Thursday, July 31, 2014

Byte: Shadowrun Returns

What's this? Another post? I'm really spoiling you, aren't I? We haven't reached the heady heights of three posts in a single month since January 2013!

Since I'm in a writing mood, I thought I'd tell you about the other game I've been playing a lot of recently. I'd been keeping my eye on Shadowrun Returns for a while now, so when it came up in the Steam Summer Sale, I thought I'd grab it, since I'm always up for a bit of isometric RPG action. I've put about 30 hours into it over the last few weeks, and I've really enjoyed it. If you've not played it, or don't know too much about it, be warned: HERE BE (some minor) SPOILERS.

On the game's original release, Shadowrun Returns drew some unfavourable comparisons to the original Neverwinter Nights from some commentators, saying that "well, the SDK is great, but the campaign's a bit rubbish - wait until some player-created campaigns come out". That was unfair on Neverwinter Nights, and I think its unfair on the Dead Man's Switch campaign, too. I'll get to the Dragonfall campaign a bit later, because I've not quite finished that yet, but I have completed Dead Man's Switch and had an experiment with most of the character classes, and I've really enjoyed it.

I have to confess that I didn't know a huge amount about the Shadowrun universe before I bought the game. I knew that it had its origins in a PnP RPG, but I had no idea that it dated back to 1989 and that it had spawned a series of games on consoles in the 90's. I had seen the multiplayer shooter on Xbox 360 and PC back in 2007, but didn't bother with it, since it looked a bit rubbish and didn't review terribly well. And I'd also pretty much lost interest in online shooters at this point (if it's not Unreal Tournament, I'm not interested, basically!), but when I first saw the trailer for Shadowrun Returns, my gut instinct was "hey, that looks pretty cool", though obviously not to the extent that I immediately got out my wallet. No doubt I was distracted by a moderately crippling Diablo III addiction at the time, but I digress...

The game setting is not going to float everyone's boat, given that it's a stylistic mash-up between Snow Crash, Neuromancer and Lord of the Rings. (Controversial Opinion Alert: I didn't enjoy Snow Crash as much as I should have, because I found the writing style a little too self-consciously clever and too meta for its own good. Neuromancer was way better. Oh, and as for Lord of the Rings - the films are better than the books. There, I said it.) However, if you can buy into the central conceit of the setting, the underlying lore of the game world is quite rich and involving - well worth mugging up on in the wikis. Character classes are cyberpunk twists on the standard AD&D character classes, with ranged or melee combatants (Street Samurai and Physical Adepts), Mages, and pet/minion classes (Riggers & Shamans - and to a lesser extent, Deckers, once they're in the Matrix), giving you a nice range of player archetypes to replay the game with. You can even build your own custom classes, for example, I'm playing through Dragonfall with a Ranged Street Samurai/Decker multiclass, who is pretty awesome. You can also pick from a traditional range of high fantasy races, Human, Elf, Dwarf, Ork & Troll, each of which have their own preferred stat (be it Body and Strength for Orks and Trolls, or Willpower for Dwarves), though in Dead Man's Switch, you don't really earn enough Karma points to unlock stats and skills to their maximum, so the stat point limits will only really have a major effect on the gameplay if people start creating longer campaigns. There are certain points in the game where your race might have an affect on dialogue choices and the like, but for the most part the race choices are a matter for personal aesthetic preference (I've always had a weakness for elves). Speaking of aesthetics, I should mention at this point that the art style is superb and gives the game a lot of atmosphere. It's a really nice game to look at, from the character portraits to the level design. There are also some nice tips of the hat sneakily stashed away, such as the BTL (Better Than Life - an addictive virtual reality sim) chip pusher based on Steve Jackson, creator of Munchkin, Zombie Dice and many more board games, so watch out for him.

