From a distance, Shadowrun seems like a total calamity. The intellectual property (IP) was ripped from its pen and paper, role-playing roots, affixed to a skeletal online arena shooter, and given the visual character of an early-90s game box. It gets worse when you consider Microsoft is using Shadowrun, a game peppered with superficial pockmarks, as a launch vehicle for its Vista-only Games for Windows Live service. The service is supposed to mimic what Xbox 360 users already enjoy on their consoles, but unfortunately GFWL in its current state is a terrifically bastardized variation of the excellent console version, something no money-savvy PC gamer should bother shelling out 50 bucks for. While you could still use the Xbox Live Silver for free, the privileges allowed under such an account level are painfully limiting. You need Gold level if you really want to play, and for that you need to spend 100 dollars on a meager gaming package and a subscription to an online service that feels more like a beta test than a full launch.
The list of complaints grows ever longer with regards to the game's presentation. In Shadowrun you'll find no persistent statistic tracking. The game automatically creates matches of players with similar TrueSkill, but you never get to see how this is actually calculated. While searching for matches you can create private parties that will join together, but there's no guarantee you'll be on the same team. What's worse, if the host of a game drops out for whatever reason, the entire match shuts down and you're forced to restart. Shadowrun could have also benefited from listing servers currently running the game. On PC users can create dedicated servers and browse lists, but on Xbox 360 it's all quick searching. Preferences for map and mode can be adjusted, but a more precise method of picking map and mode would have been appreciated.
Despite the number of gripes, the game itself it a lot of fun, thanks to some well-balanced magic and tech attacks. Nine maps and three game modes are available for play here. Following the mold of Counter-Strike, the game lets both Lineage and RNA Corp sides buy power-ups before the start of a round. In Shadowrun's case, magic spells, tech items, and weapons are available. Magic and tech stay with your character if you die during the round, but weapons need to be repurchased after every death. Your performance during each round, including kills, friendly fire infractions, resurrects, and flag (called an artifact) captures all contribute to your starting money for the next round. Should you be short a few dollars, money-laden teammates are capable of transferring money to your character from the buy menu.
Before jumping in, you'll need to specify one of four race types, each with their own advantages and associated play style. Dwarves are small in stature, as you might expect, making them more difficult to hit at close range. They can absorb Essence, this game's version of mana, from the environment to fuel magic attacks later on. Absorption occurs on teammates, enemies, and magical defenses in the game, so dwarf players need to carefully consider their position on the battlefield. Whereas other races get their Essence reserves capped when techs are equipped, such is not the case with Humans. Elves are speedy and can use Essence reserves to regenerate health when not under fire. Trolls are slower, hulking creatures whose defense actually increases as they take damage. These kinds of differences infuse gameplay with additional nuance beyond the magic and tech.
In terms of modes, Extraction plays like CTF, where each team tries to grab the same artifact and return it to a capture zone. Then there's Raid mode, where the Lineage tries to capture and secure the artifact while the RNA Corp defends. Finally, Attrition is basically a team deathmatch. There's an artifact in the stages, but possessing it only allows for you to reveal all enemy positions. Should your team survive and hold onto it as the timer runs out, the round is yours. Though these modes are welcome, we certainly could have used some more, especially some that affected the structure of strategy to a more dramatic degree.
Within any mode, the important part of the gameplay is Resurrection. When teammates die you see little icons onscreen indicating their position. Unleashing the spell brings them back to life, though they'll start bleeding out and die if you're taken down. This kind of resuscitation maneuver allows for drastic swings in gameplay momentum, giving the fighting a more dynamic aspect than we see with other shooters of this type. There's also the interesting interplay of tech and magic that reveals quite a bit of depth. Dwarves, for instance, can suck away Strangle crystals meant to block up passages or fortify an artifact's position. The Smartlink tech can be enabled with the pistol to eliminate the possibility of damaging teammates and improve accuracy, but will also emit a red laser beam from your avatar, giving away your position. Summoning a Minion requires an Essence investment, as does Resurrection, preventing you from casting the powerful spells enough times to unbalance the match. Gust can deflect grenades and knock enemies off cliffs. Smoke makes you impervious to bullets and fall damage, but drains essence while active. There are so many interrelationships between the special abilities that the first few hours or so is spent in wonder as you learn what's possible.
If you make enough money, all the tech and magic items can eventually be bought, but you'll only ever be able to slot three in quick slots. All the rest are accessible through the buy menu, but in frantic battle you'll likely be relying on whatever three you feel work best together. The grenades you get by default at a round's outset are particularly powerful, so it's generally a good idea to at least spam your reserves at a match's beginning and then slot a replacement afterwards.
Maps have been designed to accommodate such abilities, particularly the Glider and Teleport, with differing outcomes. The Maelstrom map, for instance, has an interesting look. Opaque swirls of fog break the level into several tiers, tied together with a colossal column of blue energy. While it's pleasing to the eye, the stage is too fragmented for any kind of battle flow to be established, and therefore doesn't play particularly well because everyone's purposefully or accidentally falling through floors. Then there are the good maps like Dig Site, built with sections constructed to channel player traffic and encourage large-scale conflict, given high ceilings for Gliding and Teleporting, and shortcut pathways to all the important areas. With such a limited selection of maps, it's too bad they all don't deliver the same kind of intense experience.
Since this is a cross-platform game, the shooting is wildly imprecise when compared to games like Counter-Strike. If it were a matter of pinpoint reticule positioning, the PC gamers would undoubtedly dominate. As it's set up, the Xbox 360 gamers get an abundance of aim assists and sticky targeting and the weapons aren't particularly accurate. Unless you're using a sniper rifle, it seems somewhat random if your shots hit someone in the head, arm, or miss altogether, even with Smartlink enabling reticule tracking on PC. Unlike the generally well-balanced magic and tech abilities, the inaccuracies of the weapons make this aspect of your offensive arsenal less enjoyable. Weapon controls have been diluted to the point where PC and X360 gamers are on relatively the same footing, making the whole cross-platform competition more of a non-issue.
On PC or Xbox 360, there seem to be a few connectivity problems. Searching for matches takes an unnecessarily long amount of time, and being unable to pick your team online seems ludicrous. The public match servers have so far proven to be rather inconsistent, with numerous instances of downtime since the game's launch and a noticeable amount of lag. Since there's a total lack of leaderboards or persistent statistic tracking, having a customizable set of characters would have at least helped to divert network woes. This game really needs something, anything at all, that gives players the sense that they're making progress. As it is, you'll find every server chattering with how to get all the achievements, since that's really all there is to pursue. At the moment, several servers seem obsessed with getting the secret "teabagging" achievement, resulting in random team killing for reasons we won't get into here.
While the magic and tech systems are entertaining, the weapons disappoint and, given how small the map pool is, it's unfortunate some of them are so much better than others. Still, as with any online shooter, you only need five or so good maps to keep you occupied. The only difference with Shadowrun is, while most arena shooters rely on tight corridors and strict line of sight advantages, the inaccuracy of the weapons and wide-open, Glider-accommodating stage designs means each map, while visually different, doesn't necessarily feel different when you play it. In the RNA Headquarters stages, you'll probably have to remind yourself, "oh right, this is the version without the roof."
For offline play, there isn't much here, as you might expect with an arena shooter. You can fight bots, of course, but just make sure you set them to one of the two highest difficulties. At medium and below, they have an extremely hard time figuring out how to defend a zone or pursue a flag carrier. At higher settings they seem more aware of map layout and real-time developments, and enthusiastically spam skills. Max difficulty bots kicked routinely our ass and spammed resurrect with a demoralizing frequency.
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