Skip to main content
Monthly Archives

December 2020

Quickhacking Cyberpunk 2077: ACAB

I spent the early part of my first full day in Night City punching cops in the face. In my defence, it was the direct result of me trying to be a good person; I found a woman being assaulted in the corridor outside my apartment, so I shot the guy in the head. The woman thanked me, then started screaming because I had a gun out, and that’s what NPCs do when you have a gun out. Anyway, somehow my frankly heroic action alerted the cops, and when I went out onto the landing two of them started shooting at me. Naturally I punched them until they were unconscious, which takes 3-4 punches, in case you’re curious.

More cops came, more punching. Suddenly I realised exactly how easy it is to bottleneck the police and keep beating them until they pass out. Uh oh.

Eventually they stopped, I’m not sure why. Perhaps they just ran out of police, or they realised it wasn’t worth it to lose thirteen police officers to a mad redhead in the slums. A few minutes later, when I accidentally used a poison gas grenade on a food stall vendor, I discovered something horrible and sinister about why the police kept coming until they stopped coming: they don’t actually exist. Rather than walking in from some pre-approved outside location or being dropped off by cybercar, they spawn in from nowhere, pre-filled with sound and fury signifying fascism. Four armed officers and two NCPD drones manifested from the inside of a pile of boxes. In a more metafictional environment this would almost be a clever interpretation of the relationship between the police and civilians, cops representing an omnipotent force that watches your every move and isn’t beholden to the rules normal people are forced to follow. Like physics. Here it’s more of a shortcut to avoid coding in a more complicated solution to getting the police to harass you. Still, the end result of this—and the fact that apparently LOOKING at cops for too long makes them angry enough to shoot you in the head—is a fear of the police that I’m far too jaded to experience in a more realistically-coded setting. These officers are moody, unpredictable, chaotically violent and duty bound to cause harm. I’m going to do my best to stay away from them.

The inconsequential, unnamed NPCs in general have a similar transient quality. Like Schrodinger’s Citizens, they only have form when you look straight at them. When I ran from that merchant I poisoned, he fled his stall while suppressing the urge to vomit; when I backed up, his stall was already being looked after by a brand new procedurally generated gentleman. NPCs are swiftly removed and replaced as you walk around, which is, I’m sure, a technical boon, but is also a big kick in the nuts for my sense of immersion. Nobody you meet matters, even by the standards of a video game nobody, because they’ll be wiped and reformed anew before you can say Creepy Watson. Again, this would be a pretty cool setup for a story about reality being a simulation, and the world of Night City even has its own virtual reality system, but in our reality it’s just a curious quirk of the code.

Since we’re moaning about NPCs, it really bugs me that Cyberpunk 2077 keeps up the grand sci-fi tradition of portraying poor people as hunched, miserable losers, huddled in their garbage slums and trying not to be too oppressed today, thanks. Most folks in this first area (inside the Judge Dredd-style apartment block) mope around like someone took a big shit in their cereal, or sit outside literally begging. It may come as a surprise to developers that low income folks, even in a dystopia, are perfectly capable of having a normal, happy day.

On a more positive note, I did run into a loud man spouting conspiracy theories in the street, and not only could I engage him in a bit of conversation, but after a minute or so some California-accented tourists came to get a selfie with him. There are brief moments where the world of Cyberpunk 2077 feels very alive, and they’re very appreciated.

V goes to the Ripperdoc—one of Cyberpunk’s cyberdoctors—and gets some new eyes, a new hand. We get dragged into a big new job that will set us up FOR LIFE. It definitely won’t go horribly wrong. For one half of the planning process we need to go visit the woman who requested the heist. I kind of like that we have to wait until night time because it’s a bar. She gives us a briefing in a room with a very naked hologram and then we get our first taste of a BRAINDANCE, which is a fancy way to say “virtual reality tape recording.” These sections allow you to walk or float through a recorded event and pick up little details that give you necessary information. In this case, we get to case the top floor of a fancy hotel so we can get around the security later. It’s fancy and I like it. Reminds me of the memory breaking bits from Remember Me. Remember that game? Probably not. It was fine.

