Seattle is not that bad of a place to live in. I’ll admit that it doesn’t have a giant green lady with a torch or four presidential heads carved into a rather massive rock, but it does have a few things to be proud of. Where else can you see the Space Needle, a really… big… needle-thing? Or the birthplace of Starbucks coffee, the over-zealous company that’s slowly but surely conquering the world by forcing every human being to become a caffeine addict? It’s even the location of Dr. Evil’s secret lair as seen in Austin Powers 2: The Spy Who Shagged Me. One of the lesser-known facts about Seattle is that it is also the setting for one of the finest Sega Genesis games ever spawned, Shadowrun. Here’s my review.
The year is 2058. The once peaceful landscape of Seattle is now a far more desolate place than ever before. Humans and freaks co-exist in an uneasy façade of toleration. Monopolistic mega-corporations now rule the land with an iron fist and any force that prevents them from gathering the highest profits is expendable. Laws are broken flagrantly and people “mysteriously vanish” on a daily basis, but the bribable Lone Star police force simply turns its head at the crimes. All of this power and money circulates through one forum – the Matrix. This virtual world is the lifeblood of civilization, and should the Corps gain control of it, the masses would be kept under tyrannical rule. However, there are those who stand against them.
These cybernetic felons are not heroes by any stretch of the imagination. They fight for money, power, and the highest bidder. They owe allegiance to no one, unless one counts the Johnson who they are temporarily contracted out to. Wherever there is a citizen in need of some nefarious task to be fulfilled, you’ll find a Shadowrunner.
If you were to search for many hours through the annals of Shadowrun history, you might stumble across a Runner named Michael. He was not a famous Shadowrunner, but he wound up facing a grisly death under unknown circumstances. Normally, this would have been the end of the matter, but Michael had a brother. Somehow, a video of the ambush was recorded and wound up in every news bulletin worldwide. So begins the story of Joshua, an inexperienced visitor to the savage land of Seattle seeking revenge. Unless you manage to climb your way to the top of the criminal heap, you won’t stand a chance at discovering the identity of your brother’s killer.
Shadowrun is a complex action RPG with an extremely loose gameplay system. After deciding which class you want to be (Samurai, Decker or Shaman), you control Joshua as he searches the city for hints concerning his brother’s death. As you collect these, new tasks are placed before you to accomplish at your own pace. If you were to cut out all of the extraneous training and equipment gathering, you could probably finish the entire game in a little over an hour. However, when you throw in all of the extras, the game’s length jumps to somewhere around 20-40 hours. Sounds like an unbearable amount of time to spend building yourself up, right? You couldn’t be further from the truth.
Life in Seattle is dangerous. Thugs lurk everywhere and attack without warning, and when you first start, your character is a pathetic weakling. Your armor is garbage, your weapon (or magic) is a joke, and your stats are so poor that you could barely shoot an unarmed foe to death before he knocks you out. Even if you do manage to kill somebody early on, they rarely drop more than 10 nuyen (the Shadowrun Currency unit) and you are usually half-dead or nearly unconscious afterwards, depending on whether they were shooting at you or merely punching your face in. If you head to a hospital or hotel, you will be shocked at the outrageous prices for medical help, and, as a final blow to your hopes of surviving in this game, you have ammo. Once you’re empty, you must punch enemies to death and hope they drop an ammo clip.
Fortunately, you can improve your stats through the game’s karma system. By finding one of the Mr. Johnsons located throughout Seattle, you can contract yourself out to do a Shadowrun. These range from the extremely simple package delivery to hacking into a government computer system and stealing confidential information. Inside buildings, you face security cameras, Maglock systems, trained hellhounds, and the most efficient security forces money can buy. Some missions require the successful rescue of a civilian, completely unarmed and just as likely to get shot as you are.
Once you’ve completed your run, you receive a wad of nuyen and karma points. Then, when you go to sleep at a hotel, you can allocate these points on either your basic stats like strength, body or intelligence, or you could improve your specific skills like firearms usage or negotiation. Each skill comes in handy in a specific situation, and depending on which ones you improve, your gaming experience will be greatly altered.
As for the nuyen you receive after Shadowruns, there are several areas where this could be spent. If you like magic, you could head to a magic shop and buy some better spells or more powerful magic items. If you prefer technology to the mystic, you could go to a cyberware hospital and have some mechanical doohickeys implanted in you, granting extra strength or faster reflexes. The money-laden Decker could go to a computer store and buy a new cyberdeck or some state-of-the-art hacking software. Of course, there is always the classic weapons depot, filled to the brim with guns, explosives and body armor. If you manage to find some contacts, you can special order some extremely useful and illegal gear or even join the Mafia or the Yakuza, the poison fist of the Pacific rim.
However, you should never try to become a master at everything. Each type of goodie has its own disadvantages. Whenever you have cyberware installed, your essence level goes down, reducing your magical capabilities and your health. By purchasing higher-level magic spells, you increase the amount of mental drain on yourself, and with each spell casting, your alertness level goes down. Larger cyberdeck programs reduce the amount of available space you have for other files and such. Even better weaponry can lead to your downfall if it’s illegal and a Lone Star officer finds you. For most of the game, you will always be trying to raise money to buy better toys and flashier gizmos, but due to the enjoyment of performing Shadowruns, it doesn’t seem like training.
