As a person who enjoys movies immensely, there's nothing more I hate than seeing a trailer that gives away everything; the premise, the plot twists, the characterization, the set-pieces and the conclusion. But it happens. In fact, Hollywood will show you anything to get you into theaters even if the end product is not as good as its own trailer. Well, Shadowrun suffers a little from this as well. The box art will tell you that you can play against Windows Vista gamers, that you can share wealth with teammates, it'll give away a few of the magic and tech skills and it'll even try to woo you with its Survivor-like motto: Outwit to Outlast. The box art will even goes so far as to convey a semblance of a storyline (a gross misrepresentation of the facts) and then even repeats its own data points into beefing up it's word count. The problem is that Shadowrun has nothing else hiding in the wings waiting to surprise you. It's a shallow game that has very little content and unfairly wants you to pay full price for. As a budget title a few cut corners would have been easier to overlook, but as it stands, Shadowrun is one of the worst deals on the console market.
Shadowrun may have a healthy RPG background on other consoles, but as an Xbox 360 title, it's a pure multiplayer affair with nary a single player portion to speak of besides bot matches that simply simulate multiplayer gameplay anyway. Yes, there is some attempt to wow you with talk of history and ancient lore and reawakened powers, but at the end of the day, the concept is this: the game has a tutorial (six levels) and then three modes of multiplayer play which you can simulate using bots. No more, no less. If Shadowrun had to be compared to something else, it would be the love-child of Counter-Strike and TimeSplitters 3. The team-based gameplay (while nowhere near as good) is akin to CS while the graphic style and character design draws parallels with TS3. This isn't a bad thing though if Shadowrun could find enough new ground to forage on its own. Unfortunately, besides some clever new magic skills and techs, there's nothing here that hasn't been done before.
The rock-paper-scissors gameplay of Shadowrun hinges on its perfect (yet ultimately dull) balance of race, weapons, techs and magic. There are four playable races each with their own obligatory weaknesses and strengths; the humans have more starting and suffer no Essence penalties for using techs while the Elves have lower health bars but can use this same Essence (Mana is your will) to regenerate health. The Elves are also faster but large weapons, surprise, slow them down. On the other hand, Trolls (is this starting to sound Tolkienesque to anyone else?) are slower than Elves but can easily wield the heavier weapons, absorb tons of damage (which is quite an impressive sight actually) but all at the cost of Essence. Finally, Dwarves (yep, definitely Tolkienesque) have Essence to spare. Sure they regenerate it slowly, but they can literally suck it out of almost anything magical (items or players).
Essence is truly the gel that holds Shadowrun together. And it's the proper use of it, planning of it and distribution of it (and the abilities it powers) that separates all players. You see, besides the standard weapons (of which there are only eight, plus grenades, none of which are truly memorable except perhaps the too-often-used Katana) techs and magic are what truly separate every character in the game. This is doubly more important when you realize that everyone in the game looks the same and there is absolutely no personalization to be done herein at all except skill/ability choices. Wow, anyone else not impressed by this? Abilities come in two forms and are the highlight of Shadowrun; Tech Abilities and Magic Abilities. Much like the races in the game, abilities have a distinct rock, paper, scissor feel to them (much like an RTS game) since for every one good ability that has the potential to blow you away, there's an equally damaging (but generally boring one) that cancels it out.
Tech Abilities include the Glider ability which allows you to soar through the air for a short while, Enhanced Vision which allows you to send out a pulse that will identify targets around you (unless they're using Smoke), AntiMagic Generator which, shocked expression, rips magic constructs to shred and sucks Essence from players, Smartlink which gives a zoom ability to all weapons (or secondary zoom to those equipped with zoom initially) and also smartly keeps you from accidentally shooting teammates (it's a little like a Robocop Prime Directive taken to the next level) and Wired Reflexes which generally makes you faster and more athletic (and complements the Kanata quite nicely for blocking bullets).
