Thursday, 12 September 2013

Shadowrun Returns: The Fist vs The Fully-automatic

In a mish-mash world of magic and technology, ruled over by giant corporations, no-cares when an alcoholic runner is brutally murdered, not even me. That is up until the point that a posthumous message arrives from said stiff offering us a heck of a lot of money to find his killer.

I had been debating whether to buy Shadowrun Returns for quite a while, it looked reminiscent of some of the games I had loved in my childhood (Fallout, UFO: Enemy Unknown) and the idea of leading a gang of Techno-mages, SMG wielding Street Samurai  and even controlling an army of drones definitely appealed. However I had a few reservations, namely nagging doubts that it would not live up to the games I would inevitably compare it too.

I decided to take the plunge and, even before I had created my character, fell in love with the art-style and soundtrack of the title screen alone. It instantly sets the shady tone of the game which is ever-present, even when in some of the more reputable areas of town. Thus it was with high expectations that I began the process of creating my character.

The first thing that hit me was the level of choice on offer, while there are not a wide range of classes per se, nothing is off limits as such. The skills you can learn are determined by your Karma points, earned through completing objectives and missions, but are not class specific. So if you are a hard-hitting troll who wants to try out summoning some spirits that’s not a problem at all. Your primary stats are the only limiting factor, you cannot increase your close combat abilities above your current level of strength (sort of makes sense). I had already decided I wanted to get up close and personal, I opted for a dwarf adept (a hand to hand martial arts type) because I was determined to laugh in the face of machine-gun wielding orks as I taught them a lesson with my fists!

And so it was that Mr Fist, a small-time shadowrunner (a freelancer, who takes on jobs of danger and dubious morality) headed off on an isometric adventure the like of which I had not seen for a while.
The first thing I noticed is that the environment Mr Fist is currently exploring is beautiful , time has clearly been spent in making The Sprawl feel dingy and futuristic, but close enough to home that you can still believe this is Seattle in the future. I move past burnt out vehicles, brightly lit storefronts, shack-like markets and gang hang-outs. It is at this point that the gang, whose hang-out I have been admiring, take umbrage with my compatriot (apparently they are fed up with killing him) and this gives me the perfect opportunity to test out the combat system.

The combat plays out in a manner similar to that of fallout 2, each side taking turns and having a limited number of action points to shoot/cast a fireball/activate drones or otherwise inconvenience the opposition. While the supporting mage dispenses some fiery retribution Mr Fist decides that’s a bit too complicated and opts for punching a troll in the face. Despite a few scrapes, we make it through the fight and I get some shiny karma points to spend. I opt for level 3 body (which costs 3 karma) as I think that more health may be useful for a close-combat character. With the first combat out of the way, I sit back and wait for the game to open out and I can fully explore The Sprawl, just like the wasteland in Fallout 2, fighting-off random elf biker gangs as was hinted at in the kick-starter video.

Shadowrun Returns Punching
Mr Fist gives a detailed lecture on the futility of automatic weapons.

Except it doesn’t and I have walked into a trap, I have started to base my expectations of this game on those games it reminds me of. Shadowrun Returns is not Fallout 2, the world does not open up allowing me to explore at my leisure, in many ways it’s an on-rails rpg with the storyboard loading screen taking you from mission to mission. Yes there are occasional side-missions, but these often feel completely disconnected from the main story-arc.

However the story is incredibly well written and, while I feel irked by not letting me go where I want to, I find myself immersed in this world of murder and corporate espionage. The motivations of both the protagonists & antagonists make a sort of twisted sense, which is further enhanced by the optional bits of data you can gather if one of your team is a decker (who has the ability to hack into computer systems).

It is in ‘decking’ that Shadowrun Returns shows us something a little different, the way in which the hacking of computer systems is managed. First a ‘decker’ (your hacking expert) needs to find an access point, and then they enter the neon-blue world of the matrix. In here they must move from server to server taking out any security programs and accessing the relevant control node to take over the system of your choice. To aid in this your decker is able to deploy a number of attack and support programs (similar to summons and spells) to compromise the system before you set off a system wide alarm (triggering enemy deckers and several security programs). At the same time the decker is vulnerable to any combat in the ‘real’ world and so you need to make sure you have them protected because for some reason security teams don’t like the turrets behind them attacking anything in sight!

Into the Matrix
Beware the cube of doom! Actually it's pretty harmless.

On the whole the content provided when you buy Shadowrun Returns (£14.99 on Steam) is pretty good and, while part of me cannot shake the desire for a bigger world and a game that actually allows you to save, rather than restart from set check-points, it’s definitely good fun to play! If only there was some way to extend it after completion……………….

The level editor that comes with Shadowrun Returns has made things really interesting. There is already a wide range of user generated content for the game (admittedly of variable quality) and this is what has the potential to make the game worth much more than its price.  As shown by the kick-starter success of the game there is clearly a lot of passion and enthusiasm for the Shadowrun universe, so I cannot wait to get to grips with the stories that other users want to tell and who knows I might even try to tell my own!

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