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Shellshock 2: Blood Trails Review

A Review of Shellshock 2: Blood Trails

Shellshock 2: Blood Trails managed to fail at being a convincing, scary, or fun horror game, in spite of having the Vietnam War as a basis. I cannot imagine what was going through the minds of the developers when they decided to make a war-themed horror game which ended up being less scary and horrifying than simply sitting down and reading a real Vietnam War memoir.
In the first place, Shellshock 2: Blood Trails crashed and froze up my PC very frequently. Many critics on the internet point out that the system requirements for Shellshock 2 seem to be unnecessarily high, and my own experience leads me to conclude that the graphics aspects of the software are probably horribly inefficient and buggy. I had to re-install Shellshock 2 twice in order to get it to run on my system, and after I played for a few hours on a Saturday night I found that the game could not load any checkpoints on Sunday morning without crashing and freezing up my whole system. After five attempts and no successful loads I gave up trying to complete the game and plan to uninstall it from my system, so fair warning that my review is based on an incomplete playthrough. Not that I really believe it makes the slightest bit of difference in terms of my being able to articulate the torment of suck furnished by this game.
Shellshock 2 tries to be horrific by providing claustrophobic environments, scary ambient noise, lots of gore, disturbing visuals (eg., a quivering US soldier who is missing his legs while sitting upright and holding a flare in a tunnel), and, well, zombies. While some of these things are inherently scary or disturbing, the effect was marred by over-reliance on cliches. Quivering, mutilated marines (on spikes no less) have been around since Doom 2. People screaming while getting pulled by their feet into darkness by something unseen has been in just about every horror movie and video game in recent memory. Zombies are so cliched that they are becoming cool again today, and zombies-in-Vietnam-war has already been well done on a Tales from The Crypt episode. As a counter-example, I would offer Clive Barker's Undying; even though itís quite old it is the scariest video game Iíve ever played and that is because it featured horrific and disturbing, yet novel, visuals. When youíve seen something so many times before itís just not scary anymore. Cliches, combined with linear level design, knock my head out of the game and make me feel like Iím walking through a commercial haunted house the day before Halloween. Perhaps the least-scary and most silly and annoying moment of the entire game was when the level design featured invisible walls in foliage which forced me to step on a tripwire which in turn sent a giant, spiked log on ropes swinging at my character, and in turn quickly tap a directional key to avoid being instantly killed and forced to replay a moderately lengthy yet easy and boring segment of the game. It was as if the Ewoks from Return of the Jedi decided to come to Vietnam to wage war on the US Army.
Furthermore, your character in Shellshock 2 is almost unkillable, except apparently by falling spiked log, or by falling into deep water, because apparently you canít swim either. In terms of being able to absorb zombie attacks or small arms fire, your character can take so much abuse that it becomes comical, and certainly not scary. I remember how in one wide-open level I was taking fire from different directions and having trouble seeing where the various enemies were in order to return fire. In any tactical shooter game that would have been game over right there, but between the tremendous volume of fire which would actually be required to kill you, and the fact that in a horror-genre game you inexplicably have Call of Duty 2-style regeneration, I just sat there out in the open like an idiot taking fire for a long time and didnít die, but instead completed the level on my first attempt. Iíve always felt it was kind of silly how after Call of Duty 2 almost every FPS game opted for magical regeneration instead of actual specific injures with gameplay repercussions as in Deus Ex or Operation Flashpoint, but itís absolutely counter-intuitive to think that player character regeneration would do anything but detract from a horror atmosphere in a game. Kind of like how realizing that dropping someone into the middle of a lake is apparently a more sure to kill them than emptying a rifle into them ruins the atmosphere of a supposedly scary game.
On that note, I feel that Shellshock 2 lacked the realism and atmosphere to really evoke a scary feeling in the player. In order for something to be immersive and scary it has to resemble reality enough that the person experiencing it can take what he or she sees and feels for granted, instead of being immediately jarred outside of that experience by something greatly dissonant with the expectations of reality. A good horror movie starts with a believable series of events and the thing that is scary and supernatural is introduced subtly and gradually. However, Shellshock 2 jumps straight into heavy-handed surrealism and horror, whereas it surely would have been more effective if it had presented a few "normal" or "realistic" levels to build atmosphere and empathetic characters and gradually introduced its horror elements. Look at Vietcong; it produced superb atmosphere by having many non-combat levels and interactions with the characters, lots of historical music, and plenty of written supplemental materials which could be accessed in game. Even though Iím a history buff I learned a thing or two about the history of Vietnam from the extra written materials in Vietcong. Doom 3 also opened with a non-combat level to set the stage for the demon invasion and provided written and audio supplemental materials throughout. Shellshock 2 could have started out with a boot camp tutorial level, and then had a couple normal patrols featuring exclusively normal North Vietnamese enemies, maybe a non combat level at a sleazy Saigon bar introducing some characters, and then finally began to introduce the zombies. Even better, it could have gradually introduced surrealistic elements as the action got further from Saigon and closer to the borders, borrowing themes from Apocalypse Now or Heart of Darkness, thus touching on both supernatural horror and war-related psychological horror. This sort of pacing and themes are so obvious for a Vietnam War horror setting and I cannot imagine why it apparently didnít occur to the developers.
To add insult to injury, they didnít even get such basic details as the weapons totally right. When your character reloads, he tends to ride the slide or the charging handle with his hand, which is actually incorrect technique because it prevents the spring from exerting its full force and increases the odds of a misfeed or other malfunction. If the historic M14 reloads like my Ruger Mini-14, you canít insert a fresh magazine straight in like the in-game animation shows, but rather you must insert the magazines at an angle and then rock them backwards into place so that they "catch" on a little nub inside the rifle which holds them in place. The various firearms donít have very much recoil or very much randomized inaccuracy like in most military-themed FPS games of today, so that I feel more like Iím playing Shogo or Blood on the old Monolith engine than a game from 2008, and the weapons seem more like wands of magic missile than firearms. By taking a more realistic approach to the weapons the game designers also could have made the game scarier. The original M16A1 used a 20 round magazine that was usually under-loaded to hold 18 rounds due to reliability issues, whereas for some reason in Shellshock 2 youíre running around with 30 round magazines that look like 20 round magazines. If it had a smaller magazine, a certain chance of jamming, and a possibility of breaking every time you used it for a melee attack, that could be scary. I know most people would argue that breaking rifles are no fun, but in this case the game gives you so many chances to pick up a new rifle that I honestly donít think it would be that big of a deal.
In the end, Shellshock 2 is a regressive and depressing product which brings back the gameplay of the mid-1990s and the horror cliches of the last 20 years while still not managing to be as emotionally disturbing or engaging as just sitting down and reading an actual zombie-free Vietnam War memoir from your local bookstore. At the same time it manages to be inefficient and buggy, and have absolutely no interesting narration or characters. I donít think Iíve played a worse FPS since Blood 2.
-- Wounded Ronin (5/21/2009)

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