Wot I Think: Shadowrun Chronicles – Boston Lockdown

How old will I have to be, and how much drek with a vague Gibson theme will there need to be, before cyberpunk stops being catnip to me? All being well I shall never tire of people with mohawks and cybernetic arms wandering through dark’n’neon future-cities with Tokyo overtones, but I worry I might have said similar about zombies or space marines many years ago. The going’s still good for now, and as such I was a moth to Shadowrun Chronicles’ flame.

A sort of turn-based action RPG, it’s not from the same stable as the Shadowrun Returns series of heavily-scripted singleplayer RPGs, but it does license the same, excellent what-if-elves-and-trolls-and-dwarves-did-cyberpunk setting, and the P&P ruleset which accompanies it. As such, many of the names, concepts, skills, aesthetics and even mechanics are extremely similar, and you’d certainly be forgiven for thinking Shadowrun Chronicles and Shadowrun Returns were companion products, whether or not each game’s developers are silently wishing doom and despair on the other.

Shadowrun Chronicles, formerly known as Shadowrun Online, is a poppier, simpler take on the whole thing. While there is an over-arching plot, unlike the Shadowrun Returns games it’s straightforward, plain, makes few efforts towards characterisation, and none at all towards offering player choice and consequence. The plot is just there to propel you between battles. It’s not terrible for sure, and a couple of the voice actors do a decent job, but I can’t advise that you sign up for this as a story game. Then again, there are people who think Diablo III has a good story; maybe they’ll dig this too.

Really it’s about the missions, though. These are turn-based and grid-based, not a million miles from combat in Shadowrun Returns but closer to the XCOM model. There’s a heavy emphasis on cover and flanking, on special abilities with cooldown timers or single-use gadgets, and on sporadically being swamped by enemies who pour out of a doorway when you walk over an invisible trigger. In essence, it’s a good time. It’s quick, you get to fight a lot of people (and magic mutant dogs), the Shadowrun archetypes – spirit summoning, hacking, spells, guns, melee – offer decent visual variety even if most every power has been homogenised to ‘do some damage’, and despite clearly being made on a limited budget it manages to go town on its environments.

Despite all of that, Chronicles is fundamentally repetitive and naggingly hollow. Do mission, return to the tiny section of future-Boston which acts as your base, talk to same man to get a reward and a new mission brief, maybe do some shopping from a very limited selection of guns and armour, repeat. There’s a distinct lack of a higher purpose: you push on with the vague aim of upgrading your character, but there’s no meaningful sense of growth and minimal sense that it’s heading somewhere worthwhile. Thus, the key to enjoying Shadowrun Chronicles is, well, enjoying it. As in, derive satisfaction enough from simply playing the missions rather than hungering for an ultimate outcome or a major prize at the end of each.

That shouldn’t be a big ask, but in this age of unlocks and OTT cutscenes, it is. The missions aren’t individually memorable, and are particularly unimaginative about how to present a stiffer challenge: sometimes a script will swarm more enemies than you possibly protect all your flanks against, which did mean I had to repeat some missions a couple of times, but it never musters the dread of XCOM or demands the same degree of risk-taking. The base, meanwhile, is just a menu screen with set-dressing: having to walk between vendors just feels like a waste of time. But I did keep going back, even past the point where I felt guilty about how I was spending my time. I think that’s a recommendation?

Most importantly, you can make ghost bears take cover:

I should belatedly mention that you can tackle Chronicles as a solo game, with your DIY character aided by 1-3 pre-fab buddies who you have direct control of but aren’t persistent between missions, or as co-op with friends or randos, or as a bit of each. There’s more scope for chaos and comedy, not to mention battlefield mastery, with co-op, but personally I prefer singleplayer as I get to play as the whole squad rather than one individual who doesn’t get to do all that much per turn. Chronicles is clearly setup to be a baby MMO, though – public chat is omni-present and your inventory fills with slew of items inappropriate for your character but great for ad-hoc trading.

