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SummarySometimes it clicks and sometimes it clunks
The GoodIf nothing else, Shogo: MAD is a stylish game. Although Monolith Productions is an American developer they've done their research and perfectly captured the zany art style of animes like BattleTech and Gundam Wing. With a wildly unusual premise and huge production values, this was Monolith's big offering for 1998.
Shogo features standard, on-foot FPS action and combat with anime-style battle mechas. The on-foot parts of the game are fairly standard FPS fare. You play as Sanjuro Makabe, a soldier who has recently lost his girlfriend in a tragic accident. He's been summoned to the moon Cronos, where an element has been discovered that enables space-craft to travel at faster-than-light speeds. This immensely valuable resource has led to all of Earth's nations to scramble for control of Cronos, and you've got to help oust a rebel leader who has seized control. Predictably, the story rapidly disintegrates into a mess of lies, betrayals and back-stabbings that Shakespeare would be proud of.
But it isn't enough to go pedestrian these days, and you've got a choice of four gigantic mecha robots that eat tanks for breakfast. This is the game's main selling point and is a clothesline for all kinds of wacky stuff. You can jump on top of skyscrapers and get along building-tops, or kick cars around and step on human beings like insects. You get a whole bunch of devastatingly powerful weapons (the 4x rocket-launching Bullgut being my favourite) and can pick and choose the mecha you control for even greater variety (for example, the Andra 35 Predator is slow but powerful, while the Shogo Akuma Series 12 is faster and weaker).
You can't switch from on-foot to in-mecha any time you want, but only when the game lets you. Some levels you'll play as a mecha, others will be fought entirely on foot. Both modes get very repetitive on their own but the levels are split up so you're never doing one or the other for too long.
Like Quake 2 and Half-Life, the game is mission driven, and you usually have to complete a series of objectives to win a level. At two pivotal points in the game, the player also has the opportunity to make a crucial decision which can alter the game's ending. While the first decision is almost purely a narrative decision, the second decision actually determines who you'll be facing the rest of the game and how the game will end. If nothing else, the ability to play the game twice with two different sets of final missions adds to the game's replay value.
There's a lot of smart concepts floating around here. You have dynamic audio (when fighting a battle the music picks up tempo, for example), and the most accurate polygon hit-boxing yet seen in a shooter. How much damage you inflict on an enemy depends on where you shoot them, making the game a lot more tense and realistic. Especially since it's a two-way street and you run the risk of an enemy taking you out with a single shot to the head.
One cool feature in this game that really sets it apart from the pack is the Critical Hit system. If you hit someone in a certain part of the body (it varies) or just particularly hard, they flash purple and you gain health, giving you not only an incentive to kill your enemies, but kill them with style. I'm not sure what the explanation for this is, but it's a really good idea and means you can easily replenish your health even when there are no health packs around.
And of course it's all powered by Monolith's first-generation LithTech engine, and while it's rather buggy and unstable it allows for truly spectacular visuals, easily surpassing Quake 2 and Unreal. Explosions and light effects are rendered in glorious detail, and although the polygon models are rather blocky (the anime art style is an angular one, anyway) Shogo makes up for this with intricate character motions and gestures comparable to the first Resident Evil game. As soon as you see a character shrugging or cracking his knuckles you'll know what I mean.
The BadThe previous reviewers have said it well. Shogo: MAD was designed by people who had a lot of bright ideas but no clue how to put them together into a game. Some parts really impressed me, but for everything Shogo: MAD does well, it does something else poorly. It's a clumsy, hit-and-miss game only a fanboy could truly love.
The meat of the game (mecha combat) simply doesn't work. When you're riding around in a 30-foot robot there has to be a sense of wonder and amazement, and the game fails to communicate this to the player. It doesn't feel like you're stomping around in a giant metal suit weighing hundreds of tons. It feels like you're a gravity-defying ballerina. You can jump to ridiculous heights, do impossible mid-air pirouettes...heck, the game doesn't even attempt at making the physics feel right. Aside from realism there isn't much real difference from being on the ground to being in a mecha. The controls are the same as in human form, your abilities are the same as in human form, the weapons function like souped-up versions of whatever you were using on the ground...why bother?
