RPG Codex Review: Shadowrun: Hong Kong
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RPG Codex Review: Shadowrun: Hong Kong
Review - posted by Crooked Bee on Tue 13 October 2015, 16:08:54Tags: Harebrained Schemes; Shadowrun: Hong Kong
[Review by Darth Roxor]
Another year, another Kickstarter, another Shadowrun game. I’m starting to seriously wonder what to write in this introduction because it seems everything has already been said before.
Hong Kong is the third (and a half) game in Harebrained Schemes’ Shadowrun Returns series, following Dead Man’s Switch and Dragonfall (and its Director’s Cut edition). It gathered over 1200k moolah on Kickstarter and made many promises.
Actually, no, it didn’t. Its basic idea was that Hong Kong would not be breaking any new ground – it would be just yet another Shadowrun campaign, with generally the same structure as Dragonfall. But this time, it would have a bunch of new features, fixes and all that other jazz. Basically, Dragonfall++, just like DF was DMS++. Truth be told, that was exactly my idea of how the game should look, so I was appropriately hyped for more cheesy cyberpunk fun.
It would be best to kick off with all the new stuff that HK brings to the table before we proceed with the campaign. Most of the additions ransomed from the Kickstarter stretchgoals were simply new character building options (more guns! more cyberz! more spells!), but two bigger things that seemed much more interesting included a completely revamped matrix and an expanded magic system.
When it comes to broadened customisation, Harebrained have definitely delivered. Every character archetype gets new toys to play with, and perhaps the best thing about it is that most of these novelties are sidegrades to already existing gear. Adepts get a whole collection of magic swords, riggers get drones with alternate weapons, cyberdecks differ in terms of program capacity and Matrix HP/evasion/AP, some guns exchange damage for armour penetration, etc. There’s also a neat addition at character creation that lets you set your protag’s name, surname and callsign. It’s purely cosmetic and ultimately just decides how various people will address you in conversations, but it’s fun to have around nonetheless.
The change to riggers is something I like in particular. Being able to choose between all the drone variants finally adds some options and fiddling potential to the class. Offensive drones can now pack shotguns, smgs and sniper rifles, while support drones carry meds, grenades and drugs. They also have expanded abilities. But there’s one big stinker here – you’re basically buying them completely blind. The drone shop has no listings of drone stats and guns whatsoever, and you may often find yourself rather confused. For instance, the Strato drone now comes in normal, assault and sniper variants. The “assault” version is fitted with a “close combat weapon”, which most people would assume to be a shotgun, but it’s actually an smg. The drug drone also doesn’t list what actual drugs it carries. So on and so forth.
Moving on, we have the expanded magic. This includes new spells, magic foci and revamped lay lines. Foci come in three types – fetishes (passive WP or CHA boosts), spell foci (specific spell sidegrades) and weapon foci (enchanted katanas). Somewhat underwhelming, but at least it’s there. Now, the lay lines, this is something hilarious. In Hong Kong, these are called Dragon Lines and they come in three sizes, just as before, and offer the usual spell accuracy and cooldown boosts. But medium/big Dragon Lines also introduce spell bouncing, which seems like a good idea on paper, but in practice it turns out to have a fatal flaw. The bounces have no IFF, which quickly produces interesting results like buffing your enemies or having your fireballs come back right at you. The Dragon Lines are also always placed out of any cover for some additional risk management, but that combined with the wacky bouncing makes using them an outright bad idea instead.
Cyberware got a lot of additions, including cyberclaws, ranged monofilament whips, a magnet arm that throws away grenades, gun auto-loaders, etc. Very numerous, very cool, much cooler than just simple stat boosts. A new subskill governing cyberware, Cyberware Affinity, has also been added, subordinate to Body. It’s a good addition on one hand because it forces you to spend karma to get the best enhancements, not to mention that it gives some boosts to the cyberweapons. But on the other hand, it is a really, really, REALLY stupid addition because it gives your character +1 essence at ranks 3 and 6. This means that you can pump it a bit with a mage character and install come cyber without magic-dampening repercussions because those start only if you go below 6 essence. And well, the very idea of increasing essence is pretty haram in itself.