Unfortunately, even played as an exclusively singleplayer player game, Chronicles is affected by its online nature. My characters have occasionally been tardy to respond to orders as, presumably, some distant server struggles with the load, and sometimes I’ve struggled to click on an NPC shopkeeper because there’s a small horde of other players in the way. There’s no offline functionality, which is perhaps fair enough for a game once known as Shadowrun Online, but it badly feels like the option should be there for those who want it.

The community seems small but generally amiable, in my experience. There’s lots of chatter offering up spaces or help for tougher missions, though equally I’ve seen gentle smackdowns of people repeatedly asking for items on public chat. Grud only knows how it’ll play out in the long term, as I have serious misgivings about Chronicles’ longevity, but if you dive in right now you’ll find apparently good-natured playmates easily enough.

What is, frankly, a slightly barebones game is lifted higher than it perhaps deserves to be partly because of the theme – it’s hard not to get a kick out having a cyborg troll summon a spectral bear to attack a mad, shotgun-wielding dwarf – and partly because of its character designer. It’s a slimmed-down take on City of Heroes’ wondrous avatar creation tool, with a less manic dose of Saints Row’s anything-goes ethos. I was pretty happy with making my katana-wielding Ork into a Commissioner Gordon-alike, and even happier when I decided to add denim hotpants into the mix.

You find bonus clothing items hidden around the missions too. While you’ll end up with a few too many repeat items, the temptation to try out new stuff as it arrives is irresistible. And there are no rules whatsoever about who can wear what:

Add in a freeform skills upgrade system (again very similar to Shadowrun Returns) which means your character can be all bruiser, part hacker, a mage/machinegun mashup or whatever mix you decide to put your points into, and you’re looking at a game which just about keeps its head above mediocrity. It’s a shame the same anything-goes mindset doesn’t apply to the mission structure and the story, because the dryness, repetition and general rudimentary air is what will ultimately keep me from coming back for more, but if you want a few hours of XCOM-lite with cyberpunk trimmings and the option for co-op, you could do a lot worse than Shadowrun Chronicles.

Shadowrun Chronicles – Boston Lockdown is out now.

32 Comments

  1. Darkheart says:

    I intended to get this game at some point (probably a sale) for solo playing. Does the online nature mean it can’t be played anymore once they turn off the servers? And let’s be honest: 99% of all MMOs go the way of the dodo sooner than later.

    • Pkloop says:

      ” Does the online nature mean it can’t be played anymore once they turn off the servers?”

      The Devs have said on Steam that the game requires the servers to run so to me that would be a yes. No servers no game.

      • aratuk says:

        If that’s true, I imagine it might have something to do with their license for the IP, which is to create an online game (right?).

        It sounds like the product they’ve actually come up with is somewhat less a solely “online” experience than their original title (and maybe the terms of their license) indicated. It’s even possible that Chronicles might be construed as competitive with Shadowrun Returns, which could, depending on whether anything about Harebrained Schemes’ single player license is meant to be exclusive to them, introduce the possibility of lawyerly-type drama.

        So as a hedge against that, why look! It’s *so* online, that you have to be online to even play it.

  2. loquee says:

    As one of the Devs I’m pretty happy to see us reviewed by RPS and also a bit relieved that, even with the single player focus you seemed to enjoy large parts of the game, I just wanted to add to the Henchman statement, that only a basic set of them are predefined.
    Most of them are the characters of other players, your friends in the game and some random ones.
    The random ones change on a regular basis.

    The server performance is still being improved as I write this with our restless devs doing everything possible to make the slight delay that occurs at peak times go away completely!

    We’re also already looking forward to bring more content and features like PvP and other interesting suggestions from the community and stuff we just couldn´t safely implement for release, but I guess that is the nature of every online game, even the small ones.

    Make sure to check out the second video on the steam page as well, it shows some of us devs playing a run that almost went south and guess whose fault that was ;)

    Thanks to all the KS backers and Early Access players who made this game possible and who helped us shape the game to what it is now! You rock!!

