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Superb writing, gameplay choices make 'Shadowrun: Hong Kong' a mystery worth solving

Harebrained Schemes' "Shadowrun: Hong Kong" is set in the vibrant, wholly unique corporate dystopia that made "Shadowrun" a pen-and-paper roleplaying game cult favorite.

IN-GAME SCREENSHOT

By MICHAEL S. DARNELL | STARS AND STRIPES Published: September 7, 2015

“Shadowrun,” the early-90s pen-and-paper roleplaying cult favorite has one of the most video game ready settings imaginable. Its blend of hi-tech science fiction and gritty fantasy — all set against the backdrop of a corporate dystopia — is ripe for video gaming.

A fact its creator Jordan Weisman knows too well. After a string of successes in the early 90s and a filed shooter in 2007, Weisman reacquired the rights to “Shadowrun” video games and formed his own development studio in Harebrained Schemes.

Their first game, 2013’s “Shadowrun Returns” was a success, but its 2014 follow-up in “Shadowrun: Dragonfall” remains one of the best computer roleplaying games of all time.

So when Harebrained Schemes announced a Kickstarter for its follow-up in “Shadowrun: Hong Kong” it was no surprise they met their funding goal within hours.

“Hong Kong,” released late last month on PC, continues the tradition of excellence that “Dragonfall” established, though the limitations of the game’s engine is starting to show.

With “Hong Kong” players are dropped back into the world of Shadowrun, taking on the role of an ex-convict searching for his or her missing surrogate father. As with the past games, players can choose the gender and race of their playable character before choosing a class.

The traditional “Shadowrun” archetypes return in “Hong Kong.” Street samurai (combat specialist), decker (hacker), rigger (drone operator), adept (unarmed fighter), mage and shaman all make an appearance. Each have their own strengths and weaknesses and each gain different starting bonuses.

Race and class selection will limit how many points of “karma” that can be placed into any one skill to level it up. Outside of that small restriction, the character building is completely wide open. If you want to build a hand to hand fighter that is also super charismatic, but dimmer than a broken light bulb, you can do that.

And that level of choice is what makes “Hong Kong” work. Most every scenario you’ll come across throughout the game has multiple solutions. Non-violent gamers will be happy to know that most obstacles can be overcome without firing a shot, if they build their character correctly.

Fans of a bit of the old ultraviolence will be similarly pleased that the universe of “Shadowrun” hasn’t gotten any less dangerous. The turned-based combat from “Dragonfall” returns and it works just as well in “Hong Kong.” For those who missed “Dragonfall” and “Returns,” the combat is relatively simple.

Each round each character has a certain amount of action points. Once they’re spent, the round is over and enemies take their turn. Simply actions like moving or using basic attacks spend a single action point, while more complex spells and devices use multiple points.

Attack successes are determined by a percentage to hit, which goes down when in cover or when farther away from a target.

Considering combat relies heavily on random chance, it does tend to lead to some frustrating scenarios. Sometimes you’ll have a 90 percent chance to hit and your professional warrior will throw a grenade 80 meters away from the target. Some of the combat scenarios, especially toward the end of the game drag on a little long, and the random chance does start to grate.

Still, the combat works well for a roleplaying game and any frustration can be mitigated by trying to avoid it as much as possible. Thankfully, that’s where the strength of the game lies.

As mentioned, most scenarios can be tackled in multiple ways. One of the most common is by simply talking your way out of trouble, should your runner have enough points in the proper etiquettes. Having the right points in corporate knowledge, or having a high enough magic skill, for instance will open up dialogue paths not usable by untrained characters.

It’s a good thing the dialogue is well written, as there is a lot of it. “Hong Kong” is not a game for those not fond of reading. In fact, as much as I enjoy my old-school roleplaying experiences, some of the lengthier chit-chat could have been cut down.

The rest of the game’s mechanics still have their roots in “Returns’” mobile development, much to “Hong Kong’s” detriment.

While walking through the insanely detailed city, there is so much to see that looks worth investigating.

Sadly, the interactivity is limited to a handful of highlighted points on each map.

These points are perfect for the tapping of a finger on a tablet screen, but are suboptimal for a PC game. They also greatly limit the surprise and feel of exploration. You’ll enter a map and click through the highlighted points until you’ve clicked them all. Rinse and repeat. I’d like to see future games take advantage of the fact that it’s a PC game first and build around the platform’s unique toolset.

“Hong Kong’s” maps still work, but they’re fairly small in scope, linear and the interact points take away any real sense of exploration.

The game’s engine is also showing its age. While engaging with larger groups of enemies, I encountered areas of slowdown where the game struggled to keep up with my inputs. The same happens in the matrix — the world deckers enter when hacking a computer — which is frustrating due to the forced stealth sections within.

The game engine simply wasn’t built for stealth, as clicking on the map is the only way to move and it’s not responsive enough to be as quick as necessary. If Harebrained is going to continue adding stealth elements to future games, they really should look at a new control scheme or engine that can handle it. As it sits in “Hong Kong” it simply doesn’t work.

Other than those relatively small complaints, “Hong Kong” is a fascinating game. The characters this time around are exceptionally written, as is the central mystery that drives the story along.

I clocked in a comfortable 21 hours, which felt about right for the story the game was telling. Still, after playing basically three games in the same series, with minor upgrades along the way, I couldn’t help feeling fatigued by the end. Harebrained is planning an expansion to “Hong Kong,” as part of their Kickstarter backer rewards, but I’m hoping their next major release goes back to the drawing board.

After all, Shadowrun is such an amazing setting, I’d really hate for its companion video games to get stuck in a rut, like a certain series involving an assassin and his creed. We’ve already seen a world without a quality Shadowrun game, and it’s a world I’m not anxious to revisit any time soon.

Bottom line: “Shadowrun: Hong Kong” is a love letter to computer roleplaying game fans that hits all the right marks, but doesn’t add much to keep the series feeling fresh and exciting.

darnell.michael@stripes.com

Platforms: PC
Rating: M for Mature
Online: harebrained-schemes.com

"Shadowrun: Hong Kong" is well written, with a story that is moved along by both text and voice over narration backed by painted backdrops.
IN-GAME SCREENSHOT

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