more power-ups. Instead of being a lady in a suit of armor who can roll into a ball and shoot monsters, he's a guy with in combat gear who can crouch low if need be and shoot mechs.

What We Saw
Pressed for time, I sat with Mustard as he talked me through an early level in the game. He had me button-mashing to skip his own cutscenes so I could find the hero's pistol, start crawling through ducts, backtrack through alternate routes accessible because I now had the gun that would open my way to them and appreciate that, yes, this game feels like a well-developed child of Mother Brain's favorite series.

How Far Along Is It?
Shadow Complex is set for a summer release, so the game must be close to completion.

What Needs Improvement?
Movement: Metroid games, at least as I remember them, empower the player to perform acrobatic movement fluidly. The hero in Shadow Complex could run well, but he didn't reliably grab ledges or duck when I needed him to. Nothing another fine-tuning of the controls can't fix so that I can focus on movement and exploration, not get frustrated that my guy's not operating as I commanded.

Shadow Complex Preview: Where's The Morph Ball?S

What Should Stay The Same?
The Metroid Stuff: The mini-map for this game is a direct "homage" of the Metroid map, as it creates a colored grid that charts the corridors you've discovered. An optional feature will show the player where to go next on the map, but thankfully that can be turned off for those of us who never needed help to find Kraid or the Screw Attack. The backtracking is looking good. One hopes it is more clever than it is tedious, the knife's edge on which all Metroid games teeter.

The Non-Metroid Stuff: No Metroid side-scroller had this much visual depth, which, thanks to the Unreal Engine or not, allows Shadow Complex's combat to have a faked third dimension. Imagine the hero running from left to right down a street and reaching an intersection. From the distance, over the intersecting road, comes a helicopter attacking our hero. Moving the hero's targeting cursor over that helicopter doesn't just cause our guy to shoot at it, but it turns him so that his gun points toward it and his bullets fire back toward the chopper, as if the battlefield was in 3D. It's a flashy visual trick that adds depth without keeping the game from being classified as a 2D adventure.

Final Thoughts
One hopes that Shadow Complex will eventually be able to boast an identity of its own, but for a first impression, it compares well to its Metroid inspiration. While the game is ultimately being creatively overseen by Epic's Cliff Bleszinski, the fact that Mustard is the driving force — and that the gap is narrowing between his hype for his games and what he and Chair have been delivering — there's reason to anticipate Shadow Complex as an important XBLA release.