When in the real world, the battle system is fairly simple. After equipping a weapon or a spell, you simply press the B button to target an opponent, and by repeatedly pressing B, you can quickly shuffle through targets. Once the desired target is selected, you simply press A to fire whatever you have, whether it’s a bullet or a blazing inferno. Repeat as necessary. You can set your character’s level of power from full defense to full offense, granting you more control over how powerful your guy is. Eventually, you can hire other Shadowrunners you meet to join you under the computer’s control. The AI is able to fight well enough, but make sure that you don’t get between your partner and his target. Anything in the way will take the bullet, and by positioning yourself properly, you will find that it is very easy to get enemies to do your work for you by simply hiding behind one of them.
Once you get a Datajack installed into your head, you can use your cyberdeck to invade the Matrix. Here, combat takes an entirely different turn. Your character controls a virtual entity within the Matrix called a Persona and navigates him through the system map of the computer you’re hacking into. At each node, the Persona will encounter different forms of anti-hacking software called ICE. The battle then begins between the Persona and the ICE, and there is a surprising amount of diversity in how these battles turn out.
Throughout the entire game, you only get one truly offensive program. Instead of merely trying to kill the ICE with that every time, you could try to use a password-guessing program to trick the ICE, a defensive program to reflect the ICE’s own attacks back at it, or a program to bypass that particular node entirely. Also, the ICE attacks in different ways as well. Some break your cyberdeck, preventing you from using it until it gets repaired. Some actually injure the hacker, possibly even incapacitating him if you take too long. One particularly diabolical ICE can actually eat your programs, resulting in a loss of several thousand nuyen for you. That doesn’t matter much in the end, because finding important files and selling them on the street can earn you more money than you’ll ever need. Better cyberdecks can carry more programs, take damage better, and fire faster, so you often spend every cent you make just improving your board or purchasing more upgrades for it.
As you explore Seattle, random events will occur based on your surroundings. The game might tell you that a strange character has been following you or you notice an odd looking button that says, “Touch Me”. You are then given a list of actions to respond with, and depending on what choice you make, you could get torn to shreds by grizzlies or find a heap of nuyen. However, the most interesting part of this is that each random encounter situation has multiple outcomes. Should you hear something moving in the brush and check it out, you could find a lost child or some other harmless thing. That does not mean that every time you hear something moving in the brush, it won’t hurt you. I guarantee that you will screw up your game at least once by picking the wrong option and getting in over your head, but this segment of the game adds a lot to it.
Graphically, the game is superb. The city of Seattle is sufficiently dank and crumbling enough to add just a touch of post-apocalyptic misery to the game, yet the mood set is not quite as dark as one might expect. While exploring the Salish-Shidhe or the Renraku Arcology, there isn’t a speck of depressing slum to be seen. Characters are large and somewhat detailed, and spell effects range between humorous and troubling. I’ll admit it’s funny to see a security guard crumble to dust, but what is that saying about society as a whole when we think that way?
Each major character has its own portrait to accompany its speech, and the less important ones share a variety of generic portraits. Although it wasn’t phenomenal, battling in the Matrix was visually interesting to say the least. The only real problem with the game would be the limited number of enemy types, but at least they didn’t use palette swapping and ruin it all.
Sadly, the music was weak. Most songs were nothing more than repeating beats that provided some background to the game, but there were occasional attempts at real music. These were usually bland and forgettable mixes of techno-sound effects and the occasional snippet of voice acting, consisting of the words “Checking out”. None of it was above average, but it was bearable.
The sound effects fared slightly better. Gunshots were quasi-realistic, grunts and groans of death were very satisfying, and spell effects were acceptable. The best noises probably accompanied a trip to the Matrix where every program and situation either had its own chirp or sizzle or an admirable bit of voice acting.
The storyline itself was garbage. You set out to discover your brother’s killer, meet some people along the way, and then figure out the mystery. That’s about it, except for one minor plot twist near the end. It’s as if nothing ever happens to your character; he just continues along his way to solve this one mission and has no personality. Fortunately, the game is so stuffed with bigger and meaner Shadowruns to accomplish, secret documents that provide background information, and meaningless fetch-quests to perform for others that it moves along quite nicely. Also, the game submerses you with enough Shadowrun-brand lingo that you’ll be calling people chummer in no time. It was all done well enough, but I think that providing more background for Joshua and his Shadowrunner friends would have made things just a bit more interesting.
The controls had a few irritating bugs, but nothing major. The biggest one would be that when you turned your character, he would have to make a U turn that often led to you accidentally walking through a door or bumping into a computer, but there’s no real harm done by that. Other quirks in the game would be that your response time for firing your gun or magic was slow and that the menu setup made a few actions difficult, but overall, the controls were fine.
When I first heard about this game, I thought I was going to be just as disappointed as I was with the original Shadowrun for the SNES. After playing it through (twice I might add), I am proud to announce that this game is far superior to its predecessor in almost every way. All Genesis owners who are looking for a worthy RPG experience should go out and find it. Unless you hate futuristic RPGs, you’ll get your money’s worth.