The Quake clones are coming thick and fast. And after playing Shogo, Richie Shoemaker does just that
First-person shooters seem to live and die by the strength of their multiplayer game. While it is the single-player experience that initially wows us, its lustre soon fades, and within a couple of weeks the game is either relegated to the cupboard or left for the odd deathmatch. Essentially that's the difference between Quake II and everything else. Quake II's single-player game is arguably the weakest of all its peers and yet remains the game of choice for nearly every deathmatch aficionado. Only time will tell if Half-Life's multiplayer game will take over the world. But one thing's for sure: its single-player game will. And Shogo: Mobile Armor Division will follow close behind.
Developers Monolith have taken all the elements that have staled the single-player first-person game and replaced them with simple storytelling and ingenious scripting. The result is an original mix of traditional and Mech-style first-person combat, combined with Japanese Anime art. Shogo isn't your usual run-of-the-mill Quake clone. With strong, identifiable characters, stylish animation and an ever-evolving plot, it's a game that draws you in from beginning to end.
So what's the story?
Well, it goes a little something like this: Cronos, a desolate colony and a rich source of kato energy, is at war with itself. The CMC (Cronian Mining Consortium), having fought and won control of the planet from the UCA (United Corporate Authority), now finds itself weakened by The Fallen - a highly organised terrorist army led by Gabriel. The Fallen are all but in control and an uneasy truce is sought between the CMC and the UCA. The only way the UCA can regain authority is to eliminate The Fallen leader. As Sanjuro, a UCA commander, your goal is to find and destroy him.
We'd normally dismiss this scene setting as just hokum, but it's important stuff that is built upon with a host of characters that expand the story. There's also a love interest between our hero Sanjuro and Kathryn, daughter of Nathaniel Akkajaru, your commanding officer. Suffice to say that by the end of the game you'll be begging for more. And thanks to the open-ended story, you can bet that there definitely will be more.
Missions are divided equally between traditional first-person combat and romping about in Mecha or MCAs (Mobile Combat Armour). The MCA missions are nothing like the traditional MechWarrior fare, and the Quake-like controls are identical in both elements of play save for the ability to utilise a power jump and transform into a fast-moving tank, which serves little purpose except in multiplayer games. The action is just as frenetic in both styles of play, although thanks to some beautiful smoke effects, MCA combat can be incredibly tense as you try to shoot through the fog of debris, only to see a salvo of rockets coming towards you. The lighting is also excellent, with explosions that light up the screen and cause your eyes to reel around in their sockets. Then there's the muzzle flashes, bullet marks and sparking fire from machine-guns. Just look at the screenshots and imagine it all moving. Great, eh?
Initially the levels seem a bit small, but you often have to negotiate your way through them a couple of times as paths become blocked and reinforcements arrive to halt your advance. It all helps to prevent you from getting lost and adds to the immediacy, as you end up concentrating more on fighting the enemy than on getting lost and giving up. In some missions you even have colleagues to back you up, and you find that, unlike Half-Life, you actually care about them, especially as one of them is a former girlfriend.
It's not all good news for Shogo though. On the easiest setting the game is far too simple to complete. The AI is also ropy, scraping in marginally below the level set by Quake II a year ago: you can stand in full view of an enemy and they'll still fail to see you, detecting you only when you get within a certain distance. Enemy soldiers also seem to have a problem operating doors and lifts - they're far too static for their own good.
In terms of the sound, the Japanese pop that introduces the game is initially laughable, but it then becomes strangely endearing. The weapons sound beefy and the voices are excellent. And the graphics? Well, they're superb too.
We played a few multiplayer games in the office and it was all fairly nondescript until we played the MCA levels. These proved to be something entirely new: we could choose from four different MCAs, crush cars and leap onto tall buildings. It's a shame you can't destroy more of the scenery, although what with all the smoke and debris flying about it's difficult to see how any current PC would be able to handle the strain.
If there is any justice in the world Shogo will be looked back on as one of the best 3D games of its time. Personally speaking, apart from Half-Life, Shogo is the best game I've played this year. I finished it in two days on the easiest setting, and I'm definitely going to go back and do it on the hardest level there is. Who knows, with a bit of luck I'll finish it before the sequel comes out.