maanantai 2. toukokuuta 2011

REVIEW - Star Wars: Shadows of the Empire (1996)

GENRE(S): Action
RELEASED: December 1996
PUBLISHER(S): Nintendo (N64), LucasArts (PC)

Shadows of the Empire was a very interesting Star Wars multimedia project originally conceived in 1994, which went into production two years later. The first Shadows of the Empire release was a novel by John Perry, accompanied by a "soundtrack CD" composed by Joel McNeely; he was personally recommended by the great John Williams who, of course, had composed the music to every Star Wars movie. Then, came a short series of comic books, produced by a team of six, led by publisher and owner of Dark Horse Comics, Mike Richardson. In December 1996, the most known merchandise to come out of the Shadows project emerged, a 3D action game originally exclusive to the new Nintendo 64 system. The game was received quite well, well enough that it saw release on the PC a year later. As a game, it's a mix between a traditional third-person "shooter", and an early version of Rogue Squadron. The events take place during and after the events of The Empire Strikes Back. So, is it interesting? You bet your ass it is. Is it good? Weeeeell, it could be better.

Watch that crossfire, boys

Dash Rendar is a mercenary, an old acquaintance of Han Solo's, who helps Luke Skywalker and his companions in their battle against Prince Xizor - a tyrannical alien overlord bent on taking Darth Vader's place as Emperor Palpatine's right-hand man.

There are couple of things slammed to our faces at the get-go of Shadows of the Empire, that stick out like sore thumbs to any Star Wars fan. There is close to no reference to the Jedi in the game. Luke, who appears as a supporting character, isn't quite a Jedi yet, and Dash Rendar is one of the only Star Wars video game protagonists who never even considers carrying a lightsaber or utilizing the Force. The story of this Dash guy divides opinions; all that you do in this game has such an impact you'd think there was a mention of him somewhere else than just the Shadows of the Empire sidestory, or the new villains who feel like all but leftovers from George Lucas' desk when he was writing Episode IV. It's also notable that the story of the video game is just a part of the whole Shadows of the Empire storyline; you'd need to read the book, as well as the comic book series, to see the whole gig. So, what can we make of all of this? Well, to be frank, that the story isn't very good and the game feels artificially incomplete. It's all up to the factor of playability, which isn't very high, but the game definitely passes the tolerance test.

Hey man, watch your step.
I remember playing this game when it was brand new, and I thought it looked about a million times better than any other Nintendo 64 game - it was a launch title in Europe. Well, it does. The gameplay graphics are quite good and if I didn't know better, I'd say it's a PlayStation game... uh, let's make that a Saturn game. The cutscenes are influenced by the comic book series, and their cut-out style is really off, I don't like them at all. There is very little voiceover work in the Nintendo 64 version; the only voices in the game belong to enemies and droids during gameplay, while the cutscenes and mission objective screens feature text only. The music's from the CD that was released to accompany the novel, composed by Joel McNeely... or should I say, adapted note-by-note from Mr. Williams' original score, with a few additional tunes, like Prince Xizor's theme song, thrown in. Great music, nevertheless, and the sound effects are top-notch - pure Lucas quality.

For the most part, Shadows of the Empire can be described as a first-person shooter in the wrong body. It's like Doom or Quake in third person. You have distinct objectives in each stage, but to reach those objectives, all you need to do is move forward, shoot enemies, use elevators and push some switches. There's really no more in-depth action than that. You can even change the view to first person whenever you wish. The thing that separates Shadows of the Empire from an everyday shooter of that time is the importance of combat strategy and a bit of poor man's stealth action in the several boss fights.

I'm going to get to this sooner or later, and I think it's better that I do it sooner: the controls in Shadows of the Empire are not that good. Under certain circumstances, they are even God damn horrible. To my surprise, I had no problems with the controls in the first stage, which is a shooter set in the battle of Hoth - seen in many Star Wars games to date, and each time it has been a nightmare. Like in Rogue Squadron, which came out later, pretty much the only efficient way to do away with AT-AT's is to make them trip by tying their legs together with a tow cable. To my surprise, the tow cable is very easy to use, much easier and more comfortable than it was in Rogue Squadron... which, again, _came out later_ and was made by some of the same people. Fascinating.

