Orks, Shamans, Assault Rifles and Seattle: Shadowrun Returns [UPDATE]

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

[UPDATE: Some fact corrections courtesy of UGEplex and a few grammar fixes. Thanks for the heads up!]

I remember Shadowrun from high school. A game usually mentioned in the same breath as Cyberpunk, Anarchy and The Clash. I had played a human Decker, someone skilled in hacking high end tech and using it to turn the tide of a fight. I wasn't much for brawn, but I held onto a shotgun for close encounters. Decklan Teague was the name (get it, Deck Lan) and unauthorized access was the game. I only played it briefly, maybe six sessions or so. The game left a mark though, and it's hovered in my tabletop curiosities ever since.

I'm ashamed to say that I came late to the news of Shadowrun Returns. By the time I found out, its kickstarter campaign had already wrapped up and the game was on Steam. It sat in my wishlist for what seemed like ages until my recent birthday, when some people who care about me very much (read; my wife and parents) gifted it and the Dragonfall expansion to me.

The mechanics of the game are very similar to the older Fallout games, X-COM and the like. Gameplay is managed from a  top down view and characters move along a grid. Combat is turn based and relies on AP, again like the modern X-COM. The turns play out very quickly, usually lasting between a few seconds to a minute. It does a great job keeping the action fast paced and tactically interesting.

Set in Seattle (like much of Shadowrun) you play a character in town to repay a debt to an old friend. There are plenty of things to discover and people to talk to, but the flow of the game is very linear. You move from objective to objective and are seldom free to wander the city as you please. In most games this would be a bad thing, but in Shadowrun Returns, it maintains a certain authenticity to its source materials.

Designed by the Shadowrun creator Jordan Weisman, it's no wonder so much of the tabletop game's systems and skills are present. Based on the 2nd/3rd edition tabletop game; instead of XP, encounters and missions (called runs) award players with Karma to spend honing skills. Players can play a human, ork, dwarf or elf, each with their own physical limits and benefits. The world is a mix of high fantasy and high technology. Players that decide to invest in cybernetic enhancements will lose some ability to use magic. It is, imperfect memory being what it is, almost exactly as I remember the game.

 In the interest of streamlining the gameplay, some of the more complicated mechanics have been removed. Qualities, the defining character traits both good and bad are the most notable absence. They are an understandable omission however, as their purpose in the tabletop game was to give more depth to the table experience. Fine details like being able to play an ambidextrous character, or one with a particular nasty allergy work better around the table.

The campaign plays through in about twelve hours, a robust experience by almost any standards. I'm told that Dragonfall, the first official DLC campaign, is of similar length. Despite its linear paths, the areas in the game are loaded with little secrets and goodies for attentive players. There are so many options for character advancement, and you're never locked into any class advancement tree. Depending on where you want your skills to fall, you can play a Street Samurai, Mage, Decker or anything in between.

I've been really impressed by the art on display in the game. The environments are beautifully designed, and sixth age Seattle comes alive in ways I'd only ever been able to imagine. The atmosphere in many locations conveys a perfect "world on the brink" feel that was hallmark of the original game. Characters are illustrated very nicely as well. In the absence of voice acting, the portraits still convey their personalities smoothly.

Some have bemoaned the linear storyline in Shadowrun Returns, citing a desire for a more open world experience. I feel the experience is very much like running a module in any tabletop game. Dead Man's Switch is simply the first of (hopefully) many. Dragonfall marks our second story. It's episodic content with very long, self contained episodes.

Even if Harebrained Schemes doesn't release any more campaigns, they've already given players a very robust set of tools to make their own campaigns. Additionally, Cliffhanger Productions is working on Shadowrun Online, an MMO based on the 5th edition game and set 20 years after the events of Shadowrun Returns. That's not even mentioning that it's now available for Android. The amount of work and love the teams have put into the game is immediately apparent. Wiz job, chummers.

[Editor's Note: Technical issues beyond our control kept this article from being posted within our regular schedule. We apologize for any confusion and hope this is not an issue in the future.]