Dead Man's Switch starts with you alone in your apartment at 3am, wondering how you're going to be paying the bills next week, when you get a videocall from an old colleague, Sam Watts, informing you of his death (the titular Dead Man's Switch) and a promise of 100,000 nuyen (New Yen, geddit?), which is apparently a lot of money, if you can track down whoever killed him. So off you pop to Seattle, to try and find Sam's killer. The game plays as a detective story as you get drawn deeper into the intrigues of Seattle's shadowy underbelly, with you eventually uncovering the motive behind Sam's death and a string of murders carried out by the same serial killer who accounted for Sam.

The characters are well-drawn and interesting and if you know your Shadowrun lore, it's quite cool that the person who shows you the ropes in Seattle (after waking him up from his "room" in the morgue) is Jake Armitage, the protagonist from the first Shadowrun game on the SNES. Later in the game you also get to meet Harlequin, who is great fun. I also really liked Cherry Bomb, Coyote and Dresden, though a few of the other characters (such as Jake and Shannon) were a little underwritten and it would have been nice to see them fleshed out a bit more.

Combat is turn-based and well-balanced, and later in the game ensuring that you have the right balance of skills in your team (DPS, healing and area control) gets ever more critical, as you're quite heavily outnumbered in some scenarios. The combat is reminiscient of the revamped X-COM (a game I really need to get back to this summer), with the cover system and overwatch being really useful to set up ambushes.

The story rattles along and you can play through the entirety of Dead Man's Switch in around 12 hours, which not such a bad thing as far as I'm concerned, as at least it means that you're not having to play for weeks and weeks to get closure (Baldur's Gate, I'm looking at you). The disadvantage is that the story does run on rails, when the actual gameworld is sufficiently interesting enough to warrant a full on sandbox. A proper sandbox mode is, apparently, in the works by some enterprising modding team and will no doubt make an appearance on Steam Workshop at some point (but more on that in a minute). It is also a bit of a shame that Dead Man's Switch does descend into a Starship Troopers dungeon crawl in the last couple of hours (don't forget to invest a couple of points in the Shotgun skill, or you'll regret it by the end of the game) and the fact you'll have probably called the final ending of the game right at the beginning, but it is a game or almost unique character and charm. I certainly enjoyed Dead Man's Switch enough to want to replay it with a couple of the different character classes for the first few hours, just to see how they worked. Even better, several homebrew campaigns are starting to make their way onto the Steam Workshop now, some of which are of full campaign length, if 12 hours is too short for you. Of course, a lot of them will be pretty rubbish, but there will be a few gems in there eventually, too - so keep an eye on the user ratings for the best picks.

I also picked up the Dragonfall DLC and have been playing that a lot, though I haven't quite finished it yet. It addresses a lot of the complaints against Dead Man's Switch, as you have more of a relationship with the Shadowrunners who are permanent members of your team, is a little less on rails in that there's a central hub and you can do sidejobs in no particular order, but the main story still does run linearly - so it's not quite the full-on open world glory of Chapter Two in Baldur's Gate 2, but it is a distinct improvement. In fact, it's fair to say that Dragonfall builds on and supercedes Dead Man's Switch in all aspects: better characters, better writing, better story and better combat. If there's one thing that I would criticise, it's that I would have liked there to have been in both campaigns would be romance options for your player character. Only Bioware seems to make the effort these days, and even they don't do it particularly well anymore. Baldur's Gate 2 is still the best RPG for letting you build up meaningful relationships between your player character and members of your party, and that came out nearly fourteen years (FOURTEEN YEARS!) ago. I mean, just look at Glory. Now there's a young woman desperately in need of a hug. If you were brave enough to dare. I would have liked the chance to dare. Just sayin'...

So Shadowrun Returns isn't a game entirely devoid of faults, but there is a lot to enjoy, too. I would recommend it on its own merits, rather than the "potential" of what might spring up in terms of user generated content on Steam Workshop, because the quality of that is likely to be all over the place for some time to come. I would also hope that Harebrained Schemes, the developers, will put out some more DLC in the future, too, because the game deserves another official expansion. Anyway, that's enough from me. I have to go and catch the next installment of Wyrm Talk. It's educational...
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