In this era of me-too first-person shooters that use the same weapons, the same modes and the same basic structure, Shadowrun strives to be a breath of fresh air. With its unique character classes, cool tech and game-changing magic, Shadowrun is an enjoyable game that has a lot of cool ideas. Unfortunately it's also a rather limited experience that is full of small problems that keep it from being the stellar multiplayer game that it could have been.
The problem with reviewing a game like Shadowrun is that for every step forward there seems to be an equal step back. There's no denying that the game is filled with great ideas (a few of which will hopefully be stolen from future first-person shooter games), but practically every advancement comes with some of negative design decision. This review, more so than any other I have written, is difficult to write because I want to love this game, however I just feel like there's too many missed opportunities to call this one of the best games of the year.
Loosely based on the popular pen and paper role-playing game, Shadowrun is a first-person shooter full of magic and technology. With its heavy emphasis on small scale battles, character leveling and mastery of magic/technology, Shadowrun would seem like the perfect fit for an ambitious 3D role-playing game, something of a spiritual successor to the 1994 Genesis game. But that's not what you're going to get with this newest game from FASA (the company that brought you MechWarrior and Crimson Skies); instead this battle between elves and trolls (and dwarves and humans) has been turned into a fast-paced first-person shooter. While some role-playing gamers who have been waiting for years for this game will no doubt be disappointing, I'm willing to give Shadowrun the benefit of the doubt and accept that this game works as a twitched-based first-person shooter.
Shadowrun plays more like Counter-Strike then Halo, which goes a long way to help differentiate this game from most of the other first-person shooters currently available for the Xbox 360. Each round is a battle between the two warring sides, the RNA Global (a politically correct new world order-type outfit) and the rebellious Lineage, who is described as being "a curiously resourceful terrorist group." The instruction manual gives a brief overview of both of these groups, but don't expect much of a story outside of a few sentences here and there.
You start out each round with a small amount of money and the ability to buy the weapons, magic and technology you want for that round (and hopefully the rest of the game). As the rounds progress you will be given more money to spend, which will ultimately turn you into a force to be reckoned with by the end of the game. Forget about having to find the best weapons laying around on the battlefield, Shadowrun is all about customizing your character with the abilities you feel will enhance your gaming experience.
It's the magic and technology that sets this game apart from any other first-person shooter. When you first start playing Shadowrun it's easy to be overwhelmed by all of the new things you can do, you'll see people flying around the level, teleporting through walls, and even turning into clouds of smoke. Thankfully there's a six-part training mode that explains all of the basics of playing this innovative action game. Before long you'll be casting spells, equipping technology and buying new weapons with the best of them ... and hopefully you learn soon, because not using this stuff to your advantage will be the difference between winning the game and only lasting a few minutes in each round.
The magic is definitely the start of the show, depending on what spells you buy you will be able to resurrect your fallen teammates, teleport all over the place, and even create a bunch of large spike crystals that make it extremely difficult for your enemies to get to you. There are actually some ingenious magic spells that you can buy in Shadowrun, many of which can change the way you play a first-person shooter. For example, instead of searching around for health packets, all you need to do is conjure up a Tree of Life, a large glowing tree that not only replenishes your life bar, but also gives you some much needed cover. You can also teleport through walls, the ground and even the ceiling. This is great because it will allow you to get to specific parts of the map quickly, and best of all, if you're under fire from the enemies you can warp out of the situation and live to fight another day. Another cool magic attack is the Summon spell, which will create this gigantic monster that will do whatever it can to kill your target.
While the technology in Shadowrun isn't as interesting, that doesn't mean that it's not extremely important to your survival. The most common tech comes in the way of the glider, a pair of wings that you can strap to your back to get extra lift when you jump and fly around the levels high above your enemies. Other technology includes enhanced vision (which gives you the ability to see where your enemies are, even through walls), an anti-magic generator (a device that disrupts and steals all magic in the area) and the smart link (which adds laser targeting and gives you better accuracy with your weapons). There's no question that turning into a cloud of smoke is more impressive than the smart link, but if you're going to win these rounds then you're going to need to learn how to use both tech and magic to your advantage.
Just because you can buy all of this tech and magic doesn't mean that you can equip it all at once. Shadowrun only gives you four slots to equip your magic and weapons, one of which is always reserved for your weapon. This space limit means that you're going to have to figure out the best combination of weapons, magic and technology. You are always able to go in and customize your abilities whenever you want, but this will leave you vulnerable to attack (and ultimately death). The idea is to buy your abilities and customize your character in the short time you have before every round, that way you'll never need to take a break from the action.
But as cool as the magic and technology is, the guns you play with aren't nearly as interesting. Your weapon selection is limited to not much more than a pistol, a generic SMG, two rifles, a shotgun, a powerful minigun and the rocket launcher. While these weapons are easy to use, I can't help but notice that they are the same batch of guns we've seen in every other first-person shooter for the last fifteen years. I'm not saying they had to go over the top and create amazing new futuristic weapons, but when compared to the magic and technology it's hard not to be a little disappointed in your arsenal.
