Friday, August 02, 2013

Stay Frosty, Chummer

All right, it's time for my discursive, rambling thoughts about Shadowrun Returns! What a fun game. It really validated my trust in the Hare-Brained team, and is probably my best experience to date with a Kickstarter investment. The game itself is fun, nicely polished, and wonderfully evocative of the old Shadowrun feel while also creating plenty of surprises. It doesn't just exist within the lore; it enrichens it, answering at least one crucial mystery in the Shadowrun universe, and polishing the setting's style for modern times.

I'd briefly touched on my initial impressions before, and for the most part they still hold, with a couple of corrections.

Loading times. These aren't nearly as bad as I'd said. I think that Steam auto-downloaded an update without me realizing it, so the next time I launched the game, it had to re-go through a "caching assets" phase. After that, though, subsequent launches are almost instantaneous. Also, individual levels can take a while, but most load in 10-20 seconds. (All of these times, of course, are based on my particular Frankensteinian hardware, and may have little or no bearing on your personal experience.)

Reactivity. Not quite as major as I'd initially thought. The game front-loads a few majorly consequential choices, but as you get further along it's increasingly focused on player reaction over player choice. It's still good, just not as strong as it first seemed.

Writing. This gets a little sloppy later on. The first half or two-thirds of the game are very polished, with impeccable form; near the end (though fortunately not in the very end-game), there are some pretty noticeable typos and grammatical failings. It's very forgivable within the context of the entire game, though.

Now, let's expand my old list with a new set of reactions. No spoilers, just yet. Oh, and in case you're curious, "Dead Man's Switch" is the name of the official campaign. For most players, this will be synonymous with Shadowrun Returns, but I've gotten in the habit of using it to describe the official mission's content in contrast with the engine as a whole.

The Awesome

Focused Missions. It's more "Mass Effect 2" than "Mass Effect 1", if that makes sense. I know that some people will treat this as a negative, preferring the more open-world, free-roaming structure of the 90s games. But, personally, I strongly preferred this approach. There's a great sense of progress, and you're pretty much always advancing the main plot.

No Grinding. Strongly connected to the previous point. In the earlier games, you would inevitably need to re-run a bunch of similar missions (Corporate Extraction, Matrix Hacking, etc.) in order to level up the nuyen and karma needed to tackle the next plot point. In Dead Man's Switch, everything is tuned very well: you'll gradually gain XP and nuyen in each story mission, giving you what you need to tackle the next step. You'll only run a single "pure" shadowrun in this game, and it's a very fine-tuned, good-looking one.

The Economy! I can't adequately express how happy I am with the balance of their in-game economy. I've gotten used to playing RPGs with utterly broken economies, where it never makes sense to buy anything, and you end the game with way too much cash. SRR makes a single simple decision that fixes most problems: you can sell back items for about 75% of their purchase price. Based on this alone, there's a strong incentive to buy mid-level upgrades, instead of hoarding for end-game gear. Also, you'll purchase almost all items and equipment, so there's no buyer's remorse over dropping cash on something good only to have an equivalent or better item drop in the next mission. (I expect that this is something user-generated campaigns will do differently, but for the official campaign, their system is fantastic.)

Story. More about this later, but I really enjoyed the plot.


Team Composition. I had a fantastic time just playing with a limited set of classes, and already found some amazing synergies between seemingly disconnected archetypes. I hadn't initially thought that I'd ever re-play Dead Man's Switch, but I increasingly feel like it would be a lot of fun to experience some of the archetypes that I never tried, like Shamans, Physical Adepts, or Riggers.

Etiquettes. I really liked this system. Many RPGs will lock certain conversation options to require a certain CHA score, or the equivalent for a game's system (Mass Effect uses Paragon/Renegade/Reputation, for example). In SRR, you OCCASIONALLY can unlock something with CHA, but more often, you'll use your CHA to select Etiquettes (1 new Etiquette for every 2 levels), and then unlock dialogue with your etiquette. So, for example, a Troll Samurai with 3 CHA might just have the Gang etiquette, while an Elf Shaman with 8 CHA could have Academic, Society, Shadowrunner, and Corporate. If you're talking with a nitro dealer, the troll might be able to convince him to provide more information via his Gang speak, while the elf wouldn't have that option available. On the other hand, there are lots more situations that the elf will be able to talk his or her way out of. I like the loose coupling between a stat and in-game performance, which gives a lot more options for how you role-play your character. (Nested criticism: in the official campaign, some of the etiquettes seem more useful than others.)

