From its birth as a role playing rule-set, Shadowrun's "Cyberpunk with elves" fantasy milleu has been a fan favourite for decades. After appearing on the SNES and Genesis as two popular RPGs in the early nineties, many fans have since been dreaming of a next-gen version and were shocked by FASA Studios announcement that it was developing a first person multiplayer shooter. As the lead designer on the team was John Howard - the lead on HALO - it sort of made sense for FASA to choose such a direction for the property. What hasn't made much sense until now is their eschewing of single player to focus the game solely on team-based multiplay.
At first glance you think this may not have been a wise decision. Surely taking Counterstrike's solid foundation of round-based, team vs team combat, and building on it with health bars, cyber-enhancements and magic abilities would dilute its already tried and tested dynamic? As you climb the learning curve these reservations start to disappear. And once your gliding through cloud cover, using enhanced vision to see through walls, or teleporting to safety, you realise that these are not some sensational, gimmicky additions to enhance tag-lines or cover art; each tech-ability or spell has a role to play, and it is these very additions that transform this game into something very different, something that pushes the FPS genre into brave new territory.
For example take death. In Counterstrike death mattered. Getting killed meant sitting out the rest of the round, so combat became an intense, but often frustrating affair. Even though the same rules apply here, that frustration is eased by the use of a resurrection spell and a magic-wielding team mate can soon get you back into the action. Death still matters however, as a genius touch of balance links a revived player's fate to that of his reviver. This allows gamers to have their cake and eat it: the tense combat and the fun of continued action.
It is innovations such as this, via the application and balance of abilities, that make Shadowrun such a refreshing experience. Spells and technology, all bought at the start of each game round - along with standard weapons - all have their own Achilles Heel, so there is never any one super-combo that completely dominates. For example, using enhanced vision to see through walls, makes you visible by an equally equipped opposition. Someone turns to smoke to escape damage, use Gust to cause them even greater damage. A summoned monster giving you grief? Send in a dwarf to drain its power away.
As you can see even your choice of character plays a strategic role. As each racial type is more suited to certain abilities than others and has its own set of strengths and weaknesses, half the fun is experimenting to see what works for your avatar and play style. And tailoring your character to fulfill particular combat roles for team defence or offence, adds a great tactical element and is something any successful side needs to consider.
Another important consideration is how your character and abilities fit with the map. The maps - 12 in total from 9 base designs - offer wonderfully complex arenas of indoor and outdoor environments, and it is evident that these have been given just as much development time as the game mechanics themselves. From the stunning Malestrom, a floating magical rock temple, with slices of cloud separating it vertically into 4 areas, to Favela with its slum-inspired architecture that towers above you. These vertical spaces, exploitable by the glider and teleport technologies, all add to the tactical elements your team needs to consider.
Now that combat can take place above and below, indoors to outdoors, all in a fizz of a teleport. The fact that all this runs so smooth in intense 8 vs 8 skirmishes, is in no doubt to the graphical design which while still offering a next-gen sheen, prefers functionality over excess. Character models, while disappointingly lacking in female options, are well realised and offer distinct styles that are also reflected in their respective "home" maps. Whilst everything is not up to the Unreal 3 standard, Shadowrun is still a stunning showcase, with magical effects providing exceptional examples. It is a shame the visuals had a bit of a rocky road in their journey to final release, and it is unclear just how far the engine could have been pushed given a longer development period, but in the end the artists did a great job.
Sound too, delivers all that should be expected of a modern title. The sound designers have crafted an impressive suite of effects, from solid gunfire, to spell effects and tech-abilities all sounding as they should. Special mention should be given to the vocal ad-libs, that are shouted out from characters responding to in game events, which create the perfect atmosphere of heated warfare.
It's this balance across all its components, a balance that has obviously been honed and fine-tuned to perfection, that lifts Shadowrun above many of its peers and justifies FASA's abandonment of the single player component. They have cherry picked ideas that worked and changed what didn't all in pursuit of gameplay, and like all good game designers, let the IP become a guide not a straight-jacket. The end result is a game that moves itself into a genre all its own - Role Playing Shooter? - and will no doubt be an inspiration for many developers to follow.
Not content with trying something new in a first person shooter, this is also the first title to bravely attempt to bring the two mutually exclusive online communities of PC and 360 gamers together. The speed and precision of the keyboard/mouse control has always made it THE method for first person shooters, but with combat shifting away from a purely twitch-style focus, - though PC users can still get their fix with sniper and standard rifles - there is now common ground for the two control methods to fight over. With battle situations relayed quickly using the d-pad, and a greater overall control of abilities, the 360 controller is now more than able to give as good as it gets.
The only problem with this feature is that it is pretty much unknown when you are playing against anyone from the other platform, so critical assessments about whether one side has the advantage or not remain inconclusive, especially with mixed teams. Its absence does however allow for the control scheme to be removed as an excuse for a lack in player skill. Though it doesn't stop people trying, and an anecdote from a friend about being told that their skill was due to the fact they were on Vista - when in fact they were on a 360 - seems to me that FASA have succeeded. Though it would have been nice for some online matchmaking options to allow for such Vista vs 360 throwdowns..
After being spoiled by Halo 3 with its comprehensive online features, to have such suite of options here would have been a magical feat all of its own, considering Bungie have had 3 cracks at the whip. This is something that Microsoft really should develop into a standard to save developers from having to reinvent the wheel time after time, but i digress. What is on offer though is a competent enough party system one would expect, but the skill-based balancing algorithm often splits teams up, so finding your party spread across the two sides is common. Server selection needs improving also, as the choice to limit map or team size is not enough. Having no option to restrict servers by language or country is a poor oversight. Also the network code does seem a bit buggy with connections failing and waiting time being a tad excessive, which can be an annoyance at peak times. Apparently a patch is on the way so hopefully the most pressing issues will be fixed soon.
Where the game really falls flat is in its content. Compared to, its similarly priced peers the lack of it, especially for non-Xbox Live users, is jarring. With only bot matches available, online-only achievements and no split-screen option, this game will soon be collecting dust for even the most ardent FPS fans if it is never taken online. The cover does say "optimised for online play" but i feel that this should read "online play only" and a lower price point would have been a clearer indication of this type of game and level of content. If you are not on Live or dislike the multiplayer experience then steer clear, but for the multiplayer fan this game should provide you with enough entertainment throughout the summer to justify the purchase price, even with the limited capture-the-flag game types on offer.
Whether the addiction will continue into the autumn remains to be seen, as H3 and the potentially genre-defining Team Fortress 2 among others, will all be fighting for online domination by then. That's not to mention GTA IV, Mass Effect and BioShock all eating valuable free time. While it is a great moment to be a gamer (especially a 360 one), for Shadowrun it may well become victim to its own purity, as players drift away from the online space given what there is to chew on here. Whether FASA can build on what they have achieved so far with downloadable content remains to be seen. Even so, the quality on display should keep the game alive at least till then, and if there is any justice, its own position in competitive gaming leagues the world over should be assured.
So Shadowrun is back. It may not be what fans have wished for, but for the rest of us and the ones that have come out from their rule books to give it a chance, it is everything we could not even have imagined.
9 / 10