Following the brilliant critical and commercial success of game-development unicorn Duke Nukem Forever, developer Flying Wild Hog has decided to resurrect Shadow Warrior, a less famous but still culty 3D Realms title from the 90s. Those were halcyon years for first person shooters, and Shadow Warrior followed in the footsteps of its predecessor, combining intricate level design, trying-too-hard-but-still-pretty-funny taglines (“Who Wants Some Wang?”), with buckets of monster-splattering gore.
This reboot aspires to slap a few modern touches onto a retro FPS. The original melee-and-gunplay core concept was pretty unique for a pure shooter back in the 90s (Doom’s chainsaw notwithstanding), and even now is only attempted by a handful of out-of-mainstream titles like Red Steel. If you think you’d have a good ol’ violent time just playing with that core concept – sword work augmented by special moves and punctuated by quick switching to firearms – then Shadow Warrior should be on your radar. If you are more interested in anything else about a shooter – interesting enemy types and challenges, level design, tactics, enemy AI, or even story, then the game might come up a bit short.
The shooting parts of Shadow Warrior feel like an FPS in the classic mold. Firefights are mostly about circling around wide spaces and dumping as much ordinance as you can manage into enemies with increasing capacity to do the same back to you. You don’t need to worry much about a Call of Duty or Rainbow Six level of nervous-twitchiness, and the most cover you’ll take is occasionally running behind a wall. The guns would be at home in the hands of Duke Nukem, from basic handguns to rapid firing automatics, and a hard hitting grenade launcher. There’s some other equipment that I hesitate to classify as “guns,” so…they’re sort of demonic fantastical weapons with ranged effects?
I tend to like my firefights a bit more methodical and tactical, so I might have found this game to get pretty stale if it weren’t for the swordplay. Melee combat in a first-person game can be somewhat tricky to make both fast and precise, but Shadow Warrior gets pretty close. Aim your reticule on the body part you’d like to sever, and watch as your katana makes a clean slice through an arm, leg, neck, or torso with much resultant Kill Bill-style gore spray and shrieks of pain. Dodging incoming melee attacks is mostly about quick sidestepping or back-stepping – I would have loved to see a parry or counter system thrown in there.
The game was at its best when they pushed the challenge to mix up your attacks by armoring up some of the body parts on the weird demonic enemies. Their loose-limbed shuffling can make them tough to hit with guns, so you have to aim well with good timing to avoid the helmet to slice a knee and set it up for the coup de grace. Others bring massive shields to bear which must be blown away with firepower before getting at the vulnerable demon behind it. The FPS vantage point by nature doesn’t not lend itself to keeping your head on a swivel to see what’s around you, which is why most melee combat games are third person. I was a little miffed at the game’s proclivity to get you surrounded in a swordfight, but started to like it once I got access to the special moves.
Special moves are limited by a mana-like “karma” system and turn what might have been a bit of a rote point-and-click hack-and-slash into something a bit more John Wooey. Surrounded? Slice that sword in all every last gory degree of a 360 circle to create an opening to dart out. The special moves require a simple button combo that (for me, at least) added an unusual fighting game sort of feel to a FPS look. This is when the game was at its best for me, although the button combos seem a bit better fit for a controller (which is optional) than a mouse and keyboard.
Since it’s unfinished, I’m reluctant to harp on technical problems too much, but I have to report what I saw. They’re going to have to do a lot of clean up on textures before release, some surfaces in both the environment and characters were straight-up black spaces, even in cut-scenes. My other biggest gripe was little balance between guns and swords in the sections I played. Except for enemies which are designed to necessitate the grenade launcher, the sword always seemed like the right choice and there’s no incentive for style points. Also, it might be just my sorry machine, but there was a significant if not debilitating amount of frame rate problems, even on the lowest graphics settings. The game either needs to iron out those kinks, or else beware that your system will need to be fairly robust.
I’m not too concerned that the story didn’t grab me – this game isn’t trying to compel you with intricate plot. If dialogue play on the word “wang” is too stupid for you to tolerate, then this game probably isn’t for you. I’m also feeling that the $39.99 price tag is a little steep, even with the $34.99 pre-order. However, if you know you like the idea of an old-school FPS with enough melee twists to keep it pretty fresh, Shadow Warrior is worth keeping an eye on.