Difficulty. I completed the game on Hard mode, and found it nicely challenging without feeling frustrating. I generally ran a 3-person team, with myself (a Decker/ranged fighter), a support mage, and a street samurai. I played conservatively, cautiously advancing through areas, using Overwatch often, and keeping all my members buffed. Up until the last mission, I think I had to use Doc Wagon once. There is a major difficulty spike on the final mission, though; I got pretty far, but eventually needed to re-load an older game and put together a full 4-person team.

Length. I've seen a lot of reports that DMS is a 12-hour campaign. According to Steam, I spent 20 hours on the game, which feels about right. I'm a very analytical player, so I spent a decent amount of time figuring out my build, reading through all the dialog, doing every side-quest, and so on. As noted above, I also had to re-play much of the final mission, though I probably lost less than an hour to that. I do feel confident, though, that a re-play of the game would take less than 12 hours, since you would know where the enemies are and could blow through the dialogue quickly.


(Lack of) Documentation. The in-game help is pretty good, but glosses over the mechanics that underlie combat. Even after trawling through the wiki and other official and semi-official sources, I'm still very unclear on what seem like some pretty fundamental concepts. Like, what exactly does Armor do? I'm sure it protects you, but does it make you harder to hit, or decrease the damage you take on a hit? Is it effective against spells? Does cover work on a diagonal? How severe can the diagonal be? Does cover give a flat reduction in chance to hit, or a multiplicative reduction? I should point out that my lack-of-knowing doesn't materially hurt my ability to play and enjoy the game - it's clear that armor and cover are both good, even if the nature of their goodness remains a mystery - but the tactician in me would really like to understand how the underlying system works.

Cyberware. Maybe not "bad", but "underwhelming".  It feels very under-powered for how expensive it is. You can easily spend ¥2500 on something that only gives a +1 to Body, for example; in contrast, many Outfits give much better stats and only cost a few hundred nuyen. Add in the lost Essence from cyberware, and the fact that (unlike other items) you can't re-sell it, and I have a hard time justifying the purchase. Even though my PC was a Decker, and I'd been planning on loading him up with cyberware, I eventually decided that I got a lot more utility out of a single investment in Magic and a Heal spell than I would by loading out on Cyberware. Late in the game, I did try it out, buying a cyberleg and Wired Reflexes. Wired Reflexes was my favorite upgrade in both the SNES and Genesis games, but here, its stated benefits aren't that great, and even worse, it's very buggy. (The idea is that you can auto-dodge an attack with them; but it's a mode that needs to be activated, costing 1AP; and when it's active, you'll "dodge" friendly actions like beneficial spells cast on you. Bizarrely, you also "dodge" when you try to reload a gun, though at least you don't lose AP from this.) Anyways. Cyberware is one of the defining looks of Shadowrun, and it's a shame that the in-game offerings aren't more tempting.

Healing. Not a big deal for most runs, but there are some quirks in the system. I generally healed via the "Heal" spell. You might expect this to heal a fixed number of health points, much like a medkit. Instead, it restores ALL the health that was lost via the LAST attack on this character. So, for example, if you get shot for 5 pts of damage, and then again for 18 pts of damage, Heal will restore 18 pts. On the other hand, if you get shot for 18 and then shot again for 5, only 5 will be restored. This can make combat very frustrating when multiple enemies shoot you on the same turn. (I think I get why they set it up this way - without that limitation, you could always re-heal to full health between encounters on the same run, which would probably make it overpowered. Still, I think the mechanics could have been finessed to make it more fun while keeping the tension.) On a graver note, before the final mission (which is by FAR the most difficult in the game), you can buy spells, and drone repair kits, and even install cyberware... but NOT medkits, for some bizarre reason. That final mission is the one place where I would have loved to load up on them. The moral of the story: as soon as you gain the access to buy Level 3 medkits, buy a couple more than you think you need and keep them in your Stash, so you can access them when they matter most.

