Review: It took four years to make this fantasy shooter, but was it worth the wait?
Putting aside the fact that Shadowrun for the Xbox 360 has bucked its RPG roots for the trappings of the shooter genre, the big question that has been presented by the game is this: Does a fairly new style of gameplay trump the need for many accepted standard features in the genre? Furthermore, if the game has to stand on its innovation alone, how innovative is it really, and does it deliver the core elements that have become ?must haves? for the shooter genre?
The fact is that Shadowrun has to stand on its own gameplay merits because the peripheral details are not as plentiful or as skillfully crafted as in other comparable games. The lack of single-player campaign has been a sticking point for some, but the fact that many other games (Battlefield, Battlefront, Counter-Strike, etc) have succeeded as multiplayer-only affairs makes the omission of solo play not without precedent. The limited modes (CTF, Deathmatch) and map selection (nine maps are included, with three ?small? versions culled from those nine) mean that the gameplay and network performance will be of utmost importance. Further underscoring the need for the gameplay to save the day is a lack of character customization and in-game modification options.
So, does the gameplay manage to stand proudly on its own? Well, it certainly is innovative with a few specific abilities within the game, but it's hard to argue that the game is so radically different from other shooters that it allows for blindly overlooking the entire package's value. What is here is a shooter with some great ideas, but that loses some of its effectiveness with some unpolished core mechanics and mediocre presentation. There's a totally serviceable shooter here with elements designed for the hardcore, but the promise of innovation doesn't manage to entirely override the game's other shortcomings.
The basic premise in this round-based shooter is that RNA Global (the military police style group) are taking on Lineage, a terrorist-like organization that means to wrestle control away from the RNA. Shadowrun doesn't go into much more detail than that, meaning that users won't really gain an understanding of the world unless they do some reading or already know it, and this is somewhat unfortunate. The fact that a few loading screen briefings and quick tutorial allusions are meant to clue you in on why you are fighting is kind of strange. Honestly, it comes off as if the license choice was just arbitrary in order to introduce magic and technology elements, rather than having the abilities as focal points within the RNA/Lineage struggle. It may come off as a bit smug and snarky, but one has to wonder if the design team would have been better served by dropping the Shadowrun license once a shooter was decided on, as the brand means very little to the overall experience ? the gameplay nuances could have just as easily existed without the cumbersome and underutilized Shadowrun brand.
A match in Shadowrun pits the always-blue RNA against the always-red Lineage, and it's a 16-player affair that focuses on buying weapons, technology and abilities between rounds. The weapons are the most standard aspect of the game, and they include the (default) pistol, SMG, rifle, shotgun, sniper rifle, rocket launcher and katana. Most of the weapons behave as expected, with the shotgun displaying some immediate stopping power, the rifle having good range, and the pistol actually serving well in a pinch. When using the katana (or holding the ?artifact,? Shadowrun's flag equivalent), you'll go into a third-person perspective and be able to slash foes for maximum effectiveness. These brief forays into third-person work alright, but definitely come off as a bit floaty and unrefined; as with most games that mainly focus on first person, it's hard to dip into an external perspective and have it feel right (the only real success story for this is the Halo games).
As for how the gunplay works on a basic ?shooter' level, it's definitely a mixed bag. The feedback from firing is decent, if even a little underpowered, and the variance in how each weapon performs is good. With this said, the actual feel of the enemies taking damage, moving, and even dying just don't seem quite right. Nothing is too distracting or even really that bad, it's just that some basic shooter conventions don't fully hit the mark. There's some satisfying gunplay in certain moments, especially with the shotgun and rifle, but it's often a bit hard to tell when you're connecting with something or not. In addition, there could've been some wrinkles in how the weapons behave, whether it be from modification, dual wields, secondary fire or even with melee attacks.
