Monday, August 23, 2021

A Punk, But Make It Cyber

It's time for another checkin on Cyberpunk 2077! Yes, yes it is. See, it's here in your calendar! Now sit down and turn off your phone, this will take a while.


Bottom line up front: I have a lot of complaints, but I'm really enjoying the environment and atmosphere in the game, and that's keeping me going. I'm finding that I'm enjoying the game more when I play it more like a shooter and less like an RPG, even though I vastly prefer RPGs to shooters.



I initially started as a build that was focused on Intelligence and Cool (Stealth), with a little bit of Tech. Unfortunately, most of the Cool perks are based around lethal attacks, while I wanted to use it for silent and non-lethal takedowns, so the tree actually has a lot less utility than I expected. Instead I'm focusing heavily on Intelligence and recently maxed it out at level 20; next I'm leveling Tech, which gets you access to more locations, lets you craft and upgrade weapons and armor and mods and consumables, and increases the power of Tech weapons.


Hacking is awesome. Early in the game, my normal MO would be to Breach Protocol and get cheaper access to a network, then disable any cameras and alarms in the area. After that I would either Distract enemies by hacking objects in the environment (lights, radios, soda machines, etc.) and grab them while their backs are turned; or use Reboot Optics to blind them, then sneak up and take them down. I was maybe 20 hours into the game before I encountered my first robot and learned that you can't grab or subdue them, but fortunately the Short Circuit quickhack can usually take down a robot instantly, before they get a chance to squawk off a warning.


Now that my Intelligence is at level 20, I have access to insane programs on my deck. Cyberpsychosis is a standout: it makes an enemy hostile towards everyone, including their allies, and will usually cause them to hunt down their squad, then eliminate themselves. I can turn turrets into allies with Friendly Mode and direct them against my foes. I have passives that instantly blind foes as they spot me. Overall it's a lot more lethal than hacking was earlier in the game, but also more fun.

Hacking is also a great way to earn money. A single Access Point will usually hold between 1k-2k eurodollars. When upgrading my Cyberdeck, I would lean towards the ones with higher Buffer ratings, which increases the odds you'll be able to extract full value from an access point. I'm personally fond of the Stephenson line. 


That said, it is good to also invest in Tech and/or Body. I'd read in the tooltips that those skills can open doors, and had thought "Oh, I bet I can find a way to hack them open or find a key." That's true in most other games, but not here! Those doors just stay closed if you don't have the required skill level. For story missions, you can find another route in. For all other missions, though, it means leaving behind whatever loot was locked in that room. Oddly enough, the requirements for Tech and Body are much higher than the requirements for Intelligence; for much of the last 10 hours or so of play, all of the Access Points I encountered required an INT of 4 or 5, while the doors required between 7 and 9 Body or Tech. I'm curious if that's because they assume that all players will dip a little into INT or what.

Attributes max out at 20. From what I've read online, an end-game character can bring 3 attributes up to 20 and have a few points left over for the other two. Besides Attributes, there are also Perk points. Those are more plentiful than Attribute points: you get one while leveling your character, and sometimes get one when leveling a skill, and also can get points through specific item pickups. It's still a limited commodity, though. From what I've read, it sounds like there's eventually an expensive option to respec your Perks, but no such option for Attributes.

There are a lot of progression systems in this game. Besides Attributes and Perks and Skills, there's also Street Cred, which is kind of a parallel XP system. You seem to get most XP from completing quests and most SC from defeating enemies, although you can get both from both. Street Cred is mostly used to unlock better equipment from vendors: they won't sell you the really good stuff until you've impressed them and built a reputation. It also opens up higher-level Fixer gigs and options to buy fancier and more expensive vehicles. For cyberdecks in particular, new decks usually unlock on the 5s or the 10s, so those are good times to go shopping (e.g., Street Cred level 25 or 40). Each vendor has their own stock of items, and some items are only sold by one specific vendor. Each item has the same requirement, but there are a couple of times that you can negotiate or threaten a permanent discount from a specific vendor.


