Review - 'Shadowrun Returns'
If you've been paying attention, then you would have probably realized that there seems to have been a concerted effort, recently, on the part of some game developers to turn the crowd-funding platform, Kickstarter, into a way to finance the development of their own pet projects. Well, recently, one of these crowd-funded projects has finally been set loose into the world - ready to meet the stern and judgmental eyes of those who put their own money into the project a year ago. The project I am talking about is Shadowrun Returns - a game that managed to significantly raise the bar for Kickstarter funded projects when it met its initial $400,000 goal within the first couple of days. So, it may be a bit of an understatement to say that, for those invested in the game, expectations are fairly high.
Shadowrun Returns is, admittedly, a game that is targeted to a very specific audience, though - which probably explains why it needed to be funded by a Kickstarter campaign, in the first place.
First of all, there's the game itself - a deliberate throwback to a style of game that hasn't been seen as profitably enough for a major commercial release in well over 10 years. Shadowrun Returns is a turn-based, tactical, RPG similar in style to the original Fallout games or Bioware's Baldur's Gate series - though, to be fair, the actual combat probably has more in common with the early X-Com titles (for those who can remember back that far). As someone who played, and loved, many of these sorts of games in the past, it is a style of game-play that I have definitely missed - yet, at the same time, I can't really imagine who it must look to someone more familiar with the action-focused and cinematic style of game common today. Visually, too, the game looks like something that could have been made over 10 years ago - even with the high definition textures, it would not look entirely out of place positioned next to the older games which inspired it. But, then, that seems to be fairly common for smaller, independently developed, games anyway.
On top of that, though, there is also the game's setting. If you try to summarize Shadowrun in a single sentence, then it sounds absurd - because, to be honest, it really kind of is. It's a combination of science fiction and fantasy - a William Gibson-inspired cyberpunk dystopia where magic has suddenly returned. It's a setting where you can suddenly find yourself working alongside elves and dwarves, where 'corporate wage-mage' is a legitimate career path, and where a dragon can run for president. You can try, if you like, but it's impossible to deny the outright insanity of the setting - which is probably why your average Shadowrun fan simply wouldn't bother. But, at the same time, you would have to accept that purists of either science fiction or fantasy may be put off by it all (an amusing side-note: I remember once reading that William Gibson, himself, has always hated Shadowrun).
So, that's two significant hurdles to get over before you even get around to talking about the game itself. The game may strike some potential players as being out-dated and old fashioned, while the setting may inspire some to simply roll their eyes and move on to something else. But, there's still a fairly significant market for this style of game, too - you can't forget that the Kickstarter campaign raised around $1.8 million. And, as a player who falls well within the game's target audience (both as a fan of turn-based RPGs and of Shadowrun), I would have to say that it has turned out to be pretty much exactly what I was hoping for.
In any game of Shadowrun, whether you're playing the pen and paper version around a table or game such as this one, your role will tend to be much the same. You'll be playing as a shadowrunner, a unique class of mercenary that exists on the fringes of this strange and dystopian world. As a shadowrunner, your goals will be relatively simple - find a job, do the job, and hope to get paid.
In the single-player campaign included with the release of the game, 'The Dead Man's Switch', you find yourself cast as a shadowrunner who has fallen on hard times. A previous run went bad, when a team-mate stabbed you in the back, and you found yourself at odds with a major corporation. Since then, you have been laying low. You are currently living in a dingy apartment, with barely enough money left to cover the rent for another week - so, naturally, you're desperate for work. By a stroke of luck, you get a call from an old friend - someone who fought by your side when that old job went bad, and who has a job to offer. The only problem is that he's already dead. The call is actually a recorded message triggered by his death, and offering you a significant pay-off if you're able to track down his killer. So, you set out back to Seattle to see if you can pick up the trail - meeting with a disturbingly cheerful dwarven morgue-worker, butting heads with a troll detective hoping to earn himself a promotion and joining forces with the local shadowrunner community. All available clues seem to point to the conclusion that your old friend is a victim of a serial killer currently active in the area, who has developed a habit of harvesting organs from his or her victims. But, of course, nothing is ever that simple.
'The Dead Man's Switch' serves as an entertaining introduction to the world of Shadowrun. It's well-written, overall, though there are certain points where a bit more proof-reading might have been useful. It's filled with entertaining characters - and, makes good use of the varied setting. Not everything gets equal representation in the story, though - anyone drawn to the idea of playing a decker, and exploring the Matrix, will by in for a bit of a disappointment. There are only a couple of moments where entering the Matrix is required, and only a handful more where decking skills are used. And, during those Matrix sequences, you can hire another decker, anyway - so, your own might end up feeling a but superfluous.
The campaign will last you about 12 hours, or so - which will probably feel short to some RPG veterans, though the length didn't really concern me. The story is also heavily focused on action, and almost completely linear, though, which is a little less forgivable for a role-playing game. There are very few moments where you will get to feel as though you are having any direct influence on the way that the story is progressing. Quite often, the dialogue options you will be given amount to little more than a few different ways to say the same thing - which may help with establishing some personality for your character, but still isn't quite what people want from their RPGs.
