Fantasy, science fiction and good gameplay.
The Shadowrun world has existed since the 80's in the form of pen & paper role-playing games. The world blends fantasy elements such as magic, elves and dragons wonderfully into a dark cyberpunk world. The term 'shadowrun' itself refers to black ops where freelance operatives are utilized. These are handed out by employers referred to by the pseudonym "Mr. Johnson". In the game this is the main source of cash and karma (=experience).
This game earns an honorary mention alone for the fact that there is no level-based character development, which is extremely rare for CRPGs. Health (both mental and physical) are measured by percentage. Completing shadowruns, killing enemies and advancing the plot earns you karma which you may use to increase your attributes and skills. Upgrade your endurance and buy better armor, and you'll be able to resist damage more effectively. Also, there are minimal class restrictions. The only definite thing is whether the character may use magic. Even dying is only a small hitch, since future medicine can perform miracles, though it doesn't come cheap. You can hire up to two other 'runners, and fire them to hire others if you want to. Just as your main character, other members of your group can also be developed any way you like.
The game world is also very open. Apart from the short beginning sequence you're free to go anywhere. Certain doors only open with a little tip or reputation, which feels more realistic than restrictive.
In the main mode of the game you control your character from a top-down view. You walk around dystopic Seattle, looking for work, buying better stuff and looking for clues. Oh yes, the plot. The game begins as the news broadcasts a video of the death of the main character's brother. You travel to Seattle to find out why and how he ended up dead. You have an electronic notebook in the game which automatically keeps track of all the clues, so having no idea where to go next is very rare.
Most of the game is in real time, including combat. Character stats define how fast you can attack or run away, and how effective the attacks are. Bigger guns do more damage, but that gives little comfort if you can't hit the broad side of a barn.
A very different part of the game is when you jack into the Matrix, the future replacement for Internet. Your silver-clad online avatar glides across the digital landscape, avoiding, fooling or fighting Intrusion Countermeasure (IC, aka 'ice') programs. The Matrix can be used for many beneficial effects. Databanks can hold valuable information you can fence, and if you're infiltrating a company building you can use the Matrix to shut down cameras, unlock doors and cancel the alarm. Also, if you're lucky you may find additional information pertaining to the plot.
Especially at the beginning of the game there is tedious experience-gathering. However, very few RPGs are devoid of this, so if you can tolerate them, this shouldn't be any worse. This is of course greatly alleviated by the fact that you decide yourself in which direction you develop the character instead of generic level raising. As in many other RPGs you can keep treading the safe and easy path, building up your stats or try your luck with the big boys whenever you want.
For some reason there is a skill called 'reputation' in the game, which opens many doors (pretty much useless beyond level 6, though). This feels very artificial, and it would've been better if the main character's reputation had actually advanced by doing successful runs, fighting gangers etc.
This last bit of criticism won't probably matter to the average player, but being familiar with the original p&p Shadowrun, I would've liked for the Matrix to involve other deckers (cyberpunk equivalent for hacker) which could be sent to attack you if you manage to raise the alarm hacking into corporate systems.
The Bottom Line
Shadowrun manages to be unique and intensely playable at the same time. If you're looking for a good overall RPG, give this a try. If you're looking for something different, give this a try.