Speaking of vendors: so far the overall money curve seems pretty decent for an RPG. On the downside, it's the worst possible style of sourcing economy, where you collect hundreds of pieces of junk and crummy weapons and armor and stuff to sell off for money, leading to insanely tedious inventory management shenanigans. There are lots of vendors in the world who sell clothing and consumables and stuff, but pretty much anything you buy would be eclipsed by the pickups you get from defeating enemies, so there isn't much reason to buy stuff, except for the aforementioned cyberdecks and cyberware in general.

By far the single best thing to buy is a pair of cyberlegs: they run for about $16k but are absolutely worth it. You can choose between one that lets you double-jump and another that lets you charge up a super-jump. There are about a dozen slots to put cyberware into (eyes, skeleton, musculature, arms, legs, cardiovascular system, etc.), and each item has an associated cost, a Street Cred requirement, and often a stat unlock, like 12 Body to get a Supra-Dermal Weave that makes you immune to Bleeding. As in Shadowrun, you can't sell back old cyberware where you upgrade to more powerful models; but once you've purchased a particular piece, you can swap back to it for free at any ripperdoc. At least so far, there doesn't seem to be any downside to maxing out with as much cyberware as possible, which is a little surprising to me: from my understanding of the pen-and-paper Cyberpunk rules, installing too much 'ware causes a loss in Humanity and Empathy which can eventually turn you psychotic. In Cyberpunk 2077, that's part of the lore but doesn't seem to be part of the gameplay.


The big money sink is vehicles. These are also unlocked by Street Cred. You buy them directly from Fixers, and will only be contacted by a Fixer with the option when you're in their territory, so you have to travel a bit to see what all is for sale. They are very expensive; it might be feasible to get them all by the end of the game, but certainly not where I'm at. I don't think it's strictly necessary to buy any vehicles, since you get one or two for free during story missions, but there is a pretty nice variety, and definitely some solid specializations: some are particularly fast, others sturdy, some designed for off-roading.


Personally I pretty much always buy motorcycles, which are a lot more maneuverable when weaving through traffic, navigating alleys and moving through drainage tunnels. One complaint I have is that you can't try out a vehicle before purchasing it, and this game has an awful habit of delivering vehicles with miniscule fields of view. Because it's first-person, you aren't seeing your surroundings, you're seeing the inside of the car you're driving, which hopefully includes a slice of the world through your front windshield. On lots of cars, that windshield is narrow as hell and doesn't offer much of a view at all. Here too, I thought I was lucking out by favoring motorcycles, which don't surround you in a chasis and let you actually see what's around you: only then did I buy my second motorcycle and make the unpleasant discovery that it has a ridiculous bug-spattered windshield that blocks out the center of my screen, i.e. the part with all the most important stuff for me to see like oncoming traffic. This is a recurring theme of Cyberpunk 2077: for better and for worse, style always wins out over fun and usability.


And ha, just after writing that last paragraph I learned that you can switch between first-person and third-person, but only while driving. (I learned this because the game put me into a race with a predefined course, switched camera modes so I could see the path, and didn't switch back at the end.) So, yeah, you should definitely always drive in third-person mode because third-person games are better than first-person. BUT, this does then bring up another flaw: the clothes in this game are, for the most part, butt-ugly. Well, the individual pieces aren't all bad, but the combination is terrible, and it's pretty much impossible to look good after the first time you upgrade a piece of gear. That's honestly a big part of why I'm investing so much into the Tech tree: I'm hoping that I'll eventually be able to craft a selection of gear that both looks decent and has acceptable stats. So far, though, no luck at all. The "stats vs. looks" dilemma is definitely not unique to Cyberpunk 2077, most RPGs have it in one form or another, with a few like DA:I having innovative solutions while SR:HK has a dead-simple one. But I think there's a big difference between, like, a fantasy RPG where my complaint is about the shape of a pair of metal greaves, and a cyberpunk RPG where my leg slot can be filled with jorts, or jodhpurs, or camo pants, or track pants, or suit pants, or a pencil skirt, or hiking shorts; and a shoe slot can be filled by combat boots, or strappy sandals, or low-rise heels, or high-rise heels, or sneakers, or hi-tops, or dress shoes. All with radically different Armor values. Ugh. I'll still take looking at that ugly mess over playing in first person, though.


I seem to be getting cranky, so let's continue the airing of grievances!