I also have to mention that all this added gear now matters a lot more simply because HK is much more stingy with nuyen. You get less cash on the whole, and I think item costs have also been upped. It’s something I find very commendable because you finally feel like you’re prioritising your purchases and choosing between stuff that has well-balanced ups and downs, instead of just immediately beelining for the most powerful gear available at a particular stage.
Now we finally get to what you’ve all been waiting for – the Matrix overhaul. Now, the Matrix in SRR has always been slightly iffy because it’s essentially a continuous single-character combat encounter with not much else going for it. It was at its best when you were on a time limit and had to protect the decker while he was jacked in. Otherwise, it wasn’t anything special.
For HK, Harebrained wanted to make the Matrix slightly closer to its pnp form where the decker is actually supposed to evade all the IC. So they added stealth. The Matrix levels now start in real-time and are patrolled by Watcher IC that move around their set routes, looking for intruders within their view cones. The decker has to manoeuvre around these watchers or risk getting spotted and having his system trace number go up significantly. Maximum trace means the system goes on full alert and spawns more combat IC. But that doesn’t mean you can totally avoid combat in the Matrix, no. Most systems still have white IC on the prowl, and sometimes you even end up in situations where you have to fight them off while avoiding the patrolling watchers.
I don’t know how fun the above sounds to you, but the sad reality is that it’s simply not fun at all. For starters, the whole ‘stealth’ aspect is basically a very poor man’s Commandos, and it gets old after you’ve been through it about two times because there’s no variety to it too – you move through unseen or you don’t, no variables, no options, no tools available. Honestly, you’re mostly just better off allowing yourself to get spotted and eliminating one of the watchers as it completely deconstructs these “stealth puzzles” by leaving a hole in the security grid and letting you move in almost unopposed.
But that’s not all. At least the old Matrix was slightly diverse when it came to combat encounters. Apart from white ranged and melee IC, there were also sentries, sparkies and the occasional blacks. In HK, every single system except one has only white ranged and melee when not tripped to max trace, nothing else. And since, like I said, not all combat can be avoided, you’re left with Matrix runs that are even more mind-numbingly boring than before.
And yet that’s still not all! The Matrix also has a minigame now. Most objectives and data nodes are hidden behind Blocker IC, aka gateways waiting to get demolished. You have two ways of getting past them – brute forcing (instant win, +++trace) or hacking. Hacking is a two-step minigame. The first is a quick round of Simon says on a 1-9 keypad that buys you additional time for the second step. Step two is somewhat close to the hacking of Alpha Protocol. You’re given a few sets of symbols and have to pick the correct one by comparing it to a row at the top of the screen that gives you hints by blinking single symbols in and out. The best thing that I can say about this minigame is that you can usually be done with it in some 10 seconds.
There are two more terrible things about this new Matrix, but I’ll leave them for later.
The last part of the promised Matrix overhaul was the introduction of sculpted systems, i.e. Matrix levels with unique looks based on some specific themes. Well, there is only one such system in the game, and the fundamental difference between it and the other ones is that it’s orange instead of blue and has some digital archways and lion statues.
Oh, I guess it also warrants mentioning that HK retains all the gameplay changes that were added in Dragonfall Director’s Cut. I never got to write about those, so might as well briefly mention the few most important ones.
The first big thing is that you now have a much bigger influence over your companions’ gear and abilities. If you’re unsatisfied with your bros’ loadouts, you can lend them new guns, spells, drones and other stuff as you please (provided they have empty slots and the relevant skills, of course). Your companions also level up every few missions, and you get to choose between two abilities that fit one of their two aspects/playstyles (like choosing between a decker’s combat and Matrix performance).
The second is the revamped combat engine. Cover is much more important nowadays since a git can only take full or critical damage if standing out of cover. As always, there are three levels of it, offering various degrees of percentage damage reduction, further boosted by flat DR from armour, so a sufficiently protected character can even avoid taking any damage from an attack. Combatants can be flushed out of cover by flanking them, using special abilities or attacking them in melee.
