Running on Empty
When I visited the Shadowrun booth at E3 last year, the exhibition dude wouldn’t even speak to me because he was too busy playing his own game. Shadowrun, the first game to feature the ability for 360 users to play against PC users on Microsoft’s Live service, had sparked a competition between the 360 stations and the PC stations. The 360 camp, as I remember, was losing so badly that the exhibitors themselves commandeered the games they were supposed to be hyping.
[image1]Sadly, though, the Shadowrun Microsoft finally delivered is bereft of whatever addictive essence-of-crack it had at E3. The difference? At E3, the exhibitors, forgoing their jobs, were competing for something. Whether it be pride, promotion, or penis-size—the war between the 360 console users and the Windows Vista users gave a modicum of meaning to the fragging. What a shame, then, that all significance of victory was vacuumed out of the final product.
What remains is the crack without the addiction, and I don't mean that in a good way. Shadowrun’s multiplayer combat is deep, varied and balanced. Its mix of magic and machine-gun allows an incredible range of both tactics and splatter. But almost none of it seems to matter without a carrot at the end of the proverbial stick. Thin to the point of anorexia, Shadowrun is more shadow than substance, a stylish and promising combat demo that never quite matures into a full game.
Shadowrun takes its character types, style, and backstory from the tabletop game of the same name. It all takes place in a post-apocalyptic Brazil, in which the imperialist RNA Corporation and a radical group of terrorists known as The Lineage, square off for possession of ancient magic artifacts. No, the magic artifacts are not g-strings. Yes, I know that would have been a good idea, there in Brazil and all, but no, they really aren’t.
While loading screens and clever manual design suggest a deep backstory to the conflict, none of it connects with what you do in the game. There is a story, but it has as much relevance to the gameplay as the troubled biography of passion and betrayal of the Gamestop employee who sold it to you.
The main reason for this gulf is that there is no single-player story mode. In the tradition of Counter Strike and Ultimate Fighting Championship, Shadowrun is an entirely multiplayer-combat game. There are short tutorial sections and the option to play with bots—but those aren’t really modes as much as they are preparations for the online battles. You never really know whether you like the RNA or the Lineage better or whether the artifacts that you battle for are important for any reason. Without a single-player campaign -- or even the single-player frame that has been used in multiplayer-focused games like Chromehounds and Phantom Dust -- Shadowrun flirts with, and then marries, banality.
The gameplay, though, almost makes up for the tremendous lack of story. At first, combat seems like most first-person shooters: your character carries guns and grenades and kills the other team with them. But then you are introduced to magic and tech, two separate sets of skills that expand the gameplay options exponentially. In addition, the game features a third-person “katana” view, which enables some interesting melee options. And finally, four character races—human, elf, dwarf, and troll—mix up the already staggering variety of approaches to combat.
[image2]The skills are both complicated and breath-taking. Teleport, for example, allows players to teleport through walls and ceilings. The Glider tech allows players to float high above the battle. One spell, "smoke", turns you into a whiff of invulnerable gas, while another “gust,” can blow enemies off ledges. Some tech enables better gun accuracy, or allows you to see enemies through walls, and another makes you both quicker and able to block bullets with your katana. The combinations are nearly endless—you might buy the “strangle” spell that makes a trap and then use “gust” to blow enemies into it—or you might summon a giant beast into the middle of a fray and then teleport through the floor to safety.
The skills and races are somewhat entwined. A human, for example, suffers no penalty from using tech skills, while a dwarf has the most magic “essence.” A troll can take a lot of damage and can carry heavy weaponry without penalty, but is slow and lacks essence. The elf is quick, has plenty of magic essence, regenerates health, but is predictably wimpy.
Graphically, the game, like the elf, is both quick and wimpy. It performs well on both console and PC platforms, never slowing down and never lagging online. That’s the good elf. But lots of the graphics seem hodge-podge, with underwhelming environments, cheap lighting effects, and weightless characters. That’s the bad elf.
One glaring example is the fact that when players ascend ladders, they merely levitate. If the developers really didn’t want to render the graphics of hands and feet climbing a ladder, couldn’t they have thought up a “levitation” tube or something appropriately space-age? I can think of another popular sci-fi shooter that took this easy and elegant way out. A hint: it rhymes with J-Lo.
[image3]The game bears other marks of being unfinished as well. With only nine maps and only two types of multiplayer game, the multiplayer experience would be thin even for a game with a single-player mode. The two types of multiplayer matches—variations on capture-the-flag and deathmatch—are fairly pedestrian. All matches are team games, and they are played in rounds of six. This lack of options seems absurd in a multiplayer-only game.
Even worse, the servers seem spotty. While the games run fine once you’ve made your way in, you can wait for an awful long time while your console or PC searches for a game. Once, this past weekend, all the servers went down for nearly five hours rendering the game unplayable. It’s unclear whether or not crashing servers is going to be the norm or the exception, but any early hiccups warrant caution.
Once you’re in a game, though, the matches run fast and smooth. After each match, it automatically begins another one, attempting to keep players from the same team together. It doesn’t always work, but the continuity is encouraging, and you don’t have to exit to a menu after every match is over.
Another good thing about the system is the way that you are rewarded with money after every round. Between rounds, you buy new weapons, magic, or tech to add to the purchases you have already made. So while the first rounds are pea-shooter affairs, the final rounds of a match have everything from teleporting trolls to floating, rocket-launcher endowed dwarves.
But once the game is over, every player is reset. There is no very visible tracking or ranking system, no persistent character identity, and no unlockable content (besides the perfunctory achievements) to encourage more play. When you begin you have no choice whether to play for the Lineage or the RNA, and thus have no allegiance to either faction.
[image4]Not that it would make any difference, because the Lineage and the RNA are identical in everything except skin. While that makes for a good Benetton ad, it doesn’t do anything to encourage competitive spirit. All of the weapons and tech available to the Lineage are available to the RNA, so really the whole backstory devolves into merely a thin justification for making red the adversary of blue. The factions are balanced into meaningless un-identity.
The same goes for the much-touted 360 and Windows Vista cross-platform compatibility. It seems to work fine, but it doesn’t mean much more than the ability to play with friends who have one but not the other. There is no indication in the game whether you are playing against PC users or 360 users, and there is no division between PC and 360 players on teams. It’s balanced, sure, but it’s meaningless. Where is the PC versus 360 mode? Where’s the competition? The desire for victory?
Not in this game, unfortunately. Shadowrun’s impressive array of skills and magic gives standard first-person shooters a run for their money, but its lack of game modes or rewards or even a rewarding feeling slows this game to a walk.