Shadowrun Returns

A note: this review covers the Dead Man’s Switch campaign as well as Dragonfall as it originally existed, as DLC, before the release of the Dragonfall Director’s Cut.

Shadowrun is a ridiculous setting. The internet was replaced with the matrix, and people voluntarily switched to a system where software can murder them? A dragon becomes the president of the “United Canadian and American States”, but AI is scoffed at? Magic and ghosts are real, as is Literally Satan The Devil? It may even be sillier than Warhammer 40K, set in the year forty thousand AD, where patriarchal jingoist semper fi dudes cut each other up with chainsaws.

Plenty of fun to be had with the stupid and the ridiculous, though. I got interested in Shadowrun Returns not at the time of the kickstarter, but when alpha footage appeared of a pretty-looking Fallout-like. And I’m mostly content with the game they made. It’s solid. If I were to boil my many reservations down to one, I’m disappointed that it doesn’t make ol’ 1997 Fallout obsolete with this new open, customizable turn-based squad-combat flat-map isometric toolset. The default skill balance is certainly better than Fallout’s redundancies and overpowered abilities, but that’s where these old-fashioned pen and paper guys always do their best work. But more than a great and balanced campaign, I wanted things to work flawlessly at the core, technical level. That would’ve been something to last. I might have wanted to create something in the toolset myself.

Fallout’s accomplishments in open, free-roaming gameplay aren’t threatened by anything the two paid campaigns–Dead Man’s Switch and Dragonfall–have on offer. No world map. No freedom to pull out guns whenever you like. If they weren’t in the campaigns, I doubt the development tools provide a simple way to include them. It also lacked Fallout’s targeted shots and satisfying death animations, which were never essential, but would’ve been appreciated.

There were technical problems with the controls and interface: sometimes my escape key would fail to open my menu. Occasionally it’d be impossible to run to or drop an AOE on specific tiles, or to click computer access points. When decking, nothing would happen for a few seconds, without any kind of minor loading indicator, and I would be free to hit “end turn” on my own while waiting, thinking that it was necessary, only to end up wasting my next turn. Long times in loading maps left me wondering if they might’ve been doing something really inefficiently. And since there’s no dedicated attack button or target mode, it’s easy to accidentally run up next to an enemy instead of shooting him–particularly with that finicky tile targeting. The understanding of cover and line-of-sight were also a little awkward sometimes, and I’d waste actions trying to line up a shot or heal spell. Maybe if I could toggle a key to see shadows cast from a specific tile, and the viable targets lit up. This list of flaws is getting a bit lengthy, and I think it all amounts to not enough time or too few minds allocated to engine work.

To be fair, there are some great things on offer too: the aforementioned art and appearance of the game, for one. While those load screens are long, they put some pretty solid prose on them, as well as in the descriptions of places and characters. The soundtrack is sometimes pretty ballin’.

The combat is well designed, being based on cooldowns and tactics instead of long-term ammo-scrimping. There are a lot of neat skill trees for guns, magic, robotics and other disciplines; more than I got the chance to investigate. The cover system and overwatch functions, while being liberally borrowed from the new XCOM, made tactical positioning much more meaningful, and the game was definitely better off for having them. I think a few things that were RNG-based should not have been–namely summoned creatures, who should probably have had an expiration date from the outset–say, five turns and then they explode or turn on you depending on other conditions, like how far away they are or how much health they have–instead of a standard risk of going berserk each turn.

There were a lot of interesting choices specific to the campaigns–I’ll go over the good and bad of each of those.

Dead Man’s Switch
When I talk about DMS, I’m talking about what it looks like at the time of the Dragonfall DLC, when I played both. I’ve read that when DMS first came out, it didn’t even allow the player to create their own save files–it was autosaves or nothing. I respect that they went back and did the work to include a sensible saving system. In fact, it was something I was specifically holding out for before buying.

I probably would’ve enjoyed the story more if I picked up on the many larger Shadowrun world references. It occurred to me when the Jake Armitage character kept showing up and getting the focus–without actually joining my party or having much of a stake in current events–that it was a sign of a celebrity cameo. A google search confirmed that he was the protagonist in an SNES game. Even that track from the OST I linked was referencing the older game, as it turns out. In any case, I still got loads out of it.