Next up, I'd like to chat a bit about my gameplay experiences. This mostly focuses on strategy and builds; it doesn't contain any plot spoilers, but if you enjoy figuring these things out yourself, you might want to skip for now.


I played as K1r10n, a male elf. He was primarily a Decker, but I knew that Decking alone wouldn't be of any use in most combat, so I also devoted a fair amount to Quickness and Ranged Combat. I decided to specialize in Assault Rifles, figuring that I'd generally hang back from the front lines and do my damage from a distance. Altogether, I eventually put more Karma into Quickness/Ranged/Rifles than I did into Intelligence/Decking. I also invested a fair amount into Charisma, reasoning (correctly) that my main character would be leading all conversations, and therefore points invested here would help unlock new dialogue options. It's pretty similar to how I tend to invest in skills like Persuade in games that support them.

I love the idea behind the Etiquette system, but for in-game purposes, it doesn't feel very balanced. For example, the "Security" etiquette shows up many times at the start of the game, and seems to give you a way to bypass some early puzzles. In contrast, something like "Academic" might only show up once or twice, late in the game, and only provide a bit of extra flavor text. I don't recall ever seeing "Gang" come up as an option at all.

One of the great design ideas behind DMS is that your PC's skills will help speed solutions to certain problems, but will never lock you out of content. So, for example, if you have a high enough Decking skill you can get a necessary plot item out of Coyote's computer within a matter of seconds. If your skill is lower, you'll instead need to go on a conversation quest, talking with other NPCs and inputting answers into the computer. This involves more running around, but also lets you learn more about Coyote, so it doesn't really feel like punishment.

When applied to Etiquettes, sometimes you get a similar easy-pass option. For example, Security checks are generally used to let you cross checkpoints more quickly; without it, you might spend an extra minute doing a mini-quest. Other times, an Etiquette can be used to expand a reward given from an NPC. Late in the game, if you turn some pay data over to a fence, he might offer you ¥1500 for it. If you have the Society etiquette, though, you might recognize the names on the list, and be able to demand ¥2000. So, there's a direct in-game benefit from having the right Etiquettes, but it doesn't confer an overwhelming advantage.

Incidentally, I think this is an area that might pose a big challenge to campaign creators. Using etiquettes is a great role-playing tool, but it's expensive and time-consuming to create enough situations where each of them will feel useful. It'll be interesting to see if people go to great efforts to incorporate them, or only add a few for flavor (not worrying about balance), or just ignore them altogether.

Back to my build: like I said, I pushed most of my Karma into Quickness, Ranged Combat, Rifles, Intelligence, Decking, and Charisma. I dropped a few points into ESP Control, but didn't find it very useful; my programs tended to die very quickly, and felt very underpowered compared to my avatar. I think that if you invested more points here, they could get very powerful; but at that point you're investing a great deal of Karma into something that will only be useful a handful of times in the game. (This contrasts with raw Decking, which is also used in many terminal actions that don't involve a full-on Matrix run.)

Late in the game, as my main stats started getting very expensive to upgrade, I began investing a couple of points into Body and Dodge. I actually pretty much never died, so Body wasn't essential, but it did give some extra insurance. Much like Baldur's Gate and similar games, if one of your companions dies you have a chance to resurrect them (via a Doc Wagon pack), but if your PC dies the game instantly ends. So, it's worthwhile to err on the side of caution. Likewise, Dodge seems useful, though I still don't totally understand just how effective it is (how it stacks with cover, whether it protects against magic/AOE, etc.). Oh, and as noted above, I even put a couple of points into Magic just so I could cast Heal. I almost never needed it, but it's useful to have on hand.

Combat strategies will vary a lot depending on your team. In my case, once I got to the point where I could hire runners, I pretty much always brought along Alexander Falk, who is a fantastic support mage. I would also take along Coyote if she was available; she shows up for free on some missions, for a really cheap ¥1000 on others, and doesn't appear at all on more, so I'm not totally sure what her deal is. When she was gone, I'd pick up another Street Samurai, preferably one with a shotgun.

Incidentally, I'm not sure of this, but it looks like the game might keep track of what runners you've hired, and give you discounts if you re-hire the same ones later. When I first picked up Falk, I think he cost around ¥1000, about the same as the other Nephilim runners. Later on, his skills had improved, but he was still available for just around ¥1500, while other runners with worse skills were asking for ¥3000. I'm not sure what the mechanics around this are, but I really like the idea that runners are paying attention to how successful your runs are, and giving you a discount if they like/trust you.

Anyways. At the start of combat on a typical run, I'll first have Alexander buff us all. I generally cast Haste on K1r10n, since, as my main runner, he does more damage-per-turn than anyone else. (If I had another runner who was stronger, I'd cast it on them as well). Between the rest of this turn and the second one, Alexander will also be able to cast Armor and Aim on the two main team members. From then on, his main job is to keep up those three buffs. In between, he will either catch up to them, or buff himself, or (rarely) attack enemies with his spell.

I absolutely adore how tactical the game is. You'll generally be advancing further into the fog of war, trying to anticipate where your enemy will come from; however, sometimes you'll be ambushed from the side or behind, so it's important to watch your six as well. Many maps will include chokepoints, typically a door or a narrow corridor, and if you're able to take advantage of it, you can triumph over a much larger group of enemies. One of my favorite tactics was to use Alexander's spell to create 5 squares of fire, which can easily block off a doorway. Enemies can still walk through it, but they'll take 10 damage from each square. Meanwhile, one or both of my shooters can keep Overwatch from the other side of the entryway; if I'm lucky, anyone who crosses through will take initial damage from the fire, then trigger an auto-shot from my defenders, and die before they can even get off their first shot.

It isn't immediately obvious, but boosts in this game seem to be additive, not multiplicative. So, while a 15% boost to hit from the Aim spell might not sound like much, in practice it can take you from a 50% chance to hit up to a 65% chance, which is great. I never took any shots if I was less than 50% chance to hit. I usually tried to conserve my cooldown shots like aimed shots for situations where I needed them.

Within a given turn, I would try to plan ahead and think of where I wanted to be by the end of that turn. Depending on my position and the enemy's, I might fire off a shot and then duck into cover, or move into cover and then fire a shot. It would sometimes make sense to take a single action from one character, then switch to a second character for one action, then back to my first for a final movement. This was particularly true if, for example, I wasn't sure whether I would be able to take down a particular enemy by the end of the round or not.

Weapon-wise, I was very happy with my Rifle. The base attack has very good accuracy and damage at any range. Once my skill got high enough, Full Auto became a very viable attack, particularly at close range but even at mid-distances. All of the special attacks have good use, though... an aimed shot can let you hit something on the other side of the map at 99% accuracy, and the two-shot attack is fantastic to keep in Overwatch if you have the AP to spare at the end of your turn.

Other than that, I most dug my fellow runners' shotguns. It's more accurate at range than I would have expected, does a nice spread (with the right upgrades/special attacks, you can even get spread at close range), and packs a good punch. Pistols and SMGs are fine, but seemed lacking compared to the other two. Which is fine - they're also cheaper weapons, so it makes sense that they would carry a bit less power.

 My absolute favorite encounters were the ones where K1r10n would jack into the matrix, and then the other two runners would need to protect his meat body while he did battle against ICE and enemy Deckers in cyberspace. The first of these may have been the best - you're invading a BTL system, and combatting an enemy decker who you can actually see in meatspace at his own jack terminal. Meanwhile, he's controlling chipheads that are attacking your runners, and... well, it's all really awesome.

If and when I re-play the main campaign, I think I'd like to try a shaman. I didn't have any experience with them in this game (apart from a scripted encounter with a summoned spirit), but they seem to have some interesting mechanics. Of course, I also want to try playing as a rigger, and a physical adept, so... we'll see how it goes!

I'd ordinarily drop into Mega Spoiler territory here to discuss the plot, but I actually put a lot of that stuff on my screenshot album, so I won't repeat myself here. Check it out if you love spoilers!


