Depth in a game that's based on a comic book? Based on past experience, this is not a likely scenario. Since the first comic books arrived, publishers have made every attempt to capitalize on the successes of these properties; licensing them out to anybody and everybody. From this, we got everything from Superman lunch boxes to Iron Man bed sheets. And when TV became popular, the marketing reared its head there too; it seemed only natural that they would someday wind up on the big screen. However, what has remained a constant with all the incarnations of comic book heroes (and heroines) is an overwhelming campiness and shallowness. They were originally aimed at young kids so comic book creators understandably never bothered much with depth, thinking that kids wouldn't care much for such things anyway. It is safe to say now though, in the age of Spawn and Blade, that comics have come a long way since then. They have now taken a much darker tone and with more adult (physically, at least) fans collecting comics than before, the envelope is always being pushed as far as graphic content and subject matter is concerned. In fact, the heroes behave and commit actions once considered to be only in the domain of comic book villains or the rare and unpopular anti-heroes. A perfect example of this trend is the Shadow Man comic book. Here is a hero who is not only dark (no pun intended), but also cruel and sadistic as he navigates worlds that are wholly unappealing. A comic based on this would never have made it to the publisher in the past, but today it is considered hot property. What hasn't changed is the licensing out of its franchise as a commodity and here Acclaim is quick to capitalize. With the popularity of another comic book property, Turok, notched on their belt, they now try to bring the comic book world of Shadow Man to the Nintendo 64.
Upon close inspection of Shadow Man, I see a game that has a lot going for it. It is based on a dark and moody comic book and Acclaim has succeeded in bringing all of that into the game uncensored (anyone familiar Nintendo's censorship record can appreciate this as a huge accomplishment). To their credit, Acclaim pushed for and got a mature rating on this game. And after playing for only a short while, it is obvious that the rating is well deserved: Acclaim didn't hold back the adult content. The cuss words fly from the characters mouths with surprising acidity and regularity. It seems no one in the afterlife knows the meaning of discretion and speaks freely with language that is no holds barred. What was also a bit unsettling was the amount of sheer gore in this game. When enemies weren't exploding around me (they literally went to pieces after every fight), what was strewn about the landscape was clear evidence that I wasn't in a Disney World theme park. Each stage was decorated with an assortment of torture racks, impaled bodies, and pools of blood throughout and it all provided that "welcome to the land of the damned" look so necessary in a game like Shadow Man.
All of this is brought to life thanks to Acclaim Studios Teeside's amazing graphics engines that is easily one of the best I've seen on the Nintendo 64 to date. It's called the VISTA engine and allows huge 3D environments to be done on the Nintendo 64 successfully without resorting to the notorious fogging trick or others to hide clipping and pop-up in the background. In fact, I will go so far as to say that it's proof that, with the 4MB memory pak and a 256 MB cartridge, a developer can create something that rivals high-end PCs or Sega's new Dreamcast (the creators of Duke Nukem: Zero Hour should take notice). I can't stress enough that they've captured the grim worlds of Deadside, where the dead are forced to roam, and Lifeside, which is marginally brighter but still filled with creepy landscapes.
Capturing mood was obviously at the top of the priorities because every possible mood-effecting element was implemented. They started off with a dark story of an apocalyptic war between good and evil, foreseen by the Voodoo priestess, Mamma Nettie. I play as Mike LeRoi, who is endowed with dark powers to stop the five worst serial killers in history from taking over the world. Apocalyptic plot lines can get repetitive after a while, so Acclaim Sports pushed the N64 hardware to its limit by adding some of the longest cinematic cut scenes I've seen on a cart since Zelda. What is even more noteworthy is the amount and quality of the vocals within those cut-scenes. They are long and frequent and there were times when I thought I was playing a CD-based game. Also of note is the sheer amount of potty-mouth dialogue used throughout. It was, at times, jarring and I was sure glad that there were no kids around to hear it. But combined with the creepy soundtrack and cut-scenes, it took Shadow Man to another level aurally and gave the game some much-appreciated depth.
With all this going for it, Shadow Man dies because of, you guessed it, the gameplay department. For starters, there isn't one thing that Shadow Man does that is actually fun. It has always been said that the 3D, over-the-shoulder perspective is horrible for action titles (funny that it doesn't slow their popularity at all), but it becomes terribly evident once I started playing. While firing my gun at the baddies, I could never tell whether or not I was hitting them until I moved aside and out of my own way. It gets really bad when I have to maneuver on ledges and make precise jumps because the perspective doesn't allow me to see what's ahead of me. The lagging controls were just too prohibitive. Want another negative about the game? How about one that has followed Acclaim since its first N64 game (Turok: The Dinosaur Hunter): and this is, of course, save points. It is unbelievable to me that a game with such deep and expansive levels would be released to the public with a save option as inflexible and infrequent as this one is. Many times after busting my butt to get to a certain point, I would have to start an entire section all over because I didn't find one of their miserly save points. Come on Acclaim, its high time that you fix this.
To compound the problems with the interface is bad level design. Getting from point A to point B was unnecessarily difficult because Acclaim was intent on having me run all around the level. In order to proceed, I had to find a certain new path or doorway only to find that it was staring me in the face the whole time, but was obscured by bad camera angles or simply blended in with the surrounding graphics. Sometimes it was somewhere simply out of my reach until I learned another ability or unlocked an area with a "key," but most of the time, it was just placed badly and left me with nothing but unnecessary work. It lacked all of the skill and creativity I found in Mario 64 or Zelda. As an aside, maneuvering through this game was akin to running through molasses. If an enemy surprised me, I couldn't do much but shoot wildly while (very slowly) backing away or struggling to get to higher ground. In cases such as these the graphics acted as a hindrance; while they looked spectacular from afar, I ran into problems when I got a closer look. There were times when I couldn't even tell what I was looking at even if it was just a few feet in front of me. Sloped ledges looked straight, but it was not until I got right up close to them that I found that they were actually slanted and couldn't be climbed. Again, it all led to needless work on my part and lowered the game's score immensely.
With its dark content and overall cryptic nature, the Shadow Man comic license is worked to perfection here. There is very little in Shadow Man to remind me of my parent's comic book heroes of days long gone. The dark and sometimes overwhelmingly grim nature of the license is not lost here and I appreciated it. Such faithfulness is rare because of the strict standards of console manufacturers and the differences in mediums (comics and interactive games). What is ultimately at fault is not the property (Shadow Man), but the game itself. Lacking in basic things like control and player interaction, Shadow Man is ironically a shallow incarnation of a property that came to the table with a lot of potential. I'm sure there was a lot left in the game for me to see and deal with, but I was too turned off by the game's flaws to go any further. Acclaim Studios was successful in recreating the look and feel of the comic, but as usual with an endeavors such as this, they failed to take advantage of the video game medium. So as in this case with Shadow Man, all the pretty environments and special effects are simply wasted.