I enjoyed jacking on to the matrix–or whatever Shadowrun calls it–given the very distinct mechanics and Tron-style that are only in play when you’re in there. (Tough luck for non-hacker builds, though.) I would’ve liked it more if you could free-roam the matrix outside of combat and talk to other internet users, but that limitation is, at this point in the review, probably not sounding like much of a surprise.

The campaign was basically a 12 to 15-hour linear sequence of maps that I was automatically moved between, and the quests didn’t show any more breadth. One sidequest early on helped me realize what I was dealing with: I had a bag of gems to sell, and found out that all my choices had the same outcome: I couldn’t sneak off with the magic gem or find any greater purpose for it, and I couldn’t hang onto the gems for later and sell them when I could pass higher charisma checks for more money, since I was moving on the campaign’s terms: if they were still in my inventory when I left the map, they’d be nothing more than a paperweight.

Later on, I met some killer I’d been tracking down, and while he was still outside of combat, on the other side of a pane of glass, I was given three dialogue options that all involved revealing my cards too early and telling this killer that I was after him–the sort of ham-handery that allows a bad guy to temporarily retreat so I’d have to jump through some extra hoops.

I was also sent on a “stealth mission” once, and as I asked myself whether the engine even had any of the bits necessary for sight and noise detection, the campaign’s story answered the question for me by having the mission not go as planned from the first room; stealth was never going to be a real choice. I felt it was a shame that almost every mission had to be a firefight, but I wasn’t too broken up about the stealth fakeout: I don’t even think stealth is a good fit for Fallout, at least not when you’re passing a roll every time you walk past somebody. On the other hand, if stealth had meant equipping a suppressor to my pistol and manually entering combat to take a guy out before he ever saw me, that’d be another story. But Fallout didn’t really operate that way, and SRR certainly doesn’t.

One advantage of the tight reins was that I was always kept wanting for more money, which is generally a good thing. And I liked the idea that there were these recurring costs in hiring NPC allies in each mission, although the costs were too high: it mostly just encouraged me to play with a party of two or three at most. Characters like Coyote will work pro-bono when the quest is as important to them as it is to you, but they otherwise require payment like anybody else, which I’m more comfortable with, narratively speaking, than I am with the path of least resistance and indentured servitude.

I had read that Dragonfall was about the same length as DMS, but I think I put about double the time into it. The paid-expansion campaign is definitely a step up from the first one, even when not having played DMS until after its post-Dragonfall patches. But I’m not handing out any “Most Improved” awards: the quests are better designed, but most of the core problems are still there, clear as ever. Also, having some legit sidequests and a respectably-sized hub to keep tabs on ultimately didn’t open the game up as meaningfully as I would have liked.

I can’t complain with the length of the game–within the existing campaign structure, I don’t think I would’ve wanted it getting any longer–but if there had been time and money for more reactivity, it would’ve been nice to visit places whenever I wanted, even before quests had sent me to them. For example, it sucked when I failed to read a terminal before leaving a map, and couldn’t return to it later, but it sure must’ve simplified the internal quest logic.

I found the party members easily engaging, but I was turned off a little by the classic “butt your nose into everyone’s business until they like you” NPC exposition-and-bonding strategy whenever I got back to base. The writing was otherwise very likeable–I made sure to visit all the characters of the hub whenever I got back from a mission to see if they had anything new to say. The tediousness of this varies from game to game, depending on how much the story has gotten its hooks into me, but I was willing in Dragonfall. I only found it tedious when the NPCs didn’t actually have anything new for me.

I also thought the story had a great hook early on: that a true RPG protagonist, the sort of busybody who gets their finger in every pie from merchant protection to homeless shelters to sewer maintenance, has died. The player isn’t that protagonist–the player must control the damage.

The system of how allies are handled is one of the bigger things to get a meaningful reworking in the Dragonfall campaign. They still have the hireable non-story characters, but you’ll probably never enlist them, because your storied cast is already paid for, taking a small cut of the reward money from employers at the end of a mission. They then refresh their own stock of grenades and such automatically between missions, and taking that out of the player’s hands brings more than one advantage.

