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Long read: The beauty and drama of video games and their clouds

"It's a little bit hard to work out without knowing the altitude of that dragon..."

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Alien Breed revisited?

The simplest games are sometimes the hardest to review. Taken at face value there's very little to Shadowgrounds and it does almost nothing that has not been done better elsewhere. Run around, shoot stuff, have half-arsed plot about aliens on Ganymede explained to you via uninspiring cut-scenes. It's not even a new idea - everything here has been around a good ten years. That kind of summary could land almost any game with a crappy score and a textual kicking, but nevertheless I found myself rattling through Shadowgrounds' birds-eye-view shooter levels with a smile. I expected to dismiss it as a waste of time, but instead I've been zapped by a retro ray and landed somewhere between fond memories of the 16-bit era and love of things that go bang in 2006.

Shadowgrounds is a modernised clone of Alien Breed, Team 17's hugely popular top-down shooter from the early Nineties. It ripped off an Aliens storyline and pitted you, and possibly a mate, against an off-world base chock full of sinister aliens. As in Alien Breed you run through the levels of Shadowgrounds, shooting bugs and monsters, flipping switches and skipping merrily from one shadowy checkpoint to the next. It's a pure shooter with a love of gloomy real-time lighting, like Doom 3 with an isometric camera.

What kept me interested, though, is that Shadowgrounds is a shooter with genuine pace and atmosphere. Poor lighting is simply expected of these games, but here it's regularly used to dramatic effect. Even the dark groaning ambient soundtrack is pretty good, even if it does occasionally default to pumping electro-metal for a hint of drama.

Initially I had hoped that Shadowgrounds was actually an unofficial sequel to some rather different isometric 16-bit era games - the Shadow Lands and Shadow Worlds RPGs. Those games were team-based RPGs that were some of the first games to properly experiment with the idea of lighting. There are some similarities for Shadowgrounds too, which uses real-time lighting to create some pretty impressive effects in the gloomy base. It also uses them to make the opening moments of play a little more interesting - the first variety of aliens are scared of light and can be frightened off with your flashlight. It's a moment of clarity for you and a really smart piece of design. Again, very simple, but all the more gratifying for it. For a moment there I thought the game was going to head off into Pitch Black territory, but sadly these ideas only show up briefly in the later game.

Eat electric death! (Fifty existential bonus points if you can uncover that reference...)

Another vague parallel with Shadow Worlds is the modular weaponry. Here though they're only upgraded via a system of power-up credits, rather than the genuinely Lego-gun modularity of Shadow Worlds. These provide you with secondary fire options, large ammo clips, crazy ammo, damage augmentation, and so on. Again it's rather like Alien Breed, where finding your favourite weapon was one of the great pleasures of the latter stages of the game. It's instantly understandable and slow pushes up the volume of the combat as a whole - that's how a good shooter should work.

The real pleasure of Alien Breed though was playing with a friend and Shadowgrounds recapitulates that too. A single-screen co-op mode allows you (with gamepads) to play through with friends, although it's never quite as nail-biting as that other Alien Breed clone of recent times, the Unreal Tournament mod Alien Swarm. (Alien Swarm is free too, giving it a distinct advantage over Shadowgrounds, as cheap and convenient as it is being supplied on Valve's Steam download system.)

What Shadowgrounds does do better than Alien Swarm is a robust single-player sci-fi romp. The battles are varied and challenging. Defence sequences see you deploying sentry guns and running from bulkhead to bulkheads as alien behemoths batter their way in from the stormy exterior of one of Saturn's moons. There are even boss battles that see you circle-strafe your jump-suited backside around giant tentacle beasts. Old school entertainments, after a fashion...

Shadowgrounds is a refreshing return to the past, and for that reason it's slightly too generic to recommend strongly. It's only ever just pretty enough, and there's seldom anything really breathtaking. But it is fun and reminds of what gaming was like in that pre-history before Guitar Hero and World of Warcraft. Now all we need is for someone to remake Chaos Engine for 2007 and the circle of retrospection will be complete.

6 / 10