I’m getting distracted because there’s a LOT going on in Cyberpunk now. These sequences really bring into sharp relief how linear the prologue was; V can chat to various NPCs, decide in what order to do things, go off to check out a few side missions rather than advancing the story. It feels more like the game it wants to be now. A corpo woman named Meredith wants to help me get a thing for the thing we have to do as long as I let her upload a virus to the gang who currently have the thing. I speak corpo back to her with a special dialogue choice and she gets angry and drives off. It feels good to have a little control, and to see the shape of my V emerging. Now all I have to do is head to this gang hideout and get a machine from them as efficiently as possible.

Okay, I can explain. See, Jackie didn’t want to sit down and I wasn’t paying attention to my responses so… anyway we had to kill them all.

They seemed like they wanted to rip us off anyway, and now we have the thing! But I had to destroy a lot of lives to get there. It turns out that my V is a big fan of swords and shotguns, and specifically the pleasing effect of switching between them while running around like the world’s clumsiest ninja. Didn’t need to sit down afterwards. Particularly liked that the end of this section gave me the option to sneak around the boss to escape, then it gave me the option to not brutally murder him after I refused the first option. Anyway he’s dead.

Before the big damn heist section, I was contacted a few times by a cop with an eyepatch who wanted me to do cop stuff. In Cyberpunk 2077 you can trip over crimes in progress (assaults, robberies, people not filling in their tax returns correctly) and intervene to gain a reward and the respect of the police force. No thank you. The woman on the phone will also send you bounty jobs, the first of which is to literally kill or otherwise neutralise a “good” cop who wants to expose corruption in the force. I cannot for the life of me figure out if this is supposed to be irony, or satire, or completely straight-faced villainy. Suffice it to say, I’ve been deliberately ignoring any possible way to assist the police. It’s perhaps unintentional, but refusing to do anything they want me to do actually instills a weird sense of pride, as if V was shouting FUCK THE POLICE from her car window.

Act one snowballs pretty quickly towards this big job, which requires a lot of hacking and sneaking and includes a bunch of enormous plot reveals I’m not going into here. It was a lot of fun and the writing here is pretty solid. I may have even felt some emotions. Also the robot cab driver is a good example of how to do fun AI characters so take note every other game that isn’t Fallout New Vegas.

It does get a little prologue here for a while, in the sense that it throws a big plot reveal at you every 30 seconds for what felt like an hour. This explodes, that character dies, this character dies, this person was really this other thing, betrayal, emotions, you get dumped somewhere terrible, you come back out, a car chase, another explosion, a crash, a blackout, a montage of being incapacitated, more talking. It’s all good, mind you, but there’s a long time when you’re just watching interesting things happen to a character you’re supposed to be controlling. There appears to be a struggle the narrative designers had with working out how to tell the story and allow any sort of player choice at the same time. It makes me think of the Hades approach, where every story tidbit is isolated and fed to the player while they go about their actual gaming business. Here, the story sometimes feels arbitrarily walled off from the flow of the open world, actively working against the pillars it’s built around.

Somewhere in this maelstrom of CONTENT, the actual title card comes up, now we’ve been playing for hours. Welcome to Cyberpunk 2077, I guess.

SPEED ROUND: Don’t Threaten Me With A Mixed Time

  • RIght at the start of this act you find out that there’s a fight club in the city. Why is there always a fight club?
  • All the advertising and posters in Night City still feel like they come from a different game with much stupider writing.
  • I came across a minor accident scene where one guy had rear-ended another and they were on their phone trying to sort it out, and that felt pleasingly authentic.
  • There was an unexpected instant death moment in the plot maelstrom and I am here to tell developers DO NOT.
  • Don’t put musical instruments in your video game if you won’t let me play them.
  • I still don’t know why you’d bother going non-lethal in this game, nobody has explained it to me.

After what seemed like a very lengthy prologue, we finally get into what Night City is actually about: accidentally causing huge amounts of violence and telling the cops to get in the sea. I may have missed the point, or maybe the game isn’t making any points. Next I hope to get more involved in the sidequests of Cyberpunk 2077 and put even more points into sword powers.

Quickhacking Cyberpunk 2077: On rails through Prologue City

Here’s something weird about Cyberpunk 2077: You’re not allowed to be ugly.

That’s ugly by the game’s very narrow definition, mind. You can’t have one wonky eye, or fish lips, or unusually large hands; you can’t be overweight, underweight, muscular, shorter or taller than average; your skin must be one of the eight-or-so approved human colours; you can have rude bits, as long as they are big, small or default. Characters must be symmetrical, they must conform to some variation of the two genders, their scars must be aesthetically pleasing.

