shadowrunbox.jpgThe now-defunct FASA Studios, developers of the well-received Xbox exclusives Crimson Skies and MechAssault, have tested their flair with first-person shooters in Shadowrun, a multiplayer-only title based on a pen-and-paper RPG. Now, you’d think an RPG would spawn an RPG, but misguided experimentation has resulted in something a bit freakish instead. Shadowrun, the video game, is far from terrible but should have been placed in the hands of a studio like BioWare. FASA’s version is an efficient but seriously lacking shooter that probably should have taken its inspiration from another source. And the game definitely needs more meat on its bones.

Shadowrun is an odd amalgamation, for certain. It relocates traditional RPG characters to a futuristic Brazil where corporate security guys (dressed in blue) from a conglomerate called RNA fight it out with rebels in red called The Lineage. Both sides consist of any arrangement of humans, dwarves, elves, and trolls, each with their own strengths and weaknesses. Humans have a technological advantage, dwarves can drain other players’ essence (or mana), elves are dextrous with regenerative capabilities, and trolls are essentially hard-to-kill walking tanks. Weapons, magical abilities, and technology are selected from a menu at the beginning of each match. Each selection has a set price and players earn money based on performance. Although this setup is reminiscent of Counterstrike, the combination of races, magic and tech give Shadowrun a very unique flavor.

Weapons consist of a disappointingly standard assortment of firearms from pistol to rocket launcher, plus a katana that utilizes a third-person view. Each player has a set amount of essence to be used for magic, which includes abilities such as resurrection, teleportation, and summoning a creature to fight by your side, amongst others. These can be used in any combination with tech abilities such as gliding, auto-aiming, enemy detection, magic inhibition, and a speed enhancement that also deflects incoming fire when wielding a katana. It’s an eye-opening assortment of features, for sure, but seasoned shooter fans will find all this only briefly intriguing before jumping straight to the question of balancing.

A great deal of playtesting must have been devoted to Shadowrun, because it shows. No matter what type of force you’re up against, your team can change up their strategy to turn the tide of the match (assuming that your team is truly acting as a team). Any combination of race, magic and tech can defeat any other combination. Every ability has a downside, and none has a distinct advantage over another. One magic spell called Smoke can turn you into an invincible wisp, but you can’t fire weapons and can be damaged and exposed by the wind gust spell. A tech called Enhanced Vision shows waypoints to every player within fifty meters for a few seconds. However, its use exposes you to other players with Enhanced Vision equipped whether they activate it or not. Even the auto-aim tech projects a red beam across the map, revealing your position. These are just a few examples of how Shadowrun’s unique features force players to think beyond communication and marksmanship.

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So how can a person manage all these abilities in the heat of battle? You can hotkey any combination of three purchased magic or tech to your left trigger and both bumpers. These can be switched out if desired by using a radial menu of thankfully efficient design; so slick in fact that, with practice, you can access abilities in this menu almost as quickly as the ones you’ve hotkeyed. The downside is that it’s too easy to get used to keeping certain abilities in certain slots at all times, for these may have to be changed frequently depending on the situation. It’s bad to teleport when you meant to resurrect a fallen ally.

Single-player can be entertaining to those who can live without the little touches, such as plot, dialogue, scripted sequences, and cutscenes. You see, there is absolutely no campaign mode whatsoever. Going in alone consists of the tutorial and all the botmatches you can possibly endure, and that’s it. I can only imagine the story one could squeeze out of a universe that mashes up D&D-type characters with a cyberpunk setting, and it’s a shame that seemingly no effort was made to flesh out the game with any sort of narrative. The developers apparently thought they were crafting such a breakthrough multiplayer experience that the lack of a campaign mode would have been forgiven if not ignored. This may have been the case if a ridiculous number of multiplayer maps had been included, or if 32-player epic battles were an option. Unfortunately, the entire game is the equivalent of only the multiplayer component found in most other shooters.

Furthermore, Shadowrun offers pathetic match customization: choose one of three game modes then select a player cap of 8, 12, or 16. Period. The game forces you to play ranked matches with random strangers or start a leisurely match with only bots and direct friend invites. You can’t just drop into a “player” match with adjusted rules like in most multiplayer shooters. Serious players only, please.

shadowrun-2.jpgShadowrun’s graphics may also disappoint. Although serviceable, the visuals are more akin to Halo 2 than Gears of War. Textures have little detail and the architecture is mostly flat and basic, consisting of floors, walls, ramps, and little else, but this keeps the framerate buttery smooth which is arguably more important than sharp details in multiplayer. A strange graphical gripe is that ladder-climbing animations were omitted entirely; players slide up and down ladders like posed statues. However, this is forgivable if you don’t look at it…

Those who can find the existent value in Shadowrun’s team-based multiplayer exclusivity should at least pay for a rental. Not long ago I would have even recommended a purchase, but times have changed recently. Not only has Halo 3 been released (as you may have heard in passing), thinning Shadowrun’s player base, but FASA has been dissipated and absorbed into other branches of Microsoft. This means that Shadowrun’s content deficiency will likely never be improved through future downloads.

Shadowrun should by no means remain ignored. It’s a mechanically sound thinking-man’s shooter at its core, which should account for something. But it’s only a matter of short time before the game is forgotten entirely. Very few will be playing it online come next year, so even a rental may be a ripoff if you wish to do more than battle the remarkable AI. Shadowrun is a perfect example of a game brimming with potential but will soon perish from poorly nourished development and subsequent neglect.  It deserved to have been raised with more care.