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Shardowrun Returns by Harebrained Schemes

Posted by Zumbs on November 30, 2013

Shadowrun Returns LogoShadowrun Returns is a computer roleplaying game in the style of Arcanum, based on a pen and paper roleplaying game called Shadowrun. It was funded through a hugely successful Kickstarter campaign (36,000 backers, $1.8 million raised) and is available for Android, iOS, Linux, Mac and Windows, and sold on Steam, iTunes and Google Play. Harebrained Schemes has recently announced that they plan to make Shadowrun Returns available DRM-free, through gog.com.

All in all, I consider this a good game. I’m looking forward to the future campaigns and games from Harebrained Schemes.

World

I only actually played the Shadowrun RPG once, and it was back in the 90s, but I got to know enough to get the cliff notes on the world. Shadowrun is set in a dystopian future (2054 to be exact), where coporations have taken over from the nation states and pollution is rampant. Technology has advanced to the point where human beings can be enhanced by having technology (called cyberware) implanted, e.g. to get better eyesight, hidden weapons or more resistant to damage.

So far, it sounds a lot like your classical cyberpunk world, inspired by works like Neuromancer or Hardwired. But Shadowrun comes with a twist: A few generations ago, magic returned to the world. Imagine the surprise of regular parents when their children are born as elves and dwarves – or the horror of teenagers carrying orc or troll genes grew into … well … orcs and trolls! On top of this, there was the surprise of wizards and shamans alike that their ancient rituals suddenly had a tangible effect.

The player is intended to take the role of a shadowrunner, a mercenary hired by wealthy people and entities to take on missions of a shady character. The shadowrunner can have varying morals, but they typically live on the fringes of society, even if they make a lot of money.

You can find a lot more info on the world here.

Campaign

The game comes with a single campaign – Dead Man’s Switch – but at time of writing Harebrained Schemes is working on a larger and more ambitious campaign, Dragonfall, situated in Berlin (sometimes also called the Berlin Campaign).

Shadowrun Returns location

The bubbles above some of the characters imply that they have something to say to you.

Dead Man’s Switch is set in Seattle (incidentally, the only Shadowrun PnP book I have, is the Seattle source book), where the player is contacted by Sam, a former shadowrunner ally that the player has not seen since a run went South. Sam is dead. Given his line of work, he assumed that he would end up dead, so he had a chip installed that would activate the message on his death. Sam wants the player to go to Seattle, find and punish the killer. The reward is 100,000 nuyen (a shit-load of money).

As the player investigates the murder, it becomes clear that the murder mystery is like the outer layer of an onion: Every time one issue is resolved, a new layer appears, adding a new mystery.

The campaign is well written, with many memorable characters and locations. In a similar vein, the player is given the option of some quite witty responses to NPCs. However, the campaign suffers from being very linear with locked doors used to herd the player in the “correct” direction.

It is also the game that controls when combat is entered and left as well as who can be attacked and who can’t be attacked. This reduces the freedom of the player. This is intended to minimize non-essential branches (making the campaign more robust), but it is a bit annoying at times.

At time of writing, it is also the game that controls saving: The player cannot manually save his or her progress. This is a bit annoying as there can be a half hour between save points. It should be noted that Harebrained Schemes is working on making a save game system where the player can save the game during missions. Even though we are used to all games having manual saving, it is not a trivial task to do well.

Characters

When you start a campaign in Shadowrun Returns, you also create a character. You can select name, gender, race and skills. Aside from the necessary nouns, gender has only aesthetic effects on the game. Race has little effect when you start out, but it sets a max on how good you can get at something, e.g. humans can get to 9 in everything, elves can go to 12 in Charisma, but trolls can only get 6.

Skills and stats are increased by expending Karma (rewards for doing quests). To increase a skill or stat by one point, you expend a number of Karma points equal to the next skill level. This means that as you get better, you need to spend more points.

One nice effect of this is that the first few skill levels are quite cheap, and, thus, you don’t have to worry so much about wasting a few skill points. For instance, I took a point in unarmed for my first character. Never used it. Better yet, it also means that you are actually encouraged to invest in supporting skills. Raising a skill from 9 to 10 costs 10 Karma, the same price as raising another skill from 0 to 4.

Followers and Combat

There are a lot of hard missions where you really, really need backup. Sometimes you will have friends, allies or people with similar interests who will follow you. Other times you will have to hire backup.

For the most part it works quite well. Combat is turn based, and when your side gets their turn, you control your main character as well as your followers.

There are some annoyances, though. One is that you cannot move equipment around between followers. The only time where you can give them equipment is just before going on a mission. And if you give them something, they do not give it back, even if it is not used.

Another issue is that you cannot use their skills to pass skill tests. So, your hired decker cannot hack into a computer system. You have to spend skill points to do that.