There is also one brand new addition that lets you start combat and get into position when approaching unsuspecting enemies.
I think that’s all. Or, at least, those are the most important parts. There could be some more minor additions and fixes, but they are either not worth mentioning, or I just can’t remember them.
So, without further ado, let us proceed to the main course.
The overall structure of the Hong Kong campaign is basically identical to Dragonfall. There’s a lawless hub with vendors and other NPCs where you rest between missions, you have a bunch of imposed companions chilling in your safehouse and there’s a fixer sending new contracts for missions unrelated to the main story to your mission computer. No surprises here.
But the way you land in this hub is different, and I think it bears mentioning because it shows a part of the Shadowrun life that has been missing from the previous games. Your character doesn’t start off as a shadowrunner – he’s just a bloke from Seattle who spent a few years in a corp prison for crimes unknown. But after landing in Hong Kong, you end up forced to work for the Triads and needing to burn your SIN (system identification number) to become a face in the crowd and evade the cops (who are after your butt for crimes unknown!). A refreshing take on the subject matter, although you might be left wondering how your character goes from random bloke status to veteran shadowrunner over the course of some two weeks. But honestly, who cares about that.
Since I’ve touched on the story already, I guess I might as well get it out of the way fully now. I felt that, on the whole, the general narrative hooks and themes of HK were solid. You’re given a legit reason to pursue your objectives, there’s a degree of Awakening Ancient Evil™ that doesn’t go overboard, there are some parallels between the heroes and the villains, and there’s also a good mix of corporate plots and supernatural shenanigans. But what I found severely lacking here was the pacing. The game starts in a very interesting way. It even instils in you an effective sense of foreboding that something’s about to hit the fan in the megaslum that is the Kowloon Walled City. But after this start, there’s nothing. You just run around doing unrelated side missions, sometimes the fixer calls you to give you some info on your main goal, and, eventually, the whole interesting setup vanishes completely. There’s very little tangible relevance or progression happening through the entire middle part of the game, and, to be honest, I find it rather puzzling because of how simple it would be to add some story-related interjections between the side runs. Remember how you’d get ambushed on the subway in Dragonfall once? It served as a poignant way to remind you that you’re being hunted. But there’s nothing like this in HK, even though it would be as easy as having you run into a bunch of cops or whatever. Instead, you’re only just told sometimes that “we have a trace on the guy we’re looking for!!!”.
But once you’re out of the middle section (which constitutes some 80% of the game) and back on the track of the main story, it suddenly starts getting interesting again. And then it ends. Perhaps it is a deliberate move to leave you hungering for more and awaiting the upcoming post-HK mini-campaign, but all I can say is that I felt disappointed.
Your companions also tie into the story in a way or two, albeit mostly hopping on the joyride out of accidental necessity. They’re a pretty varied posse, including Is0bel the decker, Duncan the gunner, Gobbet the shaman, Racter the rigger and Gaichu the ex-fascist cybercommando samurai ghoul. What you might find surprising is that you aren’t forced to accept the rigger and the ghoul into your team (but it would be a stupid thing to do, given that they’re easily the most useful and interesting companions in the game). But what is perhaps even more surprising is how effective all those characters are. HK has no Blitz. Every party member is a useful character in and outside combat. Only Gobbet is lacking a bit due to her poor choice of offensive qualities, but she does her job regardless.
Most of them are also competently written. Gaichu and Racter are easily some of the coolest characters in the game. The former is on the run from his old Renraku Red Samurai comrades for the dishonour of allowing himself to become infected by a ghoul. But he instead embraces his new life, which he claims to have perfected him as a killing machine, and also seeks to become a ronin. Racter, on the other hand, is a Russian cyberneticist obsessed with transhumanism. One could call him a mad scientist, but I was extremely appreciative of the fact that he’s more like Dr Frankenstein or Herbert West than a raving Mengele-lookalike. He’s cold and distant, but he speaks with logic and reason. In a different time and a different place, I could even picture him in a role similar to The Master from Fallout.
