Shadowrun Online brings cyberpunk fantasy online, is part of a resurgence of the role-playing brand
Shadowrun is what happens when you mix Blade Runner with Lord of the Rings: it's a cyberpunk neo-noir universe that explores concepts of trans-humanism, an individual's soul interfacing with technology, and the dawn of a new age. Shadowrun also adds elves, orcs and dragons to the mix. As the original tabletop RPG nears its 25th anniversary, two video game adaptations are preparing to launch thanks to successful Kickstarter campaigns. This week, we'll be looking at three Shadowrun properties: Shadowrun Online, Shadowrun Returns, and the original Shadowrun tabletop RPG. Today we look at Shadowrun Online. Shadowrun Online is a turn-based tactical RPG set in the Shadowrun universe, where dragons run megacorporations and elves operate in gangs of computer hackers. It can be played solo, co-op or PvP, and is based on rules from the Shadowrun tabletop RPG. The game is being developed by Cliffhanger Productions, who have also adapted the tabletop RPG Deadlands and strategy series Jagged Alliance for the free-to-play online space. The team has veterans from titles like Diablo 2, and actor Jeff Ricketts has lent a face to the company's Kickstarter videos. Felicia Day tweeted her support, and even Adventure Time creator Pendleton Ward supported the game to such an extent that he'll be featured as a playable character in the game. Shadowrun Online has a lot going for it, and the Kickstarter has already been funded. Now it's up to Cliffhanger.
Three games, multiple systems, one world
This isn't a simple business venture for Cliffhanger; the process isn't as simple as acquiring rights to an IP and making a single game. Executive Producer Jan Wagner has been working closely with the teams behind the Shadowrun tabletop RPG as well as Harebrained Schemes, the studio developing Shadowrun Returns - another video game adaptation - to craft a single, coherent universe across all three experiences. Shadowrun Online takes place 20 years after Shadowrun Returns, and both studios are working with storyline developers on the Shadowrun tabletop system so that each game impacts the other. In other words, what happens in Shadowrun Returns will have an effect on Shadowrun Online, and Shadowrun Online will in turn move the meta-plot of the tabletop system forward. Shadowrun Online is also looking to break the hardware barrier, as Wagner plans to release on iOS and Android tablets, PC, Mac, Linux, and even Ouya. “The device shouldn't define the game,” Wagner told the Penny Arcade Report. “This is actually an ambitious goal technically, design and control-wise, so we hope to break the device barriers in a meaningful way.” Wagner recognizes his studio's limits. Cliffhanger Productions can't compete with the big-budget MMOs like World of Warcraft or Guild Wars 2. But that's okay he says, because the game he wants to make isn't really targeting that audience anyway. The game Wagner wants to make is a turn-based tactical RPG that targets what he calls the “mid-core” gamer: the player who doesn't have time for the triple-A titles but finds free-to-play games lacking. “We want to appeal to people who like to use their brains, like a challenge, but don’t want to be forced to be there every day, learn a hundred skill cues by heart, or spend hours running from quest A to quest A,” Wagner said. “We want a game that requires more than button mashing or simply logging in ten times a day to do chores.” At the end of the day, Wagner isn't just a developer out to take an established franchise and make a buck. He's been playing Shadowrun for years, and still fondly remembers a particular character he played back in the day. As he told me about it, his enthusiasm for the system and setting was clear. “One of my personal favorites was a fun moment when my Troll Peacemaker and his Panther Assault Cannon called Kitty encountered nature for the first time. He had never been outside the city. Since he was used to a technological environment, he desperately tried to activate functionalities on trees and other 'interfaces' he encountered,” he said.
Stretch your legs, fire your gun
The game can't emulate everything from the pen-and-paper system, Wagner said, but when it does borrow, it does so with thorough execution. Players of the tabletop RPG will know that conditional modifiers play a large part in Shadowrun's combat, and Cliffhanger has implemented those. However, the game isn't just combat. One of the most intriguing features of Shadowrun Online isn't necessarily combat-related at all; it's the implementation of legwork. Legwork is in many ways the calm before the storm. This is your character's chance to gather information, discover alternate routes, disable security, and generally prepare for combat. Players can use their character's social skills to bribe, intimidate, or otherwise manipulate situations to their favor, or take advantage of technical knowledge to discover the layout of the enemy base, for example. It's not meant to replace the spontaneous nature of playing Shadowrun as a tabletop RPG, but it does evoke feelings of choice and consequence, giving a good sense of freedom within the game.Once legwork has been completed, it's time for your runner to head into battle. Wagner and his team have also been hard at work on a big feature he refers to as “contextualized gameplay.” Depending on your character's archetype - fighter, mage, tech-oriented - they'll be able to view the world differently. Hackers, for example, can see where a terminal will open a bridge. Mages can see through walls and detect supernatural presences. Combat-oriented players will be able to analyze a battlefield most effectively. Wagner stressed that the game is still in early development and many designs are still being tossed around with regards to combat. “We build and dismantle systems on a daily basis,” he said. Still, the game is based on the tabletop rules, which makes Shadowrun Online a great way to experience Shadowrun with friends across long distances without the need for a virtual tabletop. It also means the ability to train in Specializations instead of following rigid character class progression, plus other Shadowrun-specific rules. Sadly, no comment from Wagner on a playable tree-hacker archetype. Shadowrun Online is projected to release on iPad, Android tablets, PC, Mac, Linux and Ouya sometime next year, with a closed beta expected around May.