Unlike Halo (and many other modern shooters) your character does not have a melee attack when holding a gun. Instead there's a melee weapon, which comes in the form of the katana. Compared to the boring guns the katana sounds like a breath of fresh air ... but sadly that's not the case. There are two problems associated with using the katana. The first problem is that when you equip the weapon your view changes from a first-person to a third-person, something that actually makes the game a little harder to play. The other problem is that it's hard to know when you've actually connected your attack. That is, you can swing and swing and swing, but there's never any indication that your attack is doing any damage. You know it's worked when your enemy dies, but before then it's hard to tell if you're doing the right thing or not.
Beyond the weapon selection is the actual game, which is a round-based event where both sides are trying to win a set amount of times (the online default seems to be set to the first team that scores six wins). Although there are technically three game modes, all of them seem to come down to one of two types. There are modes where all you're trying to do is kill as many of the other team as you can, as well as a game type that is essentially capture the flag. There is a variation on the capture the flag (depending on the level you are playing), but at the end of the day what you're doing is playing the same type of mode over and over. This is one of my biggest problems with Shadowrun, for being a multiplayer-only game you would think that FASA could have come up with a few more game types. Maybe it's unfair to compare this to Halo, but when it comes to the online modes Bungie has a good half dozen game types (if not more), not to mention a single player campaign, all for the same price.
At first the game is a whole bunch of fun, it's easy to get into Shadowrun because of its crazy magic and technology. But as you play the game you'll quickly notice that the lack of game modes really starts to wear you down. There's certainly a honeymoon period with this game, however I suspect that most gamers will grow tired of doing the same thing round after round within a few days or weeks of starting Shadowrun. That's not to say that you can't get a lot out of this experience, but don't go in expecting this new shooter to have a lot of legs.
You also shouldn't expect a lot of levels. Shadowrun only comes with nine levels ... you heard me, nine levels! While you can technically choose from twelve levels, three of them are nothing more than resized versions of previously existing maps. One could certainly argue that most gamers only like a few maps in any given first-person shooter, but none of the maps in Shadowrun are especially amazing. In fact, I didn't find any map that struck me as being something I couldn't wait to get back to. Don't get me wrong, the level designs are fine; FASA put a lot of attention into balancing out the maps so that both sides could have a fair chance, but some of the levels are just plain boring. If you take into consideration that there are only two game modes and nine maps you start to see why Shadowrun, despite having good gameplay and great ideas, is somewhat difficult to recommend for $60.
It's also worth mentioning that the graphics never really stand out as anything other than average. The game looks fine, especially when you're casting magic spells, but the look of the levels is downright boring and the character models aren't anything worth writing home about. And that's not all; the character animations are almost laughably bad. There are times in the game where FASA has decided against even animating their characters, such as when you climb (er, float) up ladders. I'm not looking for perfection here, but when you see somebody float up a ladder it makes you wonder if the game is even finished.
Beyond the magic and technology, Microsoft has been spending a lot of time talking up the fact that you can play the Xbox 360 version of Shadowrun against Vista owning PC users. In fact, FASA studio manager Mitch Gitelman goes as far as to suggest that this is the very first cross-platform game of all time. Unfortunately this is not the first cross-platform game of all time ... heck, it's not even the first cross-platform game on the Xbox 360. Perhaps Mitch has forgotten about Final Fantasy XI, the Square Enix MMO that allows you to team up your character with PlayStation 2 and PC owners. And then there's Quake III on the Dreamcast, which advertised that it would allow you to play against the PC players. Either way, the idea of playing Shadowrun against a PC owner is interesting, but I'm not sure it's one of those selling points that most people actually care about. I personally didn't see much of a difference between playing with a console owner or a PC owner; they're all random people to me.
The problem here is that I hate to say bad things about a game like Shadowrun, there are so many great ideas in this game that it pains me to have to harp on the game's poor value. If you strip away the magic and technology you would have a mediocre shooter with only a few levels and two game types, something that nobody would even think about recommending. Add in the magic and technology and you have an above average shooter that wants to be better than it actually is. If Microsoft were to give this team another couple of years to make a sequel I truly believe that Shadowrun could be on par with any of the top tier first-person shooter games on the market, but in its current state the game is not worth the full $60 asking price. There's definitely a lot to like in Shadowrun, but at the same time there's almost an equal amount of stuff to dislike. Sadly this will probably be one of those games that gets completely buried under the weight of Halo 3 and Unreal Tournament 3.
While Shadowrun is full of great ideas, the limited scope of the online mode (its only mode) brings it down. For $60 it's hard to accept only nine maps and two game modes, no matter how good they are!