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12 August 2013 @ 05:44 pm
Shadowrun Returns Thoughts  
So, last night I beat Shadowrun Returns...or at least, I beat "Dead Man's Switch," the official campaign that shipped with the game. I still have the Berlin expansion coming that I'll get for free for backing the Kickstarter and there are various fan modules people are working on that I could play, but I'm going to let the game rest for a bit before I try any of those. Like Skyrim and New Vegas, I want to give some time to the modding communities to mature before I really dive in. I mean, look at this. Once that's done...

Anyway, it's pretty much exactly what they promised. Turn-based, old-school tactical combat, conversation trees, isometric views, the whole nine yards. There are a few things that seem conspicuous in their absence, like a stealth skill or any way to avoid notice, or how all weapons have infinite generic ammo and spells don't cause drain, or the inability to use NPC skills outside of scripted sequences (so that, for example, NPC deckers can't help you make decking conversation checks), but overall there's way more done right than not. Skill lists, weapons like the Ares Predator, Rugar Super Warhawk, and FN HAR, deckers jacking in, elves with mohawks, hiding behind cover, shooting guards in the knees, the works. It's great.

The visual design is good too, though I can't be sure how much of the classic cyberpunk aestheric is due to Shadowrun and how much is due to being set in Seattle where it rains all the time. :p There are neon signs, some in Japanese (because this is cyberpunk, so of course Japan is taking over the world), bits of trash, people standing around burning barrels, "Lone Star: We're Always Watching" advertisements, and the random tree with the Chinese lanterns on it and the glowing 夢 ("dreams") for the bit of beauty in the sprawl. The one thing I thought was odd was the character portraits. Orks and trolls were much less...well, orky and trolly as compared to the art in the tabletop game, and the elves had almost World of Warcraft-sized ears. Some of this is just the exaggeration necessary to make 3 cm-tall on-screen models visually distinct and the carry-over into the conversation portraits, true, but the orkiness isn't, and I missed it.

On the plot: Simply put, it's a love letter to fans of the tabletop game. It's set in 2054, so back during the chrome and pink mohawk era of Shadowrun design, and the main story starts out as an investigation into a dead friend's mysterious death and then spirals out to encompass a lot of the backstory. Spoilers within: As it turns out, the death was ordered by the dead man's sister, who is also a high priestess in the Universal Brotherhood, and of course that means bugs. Since it's 2054, it's before the UB's cover was blown, and the game puts you in the place of being the people who discover the truth as you break into the UB's Seattle location. While there, you extract an elven woman who turns out to be the daughter of James Telestrian III, CEO of Telestrian Industries and a citizen of Tir Tairngire, which also brings in the immortal elf/great dragon axis into play when you tell them about the insect spirits. There's some references to previous ages of magic and the invae and the Horrors, and then you get sent back into the Seattle Universal Brotherhood outpost to stop the queen summoning with Harlequin at your side.

Well, depowered, game-balanced Harlequin. I think the Tir Ghost I brought with me was actually more effective in combat, and my character had more spells. For being 7,000 years old, Harlequin apparently hadn't gotten the notice not to bring a sword to a gunfight. Still, him being in the game meant I got to talk to him, and that made up for it.

There's also a detour into cyberpunk dystopia when you go after a serial killer who's running a mental asylum as a way to implant the patients with skillwires and sell them to bunraku parlors.

Also, Dodger shows up. And so does Jake Armitage.
It was like catnip injected direction into the nerd nostalgia centers of my brain.

The major problem I had with the campaign was with how linear it was. I was hoping that it would be closer to the Sega Shadowrun game, where you could beat it in an hour or so if you had infinite money, but you had to go on random runs to get the cash and build your rep and contacts. Instead, it was more like the SNES Shadowrun game, with a full plot and no real deviation from it. I've heard a rumor that the Berlin campaign might be more like the Sega version, though, which would be fantastic. The conversations all seemed like they were just funneling me in one direction, with my responses serving no purpose other than to provide some characterization to how my character talked (though I only played once, so I don't know if that's the case). And that's what conversations there were--most NPCs couldn't be talked to, and most areas had only a couple non-plot-critical items that could be interacted with.

A lot of this is pretty conditional, because I don't know if the linearity and lack of reactivity is an innate property of the game engine or if it's just what was in the campaign that shipped with it. Maybe someone will come out with a great mod that lets you make an entire team, run random missions, and run around an open world and talk to civilians and have them react to your missions. Based on the kinds of things I've seen in other games with mod tools, like my own Morrowind and Oblivion installs, I expect it'll only be a matter of time.

There is one thing that's hard-coded into the engine that might be a deal-breaker for people, though--there's no hard save system. There's a checkpoint system, and there's a way to roll back to previous checkpoints so you don't end up totally screwed because you misclicked once or took the wrong loadout to a mission, but if you get interrupted halfway between checkpoints and have to quit, you're out all your progress. Checkpoints seem to be spaced in between maps, but I don't know if that's a hardcoded limitation or if it's possible to add them after plot-critical moments even if the map stays the same.

As shipped, I'd give it ★★★★☆, but I highly suspect it'll get five stars in a few months once more content starts to come out for it. I spent a ton of money on it, and I don't regret it at all. Highly recommended, even if you're not a Shadowrun fan, and if you are, why aren't you playing this already?
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