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The Shadow Warrior franchise began its life in the mid-90s as a means to improve on what once legendary Developer 3DRealms had done with its iconic Duke Nukem franchise. It had the same over the top violence and crude sense of humour as its older brother, but it benefited from enhancements to the in-house BUILD engine. Although the original release sold over 100,000 copies, a respectable figure for the time, the franchise was very much a one and done as 3D Realms shelved the IP. The game sat on that shelf for over 15 years until corporate restructuring forced the sale of the dormant IP, and everyone’s favourite Indie label, Devolver Digital, swooped in to give Shadow Warrior a second chance at life.
However, at this time the classic shooters of the 90s were no longer in style with the Halos, Call of Duties, and Battlefields of the world now taking centre stage. Fortunately for Devolver, though, a new indie developer, Flying Wild Hog, popped up in Warsaw, Poland, who had built an engine with the soul purpose of producing classic first person shooters with a modern coat of paint. Their first title, Hard Reset, despite not being a major commercial success, showed that there was still a market for a classic take on FPS games. The two companies would tie the knot in what ended up being a match made in heaven, resulting in a full reboot of Shadow Warrior. It was a title that would kick-start the resurrection process of the classic FPS genre three years before the release of DOOM 2016, a game often credited for doing just that. The reboot would also see a sequel three years later that would blend the genre with innovative features such as Diablo-like procedurally generated encounters, co-op, a hub-world, and a more open-style mission structure.
That brings us to today and the release of the third entry in the Shadow Warrior reboot series. This one comes with some serious changes to the formula from Flying Wild Hog. Gone are a lot of the innovations that came with Shadow Warrior 2 as well as the in-house engine that has powered all of Flying Wild Hog’s games up until this point. Instead, Flying Wild Hog has opted for a far more linear, cinematic, and streamlined solution more akin to the new DOOM and a switch to the more conventional Unreal Engine. So did they throw the baby out with a the bathwater, or trim the fat? Let’s dig in.
A Whole Lot of Wang
In Shadow Warrior 3 you once again step into the shoes of the long time series protagonist, Lo Wang (yes you read that right). He is a charismatic ninja warrior and a wisecracking idiot. The game takes place in a semi-destroyed earth where our lead character is seemingly alone amongst the rubble. Distraught by what he believes to be his involvement with the world’s current state, he reminisces about how it got to this point and his role in it. During his monologue’s cut-scene, Wang’s exposition brings you up to speed with the game’s story while different game play segments are interwoven via flashbacks. This both sets the stage for the game’s narrative and acts as a tutorial of sorts. It is also the first glimpse of the massive leap in production value and polish on display from the previous games.
The cinematics, character models, vibrant Asian-inspired environments, and particle effects are all leagues beyond what was offered in previous entries. The overall fluidity of the gameplay is also a noticeable improvement. However, the fact that Lo Wang is telling this entire backstory in his underpants also shows that, even though Flying Wild Hog switched engines, they never lost sight of the fact that they are making a game whose main protagonist is a walking dick joke.
After this segment, the real narrative path is revealed, and it is pretty straight forward. Find a MacGuffin (or two) and stop this big, horrible thing from making a bad thing worse. It is designed to provide a reason to go from combat arena to combat arena, and it does exactly what it has set out to do: nothing more and nothing less. Where it does stand out, though, is in its crude sense of humour.
Every story beat, every cut scene, hell every time Wang speaks mid-fight, it has some kind of humorous element attached to it. There is a whole lot of Wang in every aspect of this game, which could be a problem for some. I personally found the jokes landed more then they missed, but humour is a subjective thing, and not everyone will align with me on this. I could see people with different senses of humour really feeling the constant jokes and crudeness overbearing.
I can’t stress enough, though, on how improved the presentation is compared to anything Flying Wild Hog has released to date. A lot of what is on display in this budget title matches what we see in some AAA games, which just goes to show the artistic growth the studio has gone through. There are large set piece moments that provide a massive sense of scale, as well as things like giving each enemy in the game their own anime-style intro sequence when you encounter them for the first time. All of these lead to the highest production value the series, or any game from Devolver Digital, has ever seen. Performance was also great on Xbox Series X as the game targets 60fps with no real noticeable frame drops, even in the most hectic encounters.
While the setting, characters, and humour serve as the genetic connection to the previous titles, the gameplay is certainly a new breed. The first Shadow Warrior (1997) was a spiritual successor to Duke Nukem; however, on the flip side, the reboots had been somewhat unique experiences. The first in the reboot series aimed to bring the classic FPS back into the AAA sphere, while its sequel expanded on that with some modern sensibilities like a loot system, hub-world, NPCs to interact with, and, of course, co-op. With Shadow Warrior 3, however, it feels a lot more like a homecoming of sorts. It’s almost as if they abandoned the path they were on and made a modernized sequel of where it all began in 1997. This is further emphasized by DOOM Eternal clearly being a key influence both on the surface and under the hood.
