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  1. Before we discuss the game proper I need to put something out there. I don’t play role-playing games for their story (games rarely have a good story, most of the time the thing they have can hardly be called “story”; usually it’s a jumbled mess of ideas and themes mashed together without any regard to coherence or consistency). I don’t play role-playing games for their characters (if I was, most games wouldn’t be able to satisfy me; good characters are very hard to find). I play role-playing games for the combination of combat, exploration and character development. In other words, the game’s systems are worth more to me than anything else. So, don’t let it surprise you when I start bashing Shadowrun Hong Kong (simply HK from here onwards) for its unevenly written characters, dialogues, story and plot. Basically, there is one test I put all RPGs I play to, when I want to determine how good the game is: I compare its every aspect to Fallout 2. Fallout 2 may not be the perfect RPG but it’s one of the few games that does everything well enough (story, writing in general, combat etc.) to stay relevant today. Actually, the only game that surpassed Fallout 2 as the best RPG in my eyes was Fallout New Vegas. But comparing any of the Shadowrun games to New Vegas just wouldn’t be fair, so I’ll stick to the good old Fallout 2 to highlight the things in HK that I think worked, and other things that didn’t quite work. The first impression I got of HK wasn’t good: the tutorial mission did a poor job of introducing the characters (two of them get killed straight away just to give two other characters something to mope about), the player gets put into a situation completely out of his control and is forced to become an errand boy in exchange for “wiping his identity”, even though for the rest of the game he is called both by his real name and his street name that becomes notorious almost instantly, defeating the purpose of getting a new identity to begin with. One thing these Shadowrun games should stop doing is easing the player into the game. Instead of making an interesting first mission they opt for dumping hundreds upon hundreds of lines of expository dialogue on the player and going easy on the action. They should be doing the complete opposite! We don’t need the inane subplot about shared nightmares and the importance of feng shui and the flow of qi. Especially when this subplot is introduced in the first ark of the story as the main focus of the game and almost immediately is forgotten until the LAST mission of the game, relegated to vague mentions in optional dialogues with characters hidden in the darkest parts of the quest hub. What we need in the beginning is a showcase of every activity the game has to offer. Show us tactical combat (with enemies flanking our characters, using AOE abilities to force us to keep our characters apart, covering all sides of the battlefield, and behind cover); not that poorly designed encounter, where the player gets an objective to “get into cover” before the actual combat can begin, and then has to advance along a narrow street with only one enemy actually trying to be any kind of a threat by getting behind the player’s team. Show us the Matrix. Show us its ins and outs without the pressure of learning them during a run. Or better yet, don’t show us the Matrix, remove it from the game, because its implementation in HK is the stuff of nightmares. The developer commentary mentions why the Matrix was changed, and I can agree with some of the reasons for that: previously the player had nothing to worry about except dying to Back ICs, and the Matrix needed an overhaul. But what they ended up doing to it made the whole experience worse. First of all, the game’s controls aren’t tight enough to warrant adding real-time sections based on reaction. Maybe it was due to my screen’s resolution, but I was having a hard time hitting the various points of interaction in the game. And this problem became very pronounced in the Matrix, where you have to follow certain paths to avoid detection by patrolling sentries. I kept mis-clicking and sending my character into dead-ends or failing to move him in time. Secondly, to make an informed decision on where to move your character you need to see the whole board. But for some reason they left the fog of war in! Thirdly, the player is punished SEVERELY for failing during these evasion sections. Considering the fact that you can’t go into turn-based mode to lower the alertness level while you’re not in combat, you’re forced to either live with your mistakes until you finally get into combat with a White IC or reload. And then there’s the awful two-part visual memory mini-game that you have to suffer through if you’ve made too many mistakes while getting to the data node. Not only some people will have a hard time beating it, but it also takes too long to complete. I didn’t think I’d ever say it, but the hacking mini-game in Fallout 3 is better designed than this. Hell, even Deus-Ex Human Revolution has better hacking than HK. But I digress. We’re just getting to know our new fixer, Kindly Cheng. Now, this is one of the few interesting characters in HK. You know you can’t trust her. She’s brutal and disloyal, but you depend on her for your survival and you have to play by her rules. It’s an interesting concept for a quest-giver - a dangerous character that can turn against you at any moment. But as the game progresses the main character forms a bond with Kindly Cheng, subverting the player’s expectations. Let’s go back to Fallout 2 for a second. I remember, while in college I was researching Fallout 2 for a paper, and I came across an article which explained the success of that game in terms of a very simple concept: adherence to the “KSP” rule, which stands for “kill”, “steal”, and “persuade” - the three ways you could take to resolve any mission/quest in Fallout 2. In