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SummaryA bump on the road to the expansion
The GoodThe title says it all, doesn't it? I'm writing this after playing the expansion (Dragonfall) and it's hard not to be influenced by that far superior product, but I'll try to look at this game on its own. That's because this game was the attempt to capture the true RPG nature of the Shadowrun, update it to the modern player and provide an easy to use level/campaign editor for players to create new adventure with. And it succeeded to a large degree.
The game is structured as a turn-base tactical squad RPG, with you leading a team of up to four shadowrunners, the mercenaries for hire that do all the dirty work for various nefarious corporations and individuals in this world of advanced technology and magic. These shadowrunners can be anything from mages to computer specialists, as all professions can be useful in a mission. Character creation suits this setting very well - you aren't limited to preset class, nor unlike other games that depict magic and technology, are you punished for choosing both magic and technology. It's up to you to decide what combinations work for you: Are you a hacker that sits back and lets his or her drones do the dirty work? Are you an adept that uses certain magics and robotic implants to enhance your melee attacks? A sniper? All of the above? It's your character and any choice is valid. More than that, Shadowrun mimics Infinity engine games in that the main attributes of your character can influence conversations and other non-combat interactions. When creating your Decker you might have overlooked Charisma as a useless Shaman skill, but what are you going to do when you need to bluff past a guard? Or if you ignored your Strength you might not be able to pressure a person for information.
When time comes to actual combat, the game moves flawlessly. You position your teammates to make full use of their abilities. You can use almost any object in a room to give yourself a cover, with the type of cover depending on the object of choice (from light if you're standing behind a potted plant to full cover if you're behind a concrete wall) and the direction you're facing. Mages use leylines, visible only to them, to make their attacks ever more powerful, and drones can climb into ventilation ducts to attack enemies from behind. You can even set traps by positioning your characters out of enemy sight and setting them to Overwatch - making them hit oncoming enemies when they come instead of waiting for your turn. Your tactics are further aided by the large number of possible weapons that differ in their attack modes, range and special abilites which you enable by enhancing your character.
Of course this wouldn't be a Shadowrun game without some virtual reality hacking, or Decking as it's called. Whenever you find a computer terminal you can run up to it with your Decker and engage in a different type of combat: use your offensive and defensive programs to destroy hostile scripts and reach key programs.
I saved the plot for last because, well, that's where the game comes apart. I'll look into that in the section below, but I still have a few kind words for it, flawed as it may be. The atmosphere set in the plot, and further enhanced by graphical elements, provides the grim, rugged and gritty feel that sets Shadowrun dystopian future apart from other similar games. Your story will take you from junkie dens to the palace of a corporation CEO and you'll see the world in all of its dark splendor. The graphics, while outdated, are still very well suited to what the story tries to accomplish.
The BadOK. So if the game succeeded at what it set out to do then what's the problem? The problem is that the goal of the game was to set itself to be a sort of successor to the first popular Shadowrun game (1993) and distance itself as much as possible from the not-so-well received shooter game (2007) and it succeeded only technically. While a lot of thought went into combat mechanics and setting, the plot was very obviously ignored until the very last moment. It seems that when building their main campaign the developers thought hard how to best showcase the editor and moddable qualities of their game and settled on the Neverwinter Nights I approach - make the main campaign as bad as possible so that people would have no other option but to use the editor!
You begin the Dead Man's Switch campaign as an investigator of the murder of your friend, gathering evidence from the local morgue. First question: The serial killer you're after has killed a whooping half a dozen or so people. Why the killer is even noticed by others when you kill twice that many just to walk into a room? Why is a city sited next to a nuclear wasteland, in country that lost most of its power to cynical corporations, and that experiences an endless gang war on nearly every street would even care about any of this? Barely explained at all. Even worse, this colors your adventure in a fairly ridiculous light. You kill incredible number of people to fight a threat that can be charitably described as "modest". Apparently the developers had the same thought as me and switched the plot half-ways through - when you uncover who was behind the murders you also stumble across a sinister conspiracy which may destroy all life on earth. Oops. What's really amusing is that the two plots aren't connected at all except for one person that happens to be a major player in both. Not because something is tying the wrongdoings together, but just because evil people have personal lives too. No, really. I cannot do that baffling plot justice. It's like trying to find out who was fiddling with your lab equipment only to discover that it was the Lord of all Worms, brushing up on some chemistry. The saddest part is that those two stories could have been easily weaved into each other, but the writers just couldn't be bothered with that.
The game has a bad plot, so what?! Well, for one thing, it has nothing else. You see, dear reader, for some reason when the developers thought about a game where you play a morally ambiguous mercenary, in a complex conspiracy-driven world, where freedom is the most precious commodity of them all, they immediately thought of gameplay so linear it would shame a JRPG blush. In this game only one mission is truly optional. Side quests, if they can be called that, are literally just a room away from the main objective. Naturally a bad and lazy plot needs bad and lazy characters, so we turn to our pool of two dimensional stereotypes: A large, stupid and corrupt cop, a small and eery pathologist surgeon, a Native American shaman and large bouncer in a tuxedo. No, wait! I did forget one character. Since this game tries to set itself as a sequel to the first Shadowrun game, it's set in the same location as that game and has the main protagonist from that game as a major NPC. So the most interesting character in this game is twenty years old and was written by a different team. Lovely. Don't worry, though - he gets as much development and characterization as the others - none what so ever.
While these are the worst parts of the game, there are also smaller annoyances: Most spells are either noticeably weaker than firearms or they cost so much action points and require such a long time to recharge that you'll end up keeping your mages in supporting roles (unless it's your main character and you've put some points in other areas as well). Shamans have the worst of it - they need to develop their own skills, their magical skills and a weapon skill just to stay competitive with anyone else. Their ability to conjure a local spirit is, strangely enough, actively harmful to the player. First they need to find a summoning location (on any battle map there is only one or two at most), go there without getting shot and then summon an ungrateful elemental that will try to turn against you at the first opportunity. If that's not enough, unlike spell casting or bullets, the spirits aren't free and towards the end of the game their price would be fairly high. Speaking of money; you never know how much money or skill points will you get from a mission and because the game is extremely linear you can't grind for extra funds or karma (this game's skill points). Which means unless you've played the game before you don't really know how much spending is prudent. Add to that the lack of a proper save-game feature and you have a recipe for a fairly annoying game. The game offers a solution, though, but it just makes its faults all the more glaring: The choice of equipment, spells, programs and implants that you can buy is limited, but is increased at set points in the game, thus underlining the problem with too much linearity.
The Bottom LineAs an engine demo for a good RPG editor this game works well. The mechanics are all there, just waiting to be used. Unfortunately, the campaign doesn't put them to good use which greatly diminishes the experience for casual players that don't want to dig for good user content or make their own levels. That said, the main campaign is hardly the worst there is, and the game still remains enjoyable to a degree.
Nevertheless, this game is a must have because of Dragonfall, its excellent expansion. Sometimes you take the good with the bad, in this case - the wonderful expansion with the boring vanilla installment.