As for the other three, Duncan is also solid as your typical muscle sidekick that you can take to the gym and pass brofists with all day. As long as he doesn’t Process™ everything he hears or Move Around His Room Like A Caged Panther™, that is. Gobbet is for the most part a comic relief device, but she can show her teeth when necessary. And finally, there’s the character that apparently introduces herself as Iszerobel. Is0bel spends just about all the time whining. About her past, about people, about herself, about the Walled City, about everything. Is0bel is a Bioware companion par excellence, and I swear, if the writers’ goal was to make me wish I could dump her in the Victoria Harbour, then they’ve succeeded. She’s one of the reasons why I’d recommend playing HK with a decker, just to save yourself from having to listen to her.
With all that irrelevant story crap out of the way, let’s focus on the actual meat of the game, the shadowruns. Unfortunately, all I have to say is that HK is simply not as good as it should be. This is for a couple of reasons.
The first one is the general mission design. Despite the game having plenty of missions with interesting or unusual setups, like disrupting the feng shui of a corp tower or kidnapping a mafioso from a restaurant, the actual level design simply doesn’t reinforce the coolness of its themes. For instance, that feng shui mission basically boils down to clicking on a lot of hotspots and then killing a bunch of dudes at the end. The missions are just samey as hell and barely ever manage to surprise you with anything clever or force you to do something different.
A minor gripe that I also have with most of the missions is how they lack the exfil element. There are two or so that do that, and they only serve to remind you how ridiculous the ones without them are. For example, after the police surrounds a museum that you’ve just looted... you just take a side door out? And, once you break the tower’s feng shui at the top floor and cause all possible alarms to go off, you just take the elevator down to the lobby and walk out like nothing happened?
Another part hurting the level design is the size of the maps. Before release, HBS said that HK’s PC-exclusiveness would let them considerably expand the game’s maps. But the problem here is that they’ve been expanded in size only and not in scope. That is to say the levels are indeed bigger than before, but they are also ridiculously empty, and the additional space is mostly there only for you to waste time on running back and forth. There is only one level that is a notable exception to this rule. It also looks unnecessarily big and empty once you enter the map, but it is only when you eventually get sandwiched between two groups of angry gunmen that heavily outnumber you that you appreciate the expanded manouvre space granted by it. It was perhaps the only moment in all the Shadowrun games when I really needed to do a tactical relocation across the entire screen (and then some).
Sometimes the maps are also padded with irrelevant NPCs to waste your time even more, but I’ll get back to that later.
By far the worst part of the missions is just how ridiculously easy they are. Now, naturally it has to be said that DMS and DF were not paragons of difficulty, but they had plenty of challenging moments. HK, on the other hand... I played through it twice, first time with a mage picking every stealthy/diplomatic way there was, and second with a berserk decker that took every opportunity to fight. The lack of difficulty in both playstyles was astounding, and it only served to stress the sameyness of the missions. I got bored of the second playthrough halfway through because the effects of everything I did were largely the same, even though they should have been fundamentally different.
To start with the “pacifist” run, there is one thing that bugged me a lot about it. All the ways to get through without fighting were so incredibly easy to find, it no longer felt like an accomplishment. When all you need to do to Totally Avoid Combat is pilfer a side room and pick a relevant skill response (of which there are usually at least two and you’re bound to have one of them), you don’t really feel clever about sneaking through. I appreciate that the missions now have many more non-combat options than before, but in practice, they just feel banal. Now compare that to the Aztechnology run in DF, where lying your way through from start to finish really required you to have a set of diverse skills and not just the security etiquette.
Quite frankly, those “stealth” options are also completely ridiculous sometimes. One of the last missions, for instance, lets you get to the very top of a turbo-secured corporate tower by wearing janitor suits. Carry on, officer, please ignore the ghoul with the huge katana and the guy with the spider murderbot. We are just janitors.