Aren't I dashing?
During the on-foot escape from the Hoth base, the bad controls come to play. Let's not avoid the subject any further: the biggest problem is jumping, without a doubt. This is the first time I could really use some invisible walls! First of all, the game has some of the floatiest jumps I've ever experienced, and very sensitive analog control. The tiniest push of the analog stick during a jump, whether it's an accident or a reflex brought on by tension, might send you down into a chasm, screaming like Wilhelm, because there are so many damn narrow walkways with bullets flying everywhere around you while you cross them. The oversensitive analog controls also rear on the ground; whenever there's a sharp corner on the walkway, you need to be extra careful when you turn around that corner. If you take one wrong step, you might trip over the edge. In turn, being that careful makes you easy blaster fodder to enemies you simply couldn't have aimed at and done away with before you reached that corner.

I'll go over a couple of more stages. The game's diversity is definitely on the mark, but one thing binds all levels and styles of gameplay; totally needless length. Some levels seem to last forever, like the next two. The first one is another shooter stage probably somewhat inspired by that kinda cool stage in Super Star Wars: Return of the Jedi, in which you controlled the Millennium Falcon's turret in a full 3D environment. Well, here you control Dash's ship, The Outrider - which is like a miniature, poor man's version of the Falcon. The "full 3D" comes a little overdone; The Outrider's stationary, but you can use the turret to shoot in any direction. Your objective is to shoot down bombs and asteroids, and destroy a few TIEs. "A few" is something like 70; like I said, it carries on forever. It's best to do this in first person, since the camera is your worst enemy in this already highly tedious stage.

The next one's a nightmare. Not only does it have one of the most annoying boss fights in the game against a formidable droid mercenary that carries firepower straight out of hell, it also features moving platforms and to top it all off, a LOT of jumping between them. Oh yeah, and once again, the stage indeed carries on and on, for ages. It's probably sensible to mention at this point, that upon losing all your lives, you go back to the beginning of the whole mission - not the last checkpoint, or the beginning of the last part - but the beginning of the whole thing. In stages like these, your lives are drained very quickly if you cannot learn to master the floaty jumps. One tiny failure to time your awkward jump correctly equals death, there are no second chances.

I guess I'll do one more stage, Boba Fett's base, since it introduces a special item in Boba's jetpack. The jetpack is really, really awkward to use. It's incredibly hard to shoot while flying this thing, and it becomes more and more of a basic part of the gameplay as you go... and yes, you definitely need it in the boss fights against Boba and his ship. You die whenever falling from a great height; these boss fights, for one, require you to fly to great heights. It's too bad if your rocket fuel runs out when you're five miles up in the air, focusing on the battle rather than how much gas you have left. You should also take into account, that descending without really using the throttle consumes fuel in this game. The jetpack is Satan's work.

Might be a good thing to learn how this
wretched thing works before heading into
anything serious.
OK, that pretty much covers most of the different ways of the game. One more vehicle is introduced once you make it to Mos Eisley, the swoop, and it's quite hard to control in itself, but if you've survived everything the game has thrown at you at that point, it shouldn't be too much to handle. Shadows of the Empire is a quite hard game, although most of its challenge comes from the increasingly quirky controls. It hasn't got that many missions, only ten of them, but since all of them are quite lengthy, it'll take you a while to clash through it. Also, each mission has a number of Challenge Points. You can collect these icons by achieving certain goals or finding secret passages, to mention a couple of obvious examples. Collecting even a few of them results in extra lives in the end of each stage, and collecting ALL of them on a certain difficulty level results in some mediocre bonus features - such as friendly wampas, yay!

The game really isn't that rewarding, or poetically enchanting, or a masterpiece in gameplay, but it's not all bad, and far from being the worst Star Wars game ever. It's a game a true Star Wars fan and completist must try at least once, due to its very own, curious placement in the timeline of the franchise. It doesn't matter if you like the story or not; I don't, but I know people who can't get enough of Star Wars. They treasure even the crappiest storyline threads.

SOUND : 9.0


GameRankings: 74.97% (N64), 62.00% (PC)

Dash Rendar in Nintendo 64 version of the game was partly modelled after George Lucas.

Dash's ship, the Outrider, is seen leaving Mos Eisley in the Special Edition of Star Wars.

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