As temporarily thrilling and interesting as Microsoft’s new team-based first person shooter is, it’s tempting to give Shadowrun a worse review than it deserves.
As Steven Colbert might say, Shadowrun is bad for America. Or more specifically, it’s bad for America’s gamers. And even more specifically, it’s bad for gamers who expect more from their hard-earned $59.99 than a game that has no real single player mode and only a handful of maps and the bare minimum of options.
Yep, that’s right, Shadowrun features a dozen mediocre maps and three modes not-so-cleverly disguised as team deathmatch, capture the flag, and capture and defend games. Toss in the fact that you can’t customize online matches beyond changing maps and game types or even pick different skins for your cartoony characters, and Shadowrun starts to feel more shallow than the entire cast of The Real World.
And it’s truly a shame that the Emperor is wearing no clothes, because there are plenty of things to like in this guns-meets-magic sci-fantasy shooter. It’s interesting that Shadowrun was made a shooter in the first place, actually, considering its pedigree. Shadowrun was originally a pen-and-paper role playing game, a cyberpunk Dungeons and Dragons for the Phillip K. Dick set with a complex dystopian backstory about a widespread computer virus that indirectly caused the world’s governments to crumble, and mega-corporations to emerge as the new superpowers in their place. For whatever reason, magic re-entered the world, and all sorts of Tolkien-ish type of races—elves, dwarves, orcs and the like, began popping up everywhere. It was the best of both nerd worlds, sci-fi and fantasy. Blade Runner meets Lord of the Rings.
The first time Shadowrun hit video game consoles, it was in the fairly appropriate form of third-person action RPGs on the Super Nintendo and Sega Genesis in the early ‘90s—games that would become semi-cult classics. The inner workings that led to the newest incarnation of Shadowrun began in 1999, when Microsoft purchased Shadowrun‘s parent company FASA Interactive, acquiring the rights to the RPG in the process. When Shadowrun‘s fans learned that Microsoft intended to produce a first-person shooter with the license, many were surprised and/or skeptical because it seemed a waste of the game’s dense universe and mythologies.
Indeed, while the new game does invoke some sort of Shadowrun-ish plot, something about a giant corporation that faces off against a rebel army sometime in the future, the only time plot is brought into the picture is during throwaway cutscenes in between training sessions. Otherwise, the plot is a half-assed excuse to trot out dwarves with huge chainguns and hulking, pistol-wielding trolls floating over skyscrapers via hangliders—not that that’s altogether a bad thing.
Regardless of its other stated flaws, the gameplay itself is a fascinating blend of Counterstrike and Guild Wars. You start out by choosing one of four different unique races: humans, trolls, dwarves and elves. Each has its various positive and negative traits. Predictably, trolls are slow but tree trunk strong, elves are quick and stealthy, dwarves are crafty and well, small. Humans have the tightest grips on the pursestrings, or in other words, start out with the most cash of any race.
You do not want to mess with this guy.
Speaking of which, each team starts out with a limited amount of cash that can be increased Counterstrike-style through killing and general mayhem. Money can be used to purchase various magic powers, weaponry or techs. The weapons are pretty standard first-person shooter ware, but the magic and techs is where Shadowrun stands apart from the Halos and Unreal Tournaments of the gaming world. The Tree of Life, for instance, is basically a healing station that the player can cast with enough “essence”—Shadowrun‘s version of a mana bar. Strangle is a power that allows the player to cast a patch of blue crystals that slows down opponents, and Summon lets the player bring a friend in the form of a fiery dragon-like character to help attack or defend.
Some of the techs are even better. Enhanced Vision lets you see players through walls or roofs via heat signatures, and Teleport lets you warp eight feet in any direction. My personal favorite is Wired Reflexes, which, in the hands of a katana-wielding elf, instantly makes him a bullet deflecting maestro resembling something from The Matrix.
The game gives you the option of choosing any kind of race and magic and tech combination you want, but because of the traits of each race, it’s more advantageous, for example, to give the katana and the smoke power to the ninja-like elf instead of the lumbering troll.
A good team in Shadowrun will not only have fast reflexes and good communication, but will also need to purchase powers wisely with a good mix of offensive, defensive and healing/resurrection powers. In this way, it’s like a pumped-up, stripped-down Guild Wars, where a team has to plan and stratagize before the battle to make sure they have the right balance of abilities and strengths. This thinking man’s approach to the shooter is reinforced by the fact that it’s not very easy to kill someone. Minus a well-placed sniper shot to the head or an expensive rocket, the guns aren’t very accurate, nor do they hit hard. This makes strategy just as important as pure twitch skill.
It’s also worth noting that Shadowrun is the first game to link PCs and Xbox 360s under one roof with the Xbox Live service, which it seems to do rather seamlessly, though some PC gamers have complained that the developers intentionally “nerfed” PC users for balance purposes.
In all, Shadowrun is an enjoyable game, especially if you’re playing with a team of knowledgeable players. After about five to ten hours, however, the limited options, maps and game types start making the game feel more and more unsatisfying. Considering all of the millions of dollars that went into the game, the thousands of man hours spent, and the success of the core game, it’s a wonder that Microsoft didn’t keep the game in the shop a few months longer to make it a true Triple-A title.
As it is, Shadowrun feels like a briefly entertaining speed bump on the road to Halo 3.