I'd alluded to this before, but stealth gameplay is really annoying in practice. Enemies can be Unaware, Alert or Aggressive. They're pretty easy to deal with while Unaware. Once they suspect that something is wrong (they spot a body, an alarm goes off or they hear a call for help), they become Alert: they will look around more frequently, and they will spot you more quickly. Once they actually spot you or take damage, they become Aggressive, and once they are Aggressive, they will never go back down. So, if you want to do stealth takedowns, and you slip up for a second, the only way to do stealth is to reload your last save. Like I mentioned above, I've lately come to find it vastly more satisfying to just murder everyone, or make them murder one another.


Some technical issues: the bass sounds terrible, particularly in the early missions in the game. It might be my speakers, but I haven't had this problem with any other game.


A lot of items have pickup symbols but can't actually be picked up. Sometimes if you move your cursor a couple of inches above or below or to the left or to the right you will be able to pick it up. More often you can't.

The game is pretty glitchy when reloading. The game blocks saving when in combat, but if you're being stealthy you can be doing stuff to enemies while technically not being in combat, and that can make things wonky if you reload that save. In particular, if you're in the middle of uploading a quickhack when you save, then when you reload you won't be able to do any hacks against that target ever again.


It seems like all the game-breaking bugs that plagued the game at launch have been patched, and after 50+ hours I haven't yet had a single crash or forced reload. That said, in non-essentials it remains pretty glitchy. It reminds me a bit of Mass Effect Andromeda. Nothing terrible, but every hour or so you run across something goofy and unpolished.

I'm not a huge fan of the immersive conversation system. I'm used to having a separate interface for dialogue, but in Cyberpunk it's all delivered in-game. This can be cool and feel natural, but the dialog controls overlap with game controls in some annoying ways. "C" fast-forwards the dialogue, and also crouches, so sometimes I'll try to crouch and end up missing something important. "F" is the all-purpose control for almost everything in the game, including looting items, opening doors, and picking dialogue responses. Sometimes I'll be busily mashing F to pick up loot, and accidentally pick the first response without knowing what it is. On the other hand, I was once trapped in a medical shop because I couldn't dismiss the dialogue options, and so couldn't press "F" to open the door and exit. And this isn't a big thing, but most conversations don't have a "Bye" choice to dismiss, so you just walk away when you're done. For some stuff that's fine, but it's weird if, like, you have a heart-to-heart with Vektor and then just silently leave.


My single biggest gripe so far is with the enormous volume and the low quality of the side-quests. What I loved most about The Witcher 3 was how there weren't any boilerplate sidequests. Pretty much every quest felt bespoke, with its own cut-scenes, unique motivations, mechanics and strategy. In Cyberpunk, though, 95% of quests are boilerplate. "Assault in Progress", Fixer Gigs, etc., all boil down to the same thing: go to a place, defeat all the enemies, collect the loot. That's it. Usually there isn't even any talking or "press the button" element. Quests in this game feel more like the quests in Oblivion or Fallout 3, which is not a good thing. As in those games, I feel actual dread when I open my map and see it filled with quest symbols, and I have dozens of quests listed in my journal, and I know that all but three of them will be tedious and boring and just like every other quest. 


The one bright side is that at least there's not the town-cave-town cycle: you usually get the quest over the phone as you approach the destination, and call back your fixer after you're done, so at least in-progress ones don't clutter up your log too much.

Of course, you don't have to do any of the side-quest stuff. The main quests are all great and interesting and varied, and I think you could just do those, or only do a handful of sidequests to level up for the main quest. It's a sign of my OCD that I feel like I need to do all these things and get annoyed at myself for not having fun doing these things that I know I'll hate.



That sounds harsh! So, why am I still playing this game? The single biggest reason is Night City itself. The world looks awesome, and I'm still finding entire new districts with their own vibes and culture and style.



 While there are a lot of gripes I have with the game, no particular thing has been unpleasant enough for me to bounce off of: combat is fine, the difficulty feels okay, advancement is fine, driving was acceptable once I learned there was a third-person view, the voice acting is pretty good. Oh, and I'm pretty sure there are romances in the game, so I'm definitely sticking around to verify that.

So, yeah! That's where I'm at now. No story stuff in this post, which honestly is mostly because I've done 75 terrible side-missions about "kill all these people because [REASONS]" and like five main story missions. I'll probably recap and react to said story once I better know what it is!

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