Sunday, October 11, 2015

Shadowrun: Hong Kong Review!

                Shadowrun Hong Kong is the third installment in Harebrained Schemes’ Shadowrun series and my second encounter with this universe after the recent addictive experience of playing Dragonfall. Left with a craving for more shadowrunning in the same dystopian “technology meets magic “ futuristic setting , Hong Kong’s release came at a perfect time. Featuring a campaign that is 15 to 25 hours long, the new Shadowrun game has players visit the iconic cyberpunk city of Hong Kong which is engulfed in a battle between corrupt corporations, triads and shadowy mystical forces. Having said all that, let’s dig in and see if this title is a worthy addition to the series.
                The game starts in the standard fashion of the series with the creation of your shadowrunner: choosing the sex and race, assigning karma points in different categories (Body, Quickness, Strength, Intelligence, Wisdom and Charisma) and skills (decking, conjuring, ranged or melee combat, drones and etiquettes, etc). As disappointing as it was to see that the skill trees haven't received much attention in terms of new additions, the great variety in the way you can build your character is still present and this increases the game’s replayability value. I personally went for a charismatic sniper who was also very skilled at decking, which was extremely fun to play but quite expensive to develop, both in terms of karma points and currency. More on that later.
The skill system, mostly unchanged.
There's more cyberware to choose from now.

                After creating your character, something unusual for the series happens:  a narrated cinematic! Raymond Black, the player’s foster father, asks them to come to Hong Kong to help him, as he says that his time is running out. The cutscene ends with a group of armed men led by a masked individual entering a shop and opening fire on Raymond.
                Unlike the previous games, there is now a backstory attached to your character. You, along with your friend Duncan Wu, were once orphans on the streets of Seattle and were taken in and raised by Raymond. Eventually, you got into trouble with some corporations and were imprisoned, thus being separated from your foster father and brother. Raymond’s message comes at a short time after your release from jail and you travel to Hong Kong to come to his aid.
Upon arriving by ship, you reunite with Duncan, but Raymond is nowhere to be found. By investigating the area around the docks you meet the Gobbet and Is0bel, two shadowrunners and future companions who inform you that Raymond had hired the entire group for protection. From there, the situation goes south and through a twist of events the player and his new found allies are forced to hide from the Hong Kong Police Force (HKPF), who put an APB on their heads. To get out of this situation, the two shadowrunners take you and Duncan to Kindly Cheng, the leader of the Yellow Lotus triad and their fixer. She makes an offer you can’t refuse: if you agree to work for her as shadowrunners, she promises to get rid of your SINs – effectively erasing your identities – , to make use of her position and connections to find Raymond and discover who set the HKPF on your tails.
Welcome to the real world!

                From here, the structure of the game is quite similar to the previous Shadowrun titles. You find yourself once again on the path of a shadowrunner taking missions arranged by a fixer, investing your earnings in an expanded range of weaponry, gear and cyberware and spending your spare time talking to your crew members. There’s also a new main hub, Heoi, a village built on the outskirts of the Walled City, an overpopulated and nightmarish slum that emanates negative Qi. All in all, the design feels comfortably similar, albeit a tad repetitive.
                The story progresses in an interesting manner with the main actors in the play remaining in the shadows for the first half of the game. All the people in Heoi, including you and your crew, are having nightmares on a nightly basis, nightmares which all share a common element: teeth. This adds a note of fear of the unknown and intrigue to the atmosphere and is maintained until the end of the game, when the mystery regarding Raymond and the main villain is resolved with a spectacular and somewhat unexpected appearance of the latter. That is, if you hadn't paid attention to the dialogue with a few companions. And this time around, there are even more possible endings to the story - five, to be specific -, all which feel satisfactory and wrap things up, with the exception of a story thread that will be covered in the upcoming mini-campaign.
Can I sleep now?

                With a new setting and a new fixer, there also comes a new crew, and this is one the best parts of the game. There are five new companions, three of which I’ve already mentioned: Duncan, Gobbet and Is0bel. Before I say a few words about every character, I must mention that the dialogues with them are extremely text-heavy. Now, I’m a big fan of well written RPGs and the dialogue in this game fits that criteria, but sometimes I felt like the companions had way too much to say compared to how much time was spent in missions. However, talking to them during missions would not have been realistic, as jobs would require complete concentration. Since I don’t see an alternative to the way the companions’ dialogue has been handled, I’ll mark my complaint as a warning: this game involves a LOT of reading! This also applies to all the characters in the main hub: their willingness to share so much information with the player feels unjustified. Whereas your companions should and are inclined to tell your about their background due to the fact that you’re in deep shit together and need to act as a team, the characters in Heoi do not have a reason for being so talkative, since they live in a dirty slum where their life standard isn’t too great and they have all the reasons in the world to be suspicious to strangers.
Well-written indeed.
Stop talking, will you?

