In the broadest strokes, science fiction has always been about testing the limits of humanity in strange or unimaginable circumstances. Jules Verne’s works raised questions about our boundless curiosity. Films like Blade Runner asked us to look at the Platonic ideal of a life well lived. These questions are important, and they tap the underlying fears and hopes we all share. They are curt expressions of the human experience filtered through the impossible or the surreal.
On the whole, Shadowrun fits into this grand unifying theory of science fiction. It melds classic fantasy elements like dwarves, elves, orcs, and magic with bleeding-edge cybernetics. On top of that, it supposes a future in which corporations take the role of national governments, and the only way to make a decent living is to steal from these cyberpunk renditions of the Sheriff of Nottingham and Prince John. With such a rendition of the future, the game makes some important points about the role of class in this world and the tensions caused by unchecked corporate power. Moreover, cybernetics, while vital to bringing the lower classes up to the same level of physical and mental acumen as their well-funded corporate adversaries, sap users’ humanity. Again, we have an implicit question regarding whether the loss of pieces of our anatomy is analogous to the loss of some ethereal sense of self or our souls.
These pieces are all fundamental to Shadowrun. They are an intrinsic part of the property itself, and they cannot be extricated, though Shadowrun Chronicles: Boston Lockdown certainly tries. In doing so, it betrays its namesake by incorporating a long list of technical and gameplay missteps to create one of the most underwhelming releases in a long time.
Shadowrun Chronicles has the veneer of a proper Shadowrun game. It uses a lot of the lingo, it has the right color palette, and the soundtrack is spot-on for a dystopian Boston. But on closer inspection, the façade is just that. On a minute-to-minute level, the majority of the game is spent running missions. Each one is a turn-based tactical scenario with usually one clear win condition and a few side items or collectibles. You’ll infiltrate company X to steal McGuffin Y or hold off rival gang Z for some pre-determined number of turns. These missions are about as rote as they come, and they’re packed to the gills with clichés. At the end of almost every mission, some arbitrary twist occurs that is meant to raise the stakes or establish a sense of tension. However, Boston Lockdown misses too many necessities to be called an engaging drama.
You begin each mission by selecting from a list of NPC helpers to fill out your team. You can also bring other players along with you for cooperative multiplayer–one of Boston Lockdown’s signature features. The game expects you to get the same feeling you might if you were playing an original tabletop role-playing game. It tries to foster a community on which players can build an interesting game, but it fails in the most basic ways. Whether you rely on NPCs or bring in outside help, your teammates are disposable and their tangible utility isn’t clear. As you prepare for specific missions, Boston Lockdown never provides enough information about the coming challenges for you to make a reasonable, informed choice about which companions would be best to take along. Even worse, no explanation or rundown is given regarding the specific strengths of different classes. You know, for example, that summoners can summon some … things … to help them in battle, but the game never tells you what scenarios that ability is useful in. I had to fumble my way through missions using trial and error to brute-force a solution to tactical troubles that didn’t have easy solutions.
Boston Lockdown misses too many necessities to be called an engaging drama.
That belies a deeper problem–the lack of tactical options at any given juncture. I’ve said before that great tactics games need to give their characters enough skills and abilities to tackle different problems. As a player, you must be able to think your way through a problem and apply creative solutions to otherwise insurmountable problems. Games like XCOM excel at this. In XCOM, if you find that a group of enemies has you pinned down, you may use explosives to blow open a wall or retreat, forcing enemies to reserve their attacks for the first sign of movement. There is an option to fight back and win in almost any condition.
Shadowrun Chronicles isn’t just limited–it’s the tactical video game equivalent of checkers. You can move and attack, but not much else. There’s no defensive option other than to take cover. Your teammates have virtually no items to use, and items you do collect offer little more than minor stat buffs. The simplicity is odd, because it makes classes simultaneously more and less important. If you need to take down a large group of enemies and spreading out the damage dealt by any one member of your team is of prime importance, picking a summoner is the only viable option. While that’s a valid role that can encourage closer cooperation on its own, the fact that you have no other way to accomplish the same goal wholly diminishes Shadowrun Chronicles’ success as a strategy game.
To make matters worse, Shadowrun is also a terrible role-playing game. There are few characters to chat up, and those that do exist have only a handful of lines. There’s no character development at all, nothing to react to, and no means through which to play a role. Exploration is limited to a tiny hub world where merchants sell you gear for lackluster missions. Boston Lockdown is set in Boston, of course, but the token references to Fenway Park and a few god-awful voice actors hamming up their Bostonian-ness don’t exude “Boston,” one of the most iconic American cities.
It’s hard for Boston Lockdown to escape comparisons with the other recent Shadowrun releases, which are far, far superior. They nail their settings, tell rich, deep stories with vibrant characters, and back all that with deep, interesting mechanics. Boston Lockdown, in comparison, is a barely functional demo. Without a solid draw, the game is pointless besides its online co-op, and even then, without a strong system of tactical play to back it, that mode is as pointless as any other.
When Shadowrun Chronicles was first released, the influx of players brought the game’s always-connected servers to their knees. It was unplayable for over a week after the release. Now, with some of those obstacles vaulted, it’s clear that the underlying game wasn’t worth the wait. Shadowrun Chronicles isn’t just a bad Shadowrun game. It’s a bad game. That it comes from a series with such an exceptional pedigree and plenty of exceptional recent successes just makes the disappointment that much more bitter.