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Shadowgrounds is, for me, the quintessential alien shooter. There are no gimmicks, no twists, and barely any surprises. There are aliens, and you shoot them. There may be better alien shooters out there, with more guns or complicated stories or crazier aliens. But Shadowgrounds is the old reliable, the game that you picture in your mind when you think “I want to shoot aliens”.
In a remote colony on Ganymede you are introduced to Wesley Tyler, a security chief turned mechanic after a tragic backstory had its way with him. The power goes out, and Wesley tags along with two short-lived cohorts to discover that man-eating bugs are crawling out of the reactor. You’ll soon find similar chaos breaking out all over the colony, with bigger and angrier aliens to shoot with bigger and angrier guns. Don’t expect any complex setpieces or shocking revelations, this is a bug hunt through and through.
Shadowgrounds plays from a top-down perspective with a fixed camera above Wesley’s head. This allows you to scoot around with WASD while rotating your view with the mouse. It’s a simple and effective control scheme that’ll have you dancing around ravaging aliens as you fill them full of ordnance. You’ll find ten different weapons in your journey, none of them particularly creative but all upgradable using tokens dropped from enemies. These upgrades can be as simple as more damage or faster reloads, or as complex as new fire modes or changes to weapon behavior. It’s a nice touch that lets you shore up your weapons in whatever areas you’re unsatisfied with, and the fact that you get tokens from enemies will have you always seeking out that next fight.
The quest to shoot all the aliens will take you through bases, factories, caves, and starships. Along the way you’ll meet more than a few characters that’ll give you direction or request your aid. They’re all pretty wooden and the voice acting is hammy at best, but there’s something endearing about their stiffness, the same way an afternoon movie on SyFy can charm with its ineptitude. This extends to the rest of the game, really. Shadowgrounds has a distinct B-movie feel that’s not at all intentional, and is more a produce of its age and budget than anything. And that’s not to say there aren’t a few sparks of brilliance, like the first time you encounter the stealth aliens.
You might have the impression that Shadowgrounds is an unremarkable action game, and you’re mostly right. The aliens are a standard mix of bugs and dog-things and serpent men, your guns are the same guns you’ve been using since Doom, and an infant would be able to predict the plot beats. And yet, there’s an earnest charm that keeps me going all the way to the goofy action hero finale. It’s well-made for what it is, with clean environments and balanced encounters and plenty of aliens to shoot. It’ll last you around four hours total, and there aren’t any secrets or achievements to turn up, so it really is just four hours of simply shooting aliens. But we all need to shoot aliens now and then, and sometimes simple is best.