After wrapping up Dead Man's Switch, I tried a couple of other user-generated campaigns (UGCs). The biggest and best-known so far is Life on a Limb, which is the first major release from the ambitious Shadowrun Identity project (a huge set of interlocking stories set in a shared universe). It's pretty impressive, and a great example of what the Shadowrun engine is technically capable of: it has a huge open area, with tons of actors, tons of interactive objects, lots of dialogue, and so on. Personally, I felt a bit overwhelmed by the whole thing. I had really loved DMS's focused drive: there was variation in how you could accomplish your goals, but you always had a clear objective in mind, and a strong sense of propulsion to your plot. In contrast, LoaL drops you in the middle of things (after an initial encounter on a bus), and it's very challenging to figure out exactly what to do next. I do think that this sort of open-world, exploration-based game could be a lot of fun, but it will take more polishing and tuning to become really fun.

The other one I've tried so far is the SNES Reboot. This is still in an early alpha state, and is appropriately flagged with warnings about its bugs. Considering how early it is, though, I was very impressed at what a good job they've done so far. I got serious nostalgia at numerous points throughout my short playtime: waking up in the morgue, scaring the attendants, letting out Dog, spotting a sniper in the grass. One interesting question that they'll need to address at some point, though, is how closely they should faithfully adhere to the original SNES mechanics, and how much they want to update/improve it for modern times. I loved the original, but it required a lot of grinding. Similarly, there's a lot of potential to update aspects in the original that were lacking, like the Matrix. Anyways! This is one of the projects I'm most excited about at the moment.

That said, there's huge potential for a large number of even better campaigns to start arriving in the next couple of months. Next to the Kickstarter story, the thing that is collecting the most interest about SRR is the powerful editor it ships with. I've played around with it a little, and am very impressed by it: I'd initially been skeptical that it would be usable without a scripting language, but in practice, their node-based system for manipulating conversations and triggers works perfectly fine, and is certainly far less error-prone than a script would be. The editor also integrates a mapping tool, which is a lot of fun to play around with: it's a bit akin to building something out of Legos, and features a truly staggering array of items to place in your game.

Like Harebrained Schemes said, the editor they've shipped is exactly the same one they used to build DMS, so literally anything that can be done in the main campaign can also be done in our own scenarios. You can hack cameras to gain line-of-sight into the fog of war. You can set up a three-way battle between mutually hostile factions. You can disguise yourself. There's rain, and cut-scenes, and puzzles, and all sorts of nifty things that you might not initially think were possible. Most amazingly of all, SRR essentially ships with the complete source code to DMS, so if you ever wonder "How did they do X in the game?" you can just load up that scene and find out for yourself. With tools like this, I'm very eager to see what a legion of passionate fans can create.

I've lurked a bit on the Shadowrun editor forums and wikis, and have been really impressed at what motivated modders have already figured out. The editor is powerful, but still seems to have some limits: for example, you can add custom portrait packs to your campaign, but there doesn't seem to be a good way to add custom 3D actor models. However, there's lots of other stuff that was thought to be impossible (in some cases because HBS said "that's impossible") that modders have recently achieved. People have figured out how to create random encounters, how to build random maps, how to make respawning enemies, how to create new weapons, how to implement a manual save system, how to import your own props and textures, and so on. I'm frankly pretty stunned.

So, there you have it! If you're at all interested in the Shadowrun setting, turn-based combat, and/or RPGs, I think Shadowrun Returns is totally worth the $20 investment. The main campaign itself is nicely tight and exciting, and for people who want to spend more time with their character, there's a growing body of user-generated modules to continue your adventures. Highly recommended.

UPDATE: Since I started writing this post, Harebrained Schemes has published an update to the game. I haven't had a chance to verify it yet, but it should address the following points of my post:
  • Wired Reflexes no longer dodges friendly effects.
  • Load times have been reduced after version updates.
  • Many typos fixed.
  • Possibly more med-kits.
Also, it sounds like guns have been rebalanced: in particular, shotguns are a lot less powerful, and SMGs more useful. I'm happy to hear about the bugfixes, and the balance changes sound reasonable.

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