actuality the game often combines the three to give the player as much freedom as possible. Sneak into a compound, find a gullible person, extract valuable information (safe combination, password), use the information to get whatever you came for, sneak out or walk out guns blazing. Of course, Fallout 2 was a more free-form game, but I think this principle applies to any RPG. So you’ll say, “hey, Fallout 2 had a terrible tutorial section”. To which I’ll reply, “no, it was actually good”. Yes, fighting the ants was tedious, but it taught the player the KSP rule: you could lockpick the exit door, you could pick the key off the sentry, you could blow the door open with explosives, you could talk your way out of the temple. This is what makes Fallout 2 great. This approach to game design is what I’m looking for in every RPG I play. Going back to HK, the writing in the game isn’t that good. Its quality fluctuates wildly from character to character and from mission to mission. In some dialogues the player is presented with several options that basically lead to the same resolution. One of the most boring yet rewarding quests in the game has us running between two screens “investigating” murders which turn out to be completely justified Some dialogues treat the player as an idiot, spelling out everything, lacking any subtlety. This condescending tone hurts whatever themes the game tries to explore. I found myself simply clicking through the dialogues, picking lines based on their implied message. One other thing that makes this issue even more pronounced is how “getting to know” the other characters works. After every mission a portion of the dialogue gets unlocked for each character present at the base. You can ignore them all the way until the final mission of the game and then just talk with all of them in one go (which will take a few hours), or you can routinely interrogate each character after every mission. Your reward for this is a personal mission with each character, some of which are very entertaining (and all of them are better than the final mission). What I’m trying to tell you is, it’s very tiresome to have to go through all this dialogue every time I finish a mission. This is not the best way to develop your characters, Game. For it to work the dialogues have to be well-written, and the characters - interesting, so the player looks forward to continuing his discussions with his companions. And some of the characters really are that interesting (a certain Red Samurai and a crazy Russian rigger, for example, but they have their own problems - their dialogues are saturated with ideas and would be enough for a stand-alone game). Now, Fallout 2 didn’t have any of that stuff, of course. That’s one more reason Fallout 2 is a better game. That game understands that it’s not about your companions ultimately. It’s about your character not having to fight on his own. Fallout’s characters had nice backstories, memorable personalities and useful skills (for the most part). That’s what a companion in an RPG should be. But Harebrained Schemes decided to go down the Baldur’s Gate route. What I appreciated the most about HK’s characters was the fact that there weren’t any “damaged” ones (compared to Dragonfall, where each new character was like a sick puppy). They had their own agendas, but otherwise were normal people (as normal aы one can be in the Shadowrun universe). What I kept feeling was missing is the ability to customize my characters. Even though the game is too easy and too short for it to have any real effect, I’d still prefer to have the ability to pick my team’s abilities and equipment. In my experience, this is the best way to get attached to a character, as opposed to how HK does it - by shoving hundreds of lines of boring text down the player’s throat. HK’s saving grace is its length. The game isn’t long enough to become boring. It kicks into second gear right after the main character gets acquainted with Kindly Cheng. She gives the player several missions to choose from, and I’m happy to report, most of the missions are really good. The more ways to solve a problem there are available to the player in the game the better. And I was pleasantly surprised to find a lot of missions in HK passing the KSP test. Yes, due to the missions’ linear nature there’s a lot less variety, but the sheer fact that there is more than one approach to every part of the run is commendable. Have a rigger with you? Send that bot into the ducts to rig that console. Have a decker instead? Get those wage slaves to leave the office and use one of the terminals. Got no tech specialists on the team? Get your brother to subdue everyone, drop them, cuff them and leave. The less casualties you leave behind during the run the better for your reputation. Worst case scenario: send Gaichu in and let his blade do the talking. Unfortunately, a lot of missions are too short or too simple to really take advantage of that. All the choices you make during the mission usually only result in a few extra nuyen or an easier escape. And that extra nuyen won’t help that much, because the prices they ask for equipment in the game are disproportionately high compared to payouts the main character receives for successful runs (most weapons run in the thousands of nuyen, for the final mission I needed 10000 to update my equipment - which turned out to be completely pointless by the way - but my average pay for a single run was around 1500, with extra money from stolen data amounting to 250 nuyen a pop). Even after doing all side-missions and selling everything I could find I still didn’t have enough to equip my character properly (couldn’t afford to put high-end chrome in him, only was able to update his weapon twice). And he was a simple street samurai. Overall I felt limited in my choices, even though the game tries to make you feel like the best runner in Hong Kong. Going back to alternative ways to complete missions, take the “City of Darkness” mission. It’s the first real run of the game, so it is used to teach new players the way the game works. Your first run takes you into the Walled City, where, symbolically, your adventure will eventually end In this mission the player get the first bits of lore about qi, shared dreams and their possible source. This mission also provides you with several options of getting to your target: fight your way through, talk your way through or avoid the guarded entrance and go for the back door. In the end, though, this doesn’t affect anything (ammo is infinite so the player is never forced to think about the necessity of fighting; enemies don’t drop their gear, so you can’t use a fight as an opportunity to equip yourself or make some extra nuyen selling your spoils - it’s simply about willing to spend your time fighting for the fun of it). The game won’t progress until you get to your target, so whichever approach you take, it’ll end the same way: with you succeeding. There is no failing in this game, you can’t live with the consequences of your failure. You do get to decide how to end certain missions which affects end-game events. To sum up, the game does have a fair amount of C&C (choice & consequence), but it’s mostly fluff. Most missions are too short for your choices to really matter. And these choices often depend on having certain skills available (for non-violent solutions Etiquette is very important, so is decking), some missions outright punish the player for not choosing the smart approach instead opting for solving the problem with violence. The game also has a strange way of opening up new areas within the mission. Most of them are closed off or hidden from the player until he finds that one right person to talk to, which then triggers the new area to become available. For example, in one of the early missions (“Outsider”, mild spoilers ahead) the player is tasked with investigating a series of murders in Whampoa Gardens. Local elders hire the main character to find the killer, but keep limiting him in where he can go and who he can talk to. The player thus finds himself in a strange situation: there are several places he can go to, only the game won’t let him, because he hasn’t talked to that one right NPC who’s supposed to tell him about that place. The player has no possibility of stumbling upon the right place by accident, the only way to progress is to follow a series of predefined steps: go talk to the guy on the corner, find out about a certain workshop, go ask the elders for permission to search it, get a refusal, go talk to another guy on the street and find out about a shootout involving cops in the parking garage, and it goes on until you’re funneled into the killer’s lair. This is done to supply the player with every bit of information he needs before having to make a tough decision (finish the job and get rid of the killer or listen to his side of the story first and help him deal with the elders). But in doing so the game loses a very important part of its appeal: the need to explore the levels. Why should the player bother, if there’s rarely anything of value for him to find off the beaten path? The game doesn’t want the player to be able to find shortcuts unless he’s supposed to. Fallout 2 handles it in the best possible way: all areas are accessible from the very beginning. The price the game has to pay for that is no ties between any two locations story wise; since the player can visit them in any order, these areas reference each other only in passing. But the freedom this gives the player more than makes up for that. I found it kind of stupid that having a decker with me on a run and knowing exactly the location of some important piece of evidence I wasn’t able to just go there and grab it, because the game didn’t want me to. The place is either unmarked in the level so the player can’t navigate to it, or it is safely secured behind a keypad that is impossible for you decker to hack. The game doesn’t even allow you to try. You just have to accept the fact that this particular keypad is somehow different from all other keypads that your decker was able to get through easily. Another early mission requires the main character to desecrate a temple in one of big corporations’ HQs. The player’s progress is tracked by how much qi disruption he’s caused. The mission will be considered successful at at least 50%, but there’s an optional objective to do 100%. My first thought was, “whoa, that probably involves solving a puzzle or a series of puzzles, I better take my pen and start writing down patterns”. To my surprise I was able to reach 100% simply by interacting with every qi point in the mission in no particular order. Even with outdated graphics the game can sometimes look very good This is pretty much how the whole game is set up: make sure to find all rhombuses and you’re good, don’t even have to read what they do. I guess that counts as exploration. The whole game devolves into a series of mechanical actions with little thought behind them. There were other things I didn’t like. For one, I questioned the usefulness of the option to ambush your enemies. Since there’s no sneaking in the game and you can’t easily determine where your enemies are looking at, it’s hard to position your team to actually ambush anyone. Correction: the only one you can position is your main character. The rest of the team just waits for your character to attack his target, which triggers the fight to start. This actually caused me a lot of trouble during the Bad Qi mission. I saved right before attempting to ambush two enemies, which caused some weird issue with their detection range. Reloading that save would cause the combat to begin immediately after moving the main character. For another, I expected the team to feel something for my character. Love him, hate him, respect him - anything. And I expected them to show it during the missions. And they did, once or