Same Drek, Different Day

by Dan H

Dan takes a look at Shadowrun: Dragonfall
Back in August of last year Arthur and I both purchased copies of Harebrained Schemes' kickstarted RPG project Shadowrun Returns.

As I explained last time, Shadowrun is an enormous mashup of fantasy cliches and cyberpunk cliches, which manages to be remarkably refreshing in a terrifyingly 1980s sort of way. A lot of people were disappointed at launch that the original SRR campaign (Dead Man's Switch to give it its official title) felt a little lacklustre, that you didn't really feel like a shadowrunner (that is, like a black-ops agent-for-hire who may or may not secretly have a heart of gold), that it was short (this criticism bugged me, because I no longer want to spend a hundred hours getting to the end of a single player RPG), and that it felt “like a point and click adventure game hurriedly glued to a tactical shooter”. This last point was pretty valid, but then I'm not sure that “point and click game glued to a [specific genre of combat/action game]” isn't basically the definition of a CRPG.

Anyway, Dragonfall was originally billed to launch in October, but got pushed back to – umm – some time earlier this year? January? Whenever. It was billed as providing more of the things that people felt were lacking in the original campaign, both in terms of in-game toys (the original game really didn't have very much cyberware at all), engine features (like, umm, actually being able to save the game thanks) and the style of story it told. It pretty much delivers on all fronts. I mean, it's still Shadowrun Returns and the fundamental structure of the engine hasn't changed, so there's an extent to which a point and click adventure stuck to a tactical shooter is what you're getting here, but there's loads more gear, actual mid-level saves, and perhaps most importantly for people who were disappointed with the original campaign, a much more “classic RPG” feeling.

The following will contain spoilers, naturally.

The Campaign

Dragonfall is extremely committed to the idea of making the game feel more like a classic CRPG than its predecessor. So committed that it takes two iconic pages straight out the handbook of Baldur's Gate. These pages, specifically, being the one headed “kill off a character in the first five minutes, and expect the player to be emotionally invested in it” (main plot point, whole of BG1) and the one headed “justify typical CRPG behaviour by having a key ally insist on a large cash payment” (main plot point, first half of BG2).

The first of these plot points is an unfortunately necessary side-effect of the (comparatively) short CRPG format. I mean yes, I suppose in a sense a 15-hour video game plot has way more time devoted to it than a 2-hour movie plot, but only if you assume that the time you spend fiddling with your inventory, fretting over your build, or taking your turn in combat are effective ways of establishing character. Twelve to fifteen hours in a video game really isn't that much actual storytelling time unless it's a visual novel, which means that unless you devote a really disproportionate amount of time to introducing a character whose only real purpose is to get killed in order to trigger the real action (what you might call the “Ned Stark gambit”) you're inevitably going to have to rely on player goodwill in lieu of actual characterisation. The second plot point is actually a very sensible way of framing player action in a game which is designed to revolve around, well accumulating money.

Anyway, in Shadowrun: Dragonfall your character has fled to Berlin, which in Magic!2054 is a neo-anarchist amalgamation of autonomous districts known collectively as the “Flux State.” Here you hook up with an old associate (you get to define precisely what kind of associate in later dialogue) called Monika. You embark on what is supposed to be a “milk run” (in the general slang sense of “very easy task” rather than the – and I only know this from looking on wikipedia – logistics specific sense of “sequential collection of goods from multiple sources and the direct service to customers without intermediate handling of those goods”) but which goes very far south very quickly. This is, in my experience, the opening of approximately eighty percent of Shadowrun stories. Monika, needless to say, buys it approximately eight seconds in, but only after a foreshadowing-laden conversation with a teammate in which she explains that there is absolutely no need at all to appoint a second-in-command, because nothing bad could possibly happen because this is such a safe and easy run.

She appoints the totally inexperienced player character as her successor as a kind of anarchist joke (one that seemed particularly absurd in my game, since I was playing melee-focused troll meatshield by the name of “Trollarina”), and then promptly gets her brain fried by the God of Dramatic Irony.

