Good game, but the boat had already sailed
With the surprise success of their classic FPS game Duke Nukem 3D, Apogee/3D Realms decided to do what most game developers do when they hit it big: do the same thing all over again. And thus we have Shadow Warrior; a Duke Nukem clone set in the far east.
The plot makes it immediately obvious we're dealing with a samurai movie spoof. You're Lo Wang, an ass-kicking "Shadow Warrior" who rents himself out as a bodyguard to the highest bidder. But you're not entirely happy with your latest employer's agenda (hint: world domination) and you resign from his service. But you're so powerful he can't possibly let you be employed by someone who might fight against him, so he tries to kill you using an army of ronin and mutant ninjas. This is a springboard for ~20 levels of fighting, escaping traps, and uttering cheesy one-liners.
If you're expecting this to be a "stealth ninja" game involving sneaking around, evading security, and bringing silent death to your foes, stay at home. Like Duke Nukem 3D, Shadow Warrior is a 200 pound sledgehammer of wall-to-wall action. Using an upgraded version of the Build engine (it supports translucency, fog, and 3D models) Shadow Warrior is a straight-up, run and gun shooter set in a wacky and outlandish environment you don't often see in video games.
First, the good stuff. Shadow Warrior is very refined and polished and in terms of production quality is probably the best of the Build engine games. Level design is outstanding, with lots of secrets, side-routes, etc that serve functions both in single-player and multiplayer mode. The puzzles are a lot smarter and harder, and instead of simply flipping switches you'll have to do stuff like use a joystick to manipulate a toy car on the other side of the level (which you can see from a camera feed) so it pushes a key underneath a door for you to pick up. There's some really clever stuff here that pushes the limits of what the Build engine can do.
The weapons are great. In the ninja tradition you have a katana (which literally cuts enemies in half) shurikens (they stick in the walls and you can re-use them) and more high-powered fare like twin uzis, riot guns, missile launchers, etc and at the upper end of the chart you have really crazy stuff like a disembodied heart that summons a zombified clone of yourself. Like in Blood, most of your weapons have alternate firing modes allowing for a lot of versatility.
During the game's release hype much was made of the fact that the game lets you control vehicles. You can drive cars and forklifts, and even control a tank at one point. The areas where you can do this are limited and it's more of a gimmick than anything, but it's still an amazingly cool gimmick.
Shadow Warrior is much more user-friendly than most other FPS games of the time. When underwater you have a colored bar showing you how much air you have left (why did no-one think of this before?) and the bosses display a health bar as well.
Other than that the game is basically the same as Duke Nukem 3D, although the oriental theme provides a new spin on this old horse. Just about every "gun-fu" action movie and martial arts cliche is spoofed here, and the game remains just as humor-driven as its predecessor was. As a character, Lo Wang isn't half the man Duke Nukem was, although he has some funny one-liners.
As can be expected from 3DRealms the game was well supported even though it didn't sell well. They released a 3Dfx patch, and even made the game's source public domain. And on the 3DR website you can download a canceled mission pack for the game free of charge.
The word "obsolete" best describes Shadow Warrior, and this has nothing to do with the fact that it's a 2.5D game released at the height of the 3D revolution. It aspires to be nothing but a Duke Nukem 3D clone, and frankly the experience isn't as fun the second time around. Graphically, Shadow Warrior is extremely dated, with pixely sprites and cheesy explosion/fire effects that look like they belong in a Doom-era game. And the game shipped without TCP/IP support, essentially robbing the game of the strong selling point of its multiplayer.In 3DR's defence they took the time to dress everything up shiny and new, and all the original thinking had already been done in Duke Nukem 3D.
More specific problems include incredibly lame and cheesy boss fights (including a giant sumo wrestler whose farts damage you...wow, it must have taken them ages to think that one up) and various contrivances such as non-resettable puzzles (basically, if you screw up you often have to reload).
The Bottom Line
The last of the "big three" Build engine games (the other two being Duke Nukem 3D and Blood), Shadow Warrior was pretty much the last 2.5D game worth buying. It's a formula game but it's worth getting for historical significance. Arguably it was also 3DR's last major FPS game until Prey in 2006, assuming the phrase "when it's done" still means something to people here.