Cornered. Rain pouring down my face, hair plastered to my head. Need to reload. Pinned down by gang members, one of ‘em a big troll with a mean lookin’ shotgun. The worst was the one throwing magic bolts, had a nasty grin on her like she would enjoy watching me and mine die. Slowly. I see Duncan across from me, his heavy rifle resting on the low wall in front of him. He’s a good shot, but there are too many of ‘em.
Why’d I get off that damned boat?
This is the sort of scene you’ll easily find yourself seeing again and again in Shadowrun: Hong Kong. With Harebrained Schemes at the helm once again, after the lacklustre Shadowrun Chronicles was handled by another developer, the series returns to the single player focused RPG that made it so popular when the franchise was reborn via Kickstarter.
You start by creating a character, much like with any RPG, but the focus is more on building skillsets that suit your style rather than on how your character looks. Not to say that the developer has skimped on the superficial aesthetics, as you can still choose your character’s portrait from a range of stunningly detailed, digital paintings, and then take a little more time refining basic elements such as hair style/colour and skin tone. The focus here is more on finding the ideal setup for you to play the game how you want. Much like the pen-and-paper RPG that inspired the videogames, Shadowrun: Hong Kong relies on your imagination to fill in any gaps that may be left.
Unlike most games these days that rely heavily on expensive cut-scenes and ‘cinematic’ gameplay, Shadowrun uses descriptive text to help build the atmosphere of its Cyberpunk world. Basic animation does the job of helping you see the characters’ positions within the richly detailed backgrounds (more on those shortly), but the bulk of the storytelling comes from the fantastically-written dialogue and scene-setting inner monologues. Considering the “future noir” styling of most Cyberpunk tales, this makes far more sense than throwing money at expensive CGI or overly stylised animated scenes.
Visually, Harebrained Schemes has done a stellar job of bringing the distinct Shadowrun artwork to life, while also giving it a personality that elevates it alongside that of the original pen-and-paper game. The isometric backgrounds are gorgeous – animated 2D paintings depict rundown slums, busy docksides, expensive offices and even sewer systems. The detail on them is exquisite, down to the glow of neon reflected in rain puddles and the piles of trash littering alleyways.
The 3D character models are detailed too. Each person in the world looks different, whether they’re an active character in the current mission or just an innocent bystander. That sort of work is impressive, especially given how many people litter each area – literally dozens are seen just in the first hour. Digital portraits accompany almost every talking NPC too, and they’re all incredibly varied. The detail on them evokes memories of the likes of Baldur’s Gate.
Then there’s the sound. Subtle, traditional Chinese instrumental music plays in the marketplaces and the Mahjong parlour, whilst techno booms through the speakers of the local troll-owned nightclub. The Whampoan arcade lets out a chorus of coins pumped into machines, music thumping as retro beeps ring through the din. Kindly Cheng’s Mahjong parlour is particularly detailed, as the gentle click-clack of tiles sits alongside the hushed talk and somehow manages to convey a sense of dread as you enter the crime lord’s den.
The atmosphere created through the use of sound, detailed background visuals, and descriptive text that wouldn’t be out-of-place in a William Gibson novel, is simply stunning. Hong Kong’s Cyberpunk underworld is brought to life with such great attention to detail.
The story itself begins with you being summoned back to Hong Kong by your foster-father, after receiving a cryptic message told through the animated paintings that make up the intro movie. Meeting up with your estranged foster-brother, Duncan Wu, you attempt to track down your now missing foster parent. Events transpire that force you into the criminal underworld of Shadowrunning and myriad tales of betrayal, intrigue and several murders, all of which is nothing new to the genre, but no less welcome for it.
During the opening moments, as the boat leaves you on the dock with Duncan Wu and his partner, you’re soon tasked with navigating your way out of the dock area. The controls could not be simpler, as the mouse is used for everything. The simple point and click interface sees your character move wherever you click the left mouse button, and holding the right button while moving the mouse will pan the camera (the WASD can also be used). This doesn’t change during combat either, with abilities selected by clicking (or using the numeric keys) and used by clicking again on the desired target.
Anyone familiar with XCOM or Harebrained Schemes’ previous Shadowrun games will be able to grasp the combat easily. Anyone else can benefit from a simple tutorial, but will pick it up quickly as it is just so intuitive. When combat begins, the game switches to a turn-based system, with Action Points (AP) determining how far you can move and if you can attack or use an item/ability. Tactics are key here, with cover playing a vital role in the defensive/offensive options of each character, and how much damage they might receive if fired upon themselves. Usually, each character has 2AP per turn, with movement costing 1AP and basic attacks also costing 1AP. Certain special actions, such as sprinting to distant cover or using a powerful spell, will use up both AP in a single turn but can turn the tide of a fight if used at the right time.
Battles are always tense affairs, as you’re constantly forced to reposition characters in order to escape danger or to chase the lone survivor of an ambush you masterminded. Whether played on easy or hard, Shadowrun: Hong Kong will provide enough thrills in its combat to make your palms sweaty.
Fighting isn’t always the only course of action, either. Much like the Deus Ex games, the path you choose via dialogue is just as effective as the path chosen via violence. You can talk your way out of (or into) a fight with a careful choice of words. Be warned, however, that sometimes your choice of character traits can lock out certain evasive dialogue options – this often leads to you fighting for your life. The combat can also be unforgiving, especially if you’re caught out in the open, and you’ll find that your fight for life is miserably short. This isn’t helped by ‘XCOM syndrome’, which basically means that a surefire hit (e.g. when your accuracy rating is over 90% on the selected target) can result in a miss, even when stood directly in front of an enemy, firing a shotgun blast into his face. Frustration inevitably follows.
If you do die, and you probably will at some point, the resulting menu can cause some confusion as well, due to its poor wording. ‘Restart level’ would suggest that you’d restart the particular section you were playing, especially being the top option, but the section may actually have started an hour ago and leave you wondering whether you’ve just lost a heap of progress due to a confused menu. Luckily, you may still be able to reload the last autosave, but the lesson will remain the same: save often, and always opt to load your last save instead of restarting the level – unless you made a monumental error during that last hour and you actually want to take another run at it.
With its sprawling story, not to mention the array of side missions available when Shadowrunning, Shadowrun: Hong Kong is a huge game, with mystery at the heart of everything. Its stunning visuals won’t tax your hardware too much, meaning that it can run on PCs half a decade old without much in the way of performance issues, and its open-ended gameplay means that no two playthroughs will be the same. It even comes with a (highly complex) editor, meaning that players can create and share their own stories, further lengthening the game’s lifespan and replayability.
It’s essential for fans of Shadowrun and definitely a worthy purchase for fans of RPGs in general.
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