As for the combat run, well, across all of this game’s 14 or so missions, there were only two that gave me a modicum of trouble. One was the aforementioned sandwich scenario. The other was an early mission that first puts you against two decently challenging fights that can burn through your medkits and finally makes you face a group of high-level deckers and riggers. Everything else, however, was like shooting fish in a barrel. A particular disappointment here is the mission where you face off Gaichu’s former Red Samurai team. They are supposed to be tactically superior commando supersoldiers, but end up looking like a pathetic band of chumps instead.
The greatest offender here is the AI. I’ve kind of already given up thinking that HBS will ever fix the AI in Shadowrun after DF, but, I swear to God, the enemies in HK are actually even more idiotic than before. I don’t know whether it’s because of the Director’s Cut changes to the engine or for some other reason, but the fact is that the AI is simply considerably more stupid. I’ve seen enemies grenade their own allies. I’ve seen them move out and then back into the same place and end turn. I’ve seen melee dudes run up to my characters point blank and end turn without attacking. I’ve seen them end turn after a single move even when they had no AP debuffs on them. It’s just crazy. After a certain point, you only start wondering what cabaret the AI is going to enact each time combat starts.
It’s just depressing because there are many fights in the game where the enemies SHOULD have the upper hand and SHOULD pose a challenge. Usually, it’s even true for the first turn when they carry out their (probably mildly scripted) alpha strikes. But after that, they just get completely confused and sabotage their own advantageous setups to let you pick them off almost unopposed.
I promised to say one more thing about the Matrix, and now is the time. Arguably, DMS and DF were always at their best during the “protect the decker!” scenarios. Whether it was Telestrian tower, d0rf rigger extraction or APEX shutdown, those moments stood out as the most shining examples of Shadowrun’s combat encounters. You were on a time limit, had to split up, hold out, adapt. Unfortunately, HK has only one real example of such a sequence, and the way it’s resolved is terrible. There is nothing tense or interesting about it. Your decker has to go through a painfully big system, fighting largely the same mobs of IC one after another, while the rest of your dudes set up a killzone at a single door. This door closes and opens every turn, and your enemies are just forced to run like sheep into the meatgrinder. The meatspace fight boils down to spamming area attacks and overwatch on each turn, while the cyberspace part is frustratingly boring and prolonged.
Quite frankly, this is the ultimate nail in the new Matrix’s coffin. Its mechanical overhaul is already misguided as it is, but abandoning the most iconic aspect of the Shadowrun games related to it is simply mind-boggling. Each time the Matrix appears in any mission, you’re left wishing it wasn’t there. In HK, it only serves to waste your time, instead of adding a unique layer or set of resolutions to the gameplay.
Yet another thing that I have to mention here that has disappointed me greatly was the last mission. Like many things in HK, it is great as a concept, and its general theme, music and ambient sounds make it incredibly atmospheric. But in practice, it boils down to just following a nearly totally linear corridor and then fighting the same bossfight 2 or 3 times in a row. Compare this to the excellent dungeon crawl at the end of Dragonfall and weep.
I said earlier that maps are often padded with throwaway NPCs, and I would like to elaborate on that now by discussing the overall writing quality. Simply put, it’s a mixed bag. When it stays on topic regarding the important stuff, like the main plot or the side mission tasks at hand, it’s pretty much on par with the previous SR games. However, HK has this very unhealthy habit of dropping characters with absolutely irrelevant life stories around every corner. These walls of text are not only misplaced as hell, devoid of any actual content or simply ridiculous, they also all follow the same pattern. “Hello, I was a [profession] back in Seattle but then I lost [something] and I became a [criminal]. Please stay awhile and listen”. And the worst thing is that once you step into those dialogues, there’s no going back. There’s no “bye” option. Listen or die. My favourite one of these is probably an orc “shadownanny”. That’s right. It’s a nanny for shadowrunner kids when their parents go on missions.
Someone could say “hurr, if you don’t like those text dispensers, just skip them”, and there is some truth to this. Honestly, the best part of my second playthrough was that I could fast-forward through all the incoming word-floods (it also made the game considerably shorter). But it’s not exactly true for a first playthrough when you can’t be sure before initiating a dialogue whether it will actually matter or not. Particularly since a bunch of them actually do matter, and some are even required to unlock the “best” ending.
