Shogo: Mobile Armor Division
by Beepner

When you start up Shogo: Mobile Armor Division, you're greeted with an intro that imitates that of a mecha anime, complete with a Japanese pop song, manga-style sketches of the characters and mechs, and gratuitously violent gameplay footage. It warms your heart. It puts a shit-eating grin on your face. It gets you pumped. "Yeah!" you say. "Let's play some motherfucking Shogo!"

Unfortunately, it's tantamount to the feeling you get when you see the intro to Thundercats, and then actually watching Thundercats.

Shogo is a first person shooter with segments in and out of giant mechs. The mech segments play exactly the same as the human segments, except with a different weapon set and a superjump button. It's very stage-based and linear, and usually your goals consist of getting across the current map while trying to avoid death. I suppose that's a reasonable enough request, but should you decide to play it, I take no responsibility for you rubbing off the label on the key to which you bind quicksave.

It's the future, corporations run shit, and humanity has colonized other planets (just like Aliens vs. Predator, which Monolith also produced!). Your name is Sanjuro, and you're dating your dead ex-girlfriend's sister. It's up to you to quell an insurrection, take orders from a smelly dwarf with a sweet beard, uncover the identity of the mysterious rebel leader, form an uneasy alliance with one Ryo Ishikawa (no, not that one, I think he still would have been in grade school when this game came out), save the planet Cronus from the clutches of Cthulu Cutheniel, play with a kitty, and figure out how to keep the game from crashing in Windows 7.*

It's clear early on that the game doesn't take itself seriously. From the winks to anime fans (read some of the names on the doors in the crew quarters), to a billboard advertising Traditional Amish Death Metal, the goofy parts might be enough to attract some to what would otherwise be a middling late 90's FPS. It's just that the game doesn't not take itself seriously enough (ow).

Graphically, it's not spectacular. I think the Lithtech engine was relatively new at the time, so Shogo is not going to be confused for Aliens vs. Predator 2 or No One Lives Forever. Since you're mostly killing guys in riot armor and giant robots, the blocky models are passable. Some of the mechs have joints that don't seem to connect to anything (Gato would not approve), but the designs are usually interesting enough that I can forgive the low polycount. Particle effects for explosions and blood look alright, definitely a step up from the 5 frames of bitmap fire from Half-Life. Human models, Sanjuro's in particular, are freakishly skinny and have faces that look like they tried to cram them into a hole. A hole that was made for me. You'll see Sanjuro's ugly G.I. Joe melted in a house fire visage a lot in the cutscenes. Which you can't skip, by the way.

Aurally, Only two things really bear mentioning: the awesome intro and one atmospheric piece that is a stiff contender for Most Annoying Shit I Have Heard in My Life. Sometimes during gameplay there's two music tracks running concurrently, where the drumtrack drops out when the action dies down, and leaves you with this fucknasty mid to high range tone-deaf wailing. I'm not sure how to describe it. It sounds like a midi composer tried to make Japanese sounding music without really knowing what Japanese music sounds like outside of that stock bamboo flute lick used in any movie, TV show, or commercial that needs to sound vaguely oriental. It resembles a beached manatee farting Cure covers into a tenor saxophone. I'd rather listen to an angle grinder all day. Or anything that Tim Skold has produced.

The mech segments, as mentioned, play like an FPS, but they give you more of a feeling of heft and destructive power. You get to choose between mechs at several parts of the game and while they have different stats, like speed and armor ratings, I only ever used two and my choices didn't seem to make much of an impact on the gameplay. You start with a peashooter but you'll fast collect new weapons in vast magnitude, including a no-splash damage but slightly higher power laser, a short-fuse sticky mine launcher, a sniper rifle that fires full-auto when not zoomed in, a spread rocket laucher, and the Juggernaut, which you'll want to use all the time if you have the ammo for it. The sniper rifle is a little awkward, since its scope mode is tied to the number key that selects it, making it cumbersome to go into zoom on the fly. Its damage is pretty weak unless you can manage a headshot. There's no shortage of shit trying to kill you in these segments, but you can take advantage of the parked cars in the city stages by blowing them up for health and armor refills. Just make sure you do it from a distance, because the splash damage incurred when they explode can take your health situation from bad to worse. Don't step on them either, I know it's counter-intuitive when wreaking havoc in a gargantuan Patlabor ripoff to not want to step on cars, but it causes you more damage than it has any right to.

On the lower difficulties, the mech segments are pretty easy. The human segments overcompensate on the difficulty by freakishly John Cleese-long strides.

Your starter weapons are a tanto and dual pistols. Yeah, you dual wield from the start. Get over it, it's worthless. You're going to want to try to find an assault rifle as soon as possible and stick with it, it's the only consistently useful weapon you have when you're on foot. The shotgun is also worthless, its rate of fire is too low to mitigate the central problem of the human segments: the enemy AI.

