Developer: FASA Interactive
Release Date: May 29, 2007
Generally, when one thinks of such things as elves, dwarves, and trolls, one thinks of role-playing games. Along similar lines, cyberpunk as a genre is also relegated more to the RPG realm than any other format. It was revolutionary enough when FASA Corporation melded the two concepts into the pen-and-paper role-playing game known as Shadowrun back in 1989, but can it stand another radical paradigm shift at the hands of FASA Interactive? Read on, and I shall tell you if this unique setting has survived the remix.
To start with, I suppose it's prudent to give a brief overview of what Shadowrun was and is: 50% Dungeons & Dragons, 50% Cyberpunk — that's Shadowrun. The idea is that magic returns to the world in a dramatic manner in the near (noir?) future, re-introducing such things as dragons, demons, elves, dwarves, trolls, and magic, all on top of a world already vastly different from the one you and I know. Technology in the Shadowrun milieu is standard cyberpunk fare: bio-mechanical implants, wetware re-wiring of the neurological pathways to augment physical performance, auto-independent artificial intelligence running amok, scavengers in the matrix … you know how it is, that same old song and dance. Mixed together, the fantasy and technology is a heady brew.
The subject of today's review, however, takes almost all of that and pretty much tosses it out the window. This latest version of Shadowrun, released for Windows and the Xbox 360, is a tactical squad-based, first-person shooter that has gutted the story, excised all the RPG elements, and given us a new alternative to Counter-Strike. In this Shadowrun, you aren't playing a black-market operative working against the faceless mega-corporations; you're on one of two sides in a localized conflict. Your access to metahumanity is restricted to three non-human races, and the entire meat of the game is to kill or be killed, albeit in interesting ways. There is no depth, aside from tactics, which I must admit are handled in pretty cool ways.
The gist of it is this: a massive corporation known as RNA Global is trying to build a massive arcology just outside Santos, Brazil. The reason they want to build this arcology is because a massive ziggurat just happened to be buried in a mountain right beside the city. It exploded in magical power, and now RNA Global wants control of it. Operating as a foil to this is the "terrorist" group known as Lineage, who is trying to preserve the ziggurat and the mysteries it holds. That's it. There's your conflict — one side wants to take, while the other side wants to keep.
Tycho from Penny Arcade was told this game is "like Tribes," a claim he boldly rejected at first. As I am easily as fervent a devotee of that hallowed tactical juggernaut as Tycho is, I too initially denied the possibility at first. However, after dipping my toes in the water, I am forced to admit that yes, this Shadowrun actually is somewhat like Tribes. It's not as good; at this point in my life, I'm inclined to believe that is, in fact, a physical impossibility. That doesn't mean FASA Interactive hasn't done a startlingly good job of assembling a fun tactical FPS.
Just about everything in Shadowrun is set up in an elaborate rock-paper-scissors fashion. All abilities have a counter, and learning how to exploit this is the key to victory. Elves are quick and can regenerate health if they remain inactive for short periods. They also have more essence (the fuel magic uses) than humans or trolls, but they can't carry heavy weapons. Dwarves have the most essence of all four races, but they regenerate it the most slowly. They also leech essence from anyone and anything they come near — enemies and allies alike. Trolls are walking tanks but are quite slow and have the least essence. Humans are the neutral point in this mix; they don't suffer any penalties to their essence when they equip cybernetics, but they also don't get any racial benefits like toughness, speed, or anti-magic auras.
Spells, weapons, and technologies are all purchased at the beginning of each round, much like Counter-Strike. There is a solid array of options to choose from, everything from enhanced therm-optic visual implants to resurrection magic to anti-magic transmitter beacons to spirit-summoning spells to mini-guns to wired neural reflexes and everything in between. While the weapons are basic fare, the impact abilities such as the glider wings and teleport spells have on combat is dramatic. One develops a complacency in FPS games after a certain skill has been achieved in twitch gaming; this is a bad habit to try to rely on when your opponent can vanish before your bullet strikes him and reappear behind you with a shotgun blazing.
Now, I know that many people gnash their teeth and wring their hands in wretched woe when they cry to the heavens, "Oh woe, my precious canon has been ignored!" I can see their point somewhat; I certainly would love to have been handed a deep, sandbox-style Shadowrun RPG. However, I look past this and try to just take this for what it is and critique on the good and bad of what is, not what could have been. This is rare for me, as I'm often a victim of, "This game would have ruled if only the developers had done X instead of Y," but this time, I'm making an exception.
Graphically, Shadowrun is pretty but not mind-blowing. My personal opinion is that this game lacked an inspired artistic direction, and the end result is little more than adequate. There isn't quite as much "cyber" as there could have been, and the magic only really shows through in the spells. I can practically hear my readers thinking to themselves, "Well where else should the magic show?" Well my point is that elves don't look elven; they just look effeminate. Dwarves just look short. Trolls just look … well, I guess they look trollish, I just don't personally think they look cool. In a title that is 50% cyberpunk, "cool" should be dripping off of every single visual. It is for that reason that I believe there wasn't an alpha-artist running the entire project from start to finish. I might also mention at this point that there's only one model for each race (although a different skin for each side, RNA and Lineage), no options whatsoever to alter those models, and no females at all. Looks like Shadowrun won't be doing anything to promote women in gaming.
The terrain textures are crisp, but the architectural decals are somewhat grainy. This disparity is puzzling, to say the least. The models all have that plastic "made by Kenner" look to them, and in concert with the stiff — and occasionally missing — animations (there are no movement when climbing a ladder; you just magically hover your way up), you're in for a very unnatural experience. Also, the texture that lines the interior of the skybox is the lowest resolution I've seen since the original Half-Life. In this day of "next-generation graphics," I find it inexcusable that I can so clearly see where the world ends and a low-quality diorama begins. I will give props to the spectacular spell effects though; every magical effect you can cast comes with an elegant spray of colors that doesn't become less impressive over time.
Level design is clever and well-balanced, but there aren't anywhere near enough map types, and every level is tiny to the point of being claustrophobic. This, along with the low-res skybox, suggests "consolitis." If this is the best the much-vaunted "next generation" has to offer, then I'm glad I'm still a PC purist. Another thing that worries me is the lack of levels to choose from; Shadowrun is the first PC game to integrate the Games for Windows and Xbox Live! into one service, and I cannot help but think the specter of micro-payments for more map variety is looming ahead.
When all is said and done, I find I'm stuck in the middle. I know that many critics loathe this game; I do not. I know that many users love this game; I do not. I think it's quite entertaining and does many things just right. However, it's clearly unfinished and was rushed out the door. Thus, I like Shadowrun, but I just want to be friends, and nothing more serious than that. Its similarities to Tribes are pronounced, but because this game doesn't match the glory of that monolithic icon, I can't help but be perpetually reminded of how it just isn't as good. That's just my personal preference though; I won't hold it against FASA Interactive or Shadowrun, at least so far as my overall score is concerned. If you're new-school and never played Tribes, then by all means buy this game! You will find it unlike any other FPS you've ever encountered. If you're a crusty old fella like me, well I'd recommend at least giving the demo a spin before spending your shekels. It's worth trying out; just make sure you "click" with it enough to justify the cash.
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