But gunplay isn't the only thing Shadowrun has in its utility belt, as you can also buy technology to augment your skills. Shadowrun has plenty of unique gadgets and upgrades for your Shadowrunner, whether it's a glider to keep you moving from place-to-place, enhanced vision to help you track enemies, or wired reflexes that make all of your actions quicker. Some of these powers can be summed up as aim assist (SmartLink) or speed boost (wired reflexes), but certain items like the glider or the anti-magic grenades have interesting uses throughout the gameplay and add much-needed variance to the experience.
Much like technology, the magic in Shadowrun costs money and you mainly buy it between rounds (you can buy it within rounds if you pull up a screen, or you can buy after you're dead). The magic is obviously much more exciting in practice, and looks quite good while being used. The ability to teleport is arguably the coolest of the bunch, and the fact that a player can teleport through walls, ceilings, floors, structures and even people is pretty entertaining when used in concert with a shotgun or SMG. Resurrect is another great-looking power as you raise a fallen comrade from the dead when you cast it. The catch of using this spell is that you are now bound to the person you revived and they to you, meaning if you die, they will slowly die. Shadowrun has plenty of these tradeoffs built into the gameplay, and this aspect of the experience is to be commended. Take for example the power of ?smoke,? which renders you impervious to damage and has a cool misty effect; the counter to this is using the power of ?gust? to blow away people who use this, damaging them quite heavily.
The final element to Shadowrun is the races within the game, and these include humans, trolls, dwarves, and elves. The humans represent the balanced attack, as they are fairly strong and agile, and take no tech penalty (each race gets certain amounts of magic, and this is usually lessened when you use tech items). The troll is quite powerful and deliberate, and although he has the least magic, his skin actually crystallizes when he gets low on health making him harder to kill as he gets less health ? a cool idea and a neat looking effect. The dwarves have the most magic slots, but it refills quite slowly; they benefit from being able to take an extra headshot, and they actually absorb magic from friends, foes, and magical items in the environment. Finally, the elves are quite nimble and can regenerate health, but they aren't suited for carrying heavy arms or taking much damage. The race balance in the game is pretty good, and all of them do serve a role when the battle gets going. It's cool to be able to go and recharge your life as an elf, whereas a troll can just roll into a place with guns blazing and not worry so much.
When you add the races in with the magic and tech, the experience of playing Shadowrun does have some inspired moments. Gliding up to sniper perches is quite a bit of fun, as is using a ninja-like elf whom can carry a katana and go into ?smoke? when in danger. There's a good deal of fun when certain elements come together ? like teleporting to safety or gusting someone off a ledge ? but after the few interesting abilities (gust, teleport, resurrect, glider), you're left with a fairly normal shooter that doesn't pack the same punch as an online experience like Halo, and is probably on par with something like the Battlefield series.
The fact that the game delivers some entertainment and innovation is not in question, but the design is definitely suited for the hardcore. It requires a lot of experimentation and skill to get competitive at the game, and most casual or even average gamers are going to be deterred by most of the matches being populated by people using spells and abilities that they have no idea how to really use; people will surely learn, but the accessibility factor and ease of play is not on par with the Halo games, for example.
With this said, the tutorials given when you start up are relatively effective at putting you through the paces of being a Shadowrunner (if you complete all five of them), and you'll need to complete each of them (including bot matches) if you want to understand all of the controls, weapons, spells, tech, and skills. As an aside, the tutorials ? while effective ? do feel a bit thrown together, and it almost serves to underscore the strangeness of the Shadowrun license ? again, was it really needed when the game decided to be a shooter? For offline play, there are bot matches that you can set up any way you like, and it's definitely good practice to be able to pit you and a buddy against a bunch of bots.