Like with many role-playing games, character creation is an early high-light. First of all, you have the choice of races - humans, of course, along with elves and dwarves and orks and trolls. To start out, the choice of race will feel mostly cosmetic - some get racial bonuses to certain stats, but it doesn't add up to any great advantage. It is only after you have begun to work your way into the game that you begin to see exactly how big an impact your choice of race can have - as each will also have a capped maximum value for certain stats. Trolls, for example, can develop their physical strength well beyond what the other races are capable of - while elves are as graceful and charismatic as ever. Humans are once again presented as the 'jack-of-all-trades' option.
The archetypes you are offered are not true classes, in the usual sense of the term. They simply give you a starting point, by spending your available 'Karma' points for you. As you play, you will be free to spend any further points however you wish - and, even during character creation, you are free to ignore the archetypes and put together a custom build. The archetypes that are offered, though, cover a wide variety of skill-sets and play-styles. Mage, shaman and adept cover all facets of magic-use in the game. Mages are your typical offensive spell-casters, while shamans tend toward support magic and summoning - adepts, meanwhile, turn their magic inward to perform feats of supernaturally enchanced martial arts. You have deckers and riggers, who are more purely focused on technology. Deckers are the hackers of the Shadowrun world, able to access the virtual world known as the Matrix for a variety of purposes. Riggers, meanwhile, are more hardware focused - able to take direct control of their drones for scouting, surveillance or combat support. Finally, you have the street samurai - the front-line of any team, who rely on cybernetic enhancements and overwhelming firepower.
The turn-based combat is clearly the most important component of this game - so, there would have to have been a fair amount of pressure to make sure that it is done well. Turn-based combat is never going to be exciting in the usual sense - there's never going to be any frantic dashing about. It's tense in the way that any good board-game can be tense. It's when you have to sit back, and take a moment to simply study the screen, that you know that a game has got it right. When you are able to steam-roll through your opponents without any real thought, or without needing any particular strategy, then that is a good sign that something has gone wrong. At the very least, an increase of the difficulty level may be called for.
The game does a good job of given you a variety of different abilities to draw on. Each weapon will have a variety of different attack options that for you to choose from, depending on the situation. The Overwatch ability, which is included on all ranged weapon skill-trees, will let you set up effective ambushes for your enemies by saving up unspent action points to take an immediate attack if an enemy happens to move into a character's field of view. Your shaman characters will have to balance the benefits of having a powerful spirit under their control against the ever increasing risk of it breaking free and going on a rampage. With your mage characters, you will have to make the occasionally difficult choice between either having them cling to whatever cover they can find, or setting them over a ley line which will increase the power of their spells, but possibly leave them standing out in the open. Cover is, of course, perhaps the most important thing to consider in any fight. When positioned appropriately, your characters will automatically crouch behind cover, earning themselves directional defense bonuses - which can make a great deal of difference in a tough fight.
Enemy AI seems competent enough, overall. Enemies will know to grab cover, themselves - and, they'll fall back if they feel the need. They'll make good use of any of the various spells and abilities that they've been given. Also, if you happen to let your own squad gather to close, then it's almost certain that someone will take the opportunity to toss a grenade. On the other hand, though, it's as easy to draw these enemies into your own carefully constructed traps as it is in any other game. In general, the AI gives the impression of being adequate - but, didn't really strike me as anything overly impressive. It was good enough to make the game fun, at least, which is all you really want.
In general, though, combat just feels a little too easy - even on the hardest difficulty setting. There are exceptions to this within the campaign, of course. There were those moments when I was forced to divide my team - sending a decker, or two, into the Matrix to do some hacking while the rest tried to hold out against swarming enemies. Or, the times when the game threw waves of enemies at me - making sure to send them in from different directions so that I had to scramble for new cover. Or, the 'classic' inclusion of a single, powerful, enemy capable of both taking and dealing out significant amounts of damage. There is plenty to suggest that the combat doesn't have to be as simple and straight-forward as it often was in this first campaign - and, that maybe the developers were just going easy on us this time. And, on top of that, there is also the very real possibility that I simply made it too easy for myself by making my own character a troll street samurai.
The campaign included with the release of the game may have its short-comings - but, that isn't all we get. There is also the campaign editor - released with the clear hope that a community of players will get behind the game and start developing their own content. There is, in fact, a strong sense that the editor is what we are really paying for, and that the 'The Dead Man's Switch' campaign was included more as a way of showing us what it could do. Harebrained Schemes are already at work on a new campaign, which will be released as DLC (free for the game's original backers, though the rest of us will have to pay for it) - and, of course, there is whatever the community that will hopefully develop around this game will come out with. So, there is still a fair amount to look forward to.
It might seem a little like taking the easy way out to place so much emphasis on where the game could go in the future - but, that's exactly what Harebrained Schemes seem to be doing, too, so I feel that it's justified here. Besides, it's $20 for a game editor that allows you to build your own stories, and an entertaining 12 hour campaign. There are much worse things you could spend the money on.
© 2013 Dallas Matier
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