                Onto the actual characters and their personalities, Duncan used to be a police officer, but has had his ID revoked once the APB was put out. As such, he is an expert in security with experience in both crowd control and lethal force. Most of the dialogues with him revolve around the period you spent together in Seattle and around Raymond, so he is a great source of finding out more about your past. You also need to reach a certain conversation with him to access a secret ending. Duncan complains a lot and is easily affected by things, but I thought that the reasons for his behaviour are believable – considering his past – and as such, I always kept him in my party. He’s the only companion who doesn’t have a side quest because the main story that involves finding his foster father feels very personal to him.
Duncan's ready for revenge!

                Next up, we have Gobbet. An ork shaman and a follower of Rat, Gobbet feels like a replacement for Dietrich in terms of gameplay. Due to her experience as a shadowrunner, she takes on the role of mentor to you in-between missions. Her lessons are structured in the following way: an account of a past mission in which things may or may have not went wrong, followed by a prompt for you to say what you would have done *better* in that scenario. A few of these lessons involve her life in another “community”, where she eventually returns for a brief time and will require the aid of the player. Gobbet is easy going, carefree, has a good sense of humor and is very likeable, and through her interactions with the player she finally learns how to reflect and learn from her mistakes.
Learning from mistakes.

                The third companion is Is0bel. I won’t dwell too much on her because I didn’t like her enough to take her on more than two missions, and I also wanted to be a decker. No point in having two deckers on the team, sorry! Is0bel is a dwarf decker who grew up in the Walled City, the worst place in Hong Kong, so her introvert personality and preference of living in the Matrix come at no surprise. She is the second companion to hold vital information about the Walled City that is required to access a secret ending. Her side mission involves finding a way to restore her memories which have been locked away, but the conclusion of this mission isn’t too happy.
                Let’s talk about Racter. He’s a rigger who is always accompanied by his custom-built drone, Koschei, and they can be found on the bottom level of the ship you claim as your new home in Heoi. The two form an epic duo in combat and are a must in any team, mostly because of Koschei, who can be specialized on melee or ranged weapons and is extremely powerful. There’s more to them than it initially appears and uncovering their mystery is very satisfying, although quite unnerving. Racter is a posthumanist who appreciates pragmatic and maybe slightly evil decisions taken by the player, and upon getting to know him well enough he will ask for help with concluding his business with two scientists from his past who determined him to come to Hong Kong. I don’t want to say any more about him since he is a character worth getting to know on your own.
I hope we'll meet in posthumanity, Racter
Always on the same page!

                And now, about Gaichu. On par with Racter in my companion top, he’s the one who stands out immediately, mostly because he’s a .. ghoul. Perhaps the reason why I like him so much is because he reflects the theme of humanity in monsters compared to the inhumanity in people. Gaichu is found in a situation that strongly incriminates him, but further investigation reveals him to be on the higher moral ground. It is completely up to the player to decide if he will join the crew or not, although I strongly advise everyone to take him, as he's a complete badass with a great backstory and personal quest. He's also an ex-member of Renraku's Red Samurai, one of the most feared security forces in the world, and is being hunted by the members of his old squad who consider him to have broken his samurai code by not committing suicide after he contracted the ghoul plague. Although his new condition made him blind, he is able to put his ghoul abilities to use and even exceed his former capabilities. Gaichu stands as a symbol, inspiring the player to always aim to improve and perfect himself. My only minor complaint about him is that he is rarely noticed by other people, which is a bit immersion breaking as ghouls are not accepted in society.
Welcome to the team!
Experience has taught the exact thing.

                It’s hard to choose my favourite companion. I initially thought it would be Gaichu, but as Racter’s story evolved, I found myself liking them in an equal manner. The most ironic fact is that both were rewards of the Kickstarter campaign additional stretch goals, so hooray for Kickstarter! All in all, I felt that Harebrained Schemes did a great job with the crew members, even more so than in Dragonfall. Well, maybe with the exception of Is0bel, but that may be just because of my preferences.
The crew!

