One of the few notable releases these hot summer months besides Forza Motorsport 2, Shadowrun had thus far failed to elicit widespread enthusiasm from gamers as it slowly crept towards its release. With the game in stores now for both Xbox 360 and Vista gamers to play online together, it is time to put the game under the microscope and see whether it’s worth our precious money.
Shadowrun tells the story of Santos, Brazil in 2021, where an ancient ziggurat of power has spawned, reintroducing age-old magic into the modern world. Along with all the magic, the hidden races of old step out of the void again as well, mingling elves, trolls and dwarves with humans, all with their own specific traits. Now the race is on to gain control of all that newfound power, as the global RNA corporation faces the rebellious Lineage faction who want to keep the magic freely available for all.
Putting Shadowrun in a confined genre box is hard, as it mixes a whole lot of different, previously strongly separated, styles together into one big bag of multiplayer mayhem. While the game was frequently touted as a mix between a RPG and a FPS, the game does not actually implement any RPG-like elements except possibly some elements of the fantasy theme common in RPGs. The final game is probably best described as a sci-fi fantasy FPS with magic, which is a respectable genre definition in itself. The main question is whether it works in the end.
Booting up the game you are presented with a menu that doesn’t even try to beat around the bush: this is a multiplayer game. The four options available are simply to run through the tutorials or play a solo, public or private match. No single player campaign at all, which could be fine ever since Quake 3 Arena and Unreal Tournament pioneered the multiplayer-only concept in 1999. In theory, not having to spend time on campaigns, storylines and lots of scenario material like transition movies and the like gives the developer a chance to focus on perfecting multiplayer maps and game balance.
There is not much to fault in Shadowrun’s tutorial section. A total of six extensive tutorial chapters lead you through everything you need to know about the game, and consequently force you to put it to the test in real fighting situations in a bot match. Not a single topic is ignored, touching on all races, skills and spells available in the game, and while it can get hectic at times you really feel prepared for everything the game has to offer after completing them.
Solo matches allow you to try your skills against bot teams, assisted by bot teams. You can select any of the maps, any game mode, and just start blowing away. Public and private matches work as one would expect as well, with public matches allowing you to form a party to take on anyone with similar TrueSkill rankings on the internet and private matches pitting you and some invited friends against each other or AI-controlled bots. All matches are played as best-of-11 round-based affairs, with the first team winning 6 rounds to win the match.
At the beginning of a match all you need to do is pick a race out of the four available. They all have widely different traits, with trolls being tough but slow, elves fast but weak, dwarves strong yet handicapped for magic essence regeneration, and humans being the resident allrounders. As the game begins you get to spend money on weapons, technical upgrades and magical spells at the beginning of every round, of which all but weapons are permanent upgrades for the remainder of that match. Technical upgrades vary from SmartLink, which allows you to zoom and aim better with all weapons, to Wired Reflexes, allowing you to move faster and deflect bullets. Magical upgrades are spells you can use amongst other things to spawn monsters, resurrect fallen team mates and erect trees with healing auras.
Playing the game you will notice that all the different powers are quite appreciatively balanced. Whilst there are some obvious favorites in the online playfield, it certainly pays to discuss with the team who is responsible for different tasks and who takes which spells. Even resurrection, which may seem overpowered at first glance, is kept well at bay by design choices that set up a dependency chain: the resurrected player will slowly die when his resurrector is killed himself. The same goes for the weapons: a proper and varied choice of weaponry throughout the team will pay off, as miniguns and rocket launchers facilitate brute force break ins and SMGs and Katanas rock close quarters combat.
The rounds themselves are played as a variation on classic CTF heritage. A magical artifact is placed somewhere, and based on which of the 3 game modes you are playing you either have to deliver it to a predefined drop off point, prevent the other team from doing so, or fight around it to exterminate the other team, all within a set amount of time. Respawns are not possible, although you can of course resurrect fallen team mates as mentioned before. While carrying the artifact you are a sitting duck due to its size, disabling your use of weapons and magic, but you can luckily swing it like a katana to defend yourself to some extent.
After all the previous paragraphs, one might wonder why it is all so positive. Simply put, because it is from a gameplay point of view: everything contained in the game is both well executed and appreciatively balanced. Shame then, that there is so damn little of it. For your $60 bucks, you get what appears to be a stripped down testbed game for Microsoft’s crossplatform online gaming, that would barely have satisfied gamers 10 years ago in terms of content. Not having a single player campaign is an understandable choice, but it would make sense to compensate for that with an incredibly polished and complete multiplayer game. Well, Shadowrun provides a grand total of nine maps. Smallish ones too, for 12 or 16 players only. Another three are provided for 8 player matches, but they are only rescaled versions of three of the big ones. The lack of maps is matched by the equally disappointing lack of game modes. Three nearly identical gamemodes just don’t cut it: where’s the variety we are entitled to expect in a dedicated multiplayer title? Where are plain old free for all and team deathmatch, or even more creative stuff like “who can hold the artifact the longest, respawns enabled”? The engine could easily do it, and the maps could certainly be reused.
Further adding to the lack of content frustrations is that the bar has been set for several years now by a certain other Microsoft-published title about what a proper multiplayer title should contain. The Halo series has spoilt us with endless streams of statistics, ranks and ratios. When we rule the online world, give us some satisfaction, let us check how our level is progressing, show us some medals, give us graphs of how our kill/death ratios change over time. None of all that in Shadowrun, not even a TrueSkill ranking is shown, and every game is just a basic meeting of random folks with unknown skills again. Even the mandatory achievements are barely spectacular, most being based on how many kills you made with what weapon against which race. Emphasizing Shadowrun’s status as a cross-platform gaming testbed a grand total of four achievements are based on performing certain gameplay actions with ‘those from the other side’.
Despite the praise given for the gameplay mechanics themselves, the basic qualities exposed there did not touch the developer’s graphics and sound teams either. The menu music is bland, the voice acting is ‘acceptable’, and the graphics and modelling are simply what Sony representatives would describe as “Xbox 1.5″: characters without facial expressions whatsoever literally floating up ladders in standing position are just not what the general public considers next-generation. Levels that are well designed suffer from bad and overly reused texturing, without enough details to keep them attractive for long. Sound effects are better executed thankfully, as the different guns, magic and technologies more or less sound like you’d want them to through a surround system.
Shadowrun is at its core a well-designed and balanced multiplayer game, that had great potential based on the ideas of combining magic with guns. It is a shame that it appears that most of its long development time was dedicated to balancing and testing online play against Vista users, instead of actually finishing up the game to meet 2007’s common expectations from a dedicated multiplayer title. While the game is most certainly fun to play for a while, its lack of maps, game modes and rewarding career mode make it highly unlikely to have any definite lasting appeal truly justifying a $60 purchase.
Final Score: 6 out of 10 â€“ Average (How do we rate games?)