Thursday, September 23, 2021

Final Cyberpunk

And, it's over! As advertised, I passed the Point of No Return in Cyberpunk. The endgame is nice and meaty, with a lot more choice-and-consequence than the rest of the game. Overall the ending felt pretty satisfying; it didn't completely make up for all of the shortcomings and annoyances along the way, but it ended on probably the strongest note of the game.


I think I wanted Cyberpunk 2077 to be like a modern version of the original Deus Ex crossed with Blade Runner 2049. Instead it's like a mash-up of Grand Theft Auto with The Elder Scrolls: the city environment and cars of the former, mixed with the interminable quest structure and inventory management of the latter. I think I mentioned this before, but I enjoyed Cyberpunk more the more I thought of it as a shooter and not as an RPG. To me, a "roleplaying game" means "a game where you play a role": decide how your character would react to various situations, what choices they would make. For too many developers, though, "roleplaying" means "pick up ten thousand ashtrays and then sell them so you can afford to buy a slightly more powerful gun." All stats and junk items and grinding for XP or money.


Overall I think I mostly like Cyberpunk for its world, but its characters are also well-drawn, distinct and compelling. Backing up a bit, Jackie is the first NPC who you get to know really well, and in some ways it anticipates the more intense Johnny relationship that comes later: you see the good and the bad in him. I felt ambivalent about Jackie while running with him, as his mix of eagerness and sulking could occasionally grate. But I came to really appreciate him after his passing: quirks that seemed annoying in life became endearing in their absence.


I really, really liked the wake scene. It's a bit cliche to have the death of a close friend or partner be the catalyst for action in a game (or a movie or a comic or a novel or whatever); but in Cyberpurnk, that scene felt like a mourning and celebration of a life, rather than just using his death to push the plot forward. In particular, I really liked how, if you choose to speak during the wake, there are multiple beats where you can choose between saying two things, and those two things seem contradictory, but each one is true of Jackie. They're just different sides of him, or different ways of perceiving the same facts. That's kind of the definition of a well-written character, that it can support that complexity in reading.


And then you meet Johnny. I love Keanu Reeves in real life, but I often felt annoyed by the Johnny character that he plays. That's fine, though! The game always gives you the option to express your annoyance or dislike of him, and even when the game forces you to go a certain way you can kick and scream as you go. I was role-playing V as someone who is very upset at someone else infiltrating her head-space, so there was a lot of me telling him to F off.


Johnny acts like a know-it-all, but he isn't infallible, and sometimes is straight-up wrong about stuff, while insisting that anyone who disagrees with him is an idiot. That definitely set me on edge, and my gut reaction was usually to do the opposite of whatever he suggested. It gets tricky at times, though. Johnny is always an asshole, but sometimes that includes him being an asshole towards the corps, which I do generally approve of. Occasionally I had to thread the needle of "I think that you're a jerk and I hate you, but this one specific point you're making right now is accurate."


It's interesting that Johnny Silverhand and Samurai are dinosaurs within the world of Cyberpunk: they were huge, iconic presences back in 2020, and largely forgotten has-beens in 2077. At a meta level this whole genre feels kind of dinosaur-y: cyberpunk was cool and cutting-edge back in the 1980s when computers networks were just starting to be a thing, and it isn't all that revelatory today in 2020. The game sometimes winks at this kind of pathetic nostalgia, like the too-cool-for-you geezer record collector; but often the game wants you to celebrate it, to say "Yeah! Music really was better back then! I don't care what teens today say, I've still got it!" This gets really on-the-nose at the reunion concert, which Johnny and Kerry think is the coolest thing ever, but I'm left wondering if it really was.


Let's talk about romance!


I've done a little research to confirm that there are four "main" romance tracks, not counting a couple of one-night-stands and prostitutes. I think the game does it right: there's a gay woman, a straight woman, a gay man, and a straight man. That's less choice than the more common "everyone is bisexual" approach, but seems like a better representation. Interestingly, their preferences vary somewhat: some are mostly concerned about your physical appearance, while others care more about your voice. That won't be a big deal for cisgendered V's, but may lead to some surprises for more queer PCs. 


It is a little odd that the timing varies so much on when you meet them. I think I met Judy around hour 5 or so of the game, before the main part of the game even really starts, but I didn't meet Kerry until about 100 hours in.