Some of these are likely design limitations (everyone being the same height makes it easier to program character interactions, a small range of model sizes prevents collision detection issues, etc.), and NPCs get to select from at least one other body type, but when you start creating a character in Cyberpunk there’s an immediate feeling of being constrained. Invisible walls erected to keep you from making anything unacceptable, anything that isn’t cool enough to let you hang with the many cool NPCs in their cool future clothes, standing in overwhelmingly cool neon-soaked environments.

Welcome to Cyberpunk 2077. We’re in the bathroom, and we just threw up. For my class… uhhh background? Upbringing? Oh right, LIFEPATH. I’m a Corpo, which basically means one of the bad guys by all logic of the cyberpunk genre. Arguably the bad guys by present day reality as well. Please enjoy this biting social commentary I’ve just made, which surpasses anything you might spot in the opening of the game.

“Corporates are the Armani-wearing, Machiavellian mega-yuppies you see in the RoboCop films. Being wealthy and persuasive, they can muster favors and resources beyond what most people can even hope.”

That’s what the wiki for Cyberpunk 2020, the pen and paper tabletop game 2077 is based on, has to say about Corporates. Their special ability in 2020 is RESOURCES, using their vast reserves of cash and influence to get things done. In 2077… well, let’s have a look.

What strikes me about this is how it says… nothing. It feels like it was written for someone who already knows what being a Corpo entails. Be either a winner or a loser, something about secrets, be a bastard of some description. But it also reads like a knowing wink to the fact that this high-flying corporate lifestyle won’t be a concern for very long. Maybe something awful is going to happen that renders our character’s background choices mostly meaningless. I don’t know, just a feeling.

Anyway we were in a bathroom. The Arasaka building, where our V works in their role as part of counterintel, looks exactly like you might expect. All clean lines and soulless interior design. It’s a little too cool, to be honest. Like, it seems like an interesting place to work, if you’re an asshole. Which sort of ties back into what I mentioned earlier about the character creator: Cyberpunk 2077 is a game that wants to be cool, and wants to give you the opportunity to be cool. You do not have a choice in the matter. You’re going to look awesome and say clever, pithy things; people will want to be your friend; your office will have futuristic cyberwalls and you’ll stick glowing USB sticks into your cyberhead. So of course the bad guys (this particular set, anyway) work in an outrageously stylish mega-skyscraper. It feels too nice. Too inviting. My head expects an environment as repellent and dead inside as the corporation. Something like the TV station from Detroit: Become Human, Neo’s office from The Matrix, or the distressingly clean and bright dystopian interiors of Mirror’s Edge. Empty, emotionally draining; dark and oppressive capitalism, rather than dark like the inside of an expensive liquid-cooled PC. Much of cyberpunk as a genre is concerned with the idea of rebellious elements dragging themselves out from under the boot of crushing capitalism, but this makes the space under the boot seem pretty comfortable. Maybe that’s part of the point, though, that it gets comfortable under there; or maybe I’m giving CDPR too much credit.

V heads upstairs, her boss is angry about something, her boss’s boss is a bad person. Blah, blah, blah. He kills a bunch of people with remote computer powers while you watch, because he’s evil. He complains about his boss, and of course that means you have to kill her. Or facilitate her death, at least. 

The NPCs, in the prologue at least, are not particularly reactive. They tend to offer one piece of information or flavour only once V pays attention. This person discusses the disasterous job in Frankfurt, another talks about how the media will react to the aforementioned computer assassinations. My boss asks me to take a seat, and if I refuse he pauses for a while before asking me politely to take a seat. And if I still don’t then he really loses it and asks me to take a seat. Sir you are willing to murder half a dozen human beings to make a few cyberbucks, I don’t think you should accept this sort of employee behaviour. Characters just sort of… stand around, like participants in an amateur production of Waiting for The Main Character. There’s no sense of life to the world in here, everything is happening for my benefit. In fact, the only people you properly meet in this opening sequence are folks directly related to V in some way: her assistant, her coworker, her boss, this guy called Frank. We met during Icefall.

Side note: running is a lot of fun in this game. The combination of the sprint animation and the satisfying pounding of my expensive shoes makes me want to run everywhere. I noticed this while sprinting past Frank as he repeatedly called me rude.

