The premise of Shadowrun is a tantalising one: a first-person shooter combining fantasy and sci-fi in the same universe. One minute you’re reaching for your Kinetic Labs Sniper Rifle, the next you’re summoning the Tree of Life. It’s based on a very old pre-computing-era Dungeons & Dragons-style game of the same name, and sees traditional fantasy characters hurled into a distant cyberpunk future, where heavy-duty ballistic weaponry rubs shoulders with magical abilities.
A word of warning straight away: the system specifications for this game are nothing short of frightening. A dual-core CPU and 2GB of RAM aren’t just recommended, they’re required. You’ll need Windows Vista, too, despite the fact that, like Halo 2 for Vista, this isn’t a DirectX 10 title. The good news is that, unlike Halo 2, you can play over the internet with both Vista and Xbox 360 players. Which is just as well, as Shadowrun is an online multiplayer-only title.
You don’t need to build up magical abilities by slogging through level after level in the same way you do with most fantasy RPGs. Instead, at the beginning of each battle you buy the spells you need. Money is earned from your kills, so there’s a levelling-up of sorts. Initially, it’s quite exciting to exploit the magic side of things, and choosing from the easily identifiable character classes in theory lets you tune your abilities to match the level. Unfortunately, as there are only nine pretty similar maps this opportunity is largely wasted.
The mechanics of the multiplayer side of things are pretty much identical to Counter-Strike: team and co-op play are the order of the day over standard one-on-one deathmatch. In fact, there’s no single-player deathmatch, only the team variety. The problem with that is when you’re dead, you stay dead for the remainder of the round.
The magic side of things does add an interesting tactical element – we’re particularly fond of the Smoke spell, which renders you an incorporeal cloud. Projectile weapons go right through, which can cause no end of frustration to the chump holding the shotgun who thought he had you cornered. The power of the spells means the emphasis tends to stay on the magical side, though. The hi-tech weapons feel underpowered and boring; they’re a fallback rather than an alternative.
If ever there was a game that could be damned with faint praise, Shadowrun is the one. It has a great premise and sometimes you get into a round of online play that works beautifully. That’s the exception rather than the rule, though, and in general it doesn’t get the blood pumping the way it should. The greatest frustration is that it could have been turned into a fantastic single-player game. If there were more than nine maps, and more intelligent bots to play against, it would probably be worth the money; as it is, stick with Counter-Strike.