Shadow Warrior (DOS)

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Written by  :  Cor 13 (173892)
Written on  :  May 09, 2010
Platform  :  DOS
Rating  :  4 Stars4 Stars4 Stars4 Stars4 Stars

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You no mess with Lo Wang!

The Good

Shadow Warrior is the last game made with the glorious Build engine, and is generally considered the third member of the "great Build triad", the other two being Duke Nukem 3D and Blood.

The game is usually considered a clone of Duke, and for all purposes that's exactly what it is. However, the word "clone" is often used in a pejorative sense, to downplay a game's quality, making it look like a second-rate product. Shadow Warrior certainly owes a lot to Duke, but it is still a very fun, imaginative game with its own style and enough substance to stand on its own.

Shadow Warrior has a lot of charisma. The Asian setting might be a superficial trick to add more personality to a Duke clone, but it works. Like Blood, Shadow Warrior oozes atmosphere and has a distinct, unique style. The creators of the game captured perfectly the cheesy "Asialand" feeling, present in countless kung-fu movies and pseudo-historical fiction (mainly about Japan). In a genre that particularly likes recycling the same styles, the refreshing "pop Asian" setting is certainly a plus.

Like Duke Shadow Warrior is essentially a comedy, and it goes farther in this direction than its ancestor. While Duke retained some "standard FPS" stylistic elements (after all, you were still a hero saving the Earth from an alien menace, and you even had to visit a conventional space station), Shadow Warrior is pure craziness from the beginning to the end. It takes place in a totally fictional, impossible mixture of modern-day Asian urban environment and underground locations with a mysterious flavor, all of which are populated by maniacal ninja killers, monsters, and naked anime girls. Fortune cookies contain absolutely idiotic "Chinese words of wisdom", and farting sumo wrestler appears as a menacing boss enemy.

Lo Wang, the protagonist of the game, has his own collection of one-liners, which in my opinion surpass those of Duke or Blood's Caleb. My favorite is probably "You have a split personality" (when slicing an enemy in two with a katana), closely followed by "Better than acupuncture" (after applying a medikit), but I'm sure everyone has his own favorite quotes, since there are a lot of them, and most of them are delightfully, endearingly idiotic. Like its two "brothers", Shadow Warrior has great level design. Seriously, after having played those three games, I could only shrug my shoulders at the bleak, non-interactive "copy-paste" locations of certain other FPSs. Why doesn't every FPS designer make it a rule to himself to create levels with care and attention to detail? I think there is a lot to learn from the level design of Shadow Warrior. The levels are perfect in length: when you reach the end of a level, you have a feeling of pity that you leave it, as opposed to the "finally it's over" feeling I had with too many other games. They levels are neither too linear nor confusingly maze-like. There is a perfect balance between indoor and outdoor locations. Secret areas are scattered around; the game encourages you to explore, touch everything, mess up with the environment until you've seen everything. Attention to detail is manifested in the many "unnecessary" rooms, objects, characters, which are there simply to make the level more interesting. The levels are interactive: nearly everything can be destroyed, or manipulated in another way. Here's what I find most important: while playing Shadow Warrior, I constantly felt that the designers had fun creating those levels, that they loved their work and were happy for the player who will later have fun exploring them.

The basic gameplay is very close to that of Duke, but Shadow Warrior has its own interesting selection of weapons. Katana, shurikens and double-wielding Uzi are just the beginning; later in the game you'll be able to acquire exotic weapons, among them a monster heart, which summons a zombie Lo Wang when squeezed, making him fight on your side until he explodes. It might not be as genius as Duke's shrink gun or Blood's unforgettable voodoo doll, but it's still pretty damn cool.

Among the three great Build engine games, Shadow Warrior has the most varied gameplay. What really surprised me was the quality of the puzzles. Even though Lo Wang himself admits that he "rather kick ass than solve stupid puzzle", I think the constant ass-kicking in this game really needed some cooling-down, and that's exactly what the puzzles provide, they offer something different without detracting from the gameplay experience. Okay, they are not exactly very imaginative or challenging, but compared to other shooters of its time, Shadow Warrior has very nice puzzles; I'd actually say Half-Life-quality puzzles, if not better. You can switch to third-person perspective in this game, so jumping puzzles are not really an issue. The general system is still "find colored keys", but in many cases those keys are hidden and you actually have to think how to manipulate the environment in order to get them. There are also more complicated puzzles that involve re-arranging objects or figuring out correct patterns. Another very nice addition are a few vehicles Lo Wang can drive in the game. Mowing down hordes of ninjas with the tank was fun!

Graphically, Shadow Warrior really pushes the old engine to the limits. Not everything looks great, and the game would have certainly benefited from a more advanced engine. But it is still remarkable how much detail and beauty they could push into the game with the limited technology. Atmospheric, interesting, immersive environments of Shadow Warrior prove yet again that talent and inspiration is what matters most.

And of course, I have to mention the marvelous CD audio music, which perhaps even beats that of Blood. This music is anything but a stereotypical mixture of Asian-sounding tunes; there is a great variety of tracks, and each one tries to capture the feeling of the level it accompanies, adding a new layer of atmosphere to it. There are eerie, intricate compositions that made me want to continue exploring the level even though I was already about to leave it.

The Bad

The Build engine shows its age in this game. Shadow Warrior is very appealing graphically, but you could see it had squeezed the last drops of juice from the engine. Also, I think Blood looked better and somehow had more substance to its graphics. Certain areas and objects are somewhat crudely done in Shadow Warrior, as opposed to Blood, where everything looked perfectly.

It's true that there is something annoying in Shadow Warrior, it's hard to point out what it is exactly, but maybe they went a little over the top with all those stereotypes. I'm not saying Shadow Warrior is offensive (because anyone with a half a brain can understand it's a joke) or stupid (because being stupid on purpose is quite a different thing), but sometimes the protagonist and the whole setting are a bit too ridiculous, it is as if they didn't care at all to explain where the game takes place and how come we are magically teleported into the alternate reality of Asian stereotypes.

Speaking of which, there is also no in-game explanation as to who Lo Wang is and why he is being hunted. Sure, the help file tells you he worked for Zilla and now his former employer is out to get him, but why couldn't they put this information into the game itself? Why couldn't they make an opening sequence that sets the stage for the game, the way it was in Blood? The short intro simply shows Lo Wang preparing to fight. Until he finds the dying Master Leep and is sent on a quest for revenge (which happens in the end of the third level), there is no story whatsoever in the game. The few cutscenes are short and cannot even be compared in quality to the movies in Blood. It is strange, not to mention disappointing, that the last game of the great triad took a step backwards in this aspect, instead of offering a more advanced story.

The Bottom Line

Shadow Warrior closes an era of FPS-making, during which developers cared more for level design, interactivity, humor and style than for the amount of polygons in 3D models. Shadow Warrior can be outdated and unoriginal, but it is a precious testimony of the epoch. And more importantly, it's still a great fun to play.