Magic Abilities include the Power to Resurrect teammates (if the resurrector dies however, all resurrected teammates will starts to "bleed out", a neat little trick), the ability to create a Tree of Life (an HP regenerating tree which helps a lot with the aforementioned bleeding out process), the power of Strangle which deploys HP and Essence sucking vines around a choke point or artifact point to keep adversaries "tied up" while you peg them off from a safe vantage point, Gust which is a glorified Force Push (but which can damage Smoke users), Smoke which renders the users invisible to Enhanced Vision detection and makes the users almost invulnerable while in use (except for Force Push, uh, Gust). When deactivating Smoke you also can't use a weapon for a few seconds which makes stealth kills unlikely. You also have the Summon ability which gives you control of a minion and the very cool Teleport ability which allows you to instantly move around eight meters in whatever direction you're currently moving (including up if you're jumping and down if you're crouching). This makes getting around not only cool, but incredibly useful, especially if you need to get to a lower level instantly.
And there you have it, all that Shadowrun really has to offer. Four races, five techs, nine weapons, seven magics and all on less than ten maps. If the paltry offering wasn't enough, there's also a six-stage tutorial which feels the need to on (and on and on) about almost every single ability in detail and then forces you to play a tutorial against bots to hammer the point home. While a tutorial is nice in any game, it feels a little bit like overkill after thirty minutes on this one. One of the only things that really needs to be explained is the concept of buying abilities and weapons (which happens at the beginning of every match and which carries over the total money you've made in the previous rounds) and linking them to the three shoulder buttons (the RT Trigger is hard-mapped to your weapon's trigger). It also doesn't help matters that the voice-work in the tutorial is forced and grating.
The matches are either standard team deathmatches called Attrition or Capture the Flag (Artifact in Shadowrun) variations called Extraction (where both teams attempt to steal the artifact) or Raid (where one team steals while the other defends). Each round begins with a purchasing phase and then after each match you are awarded money for your actions. Weapons do not carry over between deaths, which makes investing in high priced weaponry and ammo a tricky affair, but tech and magics do. You'll also need to play a few rounds before you can start buying the good stuff unless your teammates donate some of their money to you. Whether playing with bots or real players, each match ends with a few stats about the round in question. The only problem is that these aren't particularly interesting and they also aren't saved anywhere (there are no leaderboards in Shadowrun) and do not count towards building your character (there is no persistent level building or character creation at all). This makes playing almost pointless unless you truly enjoy the game to begin with. Unfortunately, there are better games out there and so it's hard to justify playing one extra round when there is absolutely no attainable goal in sight.
On the plus side, you do in fact get to play cross-platform, with 360 players playing with and against Vista players. And while it's hard to tell who's who (especially with the situational hotkey that makes talking unnecessary) the Vista players are generally the frustrated looking characters since it seems they are getting unfairly punished in order to keep things fair. I feel for them, really I do, but it's nice to have a level playing feel too at the end of the day. On the downside though, the online portion is truly unstable and the matchmaking options are suspect at best. There are no rooms to join, simply Trueskill, connection and map-preference searches that are done on the back-end and seem to take forever. Since there are no leaderboards anywhere or stats tracked, it'd be nice to know where these Trueskill ratings are being pooled from. But I'd much rather just have quick, stable matches, which aren't a reality at this time. As a bright side note, the Shadowrun community is on the mature side, much better than the hooligan invested, four-letter bomb dropping teeny-bopper-fest that is Halo 2, but nowhere near the Rainbow Six: Vegas level of team-based level of maturity either.
Graphically, Shadowrun is a game that features some really cool ability animations (Tree of Life, Strangle, etc) and also some very good maps. It would have been nice to see different character textures though or even the simple ability to customize your game avatar. In the audio department, the voice work seems fake (how often is that honestly said about games anymore) but the music (while limited) is quite nice.
In the end, the major problem with Shadowrun is expectation. I expected a full priced piece of software that had solid multiplayer action (which involves a stable server to play on) which would rival, if not beat, the best multiplayer games currently out there (most of which also feature solid single player offerings). What Shadowrun turns in is a budget priced effort with some truly cool ability concepts, but not enough to warrant its premium title price tag. Luckily there's a demo on the marketplace for Shadowrun, and if you find yourself enjoying it, remember that there isn't a whole lot more to it and that it's probably better to rent it or wait for the eventual (and quite obvious) price drop.