Originally a pen-and-paper role-playing game, the latest version of 'Shadowrun' is recast as a run-and-gun first-person shooter.
By contributor
updated 6/5/2007 10:18:14 PM ET 2007-06-06T02:18:14

Once upon a time,FASA Corporation shook up convention with "Shadowrun," a pen-and-paper role-playing game that had fantasy elements rubbing magical elbows with megacorporations, guns, and slick hardware in futuristic hypercities. And yea, it was good — or at least innovative in a genre dominated by "Dungeons and Dragons."

Nearly 20 years later, FASA Interactive has brought back "Shadowrun,” this time as a video game. This version, a run-and-gun shooter in the style of Valve's "Counter-Strike," is also the first title where Xbox 360 and Windows Vista players can battle each other online. (This review is of the Xbox 360 game.)

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Does “Shadowrun” deliver in the face of so much change and promise?

Yes and no. “Shadowrun” barely sticks to the roots that made it an innovative RPG in the first place. And while the shooter aspect is fast-paced and laced with fresh twists, the thrills can fade fast due to limited maps and the lack of any long-term investment for players.

The action is set in Brazil in 2031. Long-dormant magic has suddenly resurfaced, giving people the ability to cast spells. The magic has also transformed some humans into trolls, dwarves, and elves, complete with racial benefits like increased magical power, natural armor and the ability to siphon magic away from others.

Two major sides have emerged: RNA Global, a corporation eager to profit on the unearthed magic, and The Lineage, a resistance group determined to stop them. Factions battling over magic means a lot of blood is going to get spilled. But this isn’t your run-of-the-mill stuff. "Shadownrun" mixes technology, magic and explosive combat, offering up flashy new ways to kick butt and take names.

For example, you’ll use the element of surprise by running at your opponent — only to teleport behind him, where he’s vulnerable. You can also transform into a puff of smoke and covertly drop an antimagic generator near your enemies, rendering their magic power moot. And then there’s the fun of hovering high above the action in a glider and picking off rivals with a sniper rifle.

There's a lengthy single-player boot camp where you can try out every race, weapon, tech and magic ability. From there, you can either jump online against other players or offline against the computer. Multiplayer veterans, meanwhile, will feel at home in modes like Attrition (kill everyone on the other side), Extraction (capture the flag), and Raid (a mix of the two).

Like “Counter-Strike,” players start each round buying weapons, magic and tech with cash earned from gameplay. Figuring out the right combination is central to the game’s appeal. Thanks to the diversity of races, weapons, technology, and magic, there are hundreds of possible ways to make your character.

For instance, become a hulking troll with a minigun and purchase Smartlink technology. You can tear through anything without hitting allies. However, your tricked-out troll doesn’t stand a chance against a katana-wielding elf who just teleported behind you. Buy Enhanced Vision and a sniper rifle, and you can get the drop on anyone practically anywhere.

But the way to win friends and discourage enemies is to learn how to resurrect fallen allies and sprout healing trees (ideal for first aid, as well as taking cover from enemy fire). Resurrecting earns you extra cash, along with goodwill from those you snatched from death’s door.

Of course, everything has a price — and not just the cash needed to purchase goodies. “Shadowrun” strives for balance by giving every race, ability and item its own pros and cons. All players have access to the same items, so it comes down to playing to your strengths and trying to exploit your opponent’s weaknesses.

Best weaponsThe limited number of multiplayer maps are average, but offer up heaping slabs of intense close-quarter combat. Temple Grounds stands out as a sniper’s paradise, but that’s about it. But like your character niche, once you get familiar with the maps, there’s not much left to explore.

Also, there’s no sense of permanence in multiplayer. Without any stat tracking or a leaderboard, you can’t see how well you're doing. Furthermore, everyone starts from zero at the beginning of a match. While that levels the playing field, it would be nice to have a special legacy mode, where players could create and cultivate one fighter apiece in a separate battleground.

Finally, as for that ballyhooed “Xbox and Vista playing together” aspect, most players I ran across were using Xbox 360. As of this writing, there are problems with the cross-platform connectivity for Vista users.

FASA has spun off its RPG into a frantic — although limited — shooter. Now that modern gamers are aware of "Shadowrun,” it’s time to bring back the classic, non-digital “Shadowrun” for the next generation, something along the lines of “Deux Ex” meets “Oblivion.” Everyone's making money on retro these days, and I know I'm not the only one out here who's eager to wield magic and guns in futuristic Seattle again.

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