So it’s taken me three games in the series to really be able to finally put my finger on what I like about the Shadowrun Returns games. It’s that they feel like good movies. If any one of these games was made into a movie, or even a graphic novel, it’d be well-received due to its combination of action, deep setting and meticulous characterization.
You know how some games make a bit of a fuss about having thirty different endings? Shadowrun Returns isn’t as concerned about the ending as it is about the journey. Sure, there are many ways to conclude the story of Shadowrun: Hong Kong, but the way events in the past come back to affect you are visible throughout the game. Here’s an example. It’s a bit of a spoiler, but bear with me. One character in the game deigns to teach you the ropes. This is entirely optional – you can just rudely rebuff the offer. But if you don’t, later on in the game, another character will gently tease you about spending all your time in the teacher’s room. It’s pure characterization, used to highlight the interplay between all three of the characters (yourself included). And good lord, does it make the game feel real and believable.
Which, I have to confess, it sort of needs. Shadowrun’s trademark dragons and elves mixed in with cyberpunk corporate shenanigans can sometimes feel a little campy and jarring, even when at other times it’s used as a very effective tool. But without the deep characters and engaging story, it’d all feel faintly ridiculous.
Hong Kong takes the three-act narrative of Dragonfall and wheels it out for another go. First, you find your feet in the alien and dangerous world of the Far East (sadly not quite as alien as it could be seeing as how much eastern culture is part of the de facto cyberpunk setting), then you’re running the shadows, working through some or all of a list of mostly unconnected side missions that make up the main portion of the game, then it’s time for the big crescendo, with plenty of supernatural as well as technological adventure. Very similar, really, to the way Berlin felt. You have a home base, and a fixer, and you spend your time doing jobs while clues regarding the main mystery are drip-fed between runs. I guess it’s one of those ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ things, and while I enjoyed the format the second time around, I hope the (inevitable) next Shadowrun Returns game dares to deviate a bit from this pattern.
Much of the core game will be immediately familiar to fans of the previous outings. We’ve all rode the ‘full and half cover, use a lot of aimed shots’ pony before. Plenty of interesting weapons and cyberware are, of course, par for the course, and there are a couple of additions in both of these areas. The big one, though, is the Matrix.
For newcomers, the Matrix is the full-immersion cyberpunk Internet of Shadowrun, where your characters dive headlong into a virtual world protected by “Ice” countermeasures, in search of valuable data and, occasionally, power over the real-world environment. In the past, this has manifested in a pretty straightforward game of combat versus the Matrix’s pixelated denizens. Now, however, it’s more of a game of cat-and-mouse. Most Matrix ‘rooms’ are guarded by Watchers, on-the-rails sentinels that can spot you and gradually raise the alert level. Once the alert level reaches a certain number, all hell breaks loose and you’re not only duking it out with aggressive programs but also with the powerful online personas of SysOps, who are no doubt annoyed at being dragged away from their MMOs to deal with larcenous rapscallions in their networks. In addition, there is a simplistic new hacking subgame when you’re trying to overcome the barrier defenses that stand before the valuable data you’re after. This hacking sub-game isn’t desperately fun, really, and probably should have been canned during development, but sneaking past the watchers, trying to approach the objective unobserved is a decent enough way of making you feel like a futuristic hacker.
None of the missions in Shadowrun: Hong Kong are as straightforward as they seem. While some don’t seem to have simple solutions, the maps themselves are pretty linear, particularly in areas where combat is expected to occur. No two missions feel alike, though, and nothing ever gets boring. Perhaps where combat shines the most is during the scenes where your decker is trying to open a door or complete some other objective, and your runners are holding off assaults by Triads or corporate enforcers, covering the hacker while they’re busying themselves in the Matrix. On medium setting, I felt that perhaps the combat was slightly easier than it was on medium setting in the previous games. That’s okay though, because while the turn-based action scenes are an important part of the gameplay, it’s really all about the story, and nobody wants to get bogged down playing the same combat over and over.
Just like the previous two games, Shadowrun: Hong Kong has stayed with me when I’m not playing it. The flawed, moody characters and the clever use of Asian magical traditions got into my head, and when it finished, I missed all of the main characters. It takes a pretty cool game to do that. For that intensity and depth to be maintained over a series of three games is pretty remarkable.