Version tested: Xbox 360
My bank manager's frowning. Were I smart, I could have spun this out for two reviews and doubled my profits. Instead, I'm doing it for one for the simple fact that this dual PC/Xbox 360 release is the same. In fact, I could probably sum up the major differences in one paragraph. Let's give it a shot.
Shadowrun is based on the old-skool FASA pen-and-paper role-playing game. It's already come to ["the wonderful world of videogames" - Increasingly-Despairing-For-His-Writers-Ed] in the form of the 16-bit RPG which remains a much-loved period classic. True fans of either are going to be disappointed. This is a traditional-sized team-based Counter-Strike-derived shooter with an extremely heavy online bent and a mass of interesting twists, with the mechanics justified by the Shadowrun setting of Fantasy meets Cyberpunk. In other words, as well as shooting people with guns like you would in Counter-strike, you get to spend your ill-gotten gains on cybernetics ("tech") and magic ("magic").
(To be honest, I'm fine with the abandonment of its more straight-RPG possibilities - the magic and tech stuff is absolutely great for a more purely mechanic-based shooter, giving the designers and us lots of room to have fun. While SNES Shadowrun was a great game, personally I've never been particularly convinced by Shadowrun's worth as a setting per se, purely for 'orrible Neuromancer purist reasons. Cyberpunk and Elves is just a bloody geeky idea for a real fiction setting. And, yeah, take it to the comments thread, 'Runners. As entertaining as it often is, Shadowrun has bigger problems than not being an RPG.)
The single-player is vestigial, limited to tutorials and botmatches. The real game will take place online - there's no split-screen for either format - across the nine included maps (with three smaller versions also available). Each map has an artfact-capturing mode attached to it (either both teams going for the artifact, or one defending it), or can be turned into Attrition (basically, team deathmatch). Between rounds, players are given money depending on their and their team's performance, which they get to spend on the aforementioned special powers and weapons. Much like Counter-strike. It also shares with the Half-life Mod That Did Really Well, Y'know in having character death leading to sitting out the rest of the round, which adds tension to what you're up to.
Well... it mostly means sitting out the round. In practice, someone with the resurrect ability may get you back on your feet. And it's in this - that is, the special abilities - where Shadowrun absolutely distinguishes itself. It's essentially a brutal marriage of Counter-strike and Guild Wars (i.e. you only get to use a limited number of your powers at any time, so choosing which to apply in combos is the cornerstone of your tactical choices).
The way these abilities can link together is genuinely something, with enough quirks in each ability - and in how they interact - to get really interestingly defined roles. And all the better, as you've thought them up yourself. For example, if you purchase a Katana, as well as being a melee weapon par excellence, if you manage to strike someone unawares from the rear, you can perform a back-stab that'll cause your opponent to swiftly spurt all their insides outside. However, if you marry that to Wired reflexes, as well as a general speed boost, as long as you're not swinging it, you get to deflect a large number of bullets directly shot at you like a cinematic ninja.
While you're able to purchase any number of abilities - and they remain for the rest of the round, unlike weapons which drop to the floor when you're killed - you only have three quick-slots available. This hard-limit is where the Guild Wars-esque tactics come into play. It's not even just what you can afford in terms of cash, and have room for - you also have to worry about the magical energy it takes to power them ("Essence"). Some abilities just require you have enough in the bank, like the teleport which allows you to zip through walls, ceilings, across gaps and generally confuse the living hell out of your opponents. Others require an upkeep. So, for example, summoning a Tree of Life will grey out part of your supply which will be inaccessible until the tree disappears. Throw down enough Strangles - crystalline walls which block passageways, and are ideal for defence or just plain annoying the oppositions - and you'll find you don't have enough to do anything but keep them in existence. That equipping technology like the glider-wings or enhanced vision will also diminish your bar as long as you have them plugged in means that you have to ask serious questions of whether you can afford a certain combination in terms of energy.