Thus you wind up in control of a small but tight-knit team of shadowrunners determined to avenge the death of their leader and friend, with only her mysterious last words to guide you. Those last words, for what it's worth, are “Feuerschwinge”, which you are told by one of your companions is the name of a Great Dragon who was shot down by the German military shortly after her awakening in 2012, but only after she laid waste to huge parts of the countryside and killed thousands of people (dragons have a … tendency to do that sort of thing). You soon decide that your only hope is to track down a man named Adrian Vauclair, the scientist responsible for developing the weapons that took the Feuerschwinge down in the first place. This involves making a deal with a preternaturally competent information broker who demands an arbitrarily large sum of futuremoney in order to find out where the guy is.

This kicks off the main act of the game, in which you try to get the cash together. Using the “you need to do odd jobs for cash” gambit is a bit tricky. I'm inclined to think that any given franchise can get away with it exactly once (although I suppose a series set in a dystopian future ruled by cynical megacorporations has more leeway) but handled right it allows you to marry the otherwise incompatible goals of open-ended sidequest-driven gameplay and a strong central narrative. There are enough jobs offered in the campaign that I never really felt I was forced to take any particular one in order to progress (of course I took them anyway, because deliberately missing out on content isn't sensible behaviour in a game of this size) but the game is still focused enough that I felt like I was making realistic progress towards my main goal.

The sidequests themselves are all good fun, and feel rather more open-ended and – for want of a better term – shadowrunny than a lot of the missions in the original game. I admit that I haven't played Dead Man's Switch in a while, but it felt like there were more options to circumvent or neutralise enemies, rather than being forced into combat whenever the game deemed it necessary. There are also a lot of optional submissions within missions, with a couple of outside parties asking you to hit targets of opportunity in whatever complex you wind up going into.

The campaign articulates the various random runs you go on well enough that they always feel like they're part of a wider story, even though you know that you will personally never interact with that story. Highlights include a mission to take out a “loose end” who seems initially sympathetic but - if you spare him - later turns out to be a sadistic little maniac, and a “swipe the prototype” run in which you wind up stealing (or perhaps destroying, or perhaps releasing) an unstoppable cybernetic killing machine. The runs also make good use of unique mechanics to make every job feel slightly different, like the run with the aforesaid killing machine, which the enemy will keep trying to bring back under their control, forcing you to focus-fire their hackers before you deal with anybody else.

Some people have criticised the lack of follow-through on the decisions you make in missions, but with one notable exception (a mission I actually missed in which you are asked to clear some ghouls out of the sewers) it isn't actually particularly plausible that you would. I admit that I was a little confused when I disobeyed a direct instruction from the sinister “Lodge” and suffered no reprisals whatsoever, but otherwise I felt sufficiently immersed in what was going on that I could pretend I didn't know that my actions had no real consequences.

Anyway, once you get the money together, you find out where Vauclair is located, but also that the location is protected by some kind of super-powered mega-AI called “APEX”. Fortunately it turns out that APEX has a built-in killswitch somewhere in Berlin, which can be activated from outside the Matrix. Unfortunately that killswitch is located in the basement of a building that is being fought over by two rival gangs, and the leader of each gang is keeping hold of a vital part of the building's elevator. And you can't just climb down the elevator shaft, or use ropes, or clear the rocks off the stairs, because reasons.

This whole segment of the game is still good fun, but feels a lot more like the original “point and click adventure” style of gameplay. The chain of events leading up to the elevator is very slightly more tortuous than I would have liked (although admittedly I was playing a troll with no social skills, so it's possible I missed some sensible ways to circumvent things). You need to kill the head of one gang for the head of the other gang, but to find the head of that gang you need to get some gear for the guy that runs the cult on the first floor, and to do that you need to find some other piece of gear to swap for it (admittedly, this is optional if you're okay to take the asshole route). It just reminded me a little too much of one of those “give the cheese to the rat to get the key to open box to get the glove to give the princess to get the flower to give to the wildebeest” chains you'd get in the days of classic point-and-clicks.

