It’s entirely coincidental, I swear. I’m not some internet Reaper here to cull online games that weren’t able to reach their full potential. But just as the last online game I looked at – Wildstar – is due to close by the end of the month it turns out Cliffhanger Productions online Shadowrun adventure is too.
Now I have to mention that when I started whatever this online game thing is I promised to judge each game on its own merits and avoid falling into lazy comparisons against big hitters like WoW and FFXIV; but I feel this one has to work a little differently because this is specifically a Shadowrun game, and Shadowrun isn’t a unique IP just having a go at being an RPG so much as it is Shadowrun trying to be all Shadowrun-y but without the dice and the character sheets and DMs crying over careful planning being utterly ruined by that one guy spending all night asking if he can jack his pet goldfish into the matrix (“But then he’d be fish and chips! Geddit?!”).
Boston Lockdown (known for a time before launch and throughout it’s Kickstarter campaign as Shadowrun Online) also has to deal with releasing two years after the well-regarded Shadowrun Returns, about a year after the excellent Shadowrun: Dragonfall, and mere months before Shadowrun: Hong Kong completed Harebrained Schemes cyberpunk trilogy.
It’s also worth pointing out that this is an online RPG without the “Massively” part, only the tiniest dash of “Multiplayer” and, surprisingly, has been designed in such a way that the “Online” functionality could vanish overnight (and will do by the end of November) and if it weren’t for the game plastering a global chat box over one corner of the screen it wouldn’t make the slightest bit of difference at all. So while it’s unfair to take Boston Lockdown to task for not being an MMO I can sure as heck can still squint judge-y eyes in the game’s direction for the Shadowrun, online, and RPG bits.
But we’re getting a little ahead of ourselves here, so let’s start with the basics.
Boston Lockdown is one of those “Buy To Play” online games that has no subscription charges but does require the end user to purchase the game and any further expansions (two, in this case) using plain old hard cash. Some B2P games choose to supplement this arrangement with cosmetics-orientated cash shops and/or “premium” subscriptions but impressively there’s not the faintest whiff of that here and even the base game is presented as being complete in and of itself (such extras were considered before release, however).
Character customisation’s an uncomfortable mix of excellent ideas marred by poor execution, so we’ll start with the best bit: All hair, facial hair, tattoos and clothing is available to all characters regardless of their gender. What to make a skinhead lady with a massive beard? No problem. Ork guy in a skirt and stockings? It’s all there if you want it. Further to this, clothing isn’t “adjusted” along typical online game gender lines either, and by that I mean what appears to be a full plate top on a man doesn’t suddenly become a ridiculous metal bikini on a lady, and likewise the tied-under-the-boob-area shirt doesn’t change into a regular long shirt when placed on a guy. Clothes are clothes, and you can wear whatever you like so long as you can get the run done.
Sadly there are a few annoyances even at this early stage, such as having to cycle through every colour variant of an item before moving on to the next (ex: Mohawk (Red), Mohawk (Blue), Mohawk (Green)): A bizarre decision that offers neither the speed of a plain drop-down menu nor the visual ease of use of a style>colour picker. And while you may have a good selection of hair/tattoo/facial options seeing as character portraits are traditional pictures and some race/gender choices have only two to pick from (Female trolls, for one. Human ladies have a dozen, which still isn’t enough) you are absolutely not going to find something that represents your unique digital self no matter how hard you try.
These general UI issues run right through the game; managing to always be noticeable enough to be mildly irritating but never quite bad enough to make you quit in a huff. Examples include a “Back” button that is always placed a million miles away from everything else (ESC/right click/backspace don’t work either – I’ve tried), having to sell items to vendors as discrete individual transactions, and equipped items being bunged in with everything else (the game does at least prevent you from selling them). Again, nothing that will ruin your day, but with a game so tightly focused on a Mission>Hub>Mission>Hub loop it could – and should – have been handled better.
The game itself starts with a promising in media res segment that has you waking up on an operating table just before hazmat-suited scientists experiment on your brain, and this opening along with the next couple of missions serves as a gentle introduction to basic game mechanics. It’s only a short bit of solo moving and shooting but it does make sure you know how to interact with objects, take cover, and get used to the game’s bread and butter before getting properly stuck in.
During this initial escape my elf lady was called a “dandelion-eater” by an enemy (about as rude a term for an elf as you can get in Shadowrun-speak) and at first blush this was a lovely bit of character-specific battle banter. However it doesn’t take very long at all for this sort of chatter to repeat and then outright break down with alarming frequency. Even in my casual time with the game I’ve seen enemies warning themselves to get down because they’ve been marked, party members replying to nobody, “Combatsoft successfully deployed” said by someone missing a shot, mages thanking themselves for their own armour buffs, and perhaps most puzzling of all, “I’ve opened the lock!” said by a character who couldn’t open locks, wasn’t taking their turn, on a map with no locked anythings. To make matters worse great chunks of this generic dialogue pool is shared between everyone from street gang thugs to corporate BLOOD MAGES, as if it doesn’t matter about tone or context so long as everyone says “drek” and “chummer” as often as possible.
Hand-crafted story dialogue can’t escape these problems either, with side quest characters casually dishing out major plot information that the main storyline doesn’t get around to bringing up until several missions later, the excitement of finally getting a non-bear summon vanishing into thin air when I notice the in-battle info (only, y’know, where you spend most of your time) referring to my new friend as a Wolf “Sprit”, and during one mission having to watch my apparently idiotic avatar say “We’re looking for medical supplies, but we should still be able to sell these”, as she opens a supply container with a medical item inside. Now this was definitely just an unlucky combination of auto-triggered text and a random loot crate (I was so incensed I quit and restarted the mission to check), but it still looks sloppy. Why not write something less specific? Why not make sure medical items weren’t on the loot table for this mission?