Mecha combat is almost laughably easy due to your overpowered weapons and the enemies' buggy AI. Some of these bugs are so severe they almost break the game. For example, when an enemy mecha gets hit it goes through a lengthy recoil animation (sometimes as long as 2-3 seconds) and you'll almost certainly be able to fire again before it's ready, effectively paralysing it until it's destroyed. By exploiting AI loopholes like this you can cruise through most mecha levels with impunity, and only when you have to face multiple mecha does the going get tough. The mecha levels are very straightforward and boring, usually just finding a building or flipping a switch somewhere. Come on guys, this is a game about giant robots. Surely there must be more exciting gameplay possibilities then that.
Since the mecha side of the game is a substantial disappointment, are the game's on-foot portions good enough to redeem the game? I won't deny it, Shogo: MAD provides a nice slab of classic FPS action and this is probably the game's most successful aspect. But even here there are many glaring problems. The game restricts itself to indoor levels, once the badass anime theme gets old the game becomes an exercise in repetition, with whole levels consisting of gigantic mazes and nearly identical hallways filled with enemies. Speaking of which, the enemies are texture-swapped versions of the same few models, and this gives the feeling you're fighting an army of clones.
I could point out that Shogo contains some squad-based elements that add a bit of interest to the gameplay, but sadly these are mere gimmicks that never rise above the level of baby-sitting missions. You either have to help a group of friendly soldiers in a firefight (which you could probably win on your own, by the way) or help a scientist into a compound so he can deactivate a computer or something retarded. At least your "squad mates" have decent AI and can be trusted not to get stuck against walls, so that's something to be thankful of.
In contrast to the somnolent mecha gameplay, Shogo's ground-based missions are extremely hard. Even on the lower difficulty levels you'll soon be best friends with the quick-load key. On the higher difficulty levels prepare to leave your ego at the door, as your enemies have superhuman reflexes and will open fire on you as soon as you walk into their view, leading to instant death if you're not ready. Add to this the high damage levels they can dish out (Shogo: MAD isn't quite a "two hits and you're dead" tactical shooter, but it gets pretty close some times) and you've got a game that often leans towards frustrating.
Level design (in a typical Monolith way) starts out strong but gets steadily worse as the game progresses. To any amateur modders out there, take note of Shogo: MAD's final missions because they are textbook examples of how levels should not be built. They're just a long series of identical hallways to get lost in, peppered with randomly-placed enemies that bog gameplay down to a slog. And architecture doesn't vary much so if you find a place you'll need to come back to (such as a locked door) you'll have one hell of a job finding it again. Admittedly most of the levels are less boring than the example above (one particularly fun level has you zipping through air shafts reminiscent of Quake) but there's still a gratuitous over-use of mazes and other stock FPS devices to complicate and extend play life.
The "story" is a huge load of crap, and is basically just a generic gotta-save-the-world plot but made more complicated through a million unnecessary subplots (female love interests, the rejection of your best friend, ...) which have el zilcho to do with the game itself and all miraculously resolve themselves when you beat the final boss. What's a inane soap opera to begin with is made even worse through pandering to the sensibilities of a PG-rated thriller movie. Let me give you an example: you have to infiltrate an enemy base, but a gate that you need a key to unlock blocks your path. The key is held by an elderly woman (you can see where this is going already, can't you?) who has lost her pet cat, and you'll have to find it for her before she'll give you the key. This development stopped me dead in my tracks, unable to believe what I'd just been told. Excuse me? The whole world hangs in the balance and I'm expected to find a lost pet to continue the game? I've watched Disney cartoons that are less condescending.
Plus it was released just two weeks before a certain game that stole all the holiday season hype, and that hardly helped.
The Bottom LineI pity an FPS game trying to compete with Half Life's massive success; it must have been like an American musician trying to keep his career afloat during the British Invasion. Although personally I'd attribute Shogo: MAD's lack of success to an entirely different reason: it's a mediocre game.
It has lots of promise and with a bit more time in development (someone correct me but wasn't Monolith designing and marketing Blood 2 more or less simultaneously?) it could have been a classic. But Shogo is a half-baked mess and even an anime nerd would have a hard time digesting it. Get No-One Lives Forever.