Rounding a corner often brings you face to face with one or more enemies. Usually they remain in one location until you aggro them, as denoted by a blue exclamation mark floating over each one's head and a weird alert sound effect. This generally results in your death. This series of events is instantaneous: you round a corner, hear the noise, and then you're looking at your corpse in third person view. Often you don't get to see what killed you until the deed is done. All that can be done is to constantly quicksave and try to get them next time. This happens a lot when you're waiting for a door to open, or reaching the top of an elevator. Other times, they just stand there stupidly for a few seconds before deciding to shoot you. The scripting for enemy actions isn't the most elegant.

The only other weapons that present you with any useful options, besides the assault rifle (it has a scope!), are a standard grenade launcher and this weird floating ball that zigzags around the room until it explodes. You can try to fire this around the corner and hope that when it does explode, it's somewhere near an enemy (they don't react to it if it doesn't come into contact with them. Half the time, it comes straight back to you and kills you. There's also a rocket launcher, but I rarely found a good reason to use it.

There's an unusual (for an FPS that isn't Team Fortress 2) mechanic of critical hits at work in both the human and mech segments. If you manage to land one, the target you hit will flash purplish-red and take extra damage, and you'll be rewarded with a small amount of health. It seems to happen at complete random, and the only location-based damage I noticed is when you headshot an enemy in scope mode.

As common as health and armor powerups are in the mech segments, they're a little rarer when you're on foot. Breaking open boxes will sometimes yield goodies or ammo, usually for the guns that you never use. Any boxes and items that you find ignore the laws of gravity, hovering in the air if you break the boxes beneath them. This is amusing for a few seconds. Sometimes guns that enemies drop will fall off ledges, or get lifted up by air vents, so I don't know why these play by different rules.

The game throws you a few little vignettes to break up the normal shootan and buttan pushan routine. Early in the game you have to escape from some underground service tunnels by rerouting the power to the ventilation shaft and riding the current. It's easy to miss your mark when jumping down the first shaft, getting you stuck in limbo between the opposing forces of gravity and the upward current. Going up the last shaft often gets you perforated by an enemy mech waiting for you at the top. It's not a very unique sequence, I just wanted to mention it because it pissed me off so much. Later on, you have to get some old harpy to shut off an electrified gate by, in true RPG fetch-quest fashion, finding her lost cat. You do this by wandering around a warehouse and listening for a meow sound effect which sounds like it was lazily imitated by a human and luring the bugger out with a squeak toy the woman gave you, a cartoon pirate rabbit that utters some gibberish phrase when you press the fire button. Even after you complete this task, the toy remains in your arsenal for the rest of the game.

In Shogo's description on Metacritic, which I assume was taken from the box, it says, "In addition to piloting your MCA through deadly outdoor, underground, and city missions, you will be able to dock in certain areas and strike out on foot to complete objectives." This is misleading, as though you can leave your mech when you want a la Metal Warriors. Docking your mech and entering a human level is just that, a new level, no going back. The game is incredibly linear. If there were any widely divergent paths or secret levels, I missed them. To put it in perspective, Shogo came out in October 1998, a mere two months after Half-Life and almost two years before Deus Ex. Shogo does nothing revolutionary, aside from the illusion of gameplay variation via the mech segments, but judging by its metascore of 88, people didn't expect much from their FPS games back then. I guess I could also make the observation that online reviewers weren't as ubiquitous as they are now, and the ones that did exist merely served as an electronic version of a print magazine. The PC gaming press in the late 90's seemed to have a mandatory 7 to 10 review scale when it came to FPS's. Customer reviews on GOG extol Shogo as a forgotten classic, but I'm going to reach into my bag of Grinch-tricks and call nostalgia goggles on this one.

By the way, that Metacritic description also says, "There may even be a surprise or two in store..." If I ever publish a book, I'm going to insist that the synopsis on the dust jacket reads, "Events will transpire by the end of this book, but you must read on to find out what!"

Shogo is an okay but often frustrating game that has just enough extra quirks to elevate it above forgettable status. I've certainly played worse shooters, even ones being released to this very day. Pick up Shogo on GOG if you've got 6 clams and a Saturday afternoon to burn, if only for the humorous parts. The credits promised that the story is "To be continued..." which sadly wasn't the case. I'm sure some of you fanfic writers out there can redeem Monolith in its promise. Come on, robosexual Cutheniel tentacle lovin'. You know you want it.

*Running the exe in compatibility mode for Windows 2000 fixed it.

P.S. After watching snippets of LPs on Youtube, it occurs to me that the music scripting was fucked up in places on my machine.


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