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Shadow Warrior 3 review: The third one

Flying WIld Hog is back with the third entry in its first-person shooter trilogy.

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They say that the third time’s a charm. Be it Black Sabbath records, Evil Dead films, or Olsen sisters, coming along after a pair of solid lead-ins has worked out well in the past. Shadow Warrior 3 is now ready for launch on the foundation established by its fast-moving predecessors but routinely falters when asking the player to do something that doesn’t involve dismembering its oodles of stupendously inventive enemies.

I’m no longer ready to watch or wash Wang

If I was forced to rattle off the games that I had fond memories of from childhood, the original Shadow Warrior would surely be on the shortlist. Built on the same engine that powered Duke Nukem 3D and designed entirely around frantic action and not-so-casual racism, the game is certainly a product of its time. Years later, the team at Flying Wild Hog, themselves veterans of high-adrenaline arena shooting classics like Painkiller and Bulletstorm, revived the Shadow Warrior brand with a stellar outing in 2013.

Relying more on the possibilities provided by its eastern setting and less on the misogynistic and racist leanings of its predecessor, 2013’s Shadow Warrior managed to bring the best parts into the present. The game engine built by Flying Wild Hog was nearly perfect for balls-to-the-wall shooter action and delivered much of the experience that Doom 2016 was celebrated for a few years later. For the sequel, the scope expanded to include cooperative play and some RPG-style itemization and questing.

Things have been mixed up for Shadow Warrior 3. While the previous entries used Flying Wild Hog’s Road Hog Engine, the threequel has been designed using Epic’s Unreal Engine 4. Thankfully, the engine swap doesn’t result in an experience that feels drastically different from the other games, but there are several design elements and features that now remain in the past. Cooperative play, one of the defining features of Shadow Warrior 2, is now gone. Additionally, the quest system and randomly generated levels and encounters have also been dumped for a fixed-path campaign.

Shadow Warrior 3 picks up right after the events of the second game and kicks into high gear very quickly. Like the first two entries, the writing and overall story are largely forgettable, as are most of the characters. The game alternates between Lo Wang’s internal conversations with returning character Orochi Zilla (who now serves as Lo Wang's spirit guide in the place of Hoji) and pre-rendered cutscenes to deliver exposition. 

These cutscenes are almost always a jarring transition from gameplay that regularly stutter and skip (likely as the game loads in the background), making it hard to clearly hear what is said or understand what is happening. It doesn’t help that the cutscenes look different from the game color grading and contrast, further hurting the chance for immersion. 

When in the game itself with control of Lo Wang, the visual presentation is almost the textbook definition of a mixed bag. On one hand, you have a heavy push towards oversaturation and deep contrast that leaves lots of detail crushed in dark areas, but on the other, the game offers some of the finest environmental design I’ve seen in a while. The architecture and lush landscapes of Shadow Warrior 3’s neo-feudal Japan rarely fail to impress and will be recognizable to fans of the team’s previous work in Painkiller or Bulletstorm. 

Most of the visual effects look sharp and the game runs very smoothly on my PC. While it’s clearly a last-generation affair, folks who have the equipment available for 4K/120Hz operation will find a technically impressive showing here. There are a few caveats, though. The game forces a chromatic aberration effect that adds a fullscreen lens distortion effect at all times. It adds colors and blurring to edges in the game world and grows worse towards the edges of the screen. Shadow Warrior 2 allowed players to disable this, but there is no such option now. 

The same goes for HDR output, which failed to make the cut for Shadow Warrior 3. This one is SDR only and it's a real shame as the vibrant color palette of the game and varied environments feel like they were made for HDR. Even more confusing, Shadow Warrior 2 is notable as the first major PC release to offer HDR output. Perhaps this is one of the consequences of swapping over to Unreal Engine.

When you put all the issues with the visuals, narrative, and technical aspects aside, you are left with an incredibly competent first-person shooter built in the style of Doom, Painkiller, Serious Sam, and others. Lo Wang is an efficient killer and Shadow Warrior 3 is at its best when the player is dropped into an arena with enemies and some uptempo music. From the buttery smooth movement to the fantastic heft of each weapon, Shadow Warrior 3 makes disrespecting meat carcasses as fun as a barrel of monkeys. The inventive enemy design in the game also includes just about everything short of an anthropomorphic barrel of monkeys. Furthermore, the reduction in the total number of weapons from Shadow Warrior 2 is a major plus. Each feels unique and situationally powerful.

Shadow Warrior 3 clearly draws much inspiration from a few celebrated FPS campaigns. From the inclusion of a grappling hook (which Lo Wang assumes must be included in every game now), glory kills, and weapon upgrades that mimic Doom Eternal to wall running and platforming lifted from Titanfall 2, Flying Wild Hog wears its inspiration on its sleeve. In practice, most of the non-combat stuff is totally forgettable. The areas that can be climbed or wall-run are always indicated by neon-green ivy that stands out like an eyesore against the otherwise stellar environmental design. The same goes for the neon grappling hook donuts that line the levels like bad graffiti. I’m sure playtesting showed that folks needed clear and obvious visual markers, but it just looks bad here.

The voice cast from the first two games has also been swapped out for Shadow Warrior 3, with Jason Liebrecht, who voiced Lo Wanged, being replaced with Mike Moh. The studio said they wanted to correct an earlier mistake by casting folks who are more consistent with Lo Wang’s cultural background. In practice, the change fails to elevate the poorly-written material and most lines fall flat. 

You could do worse

At the end of the day, Shadow Warrior 3 lives and dies on how much fun it is to play. Thankfully, the minute-to-minute action is downright delightful, even if the boss encounters maintain the series’ streak of being underwhelming. The shooting, movement, and killing are every bit as good as recent Doom games, even if the whole thing feels derivative. The guns and enemies are wildly inventive and engaging. It is a shame the rest of the experience fails to meet the same standard. I was disappointed at many of the design choices here, particularly the loss of cooperative play and randomized encounters. Die-hard fans and shooter aficionados should pick this up, but most folks would probably find more fun with some different wang online. 7/10 murder rabbits on TRT


This review is based on the PC Steam release. The game key was provided by the publisher for review consideration. Shadow Warrior 3 is available on March 1 for Steam, PS4, and Xbox One.

Contributing Tech Editor

Chris Jarrard likes playing games, crankin' tunes, and looking for fights on obscure online message boards. He understands that breakfast food is the only true food. Don't @ him.

Review for
Shadow Warrior 3
7
Pros
  • Outstanding shooting and movement mechanics
  • Inventive enemies and weapons
  • Excellent performance on PC
Cons
  • Poor presentation, narrative, and campaign design
  • Lacks co-op and HDR support from previous game
  • Chromatic aberration effect ruins visual presentation
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