|Dev: Cliffhanger Productions|
|Pub: Cliffhanger Productions|
|Screen Resolution: 480p-1080p|
by Sean Engemann
With the release of Shadowrun Returns last year, the popular (and underutilized) cyberpunk franchise has finally found a bridge between the pen-and-paper format and video games. Sporting classic fantasy races like elves, dwarves and orcs, and blending magic with modern and futuristic weapons and machinery, the series has garnered support from a devout fan base. This support has come in the form of monetary donations through crowdfunding to make video game iterations a reality. Developer Harebrained Schemes brought us the aforementioned Shadowrun Returns, and now a separate developer, Cliffhanger Productions, is hard at work crafting Shadowrun Online. With Early Access recently launched through Steam, I tested the still very shallow waters of their endeavor, and left with an appetite for what's to come.
Shadowrun's fictional future sees the emergence of magic spawned from a cataclysmic event coinciding with the end of the Mayan calendar. Called the Awakening, mythical monsters now roam the earth, while many humans have been morphed into races of legend. Yet in the year 2075, cybernetics and technology are the deadliest weapon, and information the greatest treasure. Corporations rule the world, with the pursuit of power outweighing the laws of man. As a shadowrunner, your life as a mercenary is the most thrilling of all, thrusting you into the action every step of the way.
The snippet of content afforded to Early Access purchasers is a four mission prequel to the main launch campaign, called Lockdown. As a pair of freshly recruited shadowrunners, your job is to track down the kidnapped daughter of a Johnson (anonymous corporate kingpin). Your employer cares not for the motives of the kidnappers, so your only talk is through the barrel of our guns. The playable characters are preset, though each sports a unique combat preference. The beefy yet simple tongued orc is an excellent shot with his rifle, and even deadlier up close with his blade. The rearguard human (or possibly elf) wields magic from afar, but can devastate with his shotgun if cornered.
Controls are incredibly easy to pick up. You can move a certain distance and perform an action, or trade in the action to gain a little extra ground. You can swap between the two weapon sets at your leisure, and each has a trio of specific attacks, such as an area magic attack or a burst rifle shot that uses more ammo but causes critical hits. Cover is your main defense against attacks, and must never be dismissed. Though that pretty much makes up the brunt of combat, it doesn't mean the missions are an easy affair. The game plays with percentages based on distance and cover, and you'll often find yourself struggling with the choice of whether to fall back to a more defensive position, or rush to the target, exposing yourself with the hopes that your attack strikes true. Though I have no doubt medkits and healing magic will find their way into the finished copy, there are none to be found in this initial quartet of missions. The first couple of goons you go against may fall easily enough, but after half-a-dozen, you'll be tallying up your health points and wishing you'd made wiser choices at the start.
The PvP is again just a sampling, pitting your pair of PCs against their doppelgangers controlled by an opposing player. The arena is a miniscule control room, with a few workstations to offer cover. My victories came from better use of cover, and the luck of the dice for lower percentage shots.
The alpha build I played makes up only a fraction of the content that will be incrementally rolled out. Character customization will grant you a plethora of options to advance and tweak your shadowrunner. A robust gear and item selection will allow you to further tailor your character. More interactive environments and dynamic security systems will keep missions fresh, and force you to rethink your initial strategy.
Then of course there're the online features. Chat channels will open up the game socially, and guild creation will allow like minds to join together. But two of the most enticing features are the co-op campaigns and the evolving world. Shadowrun Returns has a healthy editing tool to allow users to create modules for others to enjoy, but they're still for a singular player. Shadowrun Online offers at least four players to band together through missions. This is a rare feature in the realm of turn-based tactical games, so nailing co-operative play would provide a big incentive for buffs of the genre, not to mention fans of the tabletop game seeking an online outlet for their group. The evolving world means that future quests and campaigns will be determined based on the collective actions of the community and the choices made during the adventure, allowing gamers to dictate how the series shapes itself.
The gameplay from the alpha build follows a tried-and-true formula, but one perfectly trimmed to be easy to pick up yet demanding your strategic chops to achieve victory. There's a lot of work still to be done in Shadowrun Online, and future content releases will hopefully broaden its appeal and provide fans with plenty of new adventures in the cyberpunk setting.
Date: May 8, 2014