How far we've come. Back in Issue one, nearly four years ago, we deemed Xbox Live Arcade a "revolutionary new feature" for consoles - and that was when we only had Bankshot Billiards and Feeding Frenzy.
Four years on, and new XBLA creations are making greatest Xbox 360 game lists the world over.
Vast column inches have been given to Natal as the new face of Xbox 360, yet the most affecting change has already happened, and has affected the wider industry due to it. Shadow Complex will come to be seen as the benchmark for digital downloads to come.
This collaboration between developer Chair Entertainment and publisher Epic doesn't really do anything extraordinarily new. The prologue: a couple's accidental stumbling into a massive underground operational base, which leads to the subsequent one man's (seemingly extremely foolish) brazen plunge into its depths, exploring and shooting his way to his love's rescue.
Yet this exploration and action adventure is so stunning with its polish, attention to smaller details and enjoyable gameplay that it's so hard to claim unoriginality a fault. When you consider its birthplace, the game gives you a lot of bang for your ten quid.
The game's unabashedly a 2D platform shooter with a large side-order of exploration thrown in. The base is a labyrinth of advanced-weaponry catacombs and armed guard walkways, all sold from a pseudo-3D perspective, with warehouses and corridors fleshed out in the background. While you're restricted to the two dimensions, your bullets aren't, letting you take out enemies that attack from the rear rooms and galleys.
This leads to some cracking set-pieces. The Tarantula boss fights, as you chase a huge mechanised spider tank along pipes and up shafts, are an early highlight, as is the first time you operate a turret and the camera zooms into a full 3D mode.
In fact, Shadow Complex outstrips many lower-grade retail titles so easily it's appalling. Too many full-priced games forgo the care and attention of the smaller details that Shadow Complex is lavished with, such as the entertaining chat between guards as you sneak by, as well as your own occasional inner monologue.
Not to forget the smooth animation as you holster your weaponry and subsequently the attached flashlight illuminating your back if not switched off, as well as the enemy bullets swirling, slowing and dissipating the further they plunge after you into underground lakes.
Moving on up
Progression and survival is all about finding ass-kicking military-grade hardware, transforming you from lost backpacker to Bionic Commando. Each awards you a new skill set, such as a double-jump, and therefore access to previously inaccessible areas. You'll upgrade both regularly and quickly, as if Chair worries your attention will wane given time.
It shouldn't, though. This is an absorbing adventure, less frustrating than its forbears but no less addictive. You can change the difficulty in-game to keep you on your toes - ramping up damage taken, if not AI smarts. Get lost and there's the option of a blue line tracer to lead you to your next destination - a miniature Google map (though forgo the exploration and you loose the entire point of the game).
We can't expect every Xbox Live Arcade developer to produce such wares - budget nor engine isn't going to be readily available to all. But Shadow Complex is a stunning demonstration of what you can squeeze onto the service. Play it, marvel at it, and hope that it's the future of downloadable games.
A game that's both complex and rewarding
- Hooks you from the start
- Atmosphere really impresses
- Game world is massive
- Lacking in cliché, packed with punch
- Enemy AI could have been smarter