I don't feel like saying 1998 was a good year for shooters is a particularly controversial statement. It was the year of heavy hitters Half-Life, Unreal, and Rainbow Six, and beloved (but noticeably more obscure) titles such as SiN, Tribes, and Turok 2. But beyond these genre staples lies another game, a hidden gem buried under all the hype of the aforementioned six shooters that may not be the most mechanically solid shooter of its time, but it's certainly one of the most interesting. I am, of course, talking about the 1998 Monolith Soft shooter, SHOGO: Mobile Armor Division.
SHOGO is the story of Sanjuro Makabe, a commander in the United Corporate Authority and pilot of a type of mecha known as Mobile Combat Armors. Over the course of his mission to assassinate a rebel leader on the planet Cronus, Sanjuro learns dark secrets about the planet, the UCA, and even the death of his girlfriend. While it's hardly riveting stuff, you have to give SHOGO: Mobile Armor Division points for at least trying to create a complex sci-fi story, and it even opens up branching paths that can lead to two entirely different final levels. But it shouldn't take a genius to realize what SHOGO is a send up to—all you need to do is watch the gloriously cheesy intro video.
Every shooter of the era took inspiration from something. Duke Nukem 3D looked to contemporary blockbusters. Blood drew inspiration from horror flicks. Shadow Warrior is jam-packed with old martial arts movie charm. And you don't have to know the difference between a Scopedog or a Zaku to know where SHOGO: Mobile Armor Division's influences lie. Yes, from the MCA's very Mobile Police Patlabor-esque design to the SDF Macross-like trails of smoke that follow a barrage of missiles, SHOGO wears its love for real robot anime on its sleeve. It lives and breathes mecha, and perhaps no area of the game showcases this better than the UCA flagship, which includes a pinup poster with a suspiciously familiar "CURV" logo, and rooms for people such as "M. Kusanagi" and "N. Izumi."
But the tributes to mecha don't stop at cute references; the plot trades in heavy hitting emotion and an engrossing world for as many delicious mecha archetypes and tropes as possible—right down to Sanjuro himself looking and acting like discount Heero Yuy. While some may be annoyed by this, I consider it a smart decision, because when the plot tries to get original, it ends up becoming absolute nonsense.
As to be expected from a late 90s shooter, the real focus is on the gameplay, which is actually quite nice. If you've played Monolith's other LithTech 1.0 FPS Blood II: The Chosen, you know what you're getting into—lots of crazy gunfights with a large amount of hitscan enemies that burst into bloody giblets after taking enough punishment. Or, in certain levels, chunks of smoking metal after being ripped apart by a building-sized Mobile Combat Armor weapon.
Yes, as the title and theming suggests, you do spend quite a bit of time in a Mobile Combat Armor of your own, although it plays suspiciously similar to the on-foot missions. While you can select your MCA at the start of the game, the differences really aren't that noticeable, besides minor speed and defense changes. Really, it just comes down to whatever robot you think looks coolest (and if it isn't the Ordog, you're wrong).
The only major flaw with the gameplay in SHOGO: Mobile Armor Division has to do with the truly baffling critical hit system, which seems to work on a random dice roll. Get lucky with a shot on an enemy and you'll get some health back, but if RNG wants to screw you over, you'll be on the recieving end of a crit and die instantly on higher difficulties. Not only does it not make any sense from any mechanical standpoint, it's just plain frustrating to get one-shotted by a hitscan enemy because the number gods weren't on your side at this very moment.
Yes, SHOGO: Mobile Armor Division is hardly the most polished shooter of its era, but it's impossible to deny the effort that went into making it an enjoyable experience. It's a labor of love through and through, and one can tell right from the get-go that the developers at Monolith were passionate about making it work.
But that's not all the SHOGO: Mobile Armor Division content we've got, tune in again tomorrow for an interview with the game's lead game and level designer Craig Hubbard for a look at both the past and the future of this diamond in the rough.