A neglected masterpiece!
Shadowrun was actually the first console game I seriously sat down and played
- And this was only two weeks ago!
Yep, I decided to check out the past I never had and explore the delights of
classic console gaming. How appropriate then, that I picked an absolute
masterpiece to start off with.
From the moment I started playing Shadowrun, I was hooked. The moody isometric
graphics, compelling soundtrack and instantly engaging gameplay all combined
to make this an addictive experience. This is an extremely atmospheric game.
I've played a lot of games set in bleak, obviously Blade Runner-inspired
futures, with hacking, cybernetic implants, guns, smoke and guys in dark
trenchcoats, but this is definitely one of the best.
The gameplay is surprisingly deep, with a lot of things to do, and a lot of
flexibility about the way you go about things. Conversations with other
characters are generally brief, but nearly every line carries you on, and
seems to add to the richness of the gameworld. Similarily, clues scribbled on
scraps of paper or found lurking in cyberspace reveal more of the plot in ways
which, through their very sparseness, make it all the more involving. New
technology and skills are drip-fed to you in the best possible way, but as you
need the money to buy things and the 'karma' (experience) points to upgrade
your skills, you are always striving to reach the next level. Usually, in
RPGs, the levelling system is quite uninvolving; You just fight a lot of
battles and are occasionally pleasantly surprised when you get a 'level up'
message. In Shadowrun, though, you have to collect points and then you decide
when you're going to use those points and how you're going to spend them. This
may seem like a small distinction, but it really works to maintain your
addiction and keep the game rattling along.
A lot of the gameplay is satisfyingly adventure-based. There are traditional
inventory-item puzzles, but they generally tend to be logical, obvious in
their use in furthering the story and they nearly always open new areas or
allow you to do exciting new things.
I keep coming back to this, but one of Shadowrun's greatest strengths is in
the way that it constantly presents players with things they want, but which
they can't quite get - yet
. This is the hook, and is one of the key
components of great game design. Whether it's a gun you want but can't quite
afford, a locked gate that you need to find a key for, or a spell that you
need to find another component for, Shadowrun excels in keeping you
. And that makes it all the better when you get what you want.
And then there's something else you want, after that! It's very cool.
Fighting is extremely simple, but generally fun. Hacking is an interesting
subgame that, while not great (Hacking in games is rarely great), certainly
offers a refreshing change of pace. Adventuring, exploring, and RPG levelling
are where the game really scores, and where you get to soak in that thick,
thick atmosphere and tingly addictive gameplay. Oh yeah, and the attention to
detail is awesome too - There are optional subquests, different ways of
solving some puzzles, intricately detailed graphics, all kinds of fun stuff
and all kinds of things that the designers didn't need to throw in, but did
because they obviously enjoyed creating this game. Excellent example: Late in
the game, you kill a huge serpent beast. When it dies, it leaves some scales
on the floor. If you examine them, the description is something like 'Slimy
scales from the dead serpent.' Try to pick them, and you can't. Try again, and
they scoot across the floor. Finally, on the third or fourth attempt, you
manage to get them. The scales were slimy
and they slipped from your
hand! Totally pointless, but very cute.
Have I made it clear yet? This is one compelling, fun-packed, involving, deep
cyberpunk-y RPG. It reminded me of System Shock and anyone who knows me can
tell you how much I worship that game.
The game falls down in two areas: Its combat and its party recruiting.
The combat is very
basic. When you're not just running around, you
change between different cursor modes. You either use the hand cursor to
manipulate the environment, the spell cursor to cast spells or the crosshairs
cursor to fire. Because you're switching from movement to cursor mode, you
can't move when doing any of these things. In combat this means that you
change to the crosshairs, move them over your enemy and blast away. You can't
move. Well, you could, but you'd have to temporarily lose the crosshairs as
you switched back to movement mode, then switch back to firing mode...You see
what I mean. It's just not worth it, because you'd lose too much time even
trying to move. So every battle basically consists of you standing still and
hammering the fire button while the cursor is over the top of your enemy.
Meanwhile, they do the same to you. And the AI is very basic, too. For normal
enemies, it's pretty much nonexistant. Most of the time, they will stand
completely still and fire back at you. When you get some spells, combat does
improve, and become a little more tactical, but it's still rather too basic. I
actually bought my first control pad after playing this game for a while. That
is definitely a good thing, but the reason for it isn't - I seriously could
feel the beginnings of RSI in my wrists from pummelling the same key over and
over again. Anyway, despite it being so basic (and despite the possiblity of
wrist hurt disease), combat is actually pretty good fun. It's satisfying to
watch enemies flash and die (Hmm!) and you always want to get a bigger gun so
you can deal more damage. I just think they could have rethought the system a
wee bit and allowed you to move and fire at the same time. Some enemy AI
wouldn't have hurt, either.
The second point where Shadowrun falls down is party recruiting, which is
almost entirely pointless, and again, the fault must lie at the feet of the AI
routines (or rather, the lack of them). I don't know much about the Shadowrun
universe beyond this game, but it seems pretty clear that a big part of it is
the idea of gangs of Shadowrunners running around together. Here, it's really
not worth it. You can hire whoever you want from the motley bunch hanging out
at various bars and clubs across the city. They all have different strengths
and weapons and you can hire fighters, mages or deckers (If your cyber skill
is not high enough, you can get them to plug into the net instead of you).
Party members follow you around blindly and will start shooting when you run
into some enemies. This can be useful to add extra guns to a hot situation,
but the problem is that your party members have no intelligence whatsoever.
They won't move (except to follow you), they won't run away if they're about
to die and they won't ever try to heal themselves. Even mages, who are loaded
up with heal spells, will never use them, unless you explicitly tell them to.
Yes, you can tell people to move, or to use different spells, but to do this,
you have to change from fire mode to the 'hand' mode, move your cursor over to
the party member, and then select what you want them to do. In the middle of a
exchange of hot lead with a seriously hard orc ganger, this takes way too
long. In fact, when you have a party with you, you'll spend most of your time
checking on their health, and desperately trying to medikit them before they
die. I hired a mad uzi-toting dwarf, called Norbert, near the start of the
game, and together we took out the leaders of the Rust Stilettos gang. That
was fun, but back then, my own firepower and health were too limited. I soon
realised it was a lot better to save money and get myself a better gun that to
waste it hiring idiots who were just going to stand there and get shot. From
then on, I went solo. I had no complaints about this, as the gloomy
Bladerunner-ish future is usually a lonely place, with one desperate person
fighting against whole evil MegaCorps, but I'm sure fans of the original RPG
would be rather upset about the near-uselessness of hiring in this game.
The Bottom Line
Whoah! Well, my 'complaints' section was quite long, but it was only two
points and one of them (the combat) managed to be fun despite it being so
basic and the other (recruiting) was disappointing, but it was fine being on
your own, anyway.
So know this: Shadowrun for the SNES is a truly excellent game. It's rich in
atmosphere, gameplay and fun, and it kept me playing solidly into the small
hours for a week or so. It's actually one of the best games I've ever
played, comparing favourably with the likes of more recent mega-smashes such
as Deus Ex. Even more than that, it's now got me hopelessly addicted to
console gaming. I'm playing Chrono Trigger, loving every minute of it, and I
now walk boldly forward into a console-loving future, wearing my smoky grey
trenchcoat, SNES in one hand and AS-7 assault cannon in the other.