                Despite that what we have here is more of the same Shadowrun, the game never struck me as repetitive or boring, mainly due to the amazing variety of shadowrunning missions. These include investigating a series of murders, attending a party in order to extract information and incriminate someone, affecting the flow of Qi in a corporate headquarters, obtaining the prototype of a super weapon and many others. What’s even greater is that you can go through all of them in multiple ways, through the use of skills or by making choices. You can also make use of your crew members in case your skill levels aren't high enough, which proves to be a very logical and helpful addition. One of the missions in the second half of the game has you exploring several levels of a corporate building, all of which are heavily guarded. Through the use of decking, charisma and different etiquettes, it is possible to completely avoid fights until the last section, where combat is mandatory. It’s always great to see a game that encourages and rewards different playstyles.
                Speaking of decking, the Matrix has been revamped. It now involves memory and pattern matching puzzles, as well as a real time stealth element, beside the usual combat featured in the previous games. Each Matrix map has several Watcher IC that patrol the area and attack you in case you enter their field of view. In case of detection, they become hostile and also increase your trace in the system, up to the point where additional ICE spawn and attack you. However, managing to stealth past them gets you to the Blocker IC which guards data or access nodes and can be hacked. The hacking is done by a mini-game with two parts: the first one is a memory puzzle that extends your time left in the Blocker by remembering and typing in sequences of digits; the second one ultimately unlocks the access to the node and involves putting together a pattern of symbols from a series of symbols that flash on the screen. All things considered, I appreciated these additions and thought they made decking more challenging and interesting.
Just.. stealth.. it!

                When words or decking fails, you can always resort to the old-fashioned combat, which is exactly the same as in Dragonfall with a few exceptions: fights can now be initiated whenever you want with the press of a button, gaining the upper hand, and there are many more spells and weapons to choose from. The skill system is mostly the same, although a new tree for cyberweapons has been added for the main character and the skill trees for crew members remain lackluster. More diversity or depth in this regard would have been great.
On guard while the decker is doing his job.

                Unfortunately, there’s no Very Hard difficulty, which is a great shame. I started the game on Normal and while it was a bit challenging for the first missions, the difficulty falls off and I eventually switched to Hard but still found the combat too easy. I suspect one of the reasons for this is the fact that I obtained an extremely powerful sniper rifle early in the game which somewhat trivialized the combat, hitting for 18-40 damage per shot. Truth be told, acquiring it involved a rather tough decision that made me feel a bit guilty, so I’d say that balances it out. Another reason for why the combat may have felt so easy is that Koschei can have up to 5 action points and wreak havoc each round. I also had a strong team composition in which the members – Duncan, Gaichu and Racter – strongly complemented each other. Thus, I felt challenged in only two or three situations, and the ending boss was a complete pushover.
To be fair, that prototype laser was so powerful it was worth waking up ancestors for it.

                There are also a few other minor complaints that I'd like to mention. A few times I felt that my response options in dialogue were a bit limited and did not include what I would have actually wanted to say. There's also the matter of the loading screens, which become unbearably slow in the second half of the game, so slow that I stopped reloading earlier saves to try different approaches. I also ran into a money problem even though I did all the side missions and almost all of their optional objectives. I only managed to buy my character a full cyberware set and a mediocre deck, and didn't have enough nuyen to purchase gear for my team or buy better weapons or the best deck. I don't know if this is intended or if I had spread my skills too wide - decking, sniping and cyberware gear -, so I have to admit that it didn't bother me that much in the end. More items would have made the game easier, and that is certainly something I wouldn't have wanted.
                The last aspects of the game that I will cover will be the way the game looks, sounds and also feels. Graphically, Hong Kong looks better than Dragonfall, due to its splendid art direction and detailed environments, characters and bigger levels. The whole eastern setting look is pulled off very well and all the locations, especially the outdoors ones, look amazing. Sound wise, I feel that this game has the best soundtrack in the series, featuring a multitude songs that support the visuals and reinforce the eastern thematic, creating a mystic atmosphere which gives the tense impression that danger always lurks nearby. As mentioned in the beginning of the review, this is the first Shadowrun game to have a few voice acted cutscenes, featuring slideshows of nicely painted backgrounds that present the narrated story. All in all, Hong Kong scores highly in its graphical and sound components.
Party time!
Hong Kong slums.

                Ultimately, Hong Kong represents more of the same Shadowrun, which can be both a good and a bad thing. Much of the way the game is structured will feel very familiar to the veterans of the series, whereas for newcomers this title may be the perfect entry into the universe. Regardless of the somewhat repeated formula, what we have here is a fascinating new setting that features a very well-written and text-heavy story with strong characters and addictive gameplay. For those who want more Shadowrun and don't mind the absence of radical changes to the formula, there is no reason not to get Hong Kong. I have greatly enjoyed my time with it and look forward to the upcoming mini-campaign.

+ More of the same Shadowrun
+ Great story in a new setting
+ Memorable cast of characters, especially Racter and Gaichu
+ Good overall writing: story and companions
+ Improved Matrix
+ Beautiful art direction, visuals and soundtrack
+ Incredible variety in the type of missions and various ways to approach them
+ Multiple endings

- Combat is way too easy
- Lackluster skill development for party members
- Unbearably slow loading screens in the second half of the game
- The dialogue options are sometimes a little restrictive
- A few unresponsive menus
- Gaichu not being noticed while in public
- Involves a LOT of reading
- People are unnaturally open and talkative to the player

Written by Wolfe for The Game Slashers.

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