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Wot I Think: Shadowrun Chronicles - Boston Lockdown

Cyberpunk co-op XCOM

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.

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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.

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