For once I feel decently satisfied with the romance content, at least the arc I experienced with Judy. It's nice and long: there are some story missions, some getting-to-know-each-other side jobs, some hanging out, some hooking up. After said hookup you can declare your intentions for a relationship or not; if you do commit, you can continue visiting her apartment, see how she's redecorating it, have some heart-to-heart-chats, or even just ring her on the phone to chat while you're on the road.


For my own sake, here's a quick recap of how I understand the story:

Back around 2020, rogue AIs were threatening the global Internet. Alt Cunningham, a genius hacker and occasional lover of the rockerboy Johnny Silverhand, was abducted by the Arasaka corporation and pressed into service, her consciousness digitized and transferred to the Net. Here she became essentially a goddess, where she built the Blackwall, a firewall that partitioned off the AIs from humanity.


Johnny only knew that she had been kidnapped, and was pissed off, so he hired an old flame and fixer named Rogue on a ballsy mission to rescue Alt, and then to tear down Arasaka. He destroyed their headquarters, but was captured. Before he was killed, his consciousness was also digitized.


Much later, the Voodoo Boys, a street gang obsessed with the Net, wanted to make contact with the AIs. That meant making contact with Alt, and they decided the best way to do that was to talk with Johnny. They hired a fixer to steal Johnny's engram from Arasaka. During the legwork phase of this mission, the fixer hired a "joytoy" (basically a prostitute/escort) named Evelyn Parker to seduce Yorinobu Arasaka, the heir to Arasaka and the leader of its Night City subsidiary. Evelyn learns where the relic hosting the engram is located, but she decides that rather than just get a small payment from the fixer, she wants the whole thing. She hires a group of mercs (Jackie, V, T-Bug) to break into Arasaka Tower and steal it themselves.


While in the tower, V and Jackie witness Yorinobu choking his father, the CEO Saburo Arasaka, to death: Saburo disapproves of his son's behavior, while his son is furious at his father. Yorinobu sounds the alarm, claiming that Saburo was poisoned by assassins. V and Jackie are soon spotted and face the fury of Arasaka security. In the scuffle, the container of the biochip is damaged, Without knowing the contents, Jackie slots the biochip into his own head to keep it stable. Later, Jackie is mortally wounded and transfers the biochip to V. Then V is mortally wounded and dies.


When V's consciousness is extinguished, the biochip reboots and reactivates V's body. From this point on, V and Johnny Silverhand's consciousnesses share the same body. V is mostly in control, but frequently sees and hears Johnny. It's a mess.


Saburo's bodyguard, Goro Takemura, tracks down V's body to the junkyard where it was dumped, hoping to find more information about the killing. He learns that Yorinobu was the real killer. Yorinobu sends security to try and kill Goro and V, so they both go into hiding.


The main open-world part of the game takes place here. There are way, way too many side-quests. In terms of the main plot, most of it is reconstructing what happened before and why.


V learns that Johnny's engram is gradually taking over: it is a death sentence. She tracks down the engineer who originally developed the "Save Your Soul" program and is the best hope for reversing it, extracting V from Johnny. She meets with Rogue, who worked with Johnny back in the day and has become Night City's most powerful fixer, one of the only people capable of taking on a megacorp like Arasaka. And she and Goro make contact with Hanako, the daughter of Saburo; she is loyal to her brother, but after he attempts to kill her she reluctantly concedes that he has to go.


The plot finally branches (I think) near the very end of the game. Your best hope at a cure lies deep within Arasaka Tower. You can (1) ally with Hanako and help her take control of Arasaka from her brother; (2) let Johnny take control and charge into Arasaka guns blazing with Rogue; or (3) call in a favor from Panam, a friendly Nomad of the Aldacaldo clan, and ask her family to join you (as yourself) in the assault. These three choices seem to mirror the three origin choices of Corpo, Street Rat and Nomad.


I sure as hell wasn't letting Johnny take over (though I have to admit that playing his flashback sequences are pretty fun, mostly because his attack animation is stylish as hell). I was pretty tempted by the Panam option: she's really cool (though sadly only romanceable by men), and since it seems like the one option that might be unlocked by previous choices I wondered if it might lead to the "best" ending. But I didn't like the idea of putting additional Aldecaldos in harm's way when I could just shoot everyone myself. And, while I never totally got a bead on my V's personality (other than an intense hatred of Johnny, there weren't a whole lot of choices in how to react to situations), I did think that she would be pretty comfortable playing politics with powerful people in order to advance her interests. Not for the sake of the corp, of course - that life was long behind her - but as a means to an end.

