These days Monolith are better known for their work on the Nemesis system and Shadow of Mordor. But back in the day they also produced one of the most intriguing and unusual shooters of its time - the flawed, but unabashedly fun Shogo: Mobile Armor Division.
This story has been edited since its original publication in September 2015.
It's not out of form for Monolith to concentrate on simple pleasures. After all, this is the same studio that created Get Medieval (effectively a remake of the Gauntlet formula that shipped with four difficulty modes and a level editor).
The same developers also made the No One Lives Forever shooters. Gruntz. The classy DOOM clone, Blood. And the fairly excellent Aliens versus Predator 2. And the Condemned horror games. And the first two F.E.A.R. titles.
So is it any surprise that Shogo is just a little bit of fun? You can see just how badly the game wants to be an anime. Make sure you're watching with sound. It's surprisingly funny, listening to J-pop while firing a rocket launcher.
It's kind of weird to think that Shogo: Mobile Armor Division is — along with the original F.E.A.R. — Monolith's most critically successful game after the No One Lives Forever series, with a Metacritic rating of 88/100 (the NOLF games both have 91 each, while Shadow of Mordor sits on 86 and AvP 2 a smidgen behind at 85).
Playing through it again, it's hard not to run around with a grin on your face. The mix of mecha combat, including the vehicle mode which is super handy for ducking in and out of corners to check for enemies, and traditional on-foot FPS action works perfectly well as a straight run-and-gun shooter.
Back in September 1998 — a year before Unreal Tournament and Quake 3 Arena would go head to head — it was perfectly timed. Starsiege: Tribes, Half-Life, the original Thief, Blood 2, SiN, Heretic 2 and Turok 2 all launched only weeks after Shogo, and the gaming masses on PC were already perfectly primed for run-and-gun action thanks to the launch of Unreal earlier that year.
Shogo was the first game to use Monolith's — at the time — brand new Lithtech engine, the same beast that would power Blood 2 and the No One Lives Forever series. It's a fairly straightforward affair, narrative wise: you play as Sanjuro Makabe, a pilot of one of the Mobile Combat Armor (MCA) suits for the United Corporate Authority as they battle over the kato liquid reactant on Cronus.
The game opens with a text monologue about how the war has taken Sanjuro's girlfriend, best friend and his brother, although it's discovered only a few levels in (some of the levels are quite short) that Sanjuro's formerly deceased lover, Kura, is actually alive.
Which is kind of awkward because he waited a few months and shacked up with Kura's sister, Kathryn, something you're told before the game starts.
"It's complicated," Sanjuro says. I bet.
The real crutch lies in two parts: the mechs you get to choose, which have varying attributes in terms of their health, maneuverability and firepower. I always opted for the nimbler mechs, since that dovetailed better with the vehicle mode (which was faster than regular movement).
Writing this is also reminding me about Heavy Gear 2, which I never got to play but really wanted to. I wonder if you can buy that somewhere. Anyway, back to Shogo.
The other major crutch was the narrative choices that unfolded throughout the course of the campaign, including one that opens up an optional mission involving a cat. You could just kill the cat's owner, although you'd miss out on a health upgrade and a doll that acts as an in-joke to one of Monolith's second title, a platformer called Craw.
It's actually staggering, looking back, at how many playable games Monolith released in their early years. From 1997 to 1999, the company pushed out 11 titles, including both Blood games, Shogo, Get Medieval, Gruntz, Gorky 17 and Septerra Core: Legacy of the Creator.
They were still fairly prolific immediately after Warner Bros bought them out in 2004 — 2005 saw Monolith release the original Condemned, F.E.A.R. and The Matrix Online — but their productivity began to slow to a more normal pace thereafter, with the Condemned sequel coming out in 2008 and F.E.A.R. 2 a year after.
Anyway, Shogo. The story ends up being a whole revenge fantasy between brothers involving mechs, two sisters, a slightly psychotic admiral and a punk called Ryo who seems to spend the entire story befriending Sanjuro only so he can screw him over later.
The game's available through Good Old Games for less than $10 (after the USD to AUD exchange is applied) although I had to download dgVoodoo, a DirectDraw/Direct3D/Glide to D3D11 wrapper before the game would launch properly.
If you're in the same boat — probably because you're running Windows 8.1 or 10 (the latter of which I'm on) — then you can find the latest version of dgVoodoo here. And if you just want a silly anime-like story involving mechs and run-and-gun action from the 90's, CD Projekt RED will happily take your money.
What are your memories of Shogo: Mobile Armor Division?