Almost all of your character’s dialogue is voiced, with no option at all to choose how you sound. Now of course it’d be unfair (and expensive) to expect Cliffhanger Productions to have hired a dozen different voice actors to record the exact same lines, but I’m not any more connected to my character just because I can hear a voice alongside the text. Why not leave the player text-only and give them the choice of a few different generic grunts, yelps, or whoop of joy instead? It doesn’t help that the writers seem to have decided that “streetwise” means teenager-grade sarcastic all the time. ALL. THE. TIME. You’re playing a character who would sass a vending machine if they were given half a chance, and it’s exhausting to listen to you smart-mouth everyone who crosses your path, friend and foe alike. But then for a sentence or two you’ll be inexplicably nice – maybe it’s me, right? Maybe I’m just picking the wrong dialogue choices? I wish. I have been playing Boston Lockdown for seventeen hours at this point, and there have been precisely zero (0) choices for me to make. I’ve read ahead and apparently there’s one decision, right at the very end, that’s all mine. That’s it. For the record, Shadowrun Returns offers three potential responses to the first sentence of dialogue in the game. Now of course an online game has to remain largely static because it needs to be able to broadly accommodate everyone at every point in the adventure, but for something that made grandiose promises like “Shape the future! Developed jointly with the table-top RPG books, your actions in the game will shape the future of the entire Shadowrun universe!” it feels lacking even without considering the obvious competition.
Rather than allowing you to freely wander sixth-world Boston you instead spend your downtime in a small hub area that plays host to all of your friendly local ex-cops, fixers, journalists-looking-for-a-scoop and legitimate (honest, guv) firearms businesses – think Phantasy Star Online’s Pioneer 2 area and you’re not far off the mark – before heading off to your latest mission.
Mission objectives are appropriately Shadowrun-y and always tie in to the overall main plot – even the non-critical side missions, meaning no “Kill ten wargs” filler for you. The downside being that these secondary tales move along whether you take them on or not to make sure they’re keeping up with the main storyline so unless you do all the side quests, all the time, you’re going to permanently miss out on some aspects of the bigger picture (there are also no replay options or even a simple journal function, so skipped quests are lost forever). No matter what you decided to do or not do your avatar will always react as if they’ve cleared every quest and picked up every personal email, resulting in potentially nonsensical conversation openers like “So how’s your imaginary cat doing?” without any explanation or chance to read a brief recap.
Missions are always firefights and always require a full team of either two or four shadowrunners to start (including yourself), and the game assumes that you will be using its wide range of player-controlled NPCs for the job as creating a team made up of other players requires old-fashioned global chat box organisation, no drop ins or queued-up auto fills. While we’re on the subject there are some seriously obvious missed opportunities here: You can’t hire yourself out as a runner for someone else’s quest (beyond typing “Looking for group” in chat), and you can’t lead a gang, join a faction, or hang out with your crew but you can… invite someone in chat to be your friend (in-game terminology, not mine).
Visually battles greatly resemble their Harebrained counterparts albeit with a much simplified combat system that boils your choices down to little more than “Do damage” or “Do damage, but in a different way”. Hacking success is down to the RNG gods as the matrix is reduced to a single chat room wheeled out in the breaks between longer missions, all summoners really like bears, and riggers are virtually useless as the game only allows two extra summoned party members for the entire group. So if your summoner’s got a bear and a wind spirit out then that’s it, you’re left crouching behind a rusty pipe having a smoke.
Skill trees have been likewise pruned to reflect this simplified focus, stripping out all the expected roleplaying stats like “charisma” and even “strength” and reducing progression to, at best, an either/or choice along a short path. The one benefit to this is that the game is true to its word about the lack of levelling required to progress, although this did leave me longing for the chance to care about my character beyond dumping all my karma in my chosen profession and making sure I had the best equipment from the shops (which is also greatly stripped back: One of five or six pieces of equipment, one of which is an obviously great all-rounder, come back in a few missions time for the same thing but with “Improved” stuck on the name). If you’re not going to give me a story to sink my teeth into then you’d better damned well give me a battle system that forces me to fuss over details, but Boston Lockdown offers neither.
Skirmish maps are often reused in full or lightly repurposed for other missions, even when they’re meant to be in completely different areas of the city. There are of course many reasonable and practical explanations for this in a random quest generator or a teeny-tiny indie game, but I’ve got no time for excuses in such a story-focused title, one with such a small and static main hub that won’t even allow you to do something as radical as walk inside a building.
I just don’t know what Boston Lockdown’s supposed to be. It’s not an MMO – fine. But it struggles to fulfil even the most basic expectations of an online game, and in this case it’s nothing to do with it being on the verge of shutting down. The game never tries to group you with anyone. There are no emotes. No social get-together area (like a bar, for example). No PvP. No gangs or factions in a setting that’s all about gangs and factions.
Not a single one of any of the things I’ve mentioned above is a huge problem by itself, but this is a game filled with missed opportunities and little issues that keep holding back something that could’ve been great at every turn. I’ve certainly played far worse than this, but it’s been a long time since I’ve seen a game swing and miss this often. Shadowrun’s an enticing setting even at the worst of times and I don’t hate Boston Lockdown, not by a long shot, but it is infuriatingly disappointing, and in many ways that’s much worse.