Shadowrun: Hong Kong review

Main Teaser: Neuromancer meets Lord of the Rings in Shadowrun: Hong Kong, from Hairbrained Schemes.

Content Tease: Orks, Dwarves and Elves jack into the Matrix, cast spells, explore transhumanism, and oh yeah, fight Triad gangs in Shadowrun: Hong Kong.

Last Word: High-tech meets old-world Hong Kong

Score: 8.5

Censor’s Rating: PG/PGR/M

Difficulty: Medium

Learning Curve: 30mins

The Review:

Shadowrun: Hong Kong is the third title by Hairbrained Schemes that’s set in the popular tech-meets-magic Shadowrun tabletop universe. If you’re not familiar with the games, or setting, think  Neuromancer in a mash-up with Lord of the Rings. Orks, Dwarves and Elves jack into the Matrix, cast spells, explore transhumanism, and, oh yeah, fight in gangs in the streets of a dystopian Hong Kong.

Right from the start, Shadowrun: Hong Kong feels really good. Character portraits (and the art for NPCs) are fabulous, and the soundtrack by composer Jon Everist, gets the tone spot-on with an awesome futuristic-Asian-tech vibe.

The game begins with you as a loner, living pretty rough in Seattle (you’re able to choose your race, ‘archetype’ and origin at game start). Out of the blue, a message arrives from your former mentor, Raymond Black. Black was the one who took you in when you were young, and got you in off the streets. The message reads: “meet me in Hong Kong, right away.” Black doesn’t mess around. You head out.

Once you arrive in Hong Kong, however, things get messy. Black is missing, and it’s not long before you and your foster brother are framed as terrorists by the government. Just what is going on? So begins the mystery, as you try to determine why you’re being framed, why the government wants you dead, where Black is, and what he’s been hiding all this time.

Your enquiries take you into the underworld of Hong Kong, where a triad boss named Kindly Cheng offers to help get you under the radar. In exchange, you agree to shadowrun for her. As the name pretty much indicates, shadowrunners are dodgy types who run errands in both the “meatspace” and the Matrix.

You set up with a small group of NPCs (including your Ork foster-brother, whose career as a cop has just come to a grinding halt), in a rust-bucket barge floating in Hong Kong’s harbour. Nearby is the walled city of Kowloon, which has a very dodgy past, that you come to find out also has a connection with Raymond Black. You’re not sure of the details, but there is something nasty within the walled city that is causing serious nightmares for people who live nearby.

In addition to you and your brother, your new shadowrunner group includes a dwarf decker (hacker), an ork shaman, a russian “rigger” (with his creepy pet attack-drone), and a ghoul samurai who likes poetry and eating human flesh. Together you start taking on some of Kindly Cheng’s errands, all while you scour the local BBS (bulletin board service) for any chatter about Black, and the circumstances in which you find yourself. The missions you take on are pretty interesting, and include errands to mess up an enemy’s Feng Shui, abscond with an archaeologist’s finds, investigate a murder, and perform industry espionage.

You’ll also, as you get to know them, get involved in your companions’ lives. As you talk to them they will eventually open up to you, and potentially ask you for help with their own problems. Racter the Russian rigger is seeking revenge against his old research partners, who stole his life’s work. Is0bel the dwarf decker, wants you to beat up an old friend and get her memories back – memories of growing up in Kowloon that she erased and gave him to hold on to.

Missions are, for the most part, well-designed. There are often multiple ways to approach an objective, for example charming your way past a guard at an office reception, or to go in guns blazing. The turn-based battles are interesting too. Each character has a number of action points that they can use for movement, attacking, or doing other things like casting a spell, activating a drone, or healing someone.

Fighting enemies is relatively straightforward, though there is a challenge level that you can increase or decrease to your liking. There are some interesting twists to a few battles, which keeps them from feeling too same-y. In one instance poison gas started to pour into a room, right as enemies came in and blocked the entrance. I used Rachter’s drone to climb into a vent in order to shut off poison gas, but I also could have sent Is0bel into the Matrix in order to find the gas switches there.

The Matrix space (as opposed to “meatspace”, which those of you who read Neuromancer will recognise as real life) is interesting too. When a hacker (sorry, “decker”) jacks-in, they need to navigate through an imagined space that’s patrolled by intrusion countermeasures (ICs). These bug-like critters will not only attack you but also raise your System Trace level. When System Trace reaches a certain threshold the alarm gets raised, and that’s when you really find yourself with trouble on your hands.

The trick in the Matrix then, is to manoeuvre around without raising the System Trace to the alarm level. Various things will raise the System Trace – being detected by ICs, or trying to break into locked information using brute force. Even a successful hack will add a few points to your System Trace meter. It’s trickier than the regular combat option, and I confess this part took me the longest time to develop a strategy for.

While the fighting component is a lot of fun, the game’s best features are its visual design and storytelling. It’s great looking (as I mentioned earlier), and the setting of high-tech-meets-old-world just never gets tiresome. Your home hub, for example, is  an interesting mix of floating rafts and junks all tied together, where deckers and mages, and everyone in between, peddle their wares.

That said, I would have loved more interactivity with the world, à la Baldur’s Gate. There’s not much to do apart from following the quests, then returning back to your boat to rest, talk to your friends, and check your computer for info.

Back in your room, you can log on, and check your computer for offers of work, claim payment for jobs done, put paydata that you find in the Matrix up for auction, and search the BBS for information on Black. This part in particular is so interesting – there is loads of lore, humorous interchanges on forums, and media clips. It’s all really well done, and does much to flesh out the world and give it a lot of depth.

While the game is polished for the most part, some bugginess remains. I proceeded through one mission (aptly called “Misdirection”) three times before I gave up and googled it. Turns out a conversation after a battle didn’t trigger properly and as a result I wound up wandering around with no idea what to do next. An obvious way around any trouble here is to save often, which was my mistake the first time around. Others have reported other bugs that I didn’t experience, but with ongoing updates it’s likely these will be taken care of.

Overall however, Shadowrun: Hong Kong is a really enjoyable play. The Hong Kong setting gives a new thematic twist for the series that feels well fleshed-out and interesting, and the increasingly strange mystery you get caught up in makes for a great experience.

Definitely one for newbs and phreaks alike.

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