Shadowrun: Hong Kong Review

Eschalon: Book II

Publisher:Independent
Developer:Harebrained Schemes
Release Date:2015-08-20
Genre:
  • Role-Playing
Platforms: Theme: Perspective:
  • Third-Person
Buy this Game: Amazon ebay

Introduction

Shadowrun was created as a tabletop roleplaying system in the 1980s, and after that it inspired a few console RPGs in the 1980s and even an Xbox/PC first-person shooter in 2007.  More relevant to this review is that in 2011, Jordan Weisman, the creator of Shadowrun, formed Harebrained Schemes, and over the last three years they've released three PC RPGs: Shadowrun Returns, Shadowrun: Dragonfall, and now Shadowrun: Hong Kong.

The Shadowrun setting takes place on Earth, but in an alternate future where there is magic -- not to mention elves, trolls, and dragons -- and where corporations run the show.  Shadowrunners are special operatives who typically work for corporations, and their objectives tend to fall under the umbrella of assassination, espionage, and sabotage.  Corporations don't have much to fear from the police, so they take what they want any way they can.

In Shadowrun: Hong Kong, you're drawn to Hong Kong by a message from your foster father -- only when you get there he's missing and the police start gunning for you.  That forces you to seek protection from a local crime boss, who makes you a deal: if you work as a shadowrunner for her, then she'll look into what happened to your father and who sicced the police on you.  With no other options, you're forced to agree, and that starts you out on your trek through the game's 15-mission campaign.

Characters

The first thing you have to do in a game of Shadowrun: Hong Kong is create your character.  There are two ways to do this: you can pick a class archetype, including decker (hacker), rigger (drone control), street samurai (melee or ranged combat), and shaman (summoner), or you can spend points to buy whichever skills and attributes interest you the most.  The game uses a classless system, so regardless of how you start out, you can develop your character however you want.

As you complete objectives during the campaign, you earn "karma" points, which allow you to improve the attributes and skills of your character.  Buying the first rank of an attribute or skill costs 1 point, buying the second rank costs 2 points, and so on.  Some skills have prerequisites.  For example, you can't have your Ranged Combat skill exceed your Quickness attribute, and you can't have any of your gun skills (including skills for pistols, rifles, and SMGs) exceed your Ranged Combat skill.  So it gets expensive to min-max your character, and a little bit of versatility is a good idea.

While playing the campaign, you meet some companions, but their development works differently.  They don't earn karma points.  Instead, they earn five levels at key points during the campaign.  At each level, they receive a few bonuses to their skills and attributes, and you're also allowed to choose between two skills for them.  This gives you a little bit of power over their development, but not much.  The companions are locked into their class archetypes.

Finally, you get to pick a name (including a street name), a race, and a gender for your character, but none of these things have much of an impact on the game.  There aren't any romances, and there isn't any racism, so nobody cares what race you're playing.

The character system works pretty well.  There are six attributes and 21 skills, and while you earn a friendly amount of karma during the game, you don't earn so much that you can maximize everything -- or even come close.  So you have to decide how you want to spend your points, and how much you want to focus on combat versus social and utility skills.  For example, while most skills and attributes improve your combat prowess, there is also a Charisma attribute, which allows you to sweet talk your way past people, and it also gives you access to different etiquettes, which provide you with expertise about certain societies in the world (like gangs, corporations and academia).  So there are lots of ways to build characters, which is always good.


Engine

Shadowrun: Hong Kong uses a fairly simple engine.  The world is presented using an isometric view, and you use the left mouse button to do just about everything.  While you're exploring a map, the game is played in real time, and you only select where you want your main character to move.  Your companions just follow behind.  Then when a fight breaks out, the game switches to turn-based mode, where you control your entire team on your turn, and then all of the enemies move on their turn, and so forth.

During combat, your characters get a certain number of action points to use (2 at the start of the game and then 3 later).  Each point allows a character to move a short distance or perform an action (such as casting a spell or shooting a gun).  Most actions only require 1 point, but some require 2, like the "full auto" rifle attack, which allows a character to shoot five times at a single target, but with reduced accuracy.  If you have characters with leftover action points, then you can put them into "overwatch" mode, and they'll automatically attack enemies who come into range during the enemy turn.

The combat environment includes cover and dragon lines.  Cover comes in three types (light, medium and heavy), and it reduces the amount of damage characters take.  Moreover, characters who aren't protected by cover take flanking damage, which adds a 50% penalty.  Dragon lines are used by spellcasters.  They increase the amount of damage done by spells, and new in Shadowrun: Hong Kong, they also allow spells to "bounce" and hit multiple targets.  Sadly -- or perhaps buggily -- spells can bounce into your allies and damage them, so you have to be careful who you target.