    • Failmore says:

      “enjoy large parts of the game”? It seemed to me like he didn’t particularly like anything other customization…

      • Pkloop says:

        Yup..this wasnt exactly a recommendation. It seems he was trying to politely say he didn’t care for the game.

      • Failmore says:

        other than customization*

        goddamn RPS, where’s the edit button? >:C

      • Reefpirate says:

        It all sounded generally positive to me, what with the ‘keeping its head above mediocrity’ line.

        • Steve Catens says:

          “Chronicles is fundamentally repetitive and naggingly hollow.”

          That’s kind of tough to put a positive spin on. But yes, it is a nuanced review, and there are good points to take away from it if lines like that don’t stop you.

      • loquee says:

        Well English is not my native language and I’m biased by some pretty awesome moments I had with this game myself lately (Dragonfall is one of my favourite games, along with divinity: Original Sin and other brilliant KS games, can´t wait for Hong Kong personally) and of course the rose tinted mirror shades of somebody who witnessed the bumpy ride of this project that had its fair share of difficulties.
        But we are pretty proud of what we achieved (Keep in mind how much 500k $ – fees, taxes and backer merch costs actually means with middle European salaries) and also excited about the things that we plan for the next updates.

        I do agree with most of the not so positive things and one of the things we will tackle with features asap is bringing more variety into missions. However I think it gets much much better in the second half of the campaign, there are some pretty fresh things going on if you can get past the increasingly difficult mid game missions (yes it is a hard game and we kept it that way despite many complaints)

        I’d like to cheat a bit here and summarize what I read from the review with RPS’ own twitter message about the article:
        ‘Shadowrun Chronicles is a rudimentary but decent cyberpunk XCOM with ace character creation’ pic.twitter.com/Z7horujjIa

        • Failmore says:

          The problem with “we will fix that later” is that we reply with “we will check that later, then”. Except, we all have huge backlogs already, and probably will just forget about it.

  3. Pkloop says:

    Little to no story/campaign, very light/weak adaptation of SR ruleset/SR in name only, persistent online connection required for single player. No thanks.
    Thank god for SR Returns/Dragonfall and the upcoming Hong Kong!! The former being most excellent games, and if the trend continues the latter being even better. Chronicles is a pass..

  4. kud13 says:

    I adore all things “shadowrun”

    I dread all things “online”

    Halp?

    • Steve Catens says:

      I’ll presume you’ve played the excellent Dragonfall Director’s Cut then, which is what anyone interested in a single player Shadowrun RPG experience should start with. And then maybe if you’re desperate for more, and decide you’d like less control over your tactical battles by introducing other players into the mix, give this a try?

      • kud13 says:

        I was a Day1 backer for SR, and now waiting for Hong Kong. Yes, I’ve played Dragonfall DC, :)

  5. melancholicthug says:

    Once upon a time i thought “elves and dwarves in a cyberpunk setting? That’s literally the stupidest idea i ever heard!”. I got SR in a bundle and decided to give it a spin. Now i see the error of my ways. Dragonfall is one of the best RPGs i ever played (started with Fallout and BG back in the day).

    • Steve Catens says:

      I agree. It’s tragic that SR development suffered from the incremental nature of its releases. I think that if the eventual game that is the Dragonfall Director’s Cut was the game that was able to be initially released under the Shadowrun Returns banner, more people would be talking about it as a classic RPG experience. Unfortunately too many people experienced the game in inferior versions. It’s difficult to explain that Dragonfall DC is the superior version of the original Dragonfall expansion with just enough new content and polish to flip the tilt switch from good to great, which is in turn a superior game to the original Shadowrun Returns Dead Mans Switch release. Just the nature of indie game development now I suppose.

      And now there’s another similar game out from an entirely different developer. I never would have thought too many Shadowrun games could be a bad thing, but I worry about potential players being hopelessly confused by the situation, and a real gem being lost in the shuffle.