The game has resurrections called Doc Wagons, where dying characters can avoid dying. Your character can use them, your followers can use them, but they cannot use them on the player, which has failed me a few missions.

The enemies do not play to the hilt on the default difficulty. As I understand it, the AI will try to make the fullest of the NPC only if the difficulty is set to max. But be ware: Without the ability to save during missions, the likelihood of failure rises sharply with difficulty.

Art and Music

The art looks good. The view is isometric, similar to computer roleplaying games like Arcanum or Fallout, but with much more sophisticated engines and graphics. It is not top-of-the-line, but definitely good enough. And, to be blunt, once the graphics is of a decent level, Harebrained Studios really should move their focus to the story. I find the music quite good. You will be listening to it a lot while playing, so it really needs to be easy on the ears.

Editor and User Generated Content

Shadowrun Returns ships with an Editor that allows players to create their own stories and share them with others. I have not used the Editor much, but it seems quite easy for such a powerful tool.

If you press New Game followed by Find More Stories in the main menu of the game, it will open a browser with info on how you publish and find ContentPackages. User generated ContentPackages are sometimes called User Generated Content (UGC), story or mod, depending on which part of the community you are in.

shadowrun-returns-avatarThere are two major hubs for content packages: Steam workshop and the Nexus sites.

When it comes to Shadowrun Returns, Steam Workshop is by far the largest and most active. At time of writing, it has 234 files and it is my impression that it has x25 more downloads per file than Shadowrun Returns Nexus.

This is not surprising: Tablet users do not have access to mods, so Steam is the place where people get Shadowrun Returns (aside from some 35,000 backers). Furthermore, it is very easy to install content packages from Steam Workshop. Press the big, green Subscribe button, and the UGC will autoinstall and autoupdate. Steam Workshop is also integrated with the Editor, making it easy to create a content package and upload it to Steam Workshop.

However, Steam Workshop requires that you have purchased the game through Steam, so I suspect that if sales take off from gog.com, things will pick up at Nexus.

Nexus is a family of sites that grew out of the Elder Scrolls modding community. It is also quite easy to install mods from Nexus, but there are a few more steps:
1) Download the file.
2) Extract the contents of the downloaded file to \Shadowrun Returns\Shadowrun_Data\StreamingAssets\ContentPacks. For Steam games the install path will usually be something like C:\Program Files (x86)\Steam\steamapps\common.
And … you are ready to start playing. For convenience, you can make a shortcut to the ContentPack folder.

I have played a number of UGCs, and they are generally of high quality. It is clear that the authors have put a lot of soul and work into their creations. As it is long and hard work, many of them are partitioned into chapters, where each chapter may be 1-2 hours of play. Alas, the authors do not always write that much of a description of their stories, so you don’t always know what you get. It also seems that some of the changes in the 1.1.0 patch broke some UCGs. Usually, that will be clear from the comments section.

It is fortunately easy to import characters from a saved game to a story, so you can easily play the same character through multiple stories. However, many stories are balanced to characters of a certain power, so you want a challenge, you should keep that in mind.

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Do you have time for a Nuka break?

Posted by Zumbs on May 10, 2012

The Sun was burning from a clear, blue sky. A small group of travelers make their way through the Mojave wasteland. One of the travelers – dressed in the dusty blue-yellow jumpsuit of an underground vault – was trailing behind, gasping for air. As they passed underneath an old billboard he fell to his knees. As he was about to give up, a man dressed in a red-black merc outfit gave a bottle to the vault dweller. In a raspy voice, he said “Here. Drink that.” The vault dweller took one glance at the glass bottle in his hand. The red label, the white writing, the brown liquid. A Nuka Cola!

In an instant, the vault dweller was on his feet, had opened the bottle and was greedily downing its content, as a warm glow covered his world and the radio played a happy tune. One happy moment to prepare him for the coming harshness of the wasteland…

Fallout Nuka Break LogoThis is the opening of the Fallout: Nuka Break fan film. The fan film has a good grasp of the atmosphere and humor of the Fallout series, not to mention lots of references to the games. As you will find out, the affliction of the hero is a direct reference to the original Fallout games.

The graphical expression is similar to Fallout 3 and New Vegas. As noted earlier, it is set in the Mojave wasteland, around the time of Fallout New Vegas. Personally, I enjoyed it a lot, and if you liked either of the games in the Fallout series, I expect you will as well.

The fan film is followed by a web series, and the creators are trying to raise money for a second season. So, if you like it, go support it!

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Skyrim Review

Posted by Zumbs on January 27, 2012

According to Steam, I have played The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim for more than 190 hours. Thus far, I have enjoyed playing Skyrim. If you enjoyed Morrowind, Oblivion or Fallout 3, you are likely to enjoy Skyrim as well. I will not be giving Skyrim a grade, as grades seldom give a good picture of a game (or anything else for that matter).

