Late To The Party: Shadow Warrior (1997)


What playing Shadow Warrior basically feels like.

Coming off of probably 100 hours of tactical shooting in Arma II I decided to move onto the more action-oriented Shadow Warrior Classic Redux. The first I’d heard of Shadow Warrior was sometime in the late 90’s when I spotted a box for an “East meets West” double pack of Duke Nukem 3D and some game that looked similar but with an Asian setting.

The original Shadow Warrior, if you haven’t played it (I don’t think it ever got the console ports Duke 3D did), is basically Duke 3D laced with Asian imagery. I could talk about how I genuinely laughed at protagonist Lo Wang’s one-liners more than I did Duke Nukem’s, some of said Asian imagery, or how cool the Katana feels in the game, but my main takeaway from Shadow Warrior has been its level design.

Duke 3D is well-remembered for creating an unusually interactive world for a first person shooter of its time – light switches, random things to play with, cameras, and other things to make the world feel functional and real. It wasn’t until I started playing Shadow Warrior, which evokes this, that I realized this is immersive simulation level design in an action shooter.

When people think “immersive sim” they usually think about late 90’s and early 2000’s Dark engine games like System Shock II or Thief II, and early Unreal engine games like the original Deus Ex. 90’s action shooters of the DOOM engine and Build engine (which is what Duke 3D and Shadow Warrior run on) era are supposed to feel more gamey and surreal. Classic DOOM’s level design reminds me more of Mario games than anything else.

That style of level design for a shooter creates gameplay that’s not just about shooting and reflexes, but spatial control. Like DOOM, winning gunfights in Shadow Warrior means knowing how to maneuver through your environment while also using the right weapon for the right situation. That’s also due to the obviously high level of variety in weapons and enemies in these old games compared to modern military shooters. The action in Duke 3D and Shadow Warrior feels cool because it feels like you’re exhibiting those skills in places that feel real: hotels, office buildings, bases, etc. Shadow Warrior takes it a bit further if you’re into kung fu movies or anime because you’re fighting in well laid-out bamboo forests and Japanese-looking villages.

Let me contrast this with the Crysis series among other modern shooters. The environments in Crysis 2 and Crysis 3, despite looking absolutely beautiful, feel much more like sterile video game levels. You’re mostly moving in one direction and while some levels feature multiple paths, the only thing the environment provides you with is cover. In most modern shooters you just hop in and out of cover all the time. The latter two Crysis games are a little better since you can cloak around the semi-open environments and you can still pick up random objects.

A small but telling example of the contrast in eras is how doors function. You open doors all the time in Duke 3D and Shadow Warrior, but I think there was maybe one part in Crysis 2 where you get to simply open a door. In Call of Duty you always have to wait for someone else to breach the door because there’s no function for opening a door. In the last two Crysis games you usually just watch a short cut scene of your character smashing a door to enter a new area from which he can’t return. The original Crysis on the other hand is almost the last example of shooter level design with that realistic, plausible feel.

A recent release that has part of that old feel to its level design is Wolfenstein: The New Order. When renting the PS3 version, despite that port’s technical issues I still noticed the one main reason New Order stands out among today’s shooters — it has actual level design. Its levels feel like dynamic places you have to explore and take advantage of instead of just corridors filled with cover. BioShock probably retains that feel as well but I’m not sure how much. It’s been a while since I played any of those games but coming off Shadow Warrior I’m interested in going back.

I’ll go ahead and admit a lot of levels in 90’s shooters were really confusing with key card puzzles. I got lost and had to use an FAQ in probably half the levels in Shadow Warrior, but that’s not a failing of dynamic level design in itself. That’s just obtuse execution — usually I got stuck because key cards were hidden in really obscure places. The game, like Duke 3D, depends on the player being extremely curious. Later first person games like Deus Ex or System Shock 2 did a better job of giving players just enough clues to figure out where they need to go.

Instead of finding that balance, too many modern games just point the player’s head at every turn before they have a chance to think for themselves. That’s a pretty big chunk of the story of modern mainstream game design.


  • I couldn’t fit this into the flow of the main post but I’ll also say I was surprised at how much Shadow Warrior referenced 90’s anime. I forgot this game came out in the middle of America’s post-Ghost in the Shell fascination with anime. You see characters styled like anime of that era, and posters of real anime like Slayers and Sorcerer Hunters.
  • Popular game logos in Arabic.
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