This Uncharted rip-off jumps from one ledge to another, loses its footing, and falls hard on its pretty face.
Uncharted 2: Among Thieves was critically accepted as being the best console game of 2009. There are many factors that contributed to it’s success: a great storyline, believable characters, good voice acting, dazzling graphics, varied gameplay, a solid multi-player mode, and many others. Aside from it’s graphics, Shadow Guardian fails to deliver in any of these areas.
You play as Jason Call, an assumed explorer/treasure hunter extraordinaire. I say “assumed” because we really have no idea the context for what is going on throughout the game. Essentially, you are being held captive in some lab, and being lectured by some guy. Oh and he’s also interrogating you… but I never actually heard Jason answer any questions. Much like the recent Call of Duty: Black Ops game, your “interrogation” is being used to further the storyline along by playing through flashbacks. To be fair, these cut-scenes between levels were the best part of the game for me. The lab looks visually stunning on an iPhone 4, and the voice acting of the antagonist, while pretty cheesy, is passable. Unfortunately, the lack of lip-syncing distracts from the drama of these scenes, and makes the characters look like talking dolls. Considering Modern Combat 2 had lip-syncing in it’s cut-scenes, I’m surprised Shadow Guardian does not.
That said, it’s not the cut-scenes that ruin Shadow Guardian, it’s the gameplay – which feels like playing a video game version of a strategy guide. Essentially, you are shown exactly where to go, and given an extremely linear path to take from point A to point B in every level I played. One of the most maddening aspects of the game involves Jason’s (assumed) mental voice that tells you every single thing you’re doing, and going to do, from one ledge crawl to the next.
No seriously, it’s really bad.
I’ll post some screen shots so you can see examples, but let me give an example for what I’m talking about. The voice in Jason’s head isn’t actually voiced (thank God), it is portrayed through constant text pop-ups as you play. For example, if I were to climb a wall and then jump a couple times to grab a ledge, here is what would pop up on the screen through the 20 second experience:
“Ok, let’s climb this wall so we can get to that ledge up there!”
“One more block…”
“Jump to the right!”
“Ok one more jump…”
Really? I wasn’t aware that Jason and I were holding hands throughout the game, and that he thought he was being controlled by a 5 year old. One of the more hilarious aspects of Jason’s internal monologue is his bizarre wonderment at every little damn thing that happens to him. For instance, in one room he tells you… er, tells himself that you need to activate a few mechanisms to open a door. Then, when the door opens, he says “A door!?” Or when you see an ancient elevator, then get on it and press a button to activate it: “An elevator!?” It’s admittedly hilarious, but not in an endearing way.
When you’re not climbing pre-enabled ledges and jumps on a single linear path, you’re shooting bad guys that somehow made it
deep into the ruins you are exploring. Nope, that is not explained. In fact, I don’t even know why they are are there in the first place, but who needs to reasoning and logic? Let’s shoot some guys! The combat is as generic as it gets, and uses Gears of War cover mechanics. Unfortunately, being in cover doesn’t generally keep you from getting shot, specifically from explosive weapons. So far I have yet to find a way to cover from these, as hiding behind any wall will still leave you taking damage. When you leave cover to aim, you immediately snap to the nearest bad guy, fire your gun a couple times, and he goes down. You also have melee attack combos that directly mimic the slow-mo moves in Uncharted. Other than a few specific instances where you can sneak up on an enemy, hand-to-hand combat is not used much.
To drive the point home, here’s a quick summary of how you progress in any given level:
“Climb a set path of ledges from point A to point B, shoot a bunch of mindless baddies at point B, then climb another set of pre-determined ledges from point B to point C. Solve a “puzzle” that was completely explained as you entered the room. Be extremely surprised that something happens after you complete the puzzle. Climb more ledges, then suddenly a cut-scene happens that doesn’t directly relate to your last known position in the game. (At one point early on I went from climbing a cliff to being contained by bad guys in a cut-scene. Neat.) Lather, rinse, and repeat for the rest of the game, and you’ve experienced everything Shadow Guardian has to offer!”
Sure, there’s an occasional boss fight thrown in for good measure, but that’s about as interesting as things get. The bosses were probably the most enjoyable part of the game, but overall the experiences with them were brief. They also don’t all make a lot of sense. Like the rest of the bad guys that randomly appear in levels, they often felt forced, and generally weren’t that interesting. Just to be clear, the boss fights weren’t bad, but were more so overshadowed by the rest of the poor gameplay in the game.
From what I’ve heard, Shadow Guardian started out as a tech demo to show what could be done graphically with the iDevices.
In this single point, it succeeds. The visuals in the game are fantastic. While not as good as Infinity Blade or Rage (or the upcoming Dead Space game, for that matter), Shadow Guardian is a pretty game. Is it worth buying to show your friends? No. For less money there are plenty of other “pretty” games which will not only show off some of the best graphics on the iPhone, but actually entertain you as well.
Gameloft has had a few winners this year with Modern Combat 2 and N.O.V.A. 2, but they are still stuck in the rut of copying and ripping off popular console games. The problem with this business model is the high expectations associated with a game that is “inspired by” a high-quality console title, and I think it’s something that may eventually catch up with the folks at Gameloft. Then again, from what I’ve seen with people who buy games on the App Store since it’s release, shiny and colorful tends to trump bad gameplay and pathetic story telling any day. Perhaps Gameloft knows exactly what they’re doing, and would rather release a half-assed rendition of a popular game than spend the extra money to develop a truly unique experience and story for a game that draws players in. I don’t know how much money Shadow Guardian has made, but I would guarantee most of those sales came from people who saw the screen shots and instantly thought “Wow! Uncharted on the iPhone! Sold.” I feel bad for these people, and I hope the word gets out to major publishers/developers that the iPhone isn’t just about eye candy or pseudo-console games anymore. It’s a legitimate gaming console, and it deserves legitimate games rather than cheap ports and bland rip-offs.