Erk. I almost wrote "economics" there, which means it's time to stress that this is all much more accessible than you'd think, and actually a lot of fun. In its sense of experimentation and discovery, it distinguishes itself from other shooters, and having a plan come together and actually work is a hell of a kick. Doubly so if it involves members of your team closely working together.
There's even more than that though - you also get to choose your racial group, adding other special abilities and vulnerabilities. For example, Elves are quicker with lower health bars, but can regenerate their health if they retreat, making them ideal for more stealthy or harassing roles. Trolls are the opposite pole, slow and resilient - especially so when under sustained fire, when their skin grows protrusions. Play a Dwarf, and you get to mess with all that a little - both need Essence to use their abilities (as well as the magic), and the stunty-chaps will drain it with their very presence. Also, their small, hard skulls mean they don't automatically die with a sniper-headshot like other races. Finally, humans are humans are humans are humans (though are able to use technology without worrying about its impact on Essence).
So, this is a well-designed, well-conceived game. What stops it getting further acclaim is a couple of things.
Firstly, is its slightness. A couples of game-modes. Some maps. Offline mode lacking any real structure whatsoever. Aesthetically not exactly either the PC or the X360's finest hour. There's nothing wrong with a game choosing to specialise in either offline or online experience, of course. But if you decide to completely ignore one pole of the experience, you have to offer something generally astounding and/or groundbreaking to justify yourselves. Which is why things like Battlefield 2 get 9/10 and this doesn't.
Secondly, that FASA ended up doing the exact opposite of what I've done with the review. Rather than realising its game - really - wasn't much more than you'd expect from one of the better class of PC mods, they put it out for full-price. At a mid-price game, it'll sit a lot easier. In fact, the high starting price will almost certainly end up being counter-productive. A multiplayer-only game needs to create a large enough community to be sustainable, big enough to have a variety of skills from beginners to experts and still allow everyone to find a game quickly (random: at the moment, the quickplay option isn't exactly quick, taking a little long to find a game on any machine I've tried, though that will change once the game is actually out, we hope).
Which leaves the only question of how the whole cross-platform playing aspect of the game operates, as Shadowrun is the first game that runs on Microsoft's Games for Windows thing, allowing PC and console to go head to head for the first time since - oooh - Quake 3 on the Dreamcast? In practice, you may not even notice. Unless they identify themselves over the voice-chat, they're not singled out in any way. Only on the dedicated servers on the PC version - completely outside of the Live functionality, and running like any standard game - are you sure what you're fighting, but only because only PC owners can access it.
The precision advantage of mice is limited by the aiming reticle's accuracy varying as you spin around - meaning if you completely spin in a way that only a PC owner can, your exactness will be momentarily shot, so preventing Quake-3-esque spin-and-railgun-headshot brutality. Thankfully, since many PC games do this anyway, it doesn't feel too artificially alien. With a little autoaim, at most mid-range encounters and the importance of the magical powers, they're competing on a more even field. It's only at the closest range weapons - Katana and shotgun - are the faster turns going to give a real edge.
(Fair-minded PC gamers are able to just plug in an Xbox 360 controller. The buttons maps immediately, but the axes don't. For some reason. It may be worth doing, as it's apparently a way past a bug I hit in one of the later tutorials where my Dwarf wouldn't throw an anti-magic bomb.)
It'll be interesting to watch how this plays out. PC owners are always sensitive over anyone fiddling with their mouse sensitivity and 360 owners may actually bristle slightly that the people who are turning faster than they are paid less than them for exactly the same game. But PC owners - with the mod availability inherent in the format - will equally bristle at this price for this much game... especially since to play against Xbox 360 people you need to pay a Live-esque fee which this game simply doesn't justify. And doubly especially as it demands Vista, for no discernible reason other than... well, Microsoft have a new OS and they're like you to buy it, thankyouverymuch.
And they'd like you to buy this too.
And while I'm happy I played it, for this price, I probably wouldn't.
6 / 10