This review is PC centric, as I game on PC only. If you are playing on the PC, you have an extra option to improve the things you do not like: User made modifications (mods). At time of writing the Construction Kit is close to release, but even without it some 6000 mods have been released on Skyrim Nexus.

Map

Mountain with a view

Mountain with a view over a city and the surrounding land.

Skyrim is huge. Really. There are lots of places to explore. Many of these places have a history and semi-hidden side quests that can be found by investigating the environment. Clutter can tell a story for those who look. The exploration of Skyrim is where the game really shines, and is at its most enjoyable. There are a number of carriages that can take you between the cities, and it is possible to fast travel to a location once it is discovered. These features are quite convenient, but they should not be over used, if you want to get the most out of Skyrim.

There are lots of wild life (even foxes and bunnies), most of which will ignore or flee from you. Predators will attack, all to often on sight, which is a bit annoying.

There is another very welcome change: Climbing has been vastly improved. There are almost no invisible barriers, and it is very possible to scale many mountains. Much, much better than in Oblivion.

The Dwemer ruins from Morrowind are back, populated by automatons and Falmer. With them comes a number of investigation quests. Unlike Morrowind and Oblivion, most of the dungeons are one-way with a few side tunnels and a quick exit. Convenient, fun, but also immersion-breaking. There are also generous amounts of potions, and no need to use torches. Again.

Dwemer Ruin

The Dwemer Ruins are back!

Level scaling

Still exists, but it is closer to Fallout 3 than to Oblivion. Once you enter an area, it will lock to your level. So, if it is too difficult and you come back later, it will still be the same level. Some areas or enemies have a particular level range, so e.g. a Sabre Cat will always be dangerous to a low level character.

Bandits will seldom use advanced armor (the boss bandit may wear powerful, leveled armor, though), but it is less obvious. Except in dragon fights as dragons are leveled (there is a mod for deadlier, unleveled dragons).

Vendor inventory changes due to your level. Sic. Way to make gold useful early on. Like in Oblivion, the merchant inventories are placed in unreachable locations, so thieves can only loot the items on display.

Cities

Cities are similar in size to Oblivion, and the walled cities seem to be in their own world space. Unfortunately, there are too few NPCs in the cities (why did they not use generic NPCs like in Fallout 3?). It seems that the number of guards is similar to the number of citizens in the city, which is a bit … off.

Fast Travel

When you hire a carriage to go from one city to the next, you are not transported after paying the driver. You have to board the carriage first. You can travel to all cities, but not all cities have carriages.

There are bards in the inns who actually sing a few tunes, which gives a nice mood. But it would be nice if there were a few more people in the inn, e.g. a random traveler, a hunter or a mercenary celebrating surviving another job. On a more positive note, the interior cells respawn every 30 days (or some such), so if you loot a merchant cell, its contents will respawn at some point. You can also find chickens and cattle in the cities.

As should be clear from trailers and screenshots, the habitats of Skyrim are inspired by look and feel of the viking era. Not as outlandish as Morrowind, but definitely more interesting than the cities of Cyrodiil.

Quests

There are an absurd number of quests in Skyrim, some of which are randomly generated. As in previous installments of The Elder Scrolls, there are a number of quest lines and a large number of side quests. Depending on your play style, you may also run into a lot of characters that are essential to a certain quest, and, hence, cannot be killed. Even if the quest has finished.

Side Quests

There are lots and lots of side quests. People that hire you to do something, or clues that you find. Many of the side quests are pretty bland, with few actual choices. Many if not most of the quests are of the type “Go into that dungeon and get that artifact or kill that boss”. The deadric quests blend into the game much better than in Oblivion, and are overall some of the more interesting ones … like in Oblivion.

Quest Lines

The quest lines are a number of quests related to a particular faction, e.g. the Thieves Guild, or a particular issue, e.g. the return of the dragons or the civil war. The civil war quest line differs from previous TES games by giving the player the ability to chose sides. Furthermore, neither of the sides are without merit or flaw. This is a good thing, and much appreciated.

However, most of the quest lines railroad you, like in Oblivion. There are little in terms of meaningful choices: In most cases the influence of the player is limited to “do or don’t do the quest”. Many of the quest lines are inflated by requiring the player to go into yet another dungeon to get to the next semi-scripted cut scene. Coupled with the lack of choice, it is easy to lose interest 2/3 way through the quests. Which is sad, because there are some breathtaking scenery as well as some good ideas. And I have often experienced that the ending of the quest lines did not feel like a climax, nor did the reward feel well placed. All to often it made little sense to keep playing after finishing a quest line.

Finisher

If your attack kills an opponent, you may be shown a finisher, a cinematic of your killing blow.