      • loquee says:

        Think of it that way:
        What if this branch also improves over time, maybe not as extremely impressive as SRR > Dragonfall, but still …
        We’d love to be able to harness the huge potential the Shadowrun Universe presents to a multi player gaming environment. But it is also always a matter of scope.

        We decided to do what we put into the game well instead of trying to do it all and probably fail with that.

        However, what we launched with is apparently already a good start.
        We faced a lot of criticism during early access, especially from some backers and we listened and did our best.
        The results can be measured in the steam reviews. Basically 3/4 like it and that is with a lot of early early access luggage and also some downvotes for our launch server struggles (which are totally legit, this sucks pretty hard, but the latest patch hopefully resolved that once and for all)

        • shotgunwizard says:

          You guys got me. I was skeptical in alpha (I did not back) but I’m pleased with what you released. Nobody is doing this, I want more! I will gladly support your expansions, keep up the good work =)

        • Steve Catens says:

          I would never begrudge anyone for making a Shadowrun Game! And by the way, congratulations. Getting any game made in an accomplishment. I look forward to seeing how the game might evolve over time.

          I still wish there was a bit more of a clear separation between the two product lines, out of fairness to both you and Harebrained Schemes.

          • Steve Catens says:

            “Getting any game made *IS* an accomplishment ” Typo. Bad typist. No edit function. Apologies.

  6. shotgunwizard says:

    I bought the game yesterday, I’ve been following it for a while. I’m so pleased that Cliffhanger switched courses, and changed from F2P to pay for content. The review is quite accurate, but all I’ve wanted for a while is co-op X-Com, and Cliffhanger has delivered. Even something that’s alright singleplayer can be a blast with another person. Now I just need overwatch.

    • malkav11 says:

      They always (or at least, by the end of the KS, but I think always) had a pay for content model available. It was just originally intended to also support people who’d prefer to go F2P. If there’s no F2P stuff at all in the release game, though, hey, no complaints here.

  7. malkav11 says:

    I believe Harebrained Schemes and Cliffhanger have been very supportive of one another, actually, far from doom-wishing. As I recall, HBS staffers have been tapped for “play with a legend” events in Chronicles, for example.

  8. Premium User Badge

    Skabooga says:

    Well hellooooooooooooooo, Ork Commissioner Gordon.

  9. tk421242 says:

    I love me some Shadowrun and really would like to pull the trigger on this but I have to say that two issues are preventing me from doing so.

    First, the price point seems to high for me. The game appears to be very feature lite and a simple turn based combat game. For $30 ($40 after the sale ends) I would like to see something more than just a story on rails. Is it to much to ask for a proper open world Shadowrun RPG?!

    Second is the always online aspect. While I love the co-op option to play with friends I am always very hesitant to spend money on a game that REQUIRES being online even to play solo. At least if it is a AAA studio I can hope for at least a few years of server support but being a KS project I have to say requiring servers even I want to play solo is a big issue for me.

    I think if the price point was lower I would at least give it a go but at this point I am just going to reinstall Shadowrun Dragonfall and try out some community creations.

  10. HighlordKiwi says:

    I’m still waiting for a Shadowrun game that reflects my experiences with playing Shadowrun. We have plenty now but they all seem to be more combat and less heist.

    • Premium User Badge

      Harlander says:

      Were your experiences “bicker for hours about minutiae only to have the plan collapse almost immediately on execution” too? ;)

  11. jnik says:

    The subtitle still makes me wince every time. It’s 1) long enough to have changed it but 2) still too soon. The trial’s still going on, for crying out loud.

  12. Premium User Badge

    teije says:

    The cyber Mountie is awesome. Think I saw him dancing on the streets of downtown Toronto recently.

  13. statistx says:

    Oh snap, i indeed did not realize this wasn’t by harebrain Studios, but to be honest i also didn’t look too much into it, since i can’t buy it at the moment anyway.
    Only too bad that they didn’t use the license to go into the opposite direction and make it EVEN MORE OPEN than SR Returns and instead go with even less decisions and characterisation, cause ultimately that is what i want from a PnP conversion.