A Table-Top Veteran Re-emerges From the Darkness
Shadowrun seems like such a great idea on paper: Taking the evocative dystopian world of William Gibson's Neuromancer or Neal Stephenson's Snow Crash, with their paranoid hackers and corporate stiffs making their livings in a sprawling futuristic urban landscape seemingly trapped in permanent night, with only the intermittent neon sign, electronic billboard or computer monitor for illumination. Add to this melting pot of intrigue and danger a resurgence of magic in the world - an Ice Age-esque cycle of mystical ebbing and flowing that has, for the first time, encountered a world not sparsely populated with a few neolithic cave dwellers at the cusp of mankind's earliest civilizations but a densely populated world of technology, industry and scientific advancement.
Shadowrun, created in 1989 as a table-top game, decided to answer the question of what this hypothetical merging of cyberpunk and fantasy would be like and fashioned a beguiling universe of elves and megacorporations that has been going strong in the many decades since its release. The player characters are inevitably shadowrunners: Mercenaries employed for illegal covert ops by people and organizations that oft as not choose to remain anonymous. These mercenaries run the gamut from street toughs to skilled hackers to magic-enhanced "metahumans" (Shadowrun's word for elves, dwarves and the like) and thus create a class system not unlike the warriors, mages and such of the D&D model. The protagonist of Shadowrun Returns is one such Shadowrunner of the player's creation.
The reason for this expository Shadowrun pre-amble? Shadowrun Returns is - first and foremost - designed and intended for its extant fanbase. That isn't to say the game is inaccessible to newcomers - the single-player campaign included in the reasonable £15/$20 package is intended to acclimatize newcomers to Shadowrun as gently as possible. Rather, the game is structured in such a way, from its linear progression to its kit-based graphical assets to its versatile combat engine, to emphasize its modding tools: the editor that allows Shadowrun DMs and modders enthralled with its world to craft their own adventures. This prerogative paradoxically becomes the source of the game's greatest strength and biggest weakness. But more on that in just a moment.
Functionally, the game is a strategy RPG in the mold of something like the original two Fallout games or the recent XCOM: Enemy Unknown. The former deliberately followed a very similar RPG blueprint to Shadowrun's table-top incarnation during its development - one that was focused on Action Points and the limits of what a character could do during their turn with regards to spell usage, weaponry and movement. Some actions take more effort than others, and thus cannot be called upon as often in a single turn. Most special abilities have cooldown periods as well, and the player would occasionally be forced to reload their weapon instead of firing. A single point could be spent to move to nearby cover, or several points blown to sprint to wherever the action was happening. It's a versatile system that sees some polishing here, which is where the comparison to XCOM is at its most overt: The emphasis on darting between cover, using special abilities judiciously and ensuring that no one member of the team is cut-off from the rest and must bear the brunt of the enemy's advance is as evident here as it was with Firaxis's recent hit. That is not to say that Shadowrun Returns is imitating XCOM - it would be fairer to say that XCOM borrowed a leaf from the book of the original Shadowrun - but seeing how successful that game became due in part to its addictive tactical combat was undoubtedly a consideration during this game's development. At any rate, expect something like XCOM's tense and strategic gun combat enhanced with magic and occasional sequences that take part in the computer world of the Matrix (which play out similarly to regular battles, but with programs replacing spells).
The game is graphically impressive in certain respects and merely adequate in others. The backgrounds for the stages with their copious amount of detail and excellent use of light sources are a highlight. The game is kit-based, what with its secondary function as a creation tool, but the core campaign doesn't actually display too many signs of repetition. Each of its locations have their own character and can vary greatly: The sterile white and blue interior environments of corporation buildings clash with the grimy, refuse-ridden streets of downtown Seattle and the flamboyant personality of the Seamstresses' Union bar (the game's main hub) is a showy facade for the grey, stark utility of the Shadowrunner HQ that lies beneath it. The many character portraits used for major NPCs and shadowrunners are well-drawn too, each displaying a lot of personality that makes the character behind them all the more memorable. Because the game spends so much of its time zoomed out, the low-poly 3D models for the characters thankfully don't spoil the overall effect.
One last note before I head towards my concluding thoughts is that Shadowrun Returns is acutely aware of its nostalgic appeal. The Kickstarter project that helped fund the game leveraged people's affection for the SNES and Mega Drive adaptations in particular, which is why the protagonist from the former and music from the original composers for both games appear throughout Shadowrun Returns. Shadowrun has plenty of proponents in the world of table-top aficionados already, but many RPG video game enthusiasts were first introduced to the setting through these 16-bit games. It's another indication of Shadowrun Returns's focus on appealing to existing fans as much as it reaches out to newcomers.
The fact of the matter is that if you wanted a truly immersive RPG experience, something akin to the Baldur's Gate games of old, you're unlikely to find it here. The game is extremely barebones as of right now. There's a smattering of powers, a meager array of weaponry and cyberware (bionic implants, in so many words), a few instances of "decking", some exploration of the power and influence behind the extraterritorial megacorporations as well as a cursory look at the world's burgeoning mysticism and the problems inherent with reintroducing magic to a sci-fi world such as Shadowrun's. It's a decent introductory package, but at the same time a disappointingly rudimentary one: rather, it's the groundwork for what is to come. And therein lies the game's greatest facet - the potential for additional DLC modules from the developers and the many modders currently at work in producing new content is enormous. Shadowrun is a game with an immense back catalogue of game modules and stories: Some created by talented game designers, some written by prolific genre authors and many, many more by enthusiastic amateurs inspired by this unusual universe. Because the game lacks as many moving parts as it currently does, it becomes all the more accessible to modders wishing to either adapt existing Shadowrun adventures - one of the more popular mods in development right now is a direct port of the fondly remembered SNES Shadowrun incarnation - or create their own. If more assets are required, modders will no doubt be there to provide.
It's hard to say whether you can truly reward a developer's intention for creating a robust game creation tool if the core game content itself is a little too barren to be counted among the true classics of the genre. For anyone approaching this game with the intent to simply play the professionally-generated content from the developers alone and then move on, it's not a particularly enticing deal. There's nothing amiss with the core campaign - it's excellently written and ticks off many boxes on what a good Shadowrun experience should entail; it just simply feels like an all-too-brief standalone adventure intended to acquaint new players to this universe and little more, thus opening the way for the esoteric, less newbie-inclusive adventures to follow from the modding community.
Ultimately, I get the impression that this game was intended to become a promising acquisition once the mods arrive as there's only so much a small team like Harebrained Schemes can do on their own, but to rely on one's community to add value to one's game is often a dangerously unpredictable path to take. Time will tell if this experiment pans out for them. I hope it does, because there's a lot to like here for Shadowrun adepts and neophytes alike.