Which brings us to the final point of this chapter, but it is finally something positive for a change. HK has a lot more tangible reactivity compared to DF (i.e. gameplay differences instead of just throwaway conversation shifts). It’s still nothing spectacular, and many of the choices that would beg for long-term consequences are still irrelevant, but at least it’s something.
As always, before wrapping up, let me just briefly mention the tech stuff.
Aesthetically, HK is as beautiful as ever and then some. The 2D isometric art has always been excellent in HBS’s games, and this time they’ve added even more effects to the engine. The music is also great, even if it’s completely different than before. It’s much more atmospheric and slow-paced, with plenty of oriental touches and undertones that make it fit the game perfectly. Perhaps my only criticism of the soundtrack would be that it reminds me more of Shpongle than cyberpunk covert ops, but I can live with that.
One of the KS stretch goals also promised the addition of voice-acted cutscenes. They are there, alright, but they’re largely unnecessary. The VA is just one guy talking in the intro and outro. The cutscenes are static artworks that also don’t appear all that often. They’re pretty, I suppose, and don’t really distract from the game itself, but they don’t add a whole lot either.
Naturally, I just couldn’t have a chapter without mentioning the new Matrix, so here’s another thing that sucks about it. The controls. When something relies on real time coordination as much as it does, its controls shouldn’t be so floaty and unresponsive. It’s hard to always guess which path your character will take, and going by short steps often doesn’t work either, because the character will refuse to immediately stop or change direction.
But at least the Matrix is decently explained thanks to a brand new Help screen. The tired old Help section from the days of DMS, which didn’t really give any useful info and was full of typos, was finally replaced by something at least slightly informative. It’s no KotC ingame manual, but it’s something.
The game is also bugged to hell and back, even after a whole slew of patches. Many of these are broken scripts that can even result in mission-breaking bugs, so be advised, be careful and always remember about the save rewinding feature.
I won’t deny that I was hyped for Hong Kong. But even so, I think my expectations were not unrealistic enough to cloud my judgement. All I wanted, basically, was another Dragonfall. Just another round of cyberpunk commando action through corp HQs, abandoned bases and arcane hellholes. HK delivers on that in theory. But in practice, the sad state of affairs is that it’s a step back from DF in so many ways. Its main story is interesting, but abysmally paced. Its side missions are interesting conceptually, but their design is terrible and their actual gameplay repetitive. For all the “weird” stuff that is automatically imposed by the oriental setting, there is nothing in the actual gameplay to carry this weirdness home. For every cool theme out there, there is a banal mission to accompany it. It simply feels like HBS ran out of creativity the moment it was time to put their boots on the ground. The many additions to character building are great and welcome, but, ultimately, you can’t help but feel that they’re somewhat wasted when the whole campaign is so lacklustre. And, of course, don’t even get me started on the new Matrix.
However, there is one matter still that I would like to bring up here, at the end. I’ve seen many people claim that “the HBS Shadowrun formula seems to be running stale and people are just tired of it now” when faced with criticism regarding Hong Kong. The only thing I can say in response to this is that it’s completely untrue. HK might be misguided. It might be unambitious. But even with that in mind, I still managed to derive some net entertainment from it exactly because it’s Shadowrun. I mean, it would be incredibly stupid for me to say here that, in the end, Hong Kong is some sort of a really bad game that I hated thoroughly when it’s still objectively better than DMS in every way, and, as you might remember, I did like DMS. I suppose DMS had the advantage of coming out early and being first in the series, but for Christ’s sake, it also had the advantage of being goddamn Shadowrun. The same advantage that HK has. If the game was like it is now but didn’t follow the “HBS Shadowrun formula”, I’m fairly certain it would turn out much worse.
Besides, its not like the flaws of HK are completely irreversible. Most of them can be fixed just by making the level design compelling again and reaching back for the gameplay solutions that made Dragonfall so ridiculously fun to play in the first place (and fixing the friggin’ broken AI). Here’s hoping the upcoming mini-campaign manages to do that. I’d rather have Shadowrun go out with a bang than with a honk honk.