In the cyberpunk world of Shadowrun, people can implant datajacks into their body to allow them to connect their mind directly to computers. In the real world, we have to settle for a mouse, a keyboard and a user interface. Let’s look at the interface for Shadowrun: Dragonfall (Director’s Cut).
One thing that must be said for Dragonfall is that it manages to present a very minimal interface outside of combat, especially in the central hub; you can barely tell the above screenshot is properly in-game. But being minimal is not necessarily the same as being good; how does it fare once you need to present more information?
One way to rate a strategy game’s interface is this: how many times have you got one of your units selected, tried to select an ally or attack an enemy, and accidentally run over to them instead? It can be an agonising setback as your sniper charges headlong into the middle of the enemy, not through a bad tactical choice, but simply an interface accident.
Dragonfall suffers from this issue, in particular moving next to an ally instead of selecting. To select a character, you left click on the circle at their feet. To move, you left click on the floor. This inevitably leads to a mistake where if you miss by a few pixels, you send your characters running towards each other. Instead of selecting Glory, Eiger runs over to her to say hi. Great. This has very harsh consequences (a wasted turn, and either wasting a second turn to run away, and/or getting heavily damaged), but is so easy to prevent: if left-click selected, and right-click moved, it would not be a problem. (The right-click panning that Dragonfall has could be moved to middle-click.)
Dragonfall also has fairly small click targets; on a 1920×1200 display, they are 40 pixels across. It’s often not obvious whether you’ve actually clicked them — the response usually has a delay, and if you try to click on a door, you often end up with your character moving next to the door and doing nothing, because you must have just missed the click target. So you end up clicking on them multiple times to be sure, which is again irritating. These sorts of minor niggles add up to the interface feeling slow and clunky.
The combat display is generally good. When a character is selected, you get a percentage display above the head of each enemy (or none if there is no line of sight), giving you a clear display of the chance to hit that enemy with the current weapon and fire mode. You can click through different fire modes and the percentage changes, making it straightforward to choose which shot to take:
One improvement that could be made is to also give an indication of the possible range of damage. Several times I’d shoot an enemy only to find the damage was reduced (because they were in cover, or well armoured). Not displaying useful information like this still leaves one hand tied behind your back in making strategic decisions. Dragonfall is clearly a game for strategic combat lovers, so: design for them and provide a little more information.
After all, RPGs are games of systems and numbers. An RPG interface needs to present information about current status, and give the important details of different actions you could take to affect that status. The health kits in Dragonfall give you a tooltip showing the effect:
Yet, you can’t easily see your character’s health as a number. It’s shown on a bar, but there are no numbers, not even on mouse-over:
The only way to see it is open the main menu and click the character info tab, which is just irritating. When you hover over your character, you get a “Wounded:” display, but that’s not the amount of health you’ve lost. Oddly, if you hover over an enemy, you can see their health points, but not your own characters.
Health is also not shown out of battle, not even as a health bar. So you can finish up one fight, and there’s no useful reminder that one of your characters is on one-third health. You then talk to someone and trigger the next fight, only to realise all your characters are completely knackered. It would be good to add a display of health outside battle. Even better, in my opinion, would be to issue a pop-up on entering combat: “You have 2 characters below 66% health. Do you want to use your medkits to heal them before battle commences?”
The arrow in the bottom right of the screen brings up a dialog where you can select upgrades for your team-mates. Once you’ve finished, or if there are no upgrades to apply, it looks like this:
How do you close this? My initial guesses were pressing escape (nope), clicking on the main interface (nope), and clicking the arrow that had made it appear in the first place (nope). Although it’s not very obvious, that cancel button is blue rather than grey, indicating that is clickable, while the other two buttons aren’t. So the cancel button in the middle of the window (not even in a corner) cancels the dialog. Again, this just makes the interface a little awkward to use.
One principle in user interfaces is that if you know what the user will want to do next, automate for them or at least offer them the option immediately. Dragonfall does this well in a few places, which is nice and shouldn’t go overlooked. For example, when you finish combat, you would probably want to cast your heal-last-wound spell that Dietrich has. Rather than leave it to you to case every time, the designers just automatically make your last wound heal after combat. In a lot of these cases, it’s so convenient, you don’t even think about the possibility of the less usable alternatives.
As another example, after you have finished shopping, you automatically get a window for swapping items between your character and your stash, rather than having to run all the way back to your HQ to do so, which is handy. It does make for a slight oddity though: if you close that screen too early, your only options to re-open it are to run all the way to your stash, or buy something else small to re-open it. I don’t see an obvious reason not to permit exchanging with your stash at all times while you’re in the central hub.
And As For The Game…
I’m a huge XCOM fan, and Shadowrun Dragonfall felt like a slightly weaker take on the genre. The combat is similar, but a bit worse in Dragonfall. The plot and characters were decent enough, but I wasn’t too hooked, and I think my perceptions were coloured by the game being a bit over-long. Playing as a Decker, I enjoyed the little hacking bits, and having to keep your decker’s body safe while they urgently try to hack turrets and unlock doors made for a nice spin on things. I also appreciated the chance to use conversation to avoid a lot of fights or choose sides — some of the decisions you make have shades of games like Mass Effect and The Witcher. I enjoyed Dragonfall enough that I’ll probably pick up its sequel Shadowrun: Hong Kong once it comes out.
Review note: I played Shadowrun: Dragonfall (Director’s Cut) v2.0.8 on PC in April/May 2015.