After finishing a quest line, you may experience some strangeness as some quests were not written to take your accomplishments into account. E.g. after finishing the main quest and killing some 40 dragons this guard tries to shake me down!

NPCs

I like the voice acting in Skyrim better than in Oblivion. Many NPCs are pretty bland, but this is mostly due to not having enough dialog. Some may surprise you, though. The persuasion minigame has been removed, and when persuasion, intimidation or bribes are needed it is available through dialog. As it should be. One annoying feature is that NPCs start talking to you if you are in their vicinity. Even during quest-related speeches. Bad. Cipscis made a mod to reduce the talking distance.

Followers

The good news is that there are loads of followers. Some will follow you if you solve a quest for them, others can be bought. The bad news is that most of them are pretty boring, with little dialog and seldom more than a short quest that you need to complete before getting them. There is also a bug that causes their number of HP and Stamina not to level when you do (there is a workaround for that). Followers are semi-essential. When they reach zero HP they kneel, and if they get more damage, they die.

Horses work pretty much like in Oblivion, except that they aren’t very fast. Strangely, horses are incredible climbers. Horses can carry you when you are over encumbered, but there are no saddlebags. There is no fighting from horseback, but horses seem quite aggressive – my horses usually end up dead when they charge some powerful monster. Horses are cheap, but not really worth the hassle of keeping them alive.

UI

The UI is a console port. For the most part it works reasonably well, but sometimes the UI gets confused most likely because you have multiple input units (keyboard and mouse), so e.g. during a conversation it may choose another reply than the one you tried to choose. Quite annoying when it happens. There are a few UI mods that work well, but none of them fixes the issue above. Dialog and crafting happen in real time, so they will no longer freze the game.

Flame Atronach

Flame atronachs are one of the type of creatures that you can encounter or summon.

Lockpicking

The lockpicking minigame is modelled over the Fallout 3 minigame, without the skill requirements. This means that if you take your time, you can open any lock. The lockpicking perks are mostly there to reduce the annoyance of the minigame. However, the game is frozen during lockpicking, so you can lockpick while someone is trying to chop your head off. Also, if you successfully sneak before starting, you will not get caught.

Journal

There is a journal that you can use to keep track of active and completed quests. You can activate (or deactivate) a quest to show (or hide) map markers for the next objective. Unfortunately, only the note for the current quest stage is shown, which makes it difficult to review your clues. It is not possible to write notes yourself.

Map

If you fully explore a dungeon, it will be marked as “Cleared” on your map, which is a useful feature. It is also possible to place a marker on the map that will show up on your compass. This is useful if you want to find a location not previously visited, and you do not wish to open the map all the time. The map is quite beautiful, but roads are not marked. Fortunately, Ice Penguin made a mod so that the in-game map does have roads.

The Player Character

The number of skills has been reduced (again), but in my view it is more cutting away the unnecessary fat than “dumbing down” the game for casual gamers.

Leveling

There are no classes, and you get to follow celestrial signs by finding the standing stone for that sign. This has the advantage that you just start playing, and you end up getting good at the things you do. This gives a nice, natural flow where you just play the game. The flip side is that your startings skills are decided by race, not by your background.

As you gather experience, you gain levels. Each level gives you a bonus to either Magicka (used for magic), Health (Hit points) or Stamina (expended during fights and affects carry weight).

Characters

Skyrim comes with a number of ways to customize your characters looks, e.g. war paint, scars and beards.

As you level, you chose perks, and this is where you specialize. Unfortunately, some perks are overpowered while others are useless, so some rebalance is needed. Furthermore, many skills seem to have little effect unless one gets the skill perks (Lockpicking is the worst in this regard).

Character appearance

There are a number of templates (10 for each race/gender) that are pretty good starting points for making your character. You can choose scars, war paint, beards and body width. The face sliders work pretty well (but still no undo button), and the hair/eye color options are quite limited. The normal maps for the faces are a bit blocky, particularly visible on the nose and chin (mods like this one fix this issue). There are no in-game ways to change war paint or hair do, and the ShowRaceMenu console command has some issues.

Crafting

There are loads of crafting options. Aside from the classics (Alchemy and Enchanting), you can smith and improve weapons and armor, mine and smelt ore, chop wood and cook food. And you can see yourself while you are doing it (but still not when going to sleep). Skillbased crafting gets a bit overpowered if you grind it, just like in Morrowind and Oblivion.

Bugs

So far, I have experienced one gamebreaking bug (fixed by reload) and 4 crashes to desktop (all with the 1.2 patch). I have experienced few minor bugs (aside from the resistance bug introduced with the 1.2 patch). So, for me, Skyrim has been the least buggy Bethesda game to date. There are, however, a large number of minor and major bugs in the game, so it is recommended to use the Unofficial Patch whenever it comes out.

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