"Many Botham have died to bring you this information."
It is a time of crisis. Imperial probes, scouring the galaxy for the hidden Rebel base, have discovered their outpost on the remote ice world of Hoth. Darth Vader, obsessed with finding Luke Skywalker, has sent his forces to engage the Rebels in battle. With the dreaded Imperial fleet approaching, a lone freighter has entered the Hoth system...
Who is aboard that lone freighter? Why YOU of course! Actually, it's Dash Rendar, but you get to control him as he moves through the plot ofShadows of the Empire.
The story takes place in the backgrounds between the two movies Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi. Parts of these movies intersect with the plot occasionally in sort of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead cameos. Dash Rendar is essentially another Han Solo: a happy-go-lucky space trader/smuggler who has an honorable streak and dislikes the Empire. Oh yeah, his partner is a robot instead of a Wookie.
You enter the story when Dash arrives on Hoth and talks his way onto a fighter to battle those infamous AT AT's. Later, hearing about Han's capture by Boba Fett, he chases Boba across the galaxy, and eventually destroys a big Empire space installation called the Skyhook by shooting it in the reactor (you'd think the Empire would stop building those damn big space thingies, the way they keep blowing up all the time). For the full story, you can buy either the book or the comics.
Now, onto the game... Remember "Captain Goodnight" for the Apple II? It was the first game I know of to combine several arcade formats. Similarly, Shadows of the Empire is actually several games in one. You must fly several different kinds of ships, blast things with a turret, and race a jet speedster; however, most of the game is a first person shooter. The problem with Shadows of the Empire is that in LucasArts' quest to incorporate many game styles (each advancing the plot), none of the individual games are particularly well done. I believe it could have been better had they narrowed their focus.
You begin by flying a snow speedster on the surface of Hoth as part of the Rebel squadron. You must blast the AT AT's and Empire probes. You can also earn bonus 'challenge points' by looping your tow cable around the legs of the big walkers and watching them crash to the ground, just like in the movie. This first part of the game is essentially a remake of Super Empire Strikes Back for the SNES, but with new N64 graphics. It's also the best part of the whole game.
The 'turret' parts of the game are really boring. You move around the crosshairs of your ship's laser turret and blast different sorts of fighter ships. The external view is a little confusing at first, but it is the most aesthetically pleasing. The internal view (looking out the window and moving a crosshair) hardly looks like a Nintendo64 game at all.
The Speedster race takes place on the planet Tatooine (Luke Skywalker's home planet), and looks good, but doesn't play very well. You must knock other cyclists off their bikes by bashing them into the walls. You, however, take no damage from hitting walls, no matter how fast you are going (unless you are jumping off ramps to get challenge points). It just has an unrealistic feel.
The rest of the gameplay takes place on foot, as you muddle you way through this bad Doom clone. Because it is all rendered 3D (unlike Doom), there are a variety of different views to choose from. The easiest to use is the first person view, which is fine except it lacks the walking effects of other games. Also, you can't see the barrel of your gun at the bottom of the screen, which makes it difficult to aim and less satisfying to shoot.
There are a couple of useless views - the overhead camera, for example. There is a cinematic camera that cuts to new positions and angles occasionally... looks pretty but you can't play that way. The view that LucasArts intended you to play with has you looking at the 3D figure of Dash from behind like in Tomb Raider. But this view works much better in Tomb Raider because it is not a shooter.
The backgrounds and enemies are all polygonal and look great. Watching the Storm Troopers move is a real treat, especially when you blast them. But it's getting difficult to look favorably on N64 games just for their graphics. The power of the N64 makes good graphics the standard; it's good gameplay that is going to make or break these titles.
Another thing this game cried out for was some FMV (Full Motion Video)!! The game is so much like the movies and so plot-oriented that some well-acted interludes would have really fleshed it out. Unfortunately, you really can't have FMV on a cartridge (unless you want to spend a LOT of money). I guess Mark Hamill and Harrison Ford have gotten a little older now too...
One more thing to mention before the goons from Lucas come to get me... The music is terrific! It's classic Star Wars. Some of your favorite themes are back, along with some great new orchestral pieces. The sound effects have been sampled straight from the movies as well, so they sound perfect. Audibly, this game couldn't get any better.
Unfortunately, the rest of the game leaves quite a bit of room for improvement. It has a lot of levels and tremendous variation. But this is quantity rather than quality; graphics rather than gameplay. I am very disappointed in you, young Jedi.