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Game of the Week: Shadows of the Damned

Fear itself.

If you had to choose - really had to - which would you pick? Originality or raw quality?

Here's another way of looking at it. What makes a game original to you? Is it the fact it isn't a sequel? Is it a surreal storyline, eye-catching visuals, a far-out sense of style?

Or is it a little nugget of gameplay that no-one's though of before - the way a player ability or enemy or level has been designed to twist your expectations of a genre into a new shape, to give you something surprising and thrilling to do that games have never offered you before?

These questions are thrown into sharp relief by two horror action games released this week. They're both compelling, both compromised, both trashy mid-budget potboilers - but representing starkly different priorities and approaches.

On the one hand we have Shadows of the Damned, which drips with hip. An off-the-wall Japanese boutique studio, Grasshopper Manufacture, presents a grotesque OTT "road movie" stuffed with outrageous humour and surreal self-deprecation, fronted by two of the biggest names to drop in the Japanese games industry: Goichi Suda and Shinji Mikami. Whether behind the scenes or on the screen, this game simply could not have more personality; it's the epitome of gamer chic.

In the uncool corner, we have F.E.A.R. 3, the third in a first-person shooter series that's been taken out of its original creator Monolith's hands and handed to a faceless Chicagoan outfit of no particular repute, Day 1 Studios. Apparently some people out there care about the plot of the F.E.A.R. games, but they probably won't by the time they get to the end of this curiously drab and unfrightening tale.

It seems obvious which is the hero and which as the villain, right? Well, it's not quite that simple.

It's not fair to describe Shadows as all mouth and no trousers - like Suda himself, this game would never be seen without its leather drainpipes - but the Grasshopper game seeks to go a long way on its attitude alone, and even that can be grating. The gunplay is polished and it presents some cool ideas later on, but you have to churn through a lot of pedestrian design and samey enemy spam to get there.

"Although the game's components fail to inspire in isolation, together they provide a breezy, enjoyable ride," wrote Simon in our Shadows of the Damned review. "As with all of Suda's games, the wilful absurdity sometimes reeks of trying too hard... but there's just enough gold amongst the chaff to make the farce believable, and ensure the game can appeal to a wider audience than tittering schoolboys."

F.E.A.R. 3.

F.E.A.R. 3, on the other hand, unearths surprising invention from what was one of the most blinkered corridor shooters around by offering a spectral twist on the entire campaign in the form of ghost character Paxton Fettel, available either in co-op or as a secondary solo run. It even has some entirely novel FPS multiplayer modes.

"F.E.A.R. 3 is a finely crafted action game and an exceptionally inventive shooter. More varied, colourful and refined than its predecessors, F.E.A.R. 3's single-player campaign would be enough to recommend on its own," wrote Jeffrey in our F.E.A.R. 3 review. "Supplementing it with Fettel's brilliant body-swapping mechanic is a masterstroke. F.E.A.R. 3 is like a Siamese twin; two great games sharing the same campaign."

At Eurogamer we love to see the idiosyncratic and the personal in games, we love colour and originality and jokes, and more or less by default we love anything that's not a grey first-person shooter for not being a grey first-person shooter - which is exactly what F.E.A.R. 3 is. But if we love one thing more than all of that, it's sheer excellence in game design, and frankly Day 1 has outmanoeuvred Grasshopper on that score.

It's a hell of a choice - but old habits die hard.

Shadows of the Damned

Yes, we picked the cool one because we want to look cool. But that's exactly my point.

If there's one thing big-ticket gaming really needs to do to overhaul its image and expand its appeal, it's vary its tone. The crushing homogeneity and po-faced violence of virtually every major video game visible to the general public sends out a simple message: if this isn't for you, we don't have anything else that is.

Shadows of the Damned.

It might seem odd to propose a puerile phallic fantasy like Shadows of the Damned as the antidote to all that; this, after all, is a game which consists of a foul-mouthed demon hunter in leathers shooting zombies in the face and making dick jokes. It is hardly new territory for our permanently adolescent medium.

But it's all about how you carry yourself, and you only need to take one look at Grasshopper's game to see its strut, its wink, its panache, its self-referential chutzpah. It knows it's a marginal, nutty entertainment for persons of particular tastes, and it's quite comfortable with that. In other words, it's everything like the disreputable horror B-movies of its inspiration, whereas F.E.A.R. 3, despite having John Carpenter's name on the back of the box, is nothing like them.

Day 1's game is excellent, but aspires only to the excellence seen in other popular games, to share its humble slice of the consensus pie. Shadows of the Damned isn't for everyone and it doesn't give a f**k. It's not for me, but neither do I.

(And before you say it... 7/10 is a good score!)