Of course, online is where the action is and you can get going as soon as you feel ready. Going online is fairly painless in Shadowrun, but an initial omission comes in the form of no designated rank in online matches. This means that games are either public or private affairs, with no Halo 2-esque system of ranking (kind of strange since Halo 2 people helped make this game). What is a positive is the inclusion of a party system, and it helps keep friends and teammates together from room-to-room. The party may get broken up when entering a room, but eventually people will be sorted back out and put on their friends' sides. There's not much lag or delay when playing online matches, and this is to be commended, as the action is consistent. A small issue comes from long wait times to actually get into a match, but once you're there, the experience isn't hampered by network errors very often. As said earlier, the variety of matches is somewhat lacking from few maps and modes, but this is somewhat offset by the interesting magic/tech and party system. As a final note, you can play Shadowrun against Windows Vista users, but to be honest, this is a feature that not many people asked for and that doesn't really have much of an impact on most gamers. It's certainly admirable that they got it working, but does adding aim assist and slowing everything down really showcase the gamepad versus mouse and keyboard? And do people even really care at this point?
The visuals of Shadowrun are generally good, but some of the choices are a bit off. The color scheme doesn't quite work overall, as the red and blue teams have sort of a drabness to them that makes it hard to distinguish friends from foes (many online players commented on this). Just the same, some of the color and detail on the levels seems a bit bland and indistinct, but the layout of the environments themselves is quite good (and spacious, too). The magic and tech are the standout performers, as they manage to look quite impressive when triggered. It's quite entertaining to see a Tree of Life sprout right out of the ground to provide healing light, as it is to see the crystals of the ?strangle? spell block an entrance way. The interface for technology like enhanced vision or SmartLink looks futuristic, and there are some nice effects on the HUD in general (earmarking each location with a name is very creative). A bit of downer comes from the animations, and you'll notice some wacky sliding, missing movements or jittery transitions. That said, the game has a stable framerate, and none of the tech or magic really bog things down.
The audio is fairly average, and you'll have the basic tutorial voice and arena announcer filling most of the airtime. They effectively tell you what's going on and engage much in the same way of something like Halo's announcer, but nothing is too interesting in this regard. There's some subtle ambiance in the menus, but nothing more than looping sounds and voices to fill the void. The effects within the game satisfy adequately, with guns having the right pops and cracks, and the slash of the katana cutting into foes. The magic and tech sounds good when activated, and it's helpful that each item has a distinct sound when used. It's too bad there's no real voice quips or character for the races, as they all just kind of lumber around and sound pretty much the same. Some sound design more focused on the races would've been sort of interesting, as it could be neat to have each class kind of chime in after a kill ? maybe something akin to what Gears of War did with its multiplayer characters.
So with average presentation and audio and some omitted features, Shadowrun is left looking a bit awkward and not altogether whole. The gameplay is fun in doses, and the magic and tech provides a new twist on round-based shooters; most other games would innovate within the classes or weaponry. The fact that matches play smoothly online and you can buddy with your friends is great, but you have to wonder whether these perks will be halted by the purchase price and lack of game modes and customization.
Does all this mean Shadowrun is not worth your time? Of course not. The game has creative elements that play into the Counterstrike or hardcore console-shooter crowd, and it works as a solid round-based shooter with some class and ability originality. Then again, contrary to how the developers may feel, it is fair for gamers of a more casual persuasion to ask whether a $60 game is worth their investment, especially when this game seems tailored to the hardcore. As said before, a multiplayer only experience is not without precedent, but when you're not offering a plentiful selection of maps or modes and no customization it is going to be hard to convince someone to really make a commitment to a game like this. People like having a fun, robust online experience with their friends and being able to shape their experience more than Shadowrun allows. On top of that, casual players are likely to be scared off by the talent of the online competition and the wait time for getting into games. Unfortunately, someone priced the game at $60; whether it was the developer or Microsoft is moot, as the customer is dinged in the end for a game that costs less on the PC with no distinguishable differences. Cross-platform play is something not many people asked for, and it honestly adds nothing to the experience other than a bullet point on a box.
At the end of the day, Shadowrun is meant for the dedicated shooter fans on the Xbox 360, and for those people the experience will satisfy. The magic and tech is unique, and the races within the game have some variance. But for average or casual action fans, it's hard to recommend Shadowrun wholeheartedly with no solo game, a higher price than the PC, and a lack of modes and customization.