I am a bit curious how much the ending changes based on this decision. In my case, it went like this:

Anders Hellman and V rescue Hanako from house arrest. She then reveals a bombshell: Saburo had digitized his own consciousness before death, and that construct still lives and has been directing Hanako's actions. Hanako and V attend the Arasaka board meeting, where they announce Yorinobu's treachery and reveal Saburo's continued existence. Yorinobu initiates a purge, killing many members of the board. V kills Adam Smasher (who had killed Johnny decades ago) and then captures Yorinobu.


Hanako uploads Saburo's consciousness into Yorinobu's body: Saburo is still the same person with all the same memories as before, but now has the body of a fit young man. He resumes his role as CEO of Arasaka, and, incidentally, becomes basically a god: he is essentially immortal. This touches off a wave of controversy and protest that is still underway as the game ends, but it seems clear that the CEO of a megacorp can do whatever he wants.


Hellman is able to remove Johnny's construct from V's brain, but the damage is fatal: too much of Johnny was already in her. She gradually reclaims much of her mental capacity, then learns the harsh truth. Hellman offers a choice: she can enroll in the Save Your Soul program, signing away her human rights and joining the digital archive of engrams, awaiting the day when the program is perfected and she can be reincarnated in a new body. (Saburo was only able to reincarnate because Yorinobu was his offspring and shared his genes.) Or she can accept her fate, and remain a free person, with maybe six months to live before the end.


I mulled over this for a bit, and eventually opted for "Freedom", mostly due to peer pressure since I'm pretty sure that's what most of my pals would have preferred I do.

The last minute or so of the game is pretty cool: for the first time the game shifts into third person, and you can actually see V (thankfully in a stylish jumpsuit and not the gosh-awful assortment of terrible armor pieces). There's a particularly striking visual here which I (1) thoroughly enjoyed, and (2) thought ripped off the climax to CalFree in Chains. (It's very egotistical of me to say, but I think I did it better: there are more thematic overtones in mine, versus primarily being a cool image.)


The closing credits are pretty cool. My preferred endings to RPGs tend to be the slideshow-y, image-plus-text "What happened next" round-ups. Instead, Cyberpunk plays clips of recorded video calls, sent from your friends on Earth. That's a nice change, which feels a bit more personal and connected to people rather than the state of the world. That said, the lineup of messages felt a bit weird. I'm curious why, say, Saul and Mitch get to give long speeches, and meanwhile there's nothing from Claire or Delamain or Brigitte or Regina, all people who you've probably spent more time with.


I felt a little bummed that Judy leaves Night City; if I'd known that she wasn't going to be sticking around anyways, I might have chosen immortality. I'd agonized over that choice a bit: after seeing how devastated she was by Evelyn's death, I hated the thought of putting her through yet another death, but decided that ghosting her would be worse. Judy's choice to move on does seem to be in keeping with her character, though.

Since you have six months before dying, I'd thought that the game would drop you back into the open world. If you've already done the NCPD Scanner Hustles, then you won't spend six months with everything left in the game. Instead, it sends you back to your last saved game before the Point of No Return, along with some exceptionally crappy rewards. I'm kind of curious whether CD Projekt Red will add any post-ending DLC or just add more content to the earlier part of the game. 


Sooooo, summing things up:

The Good

Atmosphere. Wonderfully cyberpunky, with neon and rain and chrome.



Slang.  I absolutely love the word "Gonk," it's perfect. "Choom" is fine but "Choomba" is excellent. Delta, etc... lots of good lingo to pick up.

Diversity. Really great variation in races, beliefs, genders, body sizes, philosophies and more.

Music. There's a fun mix of diegetic music with an occasional proper soundtrack. The music is pretty catchy and there's a good variety of it.


Clubs. This is one of the few aspects where Cyberpunk is unequivocally superior to Shadowrun: there's a huge variety of awesome locations scattered around the city, including dives, speakeasies, cocktail lounges, dance clubs, industrial rave warehouses, trendy hipster hangs, geezer rock clubs, even some honest-to-goodness gay bars. The music is great, there's lots of dancing, each spot has its own vibe and clientele. I love it.


