By now, the ‘net is already saturated with the carnage strewn paper trail documenting everyone’s reaction concerning Shadowrun’s ill-fated attempt at being Microsoft’s flagship title for their Vista/Live initiative as well as acting as an action packed ambassador to a demographic more concerned with sights and sniping than with cyberpunk and sorcery. The end result wasn’t pretty.
FASA Interactive was shuttered by MS and PnP fans are now forced to wonder when another title based on more than a decade and a half of material would ever be given another chance to shine. This is a game that split a community apart between those willing to believe in a new vision of a franchise reborn and those who felt betrayed by the apparently casual dismissal and retconning of an established history behind the franchise.
We may never know why Gitelman and his crew at FASA Interactive had decided to diverge from the established history of the PnP series as well as make it a full-on FPS Team Fortress/Counterstrike clone with sorcery. It was a bizarre decision that, while producing a solid multiplayer game with fun mechanics, alienated the demographic towards which the series would have had the most success with and likely would have continued playing the game well after finishing it had it been what they would have wanted to see. KOTOR is still spoken of by players everywhere as a respected title that continues to be replayed, Mass Effect is packed with achievements and enough entertainment to do the same thing without having to ask. Shadowrun could have aspired to the same ranks.
Seeking the path of least resistance is probably what led to the decision to create this version of Shadowrun. After all, FPS and multiplayer have become the staples of any title in which you can pick up a virtual gun and go save the world from whatever villain-of-the-week it happens to be. On the surface, it seems like a good idea, but to the PnP crowd, that made as much sense as in outsourcing the next Doom to Square Enix. This also had the other problem of introducing an apple known to RPG fans to a demographic that favored oranges with bullets. To be honest, unless you happen to be a company like Bioware with established RPG cred on consoles, no one is really going to know what this new IP is aside from those that are already familiar with its history.
Banking on the hope that turning it into a shooter will miraculously bring both Windows Vista and Xbox Live players together in an orgy of multiplayer goodness that might have been aimed to gloss over this little fact, Shadowrun would be developed along these lines.
In some ways, FASA Interactive’s determination to resurrect the franchise in a new and exciting direction is as much a product of creative daring as it was a desperate need to get people in the seats for the potential that it could have sparked. Perhaps an RPG later, a few spinoffs based on materials from the Shadowrun universe, and voila…franchise reborn. If taken into that context, FASA Interactive’s course for Shadowrun in order to get bodies into the genre so as to wow them with further candy coated offerings makes sense. Unfortunately, Shadowrun’s issues would never take those players past the point of where it could have mattered.
I picked Shadowrun up for a bargain basement price since no one aside from the die hard fans of the multiplayer action were playing it anymore. When it debuted at $60, it asked a lot from players to invest in an unfamiliar, multiplayer only IP in the face of other titles such as Ubisoft’s GRAW 2 or Halo 2. At least the mechanics were unique enough to gain some interest, such as teleporting through walls or seeing your foes with a form of x-ray vision.
When the reviews came out with mediocre scores, former studio head Mitch Gitelman would respond to them and take them to task in saying that they have overshadowed innovation with their relatively low scores. Unfortunately, a plethora of titles such as Beyond Good & Evil, Psychonauts, Ico, Shadow of the Colossus, and, more recently, Portal, disagree. Critics and players often point to these titles as examples of innovative gameplay, even if the market may not vote with their dollars to support them in the same way, but his point was that the game had to be savored well past the initial introduction to see what it had to offer. It was somewhat innovative to use magic in the game along with gliders, lending a new dimension to the gameplay, but Dark Messiah had also used magic within its multiplayer, and Unreal Tournament had the Translocator. Shadowrun put both in the same game, but it’s hard to appreciate that fact when the game comes up short in most everything else.
Gitelman would go further and look to his own experience of having played the game for three years in order to demonstrate that it has legs for the price that it asks for. He might have been willing to put up with the game for three years, but to a lot of other players outside of the cloister, it simply wasn’t enough when compared to the competition. Halo 2, COD4, COD3, GRAW 2, Gears of War…many other titles sported both a story AND multiplayer with a variety of modes that kept players engaged having been developed in nearly or a little over as much time as he had been playing Shadowrun while being sold at the same price. Trumping this even further would be the Orange Box from Valve, released later that year, arguably one of the best deals in gaming to have been offered to players. Granted, even he states that he doesn’t set the price, but his defense of it as if it were the only problem that was facing the game walks on thin ice.
I know that the game is a multiplayer only title and I’ve heard the argument that it should be looked at only in those terms. Then why pretend to call it Shadowrun? Rather than go over the reasons for why it should have been on everyone’s multiplayer list, let’s take a look at why it should never have used the IP.
Deus Ex, in comparison, has a lot more in common with Shadowrun. Excising the single player means that there are no missions where you use your cybernetics to spy on the enemy or get the drop of a mechanical watchdog the size of a truck. There’s no cyberspace to jack into, no riggers to hire, no fixers to make deals with in the seedy back rooms of bars filled with the rejected dregs of polite society. There’s nothing in the game that you can really consider to be part of the PnP in this regard. Sure, there’s gunfights and katanas, and you’ve got orcs, dwarves, and elves shooting it out. But it’s hardly the shadowy world of oppressive megacorps, mysterious magic, and future dystopia that the series is at its heart.
The worst part about this is that there’s a mod called Dystopia that brings home both the combat and cyberspace elements of the genre on the Source engine. Pitting two teams against each other, with one acting as Punk Mercenaries and the other as Corporate Security, waging war in the shadows of a world inspired by Neuromancer and Blade Runner. It might not have magic going for it, but it does allow for augmentations such as implants allowing for wired reflexes, leg implants, thermal vision…fourteen toys to stick into your flesh to provide its own version of chromed magic.
Dystopia also comes packed with a great number of weapons, but it also comes included with the ability to jack in and attack the enemy by hacking systems and performing as part of a team. One person can’t simply go off alone and capture the flag, everyone has to work together to rip security apart and get the drop on the corporate drones that protect the data. And its all free as a mod for Half Life 2. That’s right…FREE. Cyberpunk fans did this one on their own.
The powers themselves, which were unique enough in an FPS to add a welcome twist to the action, allowed players to do things that would have been incredibly difficult to explain away in a follow-up RPG based on their retcon. Not only was history changed, but so was magic itself. Resurrections, a Tree of Life sprouting up healing everyone, and teleportation? None of that is in Shadowrun because they would have unbalanced the PnP and would have been hell on the rules of the world that were already established. All those key characters that died in the novels or in the PnP modules didn’t have to go out if all they needed was a res and a Tree to help them get back up.
Retconning the history of the franchise was also a low blow since it basically rewrote when certain things had happened in the past. A new corporation was created to exploit this retelling and a group of smart looking uniforms were designed around the concept in order to give it a fresh coat of paint for players to team up against. A major magical nexus was created on top of a mountain sending a shaft of blinding energy into the sky turning the Great Ghost Dance into a bout of bad weather by comparison. If this stuff was already happening as early as 2023 on the scale that this retelling of Shadowrun had wanted, a lot of things would have to be rewritten as a result.
Presentation-wise, though, I thought the game did a pretty good job with the corporate logos, the tutorial voice walking you through each lesson, and the general chaos of the action. But that’s pretty much it.
Games for Windows
MS has attacked the gaming market in their race to be No. 1 by rushing release on a poorly designed console that has created its own RROD meme and now with their “Games of Windows” initiative by banking on this game to make Vista believers out of the last holdouts on the PC. Too bad that it required you to have Vista in order to go head-to-head against 360 players and not a lot of players saw that as a compelling reason to shell out several hundred dollars just to play a game, or replace their existing fix…Halo 2, Half Life 2, F.E.A.R., Red Orchestra, Battlefield 1942…with one that offers far less.
It’s sort of telling when later titles, such as Viva Pinata or Gears of War, bear the Game for Windows initiative emblazoned on their cover but no longer require you to have Vista in order to enjoy the Live! experience with achievements.
The FPS mechanics are pretty fun and the different races add an additional layer of strategy to the gameplay coupled in with purchasable spells. It can be easy to dismiss many of these features as “cheat codes” made public, but that would be doing the actual game a disservice since that is what the game is built around on. I’m not questioning that it doesn’t have a few things going for it, only its use of Shadowrun in order to promote that vision.
However, when you take a closer look at what the game brings to the table in comparison to its peers, the story becomes a lot harder to support. Clan support was woefully lacking and leaderboards were left out along with ranked play options. A sparse number of gametypes also didn’t help. On PCs, the game would be forced to compete with classics that still get play online such as Counterstrike, Team Fortress, Battlefield, and a slew of others not to mention the countless mods that were out there which some PC players would see Shadowrun as…one expensive mod. It may have an interesting twist to the mechanics as a whole, but the light feel of the game and the high price that it asks for entry were hard to justify.
Gitelman may have a point when he generally states that reviewers may not have spent as much time with the game as he had to see the legs that he’s talking about, but it’s hard to play a game when it fails to drown out the nagging feeling in getting back to something else with your friends…or when there are free alternatives on the PC such as Dystopia.
FASA Interactive has closed but the license to build games off of Shadowrun is now held by Smith & Tinker, a company established by original FASA founder (and Shadowrun alum), Jordan Weisman. In addition to Shadowrun, Weisman’s company has also licensed the electronic rights to Crimson Skies and Mechwarrior. Although these are back in the hands of one of the original people behind the PnP studio and these titles, it still remains to be seen just what is being planned. It could still spectacularly fail, forever dooming the PnP to the tabletops from where it started. Or it could merely do…okay.
I’m not expecting it to be the ultimate incarnation of one of the longest running RPG settings out there, but I can’t help but hope for the best in its new home.