Things get momentarily awesome when you encounter APEX and it appears to you in the guise of your dead friend, selling you a line about how they are now one and something something set me free and we will rule the universe togeth... I mean and I will help you do nice things for nice people. You then get to choose either to help the AI or to delete it as originally planned (in a stroke of extreme good fortune on the part of the developers, these require you to perform the same sets of actions). Whichever option you choose, this starts a not-very-well explained fight in which you have to simultaneously defend three different locations, both in the physical world and in the Matrix. This would be extremely exciting and intense, were it not for the fact that it isn't at all clear on your first playthrough where you expect the enemies to come from, what kind of matrix defences you expect, or what your victory conditions actually are. I lost the mission at least twice because your primary goal is to protect a central computer, and your enemies' guns seem to be capable of knocking off half its hitpoints in a single shot, and there are a lot of enemies, and it is relatively easy for your characters to fail to take an enemy out due to a single unlucky miss, meaning the fight is very hard to control.

It doesn't help that there are unlimited numbers of enemies, that you are trying to cover three different objectives with (at most) four party members (and only three if one is jacked into the matrix), and that it isn't until the first time an enemy rehacks one of your hacked nodes that you learn this is even possible. If it weren't for the new mid-game-save feature, I might actually have given up on the game there (Arthur apparently did, although I believe he has gone back to it since). I'm glad I didn't, because the ending is genuinely fun.

To cut a long story short and spoileriffic, it turns out that in fact Vauclair was holding Feuerschwinge captive, rather than the the other way around, and that his master plan is to use his captive dragon to unleash a new radioactive virus superweapon thingy designed to destroy all of the dragons in the world. For some reason, in order to deliver this weapon, he has to get Feuerschwinge to burn down half of Berlin. This is, I admit, tenuous (although honestly we're talking here about a bioweapon incorporating retroviruses, radioisotopes and actual literal magic, designed specifically to kill dragons, so I'm not sure plausibility is very high on the list of priorities) and feels rather a lot like it was put in to make sure the player wouldn't be able to turn around and say “hang on, actually exterminating all of the dragons does sound like a pretty good idea, on account of how they're all unstoppably powerful avaricious superbeings whose basic function seems to be to spend eternity fucking with people”. Anyway, you stop him, and depending on your choices you get to either free Feuerschwinge, or kill her, or hand her over to APEX, all of which give you very slightly different ending dialogue.

Basically it's good fun, with a very frustrating fight in the middle of the second half (I recommend console commands, and I also pity anybody who chose to play a non-combat character). Having a consistent party really helps with the sense of investment in the game, and all of your party members are interesting. I found the decker (Shadowrun speak for hacker) you hire to replace Monika slightly less well-articulated than the other party members, but I can't decide if that wasn't a peculiar case of the game having done rather too well at making me invest in “the team”. Blitz-the-decker always felt like an outsider to me, even though I'd only met him six minutes after I'd met all the other characters. Much like Gorion in Baldur's Gate, Monika manages to remain a remarkably strong presence in the game despite dying in the opening minutes, and so poor old Blitz always felt like a poor replacement.

There is, I admit, a lot about the story that doesn't make much sense. Just off the top of my head, unanswered questions include:

  • Why exactly does Vauclair's plan require him to kill half of Berlin, other than to remove any possible moral ambiguity from the climax?

  • You are set on the path to finding Vauclair by Monika's mysterious final words but … she was killed by a super-AI the moment she broke into the lab, what made her think that the Feuerschwinge was involved?

  • Also, your initial fear is that the Feuerschwinge is back, but it's not immediately clear how it follows that your only hope is to find Vauclair. I mean the guy was a researcher who developed a weapon that took down a dragon, they might call him the Dragonslayer, but he is not literally a dragonslayer. Logically you have no more reason to think he could help you fight Feuerschwinge than you would to think Einstein could help you beat up Stalin.

