There is no cover system and regenerating health comes from either a spell you have to cast or by picking up a med pack. Better go get those dodge goggles out of storage, 'cause that is the only thing saving your ass in this game; well that and eviscerating your opponents before they kill you. The game is more a string of combat arenas than a COD hall run; Shadow Warrior will toss a hoard of monsters at you all in one big rush, but then mostly leave you alone while you hunt for ammo-n-money on your way to the next brawl. The environments are large and give you plenty of room to fight, which is important because opponents soak up lots of damage no matter how hard you hit them. There is no need to worry about lining up the perfect head-shot since combat is set up for spray and pray, and there is no stealth system for sniping. Half-Life or Counter Strike this ain't; Spray, hack, cast spells and run your ass off because this game is all about the brawl.
1 - 9 are your weapon slots and every one of them is put to good use.
1 = Katana
2 = revolver.
3 = Uzi.
4 = Crossbow.
5 = Shotgun.
6 = Flame thrower.
7 = Rocket launcher.
8 = Demon heart.
9 = Demon head.
Yes, one of your weapons is the severed head of a demon that vomits a beam of energy like a laser gun. The game is long and stingy with how often it gives you a new boomstick; however it makes up for that with upgrades and alt-fire modes. Weapons start out kinda bland when you first pick them up, but there is tons of cash lying around for you to loot. That cash is then spent buying upgrades for your weapons, one of which is always an alt-fire mode, and I am happy to announce that I do not have to punch anyone in the doorbell as the crossbow's alt-fire mode is the sticky grenade.
6. The Sword.
It would be a crime against the game to not single out the swordplay from the guns, thought at the same time it it is kind of a crime against the guns since they are really cool. You really could play the entire game using nothing but the sword, and in all likelihood you would have a better time for it; the blade is king in this game. Tapping the left mouse button will do a quick slash attack that that will easily shred enemies in a matter of seconds, while the right mouse button is a hold to charge strong attack that can kill in a singe hit.
Enemies take location-based damage, and most every part of their body can be cut off, kinda like a high-speed version of Dead Space's dismemberment system. The most effective way to bring down a baddie is to dismantle them a little bit first; taking out the head is an easy kill but actually doing so is hard. I'm not sure if the dissection physics for cutting baddies apart is hit-based or location-based: it seems to be hit-based but the pile of meat left over sure seems like everything falls to bits in the same way. Either way, the sword cuts like butter and has to be one of the best-implemented melee weapons ever.
7. Skills 'n Spells.
Spells can be used with both sword and guns; skills are sword-only, but they get activated with the same mechanics so I am mushing them together. There are three sword skills and four spells: to use them you need to double tap a directional button and then hold one of the mouse buttons; skills are the left mouse button with your sword out, spells are the right mouse button.
Double tapping forward and then holding the left mouse button activates a charged thrust with the sword.
Double tapping forward and then holding the right mouse button activates a knock down skill the will stun enemies in front of you.
It is the most elegant and effective system I have ever seen for this sort of thing in a FPS, it is also directly inspired from Dark Messiah of Might and Magic. Even so, Shadow Warrior is seamless and responsive while Dark Messiah was clunky and hard to manage. At first unlocking and upgrading sounds complicated, until you get the hand of it and it becomes second nature. The three currencies for upgrades are money (for guns), Karma (for sword skills and passive effects), and Ki crystals (for spells).
Money is easy: you just fine it lying around, and the Ki crystals are static items with only one or two per level (usually right at the end); but Karma you have to earn in combat. Falling in line with the game's arena-like combat, the Karma system will count up how well you did with wiping out a hoard of baddies, then give you a score. Once you rack up a high enough score, the game rewards you with a Karma point you spend unlocking skills. The skills themselves are pretty straightforward and everything in the catalog is a worthy purchase, which is good since you have to work your ass off to get it all.
This game is amazing: the amount of detail in the levels rivals that of work offered by competing AAA releases, but with a fraction of the budget and manpower. The game was announced in May of this year, but Flying Wild Hog was still working on Hard Reset up until the start of 2012, so Shadow Warrior couldn't have had more than 12 - 18 months to develop.
Even outside of the visual detail put into each level, the actual structure of each chapter is a swan dive back into 1997. I've actually gotten lost in several chapters; the stages are so large and detail-rich that I walked right past the door to the next area and ended up wandering around for 15 minutes. The first few chapters are kind of narrow, but the farther you get into it things start to loop back and forth as you splatter your way through the levels. Each mission seems to get bigger and more complicated than the last, sometimes with multiple paths and dead ends full of loot; a "two left turns and a right" COD game this is not.
Every once in a while you run across a pack of humans that try to shoot you, but for the most part Shadow Warrior is Wang Vs. Uglies. Usually it is just you beating up a pack of lessor demons, and every so often the game throws a greater demon in the mix as a mini boss. The lessors are mostly just cannon fodder that run directly at you and claw away; there are a couple of more painful versions that hang back and fire magic at you, but the main ones that you gotta watch out for are the ones that fly and shoot. The greater demons are larger, soak up a lot more damage than the lessors, and have special abilities that can resurrect dead minions or drag you across the parking lot with a grapple shot. The biggest baddies are the Ancients; the game's full-on bosses who are more puzzle than pain, but are so big they have an entire level dedicated to themselves. I am aware that this section is sort of light on the details, but some of these baddies are really cool and I don't want to spoil later additions that pop up.
10. Game of the Year.
Even with Watch Dogs, Titanfall, Call of Doggie, BF4, and AssCreed 4 all coming out soon, I have no reservation on calling this game out as the best game we will see this year. The reason for that is this is the best game I have seen IN years, while all the rest are just more of the same derivative crap that has been shoveled out year after year. Shadow Warrior is the best game I have played since Mirror's Edge and even then Lo Wang lodges a sticky bomb in Faith's left butt cheek and blows her off the roof. I guess I will cave a little bit and scale back to "PC Game Of The Year," since it is currently a PC exclusive, but regardless of platform I doubt that any upcoming 2013 release will top it.
The narrative follows the "show, don't tell" golden rule of plot writing, with what few cut-scenes it has inserted as transitions between chapters. The writing and voice work is perfect, while the visuals are amazing for a game built with only Directx 9 in mind. The levels are long, detailed, and nothing is wasted as there are plenty of secrets to reward exploration. The combat is silky smooth and puts total control in the hands of the player instead of QTE melee and aim locked / cover fire scripted combat. The upgrade system makes you WANT to unlock upgrades instead of punishing you for not; nothing is a throwaway garbage upgrade but neither is it paying points to remover an arbitrary handicap. Shadow Warrior is flawless in its focused design and clean implementation, but more importantly; it is the funnest game I have played in years.
I am not going to pretend that this game is for everyone - I know that it isn't; but take it for what it is worth that, speaking as an old dog RPG player who only moonlights as a FPS player: THIS IS MY GAME OF THE YEAR.
Now if you will excuse me, I need to go play with my sticky bombs.
Previously by Holden Hodgdon: