Thursday, September 24, 2015

Shadowrun Returns - 2/20 hours

The world of Shadowrun is really weird.  It's the future. Everything's all chrome and neon and high-tech computers and such. But also there are elves and trolls and magic. It's a crazy combination that probably shouldn't work, but somehow, it does. I think it's because the different fantasy races stand in well as "cool outsiders" and magic is both a chaotic force, unable to be fully controlled by conventional power structures, and a sign of unique, elite insight, and taken together, these two factors dovetail nicely with cyberpunk's world of unaccountable power enforcing a bland conformity among "valuable" people and being opposed only by "freaks" who nonetheless use the mechanisms made possible by power in a sufficiently expert way. You are simultaneously shunned by society, and yet in some ways superior to the individual cogs that make up society. If that doesn't describe an elf, I don't know what does.

Of it could just be that the original Shadowrun was a well-put-together product that inspired and attracted talented people to build up a complex and compelling world, and that if it had actually been a game about rogue accountants in modern day corporate culture with no special superpowers, it might still have been popular, had it been made with the same care and attention to detail. . .  On the other hand, in the Shadowrun universe the richest and most powerful person on the planet is the dragon who took over BMW, so it is much cooler than the real world.

However, when it comes to Shadowrun Returns, the fantastic elements of the source material are so far just window-dressing. With so much of the world-building done in extra-textual sources, I sometimes feel as if it takes the audience's familiarity with the setting for granted. Don't get me wrong, I love seeing one of my favorite tabletop games come to life. Aside from fiddling in menus, my favorite aspect of playing games is being able to enter worlds that had previously existed only in my imagination. The top-down viewpoint isn't quite as immersive as something like Skyrim, but it is nonetheless packed with detail. It's fun to recognize something you've previously seen on the page rendered in full-color.

It's just that so far, the story has been one that could have taken place in any setting that allowed for detectives with noir-ish undertones. Your old buddy, Sam Watts, has been killed, and he's offering to give you some life insurance money if you can find his killer. You take the job because you feel like you owe him for saving your life, and because you really need the money, and because if you don't care, no one else will (Sam was kind of a huge dirtbag).

Okay, fair enough, that's a pretty interesting story, but it doesn't really use the Shadowrun universe in any particular way. You talk to the kooky night coroner, and he's a dwarf. A gang leader you have to shake down turns out to be a troll. Some of the mooks shoot fireballs at you instead of using guns. It's interesting and distinctive, but for someone who knows the tabletop game, it feels like it's barely scratching the surface of the setting's potential.

However, don't take that as any sort of final condemnation or anything. I've played through this game before, so I know for a fact that it gets weirder as it goes along, delving deeper into the less conventional corners of the Shadowrun canon. It's just that I only recently played the Fallout games, and I can't help but be aware of the contrast. In Shadowrun Returns, there's not really much scope for exploring, and you absolutely cannot go off the tracks and ignore the story, and so I get frustrated knowing that it's possible for an isometric crpg to create a whole virtual world that allows players to goof around in a compelling sci-fi-fantasy setting, but that this isn't actually one of those types of games.

I understand that the Dragonfall DLC corrects this fault to a certain extent, but I haven't played it yet, and since it was released separately in a "director's cut" version, I won't be able to until I've finished 20 hours with this one. I don't mind, really. I like Shadowrun Return's turn-based tactical combat gameplay, and I have no objections to experiencing a story set in the Shadowrun universe, even if it's not exactly my story of how I explored the Shadowrun universe.

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