For better or worse, on the surface, Shadow Warrior 3 borrows a lot of the mechanics that made DOOM Eternal such a masterpiece. The traversal mechanics, such as double jumping, swinging, clambering, wall running, and, of course, using a grappling hook, are all present. However, due to how linear the levels are, those mechanics are not used to their full potential. There are no real platforming puzzles and not much in the way of exploring for secrets. They are nothing more than an interesting way to get from one combat arena to the next.
It also shares the iconic glory kill system from the new DOOM titles but enhances it in an incredibly fun way. As you build up your “Gore” meter through combat, you will be able to instantly KO combatants in increasingly brutal ways. Each enemy you perform a “Gore-Kill” on has a unique super weapon that you rip out of them, which you can then use to dismantle whomever is left on the battle field. This is a system that never got old, and, in fact, on harder difficulties it became a very important, strategic option. Do I save my meter to instantly take out a large mini-gun wielding foe and turn that gun on the rest of my enemies? Or do I quickly take out a rank and file ice demon, rip off its face, and use it as a freeze grenade to stop a large pack of enemies who are on my tail? These decisions are at the centre of most encounters and added an unexpected layer of complexity to the game-play loop that I quite enjoyed.
Under the hood there are a lot of design principals borrowed from DOOM as well. You are given a decent assortment of guns with distinct advantages and disadvantages, but not a large amount of ammo. Ranged kills will also drop small amounts of health, but you also have your trusty katana which can be used to slice and dice enemies, causing them to drop ammo. On top of this, each enemy is very distinct, both visually and in how you fight against them. Figuring out the best time, place, and target on which to use each weapon, or when to use ranged or melee attacks, is a decision you will be constantly making on the fly as you whip around each combat arena.
You also need to constantly be on the lookout for environmental hazards to give you the upper hand, some of which are incredibly impressive. For instance, examples include shooting a button that opens a giant trap door filled with buzz saws, or another that swings a crane around knocking out flying enemies. All of these calculations are happening in your mind as you zip around the level at a break neck pace because standing still is a death sentence.
All of this is extremely important to nail because if you have a weapon that is extremely powerful and an overabundance of ammo, it creates a situation where you end up using the same solution to every combat puzzle. In DOOM 2016, for example, the super shotgun was this problem solver and made the game-play less dynamic. It is the key reason why I find its follow up, DOOM Eternal, superior. Thankfully, in Shadow Warrior 3, especially on harder difficulties, there is no super shotgun problem as you need to master your abilities, weapons, enemies, and environments to have success. While I don’t think it quite reaches DOOM Eternal’s mastery in this regard, it is an admirable attempt to capture its essence. Still, its design leads to every combat encounter being much more frantic, kinetic, and white knuckle, which is exactly what you want in a classic FPS experience.
This is the best that Shadow Warrior has ever looked and the best that it has ever played, but at the same time it feels like, underneath it all, something has been forgotten. The first game from Flying Wild Hog was such a breath of fresh air when it released, and the second one was filled with so much ambition. Shadow Warrior 3 is in a bit of a weird predicament because, on one hand, everything that they’ve done is an improvement over past entries. But as someone who enjoyed Shadow Warrior 2, everything missing is a somewhat glaring omission.
Gone are the co-op modes, the procedural levels, and the loot system. All of these added a ton of replayability to the previous game. Instead, they are replaced with almost nothing. There’s not even a new game plus mode or even a chapter select, which is incredibly annoying to anyone trying to hunt down the game’s semi-hidden upgrade nodes. These are orbs obtained by completing challenges and by finding them hidden around the game’s linear missions. You can use them to upgrade your combat prowess, such as upgrading the shotgun to have additional ammo reserves and never needing to reload, which is extremely useful for taking on tougher enemies. There are exactly enough of them to fully upgrade Wang and all of his weapons. This means that without chapter select or new game plus, missing just one would require you to start the whole game over from scratch if you wanted to grab them all.
Also gone is the hub area of Shadow Warrior 2, its NPCs, and all of the side quests they offered. Instead, secondary characters only appear in cut-scenes or in-game voice overs. I get that the game’s story is not the reason to jump into Shadow Warrior, but it was still fun to interact with these characters, and the loss of all the missions they offered drastically lowers the game’s run time comparatively.
It is somewhat odd to make such drastic changes in design for a game on its third entry, but what they set out to accomplish, they did with flying colours. While I do miss what was ultimately lost in translation, I’m at the same time extremely happy with what shipped with the final product. Flying Wild Hog started out as a scrappy indie studio looking to reinvigorate their favourite type of games, and not only did they do just that, they have grown into a 200+ employee power house. If Shadow Warrior 3 is the baseline, I’m now even more excited for Trek to Yomi, coming later this year, and for whatever else the future holds from Flying Wild Hog. Also, if you are interested in a blast from the past, the original Shadow Warrior (1997) has been made available for free on Steam!
Nice review and insight into the 3rd installment of Shadow Warrior