Sorry, Frank.

The whole prologue is on rails like this. Conversations pop up as if we’re a movie character turning on the TV at the exact moment the news is discussing our brother’s arrest. It’s fun, it just feels staged. An odd choice, forcing the player through a very linear opening to introduce a game that purports to be all about choice and living your dream cyberpunk lifestyle. A good opening sets your expectations for the rest of a text. Think of pushing the broken-down car with your boyband friends in Final Fantasy XV, navigating a guard-filled dock at the start of Metal Gear Solid, or dashing straight out Peter Parker’s window and swinging across the city in Spider-Man. The start of a memorable game is often a microcosm of the game itself, and players are subconsciously aware of this.

Cyberpunk’s Corpo prologue mostly means being told what to do and then doing it. You get told you can use the car outside so you go and use the car outside, you head to a bar to find your friend because your friend told you to, you get betrayed by the corporation, of course, and forced into a life of cool crimes for cool people.

Not that you care about losing your job, of course, since you only found out about it 10 minutes ago and V already hated it. The lifepath deal feels like a stab at the Dragon Age: Origins style of bonding a player to their character by investing in their past, but it’s so fast! When I played a city elf in Dragon Age I was given a whole district to explore and a complex mix of intrigue, racism, sexual assault and forced marriage to pick through; in Cyberpunk your boss asks you to do something and then some goons tell you not to do that thing.

Oop, hold on, we’re doing crimes now. Or stopping crimes, I can’t tell. Mainly this section is designed to teach you how the action sections of the game work. We need to sneak up on this guy and decide whether he lives or dies. Then we have to kill everyone else, which is a little confusing. Why are we given the option for a non-lethal takedown on this one poor shirtless mook, when the game knows full well we’re about to murder six men in the next room? As teaching moments go, it’s poor. Despite being a tutorial, it says nothing about WHY you might want to use a non-lethal option, what the benefits might be versus the downsides. The only upside of keeping this one alive seems to be the idea that he’ll wake up later inside a freezer and quickly discover all his friends are dead.

The shooting feels good, so far. Weighty enough, and enemies don’t quite take so much damage that you wonder whether they’re immortal. There’s a decent flow to battle when you use your hacking powers to distract people, lob grenades and make use of cover. It’s just a taste, anyway. A sample. A dead body did lodge itself in a doorway, which doesn’t seem planned. Also, a still-living enemy flew out the window and kept shooting at me from inside the window frame. And if we’re talking about bugs, I feel obliged to mention that my breasts burst out of my shirt for a while.

At this point in the story we find the infamous woman in the bathtub and save her life, the ambulance-cops turn up to lift her away, and we’re left to drive home. This is absolutely just a chance for the game to show off its fancy city at ground level and tease some new things you’re likely to come across later. There’s a car chase which ends with an explosion, some people get gunned down by Cyberpunk 2077’s equivalent of SWAT, there’s rain, there’s more neon. And you arrive home at your apartment, which is entirely too big and too nice to make sense for your character at this point in their lives but HEY, gotta be cool. Narratively, the prologue ends at a weird point where the start of something has happened but there’s no indication of the shape of things going forward. Basically you’re just this badass who was betrayed and now you… do jobs. Nothing says punk like agreeing to carry out tasks for folks in positions of authority.

SPEED ROUND: Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Have Even More Thoughts

  • I like that you can shower in your clothes for that true Overwhelmed By Life feeling.
  • Tutorial via holograms is a strangely common technique in video games these days and it’s a really boring design choice. Then again, at least they let you skip it.
  • The TV so far comes off like it’s trying to be GTA-style satire but it’s not wild enough to be funny so it just feels like a satire of Cyberpunk 2077.
  • Making it so you can only look into mirrors when you log into them is actually a neat and sneaky way to avoid having to render reflections constantly.
  • You can buy an extra-large burrito from a vending machine in this future so how can it be bad?
  • When you look at a sink it says “flush” instead of “activate” or “turn on” and that means every water source in 2077 is a toilet.

My goal for this playthrough was to stretch the game by playing contrary to the rules on purpose. Sadly, the prologue doesn’t offer much opportunity to do this, and wants you to stick to the path quite rigidly. Hopefully that becomes less of an issue now I’m headed into the open world. Now excuse me while I lie down sideways on my cyberbed and have some cyberdreams.