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Game Review: 'Shadow of the Colossus'

This month Dr. Toon plays the “What If” game to see how the world of animation would be different if in an alternative reality Dick Tracy was an animated star, Bob Clampett lived longer or Walt Disney never lost Oswald the Rabbit.

Despite the next-gen debut of Xbox 360, the hype for this PS2 title has been intense. All images © Sony Computer Ent.

The future is here! As of today, Nov. 22, 2005, next-gen gaming has officially arrived. Microsoft has released their much-anticipated first salvo in the next-gen console wars, the Xbox 360. Along with the system come a slew of new entries in the all too familiar genres. Sure, there are sports titles, shooters, racing games and puzzlers. What isnt apparent from the media onslaught about Microsofts new system is where the innovation is. For all intents and purposes, the new Xbox offers gamers prettied up versions of the games they already know and love. From a marketing perspective this might seem like a no-brainer. Gamers, however, are a savvy bunch and will only purchase the same titles three or four times. Ask us to buy a rehash one more time and we just might say, No, thanks. The irony here is that gamers expectations are so low after years of mediocre product that they happily accept the marketing line of better graphics, high-quality sound, etc. as gospel. But there is a bright spot on the horizon in the form of an innovative new PlayStation 2 exclusive game called Shadow of the Colossus.

In order to appreciate this beacon of hope, we need to first look back a few years before the advent of Sonys PS2 console. Games were often shipped with less than stellar visuals, often underwhelming the casual gamer. In addition, gameplay hadnt evolved much from previous generations of home gaming consoles. Much like today, gamers were bombarded with marketing slogans playing up the awesome visuals, but delivered few examples of what they truly desired: innovative new kinds of gameplay. Things changed in September of 2001 when Sony released an in-house development effort called ICO for the PS2.

ICO was groundbreaking in many ways, but first and foremost it offered gamers unique gameplay. The fact that this unique gameplay was also really fun and enjoyable was only the beginning. ICO utilized just about every visual trick the Sony engineers could pull off at that time. The game sucked players in with a simple yet utterly involving storyline that had them protecting a loved one throughout the course of some serious action/adventure gameplay. From quality story and characters to visual excellence to creepy enemies, ICO delivered.

Flash forward to the present, once again and see that some gamers are shrugging their shoulders at this new next-gen of gaming. For the first time gamers arent in a mad rash to purchase the newest console. While there are early adopters willing to fork over their cash for almost any new gadget, the majority of gamers seem to be taking more of a wait and see stance. The first question most gamers ask is: What games are there for this new system?

For the Xbox 360, the answer is disappointing. Most of the games available at the launch of the new console are also available on other systems. For most gamers, few exclusives mean fewer reasons to buy a new console. Every console needs its equivalent of the killer app, that one title that is worth owning the system for. Back in 2001, ICO was a killer app for some gamers. Now, Sony has followed ICO up with the similarly styled Shadow of the Colossus. In almost every way, Shadow of the Colossus lives up to the standard set by ICO four years ago, including pushing the visuals of the PS2 to new heights. In the words of Fumito Ueda, lead artist and designer for Sony Computer Ent. Japan, Shadow of the Colossus is definitely not a sequel. It is a kindred spirit...

From giant land beasts to deadly flying menaces, the character design for the game packs a wallop.

Innovative gameplay? Check! Stunning visuals that seem to accomplish more than most other games on the PS2? Check! Involving dramatic storyline that has the player reaching for the tissues? Check! At this point the PS2 is near the end of its lifecycle. Sony has already announced its plan to launch the PS3 early next year, so its great news for gamers to get this likely last treat on their current system. After all, Sony could have held the game back a few months and launched it for the PS3 instead.

Ueda says: You take the role of a young man seeking the truth of an ancient tale of power hidden in a mystical land. Tales speak of an ancient land where creatures the size of mountains roam the majestic landscape. Bound to the land, these creatures hold a key to a mystical power of revival a power you must obtain to waken a loved one from beyond. Upon entry into a temple surround by ominous yet mysterious statues, a powerful unknown voice offers you an answer to the question you seek, a question that has been driving you forward; how to bring back a spirit lost from a cursed fate. Aware of the challenges that lie ahead, you must overcome and defeat each of the Colossi. With a trusty horse at your side, players explore the spacious lands and unearth each Colossi.

When asked about his goals for the game, Ueda responds: to bring those light users (those who never have played a game) into the game world without feeling uncomfortable. We strive to delete all settings and expressions unique to the hardcore gamers only. Why the game is minimal is to ensure we have enough time to build up the quality of each element. Even if there is an element we want to include, if we cant ensure reality, we will choose to not include, which we assume gives the impression of minimalism. As a developer, we feel more comfortable when there are elements to add. It could make the game better, but it could also make the game more complicated.

The level of detail for the environments and gameplay makes this fantasy realm a rich experience.

One of the most stunning elements of the visuals in Shadow of the Colossus is the manner in which hair and fur is displayed. Ueda and his team utilized multiple techniques to get just the right effect. At times, textured polygons suffice, while at other times true fur shaders are clearly what gamers see. Given the excellence of the storyline, its no surprise that developers often turn back to story when asked about more technical aspects of the title. When asked about the visuals, Ueda replies: We do not intentionally try to create something as artistry. As any artist would do, we control the density of the screen contents and the color. As a film director would consider the settings and stories as they think a great deal about it being real, we simply create the game in the same way. The character motion skills are nothing but a pantomime. It is the same in a way that it is expressing something that doesnt exist in real life. However, although building up those skills is important, making the characters more realistic can be practical by the love the designer has towards that character and how much emotions they can put in.

Most gamers are familiar with the concept of bosses at the end of each level. Shadow of the Colossus takes this concept and turns it on its head. Levels are fairly straightforward, consisting of the world, which the main character explores. This world is rich and detailed but void of life; that is until you come upon one of the colossi. There are no enemies to battle before reaching the colossi, just the massive colossi themselves. Finding them takes a bit of exploration but once found the fun begins. Each colossus represents a unique challenge. All of them have weak spots, some easier to find than others, and all need to be climbed and assaulted while still hanging on.

Ueda continues: In this game, the colossus body is the action stage. Needless to say, the colossus will move around so the action on the colossus and the timing and dynamism will be something new. In addition to the novel concept of the boss being an entire game level, the scale of the colossi is also stunning. Standing a few hundred yards from one of these creatures gamers will likely find themselves overwhelmed at first. The sheer difference in size is enough to evoke an emotional reaction in most gamers. This alone is an achievement most games dont realize.

When asked about the origins, influences and challenges that went into the creation of Shadow of the Colossus, Ueda comments: There are far more constraints when creating games, but we find more ideas within those constraints. For example, the characters in ICO Ico & Yorda cannot communicate with each other, but this idea was born from constraints. Yordas AI to speak for herself does not exist in this world, but, then, it makes it more realistic and is more persuasive by losing the function of words.

If youre a PS2 owner and eager for something new, you wont be disappointed by Shadow of the Colossus. Its already on store shelves, and certainly easier to find in stock than an Xbox 360. For artists and fans of fantasy games and films, Shadow of the Colossus is sure to become a true classic, like its predecessor, ICO.

Fred Galpern is currently the art manager for Blue Fang Games, located just outside Boston. He is also a part-time Maya instructor at Northeastern University. Since entering the digital art field more than seven years ago, Galpern has held management positions in several game and entertainment companies, including Hasbro and Looking Glass Studios. He began his art career as a comic book creator and also has professional graphic design experience.