Shadowrun Returns Review – Welcome to the Sprawl Chummer

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Shadowrun Returns was one of Kickstarter’s early success stories, and that’s kind of a double edged sword. On one hand, a game that captures our imagination becomes a money magnet and a free publicity machine. On the other hand, a game that captures our imagination is somehow expected to live up to the game we imagine. Given that the game’s target audience was mostly in elementary school when they played their first Shadowrun game, the scope of their imagined fully realized Shadowrun RPG was such that it could easily eclipse the sun, while on its way to blotting out all light in the universe.

This is hype aged like top shelf whiskey over the course of 2 decades, and exasperated by the fact that the game was funded by the very people wielding this star destroying hope. Nothing could possibly ever live up to this kind of expectation. No game could be rendered by human hands that could possibly do justice to the scope of the Shadowrun we imagined, yet I think Shadowrun Returns does a decent job at attempting it. It doesn’t do everything I wanted it to do, but it is altogether the best Shadowrun video game in existence.

You play as a Shadowrunner. You are essentially a hired gun who performs some kind of violence so long as you are being paid. The game plays out in two phases. There’s an investigation phase where you hit the streets, talk to people and gather intel and supplies, or hire additional Shadowrunners. Then there’s the second phase where you do the jobs you’re hired for.

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Combat is turn based, you move each of your characters and then the computer moves theirs. Characters are more or less on a grid, and if you’re not familiar with this kind of game at all, it’s akin to chess. However, this is like if chess had different kinds pieces that move and are used differently. In Shadowrun Returns, characters’ default movements and actions are less defined. Instead, you spend action points that can be used to move or attack. The more action points you have the more complex actions you can perform.

The game features a fairly robust character customization system that allows you to shape not only how your own character behaves in combat but how he deals with problems in investigation missions as well. When first starting the game, you are asked to make a character. There are certain pre-constructed archetypes you can select from, or you can wing it and just spend your points however you wish. Points can be spent on things like the use of a particular kind of weapon, how familiar you are with certain social groups, or how well you use the computer. It’s not anything you haven’t seen before if you’ve played these kinds of games in the past, but it does allow for some pretty interesting situations to pop up in game. This is because there are usually at least two solutions to any given problem, depending on the skills you have available.

One way or another, pretty much everything ends with you getting in a gun fight, but even then the scope of the battles you ultimately fight depend heavily on the skills you choose. You can also hire a team of other Shadowrunners every time you go out on a job, so it’s possible to try to avoid playing a combat role if you really want to. Completing objectives earns you more points to customize your character, and it’s entirely possibly to mix and match different skill sets or change things up a bit to accommodate a change in play style as you progress through the game.

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Shadowrun was originally conceived as a pen and paper game back in the 80’s. It’s jam-packed with all that super neon and chromed out, hard plastic future that the people living in a dystopia world run by Regan and Thatcher imagined for their grandchildren. People in Shadowrun speak in a creole of English and Japanese, sleep in coffin motels, and live or die at the whim of giant mega corporations whose power subvert nations and owe allegiance to nothing except their shareholders. Now that I think about it, Shadowrun is a pretty accurate depiction of the 21st century. It’s just more fun.

In Shadowrun Returns there are also elves, orcs, trolls, dwarfs. This is all while the world is apparently ruled by a dragon, and magic is real. Basically, the story thus far is that the future used to be a regular old cyberpunk, Neuromancer type future. This is until one day Lord of the Rings suddenly came to visit, without even bothering to call first, and decided to stay. You have these two settings, each with their own expectations that are often at odds with each other, that have to be blended very carefully. There are some pretty serious concerns about not only how you make these things fit together, but how you fit all these things into a single video game.

When you want something like this to work then you kind of need to go back to the original vision, and that’s what has happened here. The original people who dreamed up a paradoxical setting where CEO’s deal with dragons in the board room and shamans sling spells at cyborgs on rain slick streets have been reunited with their world to reintroduce Shadowrun to the gaming masses.

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What Shadowrun Returns actually is, is kind of interesting. It’s essentially a set of design tools with a game attached to it. While games have had mod tools before, with Shadowrun you are paying for a game that comes with the ability to add on user generated content to augment the experience you have with the core game. The difference here is that the mod tools and user generated content seem to have been prioritized over the game. That having been said, these are some powerful tools, and a lot of work obviously went into make sure that they were fairly easy to use. There is a lot of stuff already available from other players, but how you feel about playing though a bunch of stuff your fellow gamers made is really going to determine how you feel about the game.

The campaign that comes with Shadowrun Returns isn’t bad, but it is entirely linear and clocks in at about 10 hours. It does a good job of introducing you to the world of Shadowrun, and it is very well written with a bunch of interesting characters and locations to visit. However, it’s more of a quick and dirty primer on how Shadowrun works and the kinds of things you can do with the editor. Shadowrun Returns kind of reminds me of a core rule book for a pen and paper RPG. There are a set of rules that teach you how to play, there’s some tools for telling your own stories, and there’s a bunch of lore to help you flesh that out.

I don’t really have too much to say about the main campaign, but I did enjoy it. In fact, I played through it in one sitting. The stories I’ve played through from other players simply collectively outclass it. Anything I could tell you either positive or negative about the game that comes with Shadowrun Returns is made moot by the stuff I’ve seen other players do.

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There’s a campaign that throws H.P. Lovecraft into the genre mashing stew. There’s a cyberpunk retelling of Double Indemnity, a remake of the SNES game, a game that utilizes and refines the hacker gameplay that the main campaign barely acknowledges outside of few missions, and a story where you don’t play as a Shadowrunner but as a cop trying to catch Shadowrunners. There is even a sprawling open word campaign, and there is more stuff added every day. It just keeps coming, because it’s all integrated into Steam, it’s really easy to keep track of all the different campaigns and keep them up to date.

When Shadowrun Returns was announced I think a lot of people expected an update to the classic Shadowrun console games. What we actually got was the return to the tabletop game. It’s about telling cool interactive stories with each other. It’s fascinating because it’s something I haven’t really seen before. It’s possible to say that Shadowrun Returns is both a very short and linear game, and that it is never ending and full of possibility. Given Harebrained Schemes founder’s history with the pen and paper games, I don’t thing the way things turned out was an accident. I think the game is an elegant solution to providing each of us with the game we wanted, by giving us the tools to do it ourselves. I definitely want more of it. I’ll keep playing Shadowrun campaigns as long as people keep making them. I expect I’ll be playing for a while.