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Impressions: Shadowrun Online Early Access


The honeymoon period for Kickstarter is long over. There are a number of reasons why but perhaps the most impactful is the failure of several high-profile campaigns to deliver what was promised, or going full Darth Vader: 'We are altering the deal, pray we don't alter it any further.' Such drek leads us to Shadowrun Online – a game that was due for release in May 2013, but on March 31 2014 crept onto Steam Early Access, available for sale to non-backers at the princely sum of £25. So what's going on?

We'll come to the tortuous twists and turns of Shadowrun Online's development soon enough, but for ponying up the dough this is what you get: Early Access to what is currently four singleplayer missions and a miniscule multiplayer map, along with the full campaign on release. Worth noting is that this purchase does not include future expansions (i.e. they're already thinking about DLC), and when the game is eventually released there will also be a free-to-play version of it.

In fact there are some pretty big claims for Shadowrun Online, so I'm just going to quote the developer before coming back to reality: “Every character perceives the game world differently […] the collective actions of players will not only determine the fate of the online game world [but will] also cross over into the pen and paper storyline […] accessible through Windows, Mac, Android, iOS, and Linux and on Ouya […] it is fully cross-platform, meaning you can play it on your tablet [then] sit down at your PC to continue with the same character.”

Hoo boy. The kickstarter promised co-op gameplay and faction wars, with hubs where players could mingle and pick missions to undertake – as well as all the Shadowrun bobbins you'd expect, from computer hacking to magic to gritty combat. The current build of the game has none of this, but it is of course Early Access.

The good news is that the backgrounds look pretty great. More than anything else in Shadowrun Online, the look and atmosphere of these few environments is bang-on. The missions are short 'kill all the dudes' affairs, and showcase a relatively slick but simple turn-based combat system. Think XCOM but without the dynamic combat camera.

But that comparison is a problem in itself. I think XCOM's amazing but Shadowrun Online really shouldn't play like a poor man's XCOM – yet it does. You have two guys who each have two weapons: a bulky SMG-toting Orc with a machete, and a mage that can shoot fireballs or whip out a shotgun. The big problem is that combat doesn't live up to the interface: the battles don't seem enormously dependent on tactics, more on the random chance of shots landing and who gets the first good hit in.

All that's on offer here is combat, which is fine, but being a shadowrunner isn't just about killing people. Interaction beyond combat is limited to shooting at door panels. There's no hacking to speak of, though in one mission you guard an NPC who's doing this. You can see everything happening in the level (no fog of war). Cover is interchangeable – a pot plant's as effective as a big hunk of steel.

The most disappointing thing is the magic system. Currently magic is simply fire-and-forget with certain spells having a cooldown of a few turns. Core Shadowrun concepts like drain and overcasting are not present, which means that spells are basically fireball guns. This isn't even to mention that the mage character indicates his magicalness by wearing a pink hat and carrying a giant skull around, which is so far away from the basic concept of being a shadow runner – you know, disguising true power from the enemy and surprising them – it's hard to believe it got past the concept stage.

The PvP element on offer is so insignificant it doesn't even deserve to be called a taster. It's a tiny map for 2 vs 2 battles where both players move forwards into cover, then take pot-shots at one another. There's no room in this environment for any kind of interesting approach to the combat, beyond chancing your arm by running the Orc forward and slashing away.

The 'this is Alpha' excuse is, just under a year after the original deadline, pretty astonishing – that is, that the £25 version being sold now is merely a functionality test and that content will come later. The projected launch is by the end of this year. The developers still aren't sure about absolutely fundamental aspects of the game like team size and the inclusion of overwatch.

When Cliffhanger announced the first delay, they did so by saying that the game could not be built on the existing codebase for Jagged Alliance – it 'compromised' too much. This is all well and good in theory, but in practice it is very hard to see what Shadowrun Online has gained from such a delay. Game development is not this linear process whereby a team can, having perfected a single mechanic, produce an entire semi-MMOG worth of content within six months or even a year. It's not going to happen.

And here's the real killer: if Shadowrun Online is about showing off a core gameplay loop, then it doesn't. It shows off a visually slick but generic isometric strategy game that lacks any kind of tactical options whatsoever. The strategy here comes down to the random number generator. The core gameplay loop isn't here.

The problem with Shadowrun Online is that there are a tonne of games doing what it does already – but better. For solo players, there's even Shadowrun Returns. But very few games have captured that intoxicating blend that makes Shadowrun such a great universe: biotechnology, magical fantasy and raw danger everywhere. The multitude of approaches for any given situation. Taking up such a mantle requires much more than a logo, and a by-the-numbers isometric strategy game.

Be wary. So far Shadowrun Online has swallowed over half a million dollars in Kickstarter money, claims to have had an angel investor that walked away at the last minute, has another background investor, is sharing its codebase with another game, and is now selling on Steam Early Access to people who didn't back the original. What has been released is more like a tech demo than an alpha version of the game, and frankly the chances of a 2014 release don't look realistic.

It could be that Cliffhanger are straight-shootin' types and will deliver by the end of the year, in which case I'll happily eat my cyberware. But one thing in particular stood out from the video released to announce Steam Early Access. Almost the whole six minutes is shots of the beautiful Vienna office of the developer, and Jan Wagner talking. There's plenty of merchandise around, big posters on the walls, smiling employees looking busy, and tutting about the various issues and how they're solving them. There's barely any footage of the game.

Shadowrun Online has been funded and in development for years now. For me the warning klaxons are blazing. Plenty of us want a great Shadowrun game, something Cliffhanger has taken advantage of to fund the development of Shadowrun Online. Perhaps they'll deliver. But for now, I'd advise you keep your wallet shut, and watch this project from a very safe distance.

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