Shadow Company: Left for Dead is a good attempt at marrying realtime strategy gaming with actual man to man combat.
When I first got the Shadow Company box, I thought UBI was going to try to piggyback on the success of one of my favorite turn-based strategy games, Jagged Alliance 2 by Sir-Tech. The plot was similar enough, with the player being in charge of a band of mercenaries going out on a series of difficult missions in return for large paychecks.
But whereas Jagged Alliance is turn-based, Shadow Company is a realtime game. My interest rising, I loaded the game up on a Pentium II with a nice Riva TNT video card. I was greeted with an excellent tutorial showing me exactly how to pick up weapons, shoot opponents, crawl past obstacles, throw grenades, cut through fences and even drive vehicles.
But the real dazzle is the graphics in this game. It looks very much like the medieval strategy war game Myth II by Bungie Software. Only instead of archers and berserkers, you have snipers and machine gunners.
The most impressive part of the game is the graphics. Everything looks real. Rivers lazily shift past muddy shorelines, fires burn realistically at campsites, rolling green hills give way to rocky caps, the chimneys of houses smoke slightly at night and searchlights at installations cut through the night along outer fences. It’s about the most beautifully rendered war zone I’ve ever seen. Missions take place in a variety of locations, from the snow covered permafrost of Russia to the scorching fields of Rwanda. And each landscape is so well designed, they all have a unique look and feel.
The second best feature of the game is the sound. Crickets sometimes chirp when your team is in the deep woods, and rivers sound realistic. I’ve even heard a bird or two or the wind blowing. It all contributes to an atmosphere that lets players really get sucked into the game.
In all these areas, Shadow Company beats Jagged Alliance 2 hands down. But two areas keep the game from getting a perfect score.
First, the interface is difficult to use. You have the same rotating vision camera that was used in Myth II, where you can use the number keys to move into your point of view and you can zoom in and out as well. The problem is unlike Myth II, the action in Shadow Company is fast. Once a firefight begins, you end up playing keyboard ballet trying to rotate the camera into a position where you can see what is happening, and also give commands to your troops. It’s a bit frustrating when you know your people are in trouble, yet can’t do anything because you have to rotate the camera around before you know how to counter approaching threats.
There is a "lock on object" key that keeps the camera glued to the selected troop, but for some reason this view is too zoomed in, and you can easily get shot at by people who are off your screen. Then you have an additional command to have to type in, disabling the locked view, before you can rotate the view and react to the threat. Needless to say, with bullets flying around, it is not long before your troops start to bleed and every second counts.
The second problem also has to do with the interface to some extent and involves the most fun aspect of the game, that of using vehicles. Sinister did not cop out with vehicle use in this one. If there is a vehicle on the map, chances are you can use it. I found myself hijacking cars, boats, armored personnel carriers and even tanks. Tanks are the most fun. Rolling through fences into the center of a compound, crushing slow running troops under your treads and dropping HE rounds into enemy barracks is what a fun combat game is all about.
But since vehicles move even faster than humans, keeping the camera angles in a correct position can be tricky. Also, there seems to be some problem with firing vehicle-mounted weaponry. Several times I aimed a vehicle mounted machine gun directly at an enemy who was firing at me, only to have the shot ping off the dirt no where near the target. Also vehicle weapons should be able to continue firing till they run out of ammo, instead of an occasional burst.
I have another complaint that is more of a minor one with vehicles. Apparently even tanks will explode if you shoot them enough. I find this unrealistic. In real life you can fire 5,000 or more rounds from an AK-47 at a tank and other than scratching the paint it won’t do a thing. But in Shadow Company, enough hits and your tank will catch on fire. I would have preferred if the enemy was issued anti-tank guns or tried to close assault my vehicle with grenades or something. Nobody in their right mind would stand there in the open firing at a tank with a rifle.
Although the interface is top down realtime, you are able in certain circumstances to turn the game into a more first person interface. If you have a sniper on your team with a rifle, you can hold down a key to look through your scope. This is a lot of fun and very realistic. I have found that the sniper is the most deadly warrior in the game. My sniper on one mission got 30 kills without taking any damage herself. I simply propped her up on the high ground and started plucking off enemies inside a fortified compound, and an occasional patrol. She was even able to kill another sniper in a duel as the combat started. Kudos to Sinister for adding so many fine elements to the mix.
I found myself playing mission after mission. The storyline to the game is quite good and the cut scenes had me believing that I actually was in command of a mercenary company. I would have liked to heard more dialog from my mercs, but what they do say is well done and believable. And this title overall has more action than even a networked game of Half-Life.
One final note, you can play Shadow Company over the Internet or on a LAN. It’s pretty good this way, as you can have different teams going after different objectives. It would have been a crime to leave this feature out, but Sinister seems to have put a lot of thought into exactly what players want in a combat game, and then dutifully added it.
Although we are not seeing a lot of press about Shadow Company, the title is doing well as news of it spreads. Not only will Shadow Company raise the bar for squad-level realtime strategy games, it brings enough extras with it to almost create its own genre.