Campaign

The campaign that comes with Shadowrun: Hong Kong contains 15 missions.  Early on, along with searching for your foster father, you also learn that "evil dreams" seem to be emanating from the Walled City near your base of operations, which was where your foster father was heading when he disappeared.  So that gives you multiple areas to investigate, which leads to you having missions to collect books, steal research, kill monsters, kidnap rival crime bosses, and more.

Nicely, there are lots of ways to do things during the missions.  For example, if you need to figure out the password for a terminal, you might hack into the terminal, charm or coerce somebody into telling you, or summon a spirit to give you the answer.  That means you're free to take the crew of your choice on each mission.  Plus, if you're not enthused by the talents of your companions, then you can hire shadowrunners instead.

About half the campaign takes place in the missions.  The other half takes place in Heoi, where your base is located.  In Heoi you can talk to people (including your companions), go shopping, and pick up new missions.  In most games, the base part of the game doesn't take very long, but in Shadowrun: Hong Kong, each character you meet has a long history for you to uncover, and you might have 5-10 minute conversations with them after each mission.  Since you can have up to five companions, and since there are 10 other NPCs for you to interact with, that means the between mission part of the game often takes longer than the missions -- until you get to the end of the campaign when people run out of things to say.

That is, Shadowrun: Hong Kong is a game for people who enjoy reading -- especially since nothing is voice-acted, so you actually have to read the dialogue rather than listening to it.  The good news is that the writing is excellent.  Characters have personalities, and it's fun to learn their backstories and motivations.  The bad news is that while the conversations change a little based on your responses (and more than you usually see in an RPG), the trajectory of the conversations remains the same, and that hurts the replay value of the game.  Playing Shadowrun: Hong Kong twice in a row is like reading a book twice in a row.  You could do it, but it's far less exciting the second time around.


Changes

If you've played Harebrained Schemes' other two Shadowrun games, then you might be wondering how Shadowrun: Hong Kong differs from them.  The answer is "not a whole lot."  Shadowrun: Hong Kong uses a modified version of the same engine, so if you've played the earlier games then you should be able to jump into this one with a minimum of effort.  But there are two places with significant changes: hacking and cyberware.

In the previous games, hacking was handled like mini combat missions, where you'd attack enemy programs while making your way to your objectives.  In Shadowrun: Hong Kong, hacking is more about stealth and breaking codes, which is good because that's more representative of what hacking is about.  So instead of attacking enemy programs, you try to avoid them, and then when you reach special gates, you play a mini-game (involving Simple Simon and pattern matching) to break through them.  If you're bad at sneaking, then you build up "trace," which eventually leads to security programs attacking you and the hacking sequence to play more like previously.  If you hate the mini-game, then you can force the gate, which costs you some trace.

The other change involves cyberware.  Harebrained Schemes added a few new cyber equipment locations, such as skin and the brain, and they also added cyber weapons to give you more ways to attack people (including Shock Hands, which you can use to stun your opponents).  To make up for the extra locations, one of the new skills in the game is Cyberware Affinity, which affects how many cyber items you can wear, and how powerful they can be.

Issues

Shadowrun: Hong Kong has a collection of minor issues and problems that hopefully will get fixed soon.  With all of the text in the game, it's probably not surprising that there are more than a few typos, including silly things like "local" versus "locale."  The opening and closing cinematic sequences (the only places in the game with voice acting) don't have subtitles.  The campaign is extremely skimpy about rewarding money, so even if you're cheap and avoid hiring shadowrunners and buying drugs, you still won't be able to afford everything you want.  The new loot interface is iffy; if there's a way to pick up an item and assign it to a companion, I never figured it out.

The only serious problem I had with the game is the load times.  Shadowrun: Hong Kong is right up there with Pillars of Eternity in slow load times.  Sometimes this isn't much of a problem, as loading a mission includes all of the maps for the mission, and so one load might last you for an hour or more.  But other times you get into frustrating sequences trying to navigate conversations in a good way or trying to hack without being seen, and all of the loading and waiting makes them almost unbearable.  In Pillars of Eternity, the save files include all of the maps you've visited, which is what slows them down.  But Shadowrun: Hong Kong shouldn't have that much to save, so I have no idea why they're so much more turtle than hare.

But otherwise, I didn't encounter any broken mission objectives or conversations, and the game didn't crash on me once during the 40 hours I spent with it, so I'd say that Shadowrun: Hong Kong is still ahead of the curve as far as technical issues are concerned.

Conclusion

So far I've enjoyed all of Harebrained Schemes' Shadowrun games.  They've all been inexpensive, interesting, and well-made, and they all given multiple ways of completing objectives and dealing with enemies, which is always nice.  Shadowrun: Hong Kong is no exception, and better yet, it's the longest of the three.  It took me 40 hours to complete it, which is about as long as it took me to finish the first two games combined.  Of course, I'm something less than a speed reader, so your mileage may vary.  But if you enjoy isometric turn-based RPGs, and if you don't mind reading, then Shadowrun: Hong Kong is definitely a game to check out.