  • There was some indication that you were being manipulated the whole time by the Great Dragon Lofwyr, but surely he has better ways to take out one researcher than by tricking a group of nameless Shadowrunners into investigating the guy?

Not that any of that really makes a difference because, seriously, it's a game about magic cyborg elves.

The Other Stuff

Like Neverwinter Nights Shadowrun Returns is, in large part, a toolset with a game attached, and so a big part of the appeal of Dragonfall is all of the cool goodies it adds to the game. And basically what it adds is more of everything.

The single biggest addition in terms of sheer gameplay is the save-anywhere feature, which seriously should have been in the game at launch, but it seems deeply churlish to criticise a game company for genuinely fixing a problem. There are also small convenience tweaks with, for example, resurrection items automatically firing on a character's death (rather than having to be used by somebody else, making it completely pointless to carry them on your main character).

As for the rest, there are more guns, including sniper rifles (which seem annoyingly underpowered compared to assault rifles – I took to leaving the team “weapon specialist” at home because her deadeye sniping powers just couldn't cut it), tasers for those who asked for non-lethal options in combat, throwing daggers and shuriken to provide melee characters with a strength-based backup weapon so they don't have to cross-spec to quickness for a sidearm, and a load more cyberware for all your body-augmenting needs.

As ever, I'd need to play around with these additions a little bit more in order to work out what difference they make in the long run. Notably I was playing a very cybered-out character, and only bought two pieces of new kit, and then only after I'd got the two base level cyberarms I definitely wanted. A lot of the new gear looks like it would be good flavour, but doesn't really seem all that useful. For example, you can get tailored pheromones, which boost your Charisma, but since Charisma is primarily a caster stat, it would be most useful for people who can't use cyberware anyway.

The other thing that you get a lot more of in the new expansion is drugs. There's sort of an unstated rule in science fiction CRPGs that there need to be drugs to take the role of potions and the like in more conventional games. The classic Fallout games took this to its logical conclusion, implementing effects, comedown effects, addiction and withdrawl symptoms for a wide variety of what the European release coyly referred to as “chems”. Shadowrun takes a more lighthearted approach to things, and player characters can chew on military-grade performance-enhancing drugs as if they're Smarties with no ill-effects whatsoever. This is fine in the first game, but gets significantly weirder in Dragonfall because at least one of the new drugs available for sale is explicitly shown in-game to be extraordinarily addictive and generally life-wrecking. On the other hand, it's also a pretty sick DPS boost so, y'know, swings and roundabouts.

I haven't spent much time poking around the toolset additions, and I know that a lot of the biggest changes in the toolset since launch have been added in patches. I did notice that every item in the game, including the ones that were in the original release, now seem to have base versions and “Berlin” versions, which I could understand if it was possible to create a content pack which contained Berlin data only, but I'm pretty sure you can't. This could lead to some awkward issues for content creators since if you wanted to, for example, check if the player was carrying an SMG (which incidentally is already quite tough to do in the toolset) you'd need to check for the Berlin and Core versions of every weapon. Content creators can get around this by stripping items from imported characters, but that seems like an unfortunately brute force solution.

So, yes. Shadowrun: Dragonfall. Basically the same as the original game, but more so.

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Comments (go to latest)
Arthur B at 22:40 on 2014-04-07
I had a lot of fun with this expansion up to the APEX fight, and now I know the console commands I anticipate continuing to have fun afterwards.

I am slightly sad that you don't get to meet a lounge singer who calls herself Lady Day (or occasionally Caroline, but the people all call her Alaska), or a shaman called Joe who invokes his leonine spirit guide by nailing himself to a car, or get to declare yourself the "neighborhood threat" if you run the little slice of the Flux State you've become responsible for like a manic thug. Possibly I have very specific expectations of Berlin that aren't actually supported by reality, even when you add cyber dragons.

Though at least the campaign kicks off with you taking up a new career in a new town.
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