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”’Platforms: PC (Vista Only), XBox 360”’
This is a saga of baffling decisions.
Back in 1989 FASA corporation designed a new tabletop RPG, Shadowrun, that married the trendy tech-noir of cyberpunk with the usual tropes of Dungeons and Dragons. This was something of a cult hit, and in 1993 Nintendo released an isometric action RPG based on the game. Thanks to a compelling storyline and some decent game mechanics, this in turn won cult classic status, and is still widely and fondly remembered today.
Having bought FASA Interactive in 1999, Microsoft had acquired the rights to create a new Shadowrun game, which it duly announced last year. Baffling decision one: this game isn’t a Mass Effect style RPG or even a Deus Ex style hybrid RPG/Shooter. Instead, it’s a competitive online-focused FPS that will launch not just on the Xbox 360, but on Microsoft’s new Games for Windows Live. Baffling decision two: Games for Windows Live is predicated on the bizarre idea that PC gamers who upgrade to Windows Vista will be willing to pay £40 for services they already get from third-parties for nothing, in order to play – for now – a limited number of first-party Microsoft games. Somebody inside Microsoft must think this is a good idea. Nobody outside Microsoft seems to.
The sad thing is that all the hostility this has caused has already obscured the fact that, underneath, Shadowrun is actually rather good.
Here’s the basic setup. In a couple of decade’s time, the forces of magic re-awaken. Dormant genes transform many normal humans into weird Tolkien-esque dwarves, elves and trolls. In Santos, Brazil, a huge global corporation is fighting against a small band of resistance fighters for control of a mysterious artefact. Wielding cutting-edge cyberpunk tech and sorcerous powers, the two forces battle each other throughout the skyscrapers and slums of Santos, and in the ancient ruins nearby.
In gameplay terms, this comes down to Counter-Strike meets Deus Ex meets Neverwinter Nights, the action taking the form of a series of capture the flag missions – where two teams vye for possession of the artefact – and simpler, CS-style eliminations. So far, so so. But what could be standard run-and gun gameplay is enlivened by two things. Firstly, the races; whether you play as a dwarf, elf, troll or human, each comes with specific benefits and drawbacks. Elves move faster and can heal themselves, Master-Chief style, but aren’t quite as robust as the other races. Dwarves can drain magical power – or essence – both from other characters and from location-based, passive spells. Trolls are tremendously tough, and have a cool skin-hardening armour effect, though this comes at the cost of limited movement speed. And humans? Well, humans don’t get such cool abilities, but they can use technology without affecting their magical abilities, making them a slightly more flexible choice.
In Shadowrun, such flexibility is vital, because the mix of magic and technology – with spells and equipment bought Counter-Strike style before each round – affects every single part of the game. You can see it in the way characters move. Players gliding and teleporting around the level are a common sight in matches, and a distressing one when the git you’re pursuing suddenly shifts backwards then teleports two feet behind you and blasts you with a shotgun.