For one thing, I think it’s narratively easier to swallow when the main character isn’t the only one who accumulates. Whose purchases are used to save the world. There’s no such thing as greed in the context of the player’s actions in most RPGs: at worst, the player can be accused of over-preparedness in world-saving, perhaps at the cost of an NPC’s livelihood. I think it can be agreed that such a thing is not quite as bad as greed.

It also encourages the regular use of consumable items, since a follower’s inventory is just going to get replaced by the next mission anyway. The very low carry limit also helps with this, once you grow used to it. Sub-limitations might’ve been even better: with a cap of, let’s say, 3 healing items, 3 grenades/summon tokens, 3 stims, and an inventory max of 9, I might’ve brought and used stims more. But I also think this balance is something tied strongly to the mission structure–if I could free-roam and get into random fights all over a Berlin “world map”, I’d have to be able to carry a lot more.

I’d have appreciated the ability to “loan out” better items to followers, if you happened to have a spare pistol or whatever that was better than the one they’d bought for themselves, as long as you could get loaned items back when their inventories refreshed at the end of a mission. Since you don’t really get enough skill points to spec into too many disciplines, you’ll probably only look at one gun type, so if you’re doing rifles, any SMGs, pistols, and shotguns you might find will go to waste. If you could loan guns out, this would have helped to satisfyingly put found items to use.

Allies only show up to missions as scheduled, rather than staying a constant step behind you as you browse the markets or whatever. I like this a lot better, too. I’m more narratively comfortable with NPCs that only agree to help out with the specific goals that align with their own, at times and places that work for them, and it’s something that very few developers think about or are able to incorporate.

Missions were better than the DMS campaign when it came to non-violent options. A handful of them weren’t pure firefights. In one particularly good two-part mission, I had to hack some computers in one building before taking advantage of the hack in another part of town, and I’d tripped a matrix alarm without ever bringing the rest of my crew into the building. My character’s physical body came under fire just one turn before I’d disconnected from the matrix–I managed to sprint out alone, wounded, with a half-dozen guys hot on my tail, and no save-scumming, which was probably my most memorable moment with the game. The second part of that mission also reintroduced “stealth”, although this time the campaign kept the engine from having to do anything dodgy by just having me refrain from opening any doors into rooms with guards in them until I’d found some disguises to put on. Even though I liked the combat enough, I felt that passing charisma checks to bullshit my way past a few floors of guards was more satisfying than the fighting would’ve been.

The “etiquette” system, for eking out advantages with certain factions by talking like a guard with the “Security” etiquette and so on, was neat, but unbalanced. My assessment was that Corporate and Security etiquettes were meant to frequently provide slight advantages, whereas the others, like Socialite, were meant to be rarely applicable, but dramatic if you had them when they were; much like picking safecracking instead of lockpicking in Wasteland 2. And maybe if the game had been much larger in scale, there would’ve been opportunities for big payouts that justified choosing those skills, over time. But in practice, some etiquettes were basically useless, like Shadowrunner, and others provided only a very paltry sum of cash or removed one trivial step from getting what I wanted. Meanwhile, Corporate and Security were routinely essential for getting through obstacles the clever way.

There were some interesting moral aspects that probably would’ve been better if they had been explored further, as you didn’t generally ever see consequences for your actions. The ending of the campaign had a classic last-minute decision that provided, more or less, the only semblance of reactivity in the game, much like Mass Effect 3 or Human Revolution.

I love a good decision moment, but given an advanced AI who seemed a little too limited in its thinking, and a dragon that apparently justified mass murder by valuing environmentalist policies more highly than human life–nonetheless a dragon given a sense of validity in the narrative, through the gravity of its great age and spirit (which didn’t quite convince me)–I didn’t really feel the weight of my choices this time around. There’s no verisimilitude, too many unknowable factors for me in the Shadowrun lore, so I have no big rant about what these choices mean or should mean, as I do with transhumanism in Deus Ex. For example, if you live in a world where there’s proof of heaven, is genocide not so bad, because you’re sending everybody there? What about if there are also techno-ghosts and reincarnations? Hell, I don’t know. Flip a coin.

The reviewer finds this game hard to get excited about, but still has a positive opinion of it. It may be somewhat fun, having good features or ideas counterbalanced by a few boring parts, bad design or other fundamentally irritating qualities that can’t easily be overlooked. Alternatively, it could be pleasant, but with nothing new to offer. Worth a little money if you’ve got the time for it.

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