Elf Life

Shadowrun is fresh and exciting -- and on its way to being obsolete.

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Shadowrun Publisher: Microsoft
Platform: Xbox 360
Price: $59.99
ESRB Rating: M (for Mature)
Score: 8 (out of 10)
Once upon a time, the world breathed magic. Some believed this magic should belong only to the powerful, while others felt it was for everyone. So all the world's beings went to war. The first battle took place in Brazil, where a lone elf with a sniper rifle notched an amazing 28 kills by --

Eh? Did I lose you?

Welcome to Shadowrun, a Tolkienesque fantasy in a sci-fi setting. Fairy-tale staples like trolls and spells occupy a near-future where magic has been rediscovered. The security forces of RNA Global -- which hopes to control the resource -- openly wage war with The Lineage, a sect that wants magic to be as free as the air we breathe. Santos, Brazil, is ground zero, where rivals battle in the streets, using a mix of modern and ancient weapons.

Gaming old-timers might recall Shadowrun for the Sega Genesis and Super Nintendo in the early '90s, or maybe even the pen-and-paper Dungeons & Dragons-style game. Those fans may want to brace themselves: This isn't the story-driven adventure you remember. This Shadowrun is a first-person shooter à la Halo -- something gamers weren't exactly begging for more of.

Yet it does manage to bring something new to the table, even beyond the novelty of seeing a dwarf jog by you with a machine gun. Each race of "metahuman" has unique characteristics that must be kept in mind when picking a character. Elves, for example, are the quickest and most adept at magic, while trolls boast skin that can turn to stone, making them slow but very difficult to hurt.

Of course, it wouldn't be the future without sci-fi technology. Take Smartlink, a chip that connects a weapon directly to your brain to not only nail targets more effectively, but prevent your weapon from firing at a friendly. Install it on a troll with a minigun, and you can spray bullets into a mixed crowd of friends and foes, killing only your enemy. Add magic to the mix, and you have a highly complex war zone where players can float in on gliders, resurrect dead allies, and teleport through walls to safety.

It's a welcome spin on a genre that's being crushed under a glut of generic WW2 and alien-invasion games, but that's not to say there aren't missteps. While there are some simple single-player features, Shadowrun is meant to be played against (and with) real people online. And it's tough to justify 60 bucks for what is essentially an online-only experience.

But there's a broader concern. Shadowrun is very much a team-oriented game, requiring a great deal of strategy to play well; a winning team should consist of a variety of races, weapons, and skills. Also, the game is only as good as the people you're playing with -- and Shadowrun demands good players. It's not cynical to wonder whether the audience that makes this game fun to play exists in the numbers needed to recommend it.

Now consider the migratory nature of the Xbox Live audience, which plays the latest online game obsessively for a few weeks or months, then moves en masse to the next big title, leaving the last one a virtual ghost town. What if they threw a war and nobody came? Wait for Shadowrun to hit the bargain bin, and you might find out firsthand.

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