twice. But mostly they turn into instruments of my will during the mission completely giving up their personalities. This is felt the most during dialogues, the rest of the team rarely if ever provides any input in a conversation (but they should, because unlike the main character they’re all local to Hong Kong and therefore know a lot more about how things work in the city). And even when your team gets back to home base most of their dialogue is centered around themselves. It’s obviously done to let the player get to know his team better, but if you try to abstract yourself from the game’s mechanics at some point you’ll get tired of these self-centered narcissists. In the end, the team’s opinion of your character means absolutely nothing. This feels weird because so much time is spent getting to know them in between missions. Once we’re in a mission they just become shadows of the main character. This would be OK if they were simple hirelings, but as it is I felt the companions were not handled well overall. The final mission was underwhelming. For some reason it was broken into small areas, with barely any content. At the same time these areas were set up in a way that allowed two ways of traversing them: the direct approach meant more fights but faster travel, the alternative approach allowed for safer passage. But since the areas are small, it’s so much easier to just skip the optional stuff and go for the final boss. Not to mention the fact that these alternatives have inexplicably high skill requirements. There’s no way I can see how a single character could be trained to pass all the skill checks. So there’s no real reason to bother with any of them. As for the boss fight, it’s too easy for how the game built up to it. The Yama kings subplot itself was handled very poorly. The beginning of the game is all about these shared dreams. This point keeps getting rammed down the player’s throat. But as soon as the player is left to his own devices it all suddenly stops and is barely mentioned. Uncovering of this sub plot is so uneven, that at some point your character completely forgets about it. His quest for his foster father takes center stage. And I have to tell you, the mission that finally resolves it is very good and should’ve been the final mission of the game. The scene that should’ve ended the third act But then the game decides to drag on for a little while longer, completely killing the mood with its completely predictable plot twist. The problem is exaggerated by the way the NPCs feed the player the story. There are several NPCs whose whole point of existence is to provide exposition. They keep blabbing about the Yama kings and all the stuff related to that. But they do it in small doses. I guess, the developers’ intent was to have enough dialogue to tie you over until the final mission. But in my case half-way through the game the NPCs just stopped talking to me. Eh, just one more nail into this game’s convoluted plot’s coffin. There were things I did like, of course. For example, Goblet’s personal mission was really nice. It was probably my favorite mission of the game, it had a lot of stuff to consider before attempting to resolve it. And it also had at least three possible outcomes (that I could see coming, there could be more than that). Quite possibly the best mission in the game All of the personal missions were cool. Isobel’s in particular made a good impression on me. Something about the way dialogue is handled in it really clicked with me. I also really liked reading BBS threads. A lot of them were very entertaining (especially the small multi-part story about a certain crew looking for a decker) as well as insightful into the game’s lore. But what I liked the most was all the extra stuff you’d get for finishing some missions in a certain way. It mostly amounted to some kind of help later in the game (for example, let the other crew of runners you come across by accident have what they came for and you’ll benefit later from their help on one of your more important runs). That was a nice way to reward the player and to make the game feel responsive to the player’s choices. Two crews running together? The game should’ve had more moments like this The only thing left is to discuss all the small nitpicks I have with this game: the fact that the quest hub is covered by the fog of war every time I visit it; the fact that you can pick dialogue options with number keys but there are no numbers next to each option on the screen; the fact that after every reload the music volume would be set to 100%; the fact that you can’t run at full speed when you want to, instead relying on that weird system that automatically detects whether your character should run or walk at a snail’s pace. But I should probably wrap up now. The hardest fight in the game actually turned out to be very easy, you just have to use proper tactics and use the environment to your advantage (hint: those puddles are there for a reason) In conclusion, Shadowrun Hong Kong is a nice little RPG that tries hard to hit all the right notes but most of the time fumbles. Would I play it knowing what I know now? Definitely yes, the journey was worth it, even though it wasn’t enjoyable all the way to the end. Will I ever replay it? That’s a sure “no”. This game is no Fallout, not that it tries to be, but it sure would benefit from lifting the best parts from Fallout 1 and 2. Oh well, games can’t all be perfect. HK gets an “A” for effort from me. “D-” for realisation, though. After playing through the three official Shadowrun campaigns I feel that the formula doesn’t work anymore. Harebrained Schemes should try something different. Maybe a tactical squad-based game would suit this universe well, because they’re definitely running out of ideas for these world-saving plots.
  2. Shadowrun Returns is on sale for the price of a beer. Should I buy the game, or a beer?
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