Indie games aren't often the most replayed titles around. Low budgets and small development teams generally translate into games with simple premises, linear plots and short length, with little besides a high scores board to encourage repeat play. Similarly, the Shadowrun series' foray into video games appeared dead and buried after 2007's instalment failed to hold gamers' long-term interest.
However, with Shadowrun Returns, Harebrained Studios have managed to craft a game that is not only a joy to play the first time, but which demands to be played over and over again until you've seen absolutely everything it can offer, and then some more.
Here are five features of Shadowrun Returns that encourage multiple playthroughs:
With five races to choose from--each with different stat boosts and limitations--and six recommended class builds to either play straight or combine into a custom class, plus the distinction of male and female and of course modifying the look of your character, the possible combinations are practically limitless. I have already planned no less than ten builds I want to try, both for roleplaying and gameplay purposes. Just as your build affects how you will approach fights--e.g., the Street Samurai and Adept classes favour melee combat, while Shamans and Riggers summon others to fight for them--so too do Etiquettes open up new options in dialogue, allowing you to smooth-talk your way past security guards or get more information out of a reticent contact.
A simple yet difficult way to get gamers to return to a game is to set it in a world they want to experience. This is not the same as a world one would like to actually live in, for if it were, we'd all probably run screaming from Shadowrun Returns' cold world of vicious killers, heartless corporations and exploitative cults. Yet, there's something about this world that just pulls you in. Whenever I play Shadowrun Returns, I can almost feel the grey Seattle sky drizzling overhead, smell the urban decay and vomit-stained junkies. There aren't many games that can make me feel so uncomfortable and yet so alive when simply walking down a virtual street, but this is one of them.
They say people can be defined by those they surround themselves with, and the same is true for video game avatars. Serving as an extension of your character's skill set, recruitable shadowrunners open up new doors of strategy. Do you want to lead a specialised techno-force of nothing but Deckers and Riggers, or do you want to cover your bases with a more balanced team? Maybe you have a soft spot for the more large-toothed inhabitants of this world, and want to work only with Orks and Trolls. Whatever your team, you will be both enhanced and limited by the selection of runners you bring along (if you want a real challenge, try soloing a job as a Decker). You will definitely want to experiment to find the team that best fits your current build.
The emergence of automatically replenishing health in modern games has led to a focus on the battle, rather than the war. Players these days are able to simply rest between or even during fights to undo all their mistakes in a matter of seconds. Shadowrun Returns, however, reminds us of the way games used to be, when making it through a fight with only a hair of health left just meant you'd be a pushover for the next goon you came across. As magic can't heal damage built up over time, fairly rare and expensive first aid kits are needed to keep you in the fight, and deciding when to use these precious commodities exemplifies the harsh world of Shadowrun: death is only ever one bad decision away. After every battle you'll look at your shadowrunners' health bars and wonder if a different strategy might have worked slightly better. And soon enough, you'll be back to find out.
#1 Shadowrun Returns Feature: Mods
This is the big one. Easy to use modding tools backed by a strong community--many of whom already make their own tabletop Shadowrun games--almost instantly led to an explosion of UGC that makes the entire base game just one story in an entire universe. While many of these don't have the same level of polish as the base game, a few really stand out as something special. My favourite so far is the aptly titled Shadowrun Unlimited, a sandbox-style day-in-the-life of a shadowrunner that has no specific end (kind of like Grand Theft Auto: Online but without all that pesky human interaction), as it lets me do exactly what I want to do: be a part of this world.
So next time you're browsing for a small download with a decent shelf life, remember Shadowrun Returns. Because with so much to come back to, it might just be the best value game you'll ever play.