Romance. Good diversity, very well-defined characters, nice structure, good integration with the story and world, good mix of active time and peaceful hanging out.

The Fine

Shooting. I didn't shoot much, but it was pretty fun when I did. 


The power curve. Overall the game is pretty darn easy at normal difficulty, but the challenges scale pretty nicely.

Hacking. The hacking minigame is one of the better ones out there, which isn't saying much but is still worth noting.


Skills. There's a good variety of ways to build characters, different viable strategies for advancement (breadth vs. depth), nice character. My one quibble is the harsh divide between combat (Body, Reflex) and non-combat (Intelligence, Tech, Cool), but it works fine in practice.

The Mixed

Length. I clocked in at just north of 100 hours for a completionist playthrough. I think that's awful; it was maybe ~30 hours of fun gameplay surrounded by 70+ hours of tedious, rote stuff. But if you like long games, this is one!



Stealth. I like that it's an option, and a lot of work clearly went into the system, but it's almost always just frustrating and un-fun.

Boss fights. There aren't many of them. They do a good job at mixing things up and making challenges; but they also fit the classic cyberpunk mold (as seen in Deus Ex and Shadowrun and everything else) of punishing players who built their characters around something other than combat skills. No, you can't defeat the awesome supersoldier with your hacking programs.


Choice-and-consequences. It gets a bit better the deeper you get in the game, but I always felt very limited in how I could express my V. 


The economy. I've never played an open world game with a great economy, so my expectations were low. For the first part of the game buying cyberware is worthwhile, but afterwards money is useless, except for a Steam achievement and maybe getting components for crafting. Most shops are pointless; why would you ever visit a netrunner or medpoint shop?

Vehicles. They're expensive, and you only really need to buy maybe two (a good motorcycle and a good car), everything else is just vanity. Most drive terribly, with awful braking and steering. And, while you should be driving in third-person camera anyways, most of the windshields are so tiny that you don't have a real option to use first-person even if you wanted.


First-person perspective. They did it for a very good reason; the final segment in the lab wouldn't be nearly as powerful in third-person, and it fits thematically with all of the stuff you're interacting with like braindances. But in terms of actual gameplay it always feels inferior to third-person.

The Bad:

Filler "missions". This game would be so much better if all the NCPD stuff was just removed.

Cops. Not just the cop missions, but the fact that V spends a majority of the game helping law enforcement catch perps. You know, like all punks do. [Insert eyeroll emoji.]

AI. Not so much the combat AI, which is fine, just how NPCs behave. If you park your car in the middle of the street, twenty cars will stack up behind it, with nobody ever thinking to scootch around. Nobody ever gets mad or reacts to your traffic violations. GTA has spoiled me, but also, this is all stuff that GTA nailed twenty years ago.

Inventory management. It gets slightly more bearable later on when you use Backpacker mods to increase your carry capacity, but that also means that instead of frequently spending 5 minutes sorting through crap you less-frequently spend 10 minutes sorting through crap. No, I will not stop including this complaint on every RPG I play.

Fashion. I can't believe that it's the year 2021 and there's no "Hide Helmet" option in the UI. Granted it's a first-person game so you don't always see how ugly you look, but it's staring at you each time you open your inventory or character screen.


What a journey! Like lots of nerds I've been eagerly anticipating this game ever since the teaser trailer dropped way back in 2013. It doesn't live up to the hype, but it's still a fun time. I think my favorite analysis of the game is Gene Park's follow-up review, which notes that the core problem is that the game CD Projekt Red marketed isn't the game that CD Projekt Red made. You can patch graphical flaws and AI glitches, but you can't patch fundamental game design. At the end of the day, I think it's best to think of Cyberpunk as a stylish cyberpunk shooter (with, for some reason, a terrible inventory management system), and not as a deep cyberpunk RPG. There's still lots to enjoy: Night City is oozing with atmosphere, the story comes up with some really crazy big ideas and treats them seriously, and there are some really great people to get to know inside the game. As long as you're fine with mostly being a spectator in this world rather than a dynamic player, you'll probably enjoy the ride.


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