Saturday, September 18, 2021

Howdy Howdy, Night City! Welcome Back.

I'm pretty sure I'm heading into the endgame of Cyberpunk 2077. I was planning on just writing up one more post to sum up my response to the game, but since it's been, like, a month since my last update, I wanted to drop in with my experiences specifically through the midgame. This will cover my evolving thoughts on the mechanics and some of the major side-plots, but nothing with the main storyline, which will wait for that long-rumored final post.


Let's dive in and kick off with some notes on gameplay.


In my previous post, I described how my "end-game" (ha!) hacking loadout emphasized Cyberpsychosis, an "ultimate" hack that can turn enemies against one another. Well, since then I've realized that System Reset is way better in every way. With Cyberpsychosis, you activate it once, then have about a one-minute cooldown, and in the meantime you hide behind a corner and hope that the one or two people you turned can take out as many other people as possible. System Reset's description says that it turns targets "unconscious", and so I assumed this meant that they would be deaf and blind: but no, "unconscious" effectively means "dead": they drop to the ground and drop all their loot. Unlike Cyberpsychosis, it works instantly and doesn't raise any alarms, even if other enemies are standing nearby. With the right perks to reset cooldowns and the Ultimate-boosting deck, you can take down a big gang of, like, eight bad guys in just a few seconds without ever taking any fire or raising alarms. NCPD Scanner missions that used to take me about 5 minutes only take about 15 seconds now.


I'd also previously mentioned how there are multiple advancement systems in the game. For better and worse, they progress at very different rates. You can reach Street Cred 40 relatively early in the game, which unlocks most gear and vehicles. But actual character levels are much slower; I just recently reached level 45 after (cough) over 100 hours of gameplay. Character levels are tied to the level of your gear and the rarity of items you find, as well as getting the Attribute and Skill points to build your character.


I've now maxed my Intelligence and Tech, and am at level 18 of Cool. I kind of wish that I had split my Cool points into the Strength attribute. Intelligence 20 is game-changing, and Tech 20 is also huge, but, at least with the way I'm playing, Cool doesn't really have anything remarkable to offer at the top level, just regular minor improvements to my stealth abilities. As I noted before, locked doors can ONLY be opened with the right Tech or Strength level, depending on the door; I think I found one single door that allows you to use either one. Anyways, if I'd dipped into, say, 8 Strength then I'd be able to collect all the loot from my missions instead of leaving some behind.


It can be hard to tell what stuff will be useful and what won't. In general, I feel like the game does a very poor job at explaining how it works. Some stuff you can figure out with trial and error, but I often need to go hunting in wikis or Reddit threads to understand how certain mechanics work. One particular thing that still baffles me is electrical junction boxes. Every once in a while, you'll run across one of these. If you press F then your character will open it up, move around some wires, and close it again. I have no idea what this does: there isn't any in-game text or messaging or explanation for it. The best information I've been able to glean online suggests that this temporarily disables security cameras, but if so, there isn't any hint in-game that that's what it's doing.


Like most of the stuff in the game, though, it looks stylish even if it's useless. This extends to almost all aspects of the game. I do appreciate how immersive it is: for example, you might be driving, then hear a phone call. You press T to pick up the phone and start chatting while continuing to steer your car. In the middle of the conversation, you hear a chirrup from your phone receiving a text message. You can press Z to bring up your text, then read it and respond while talking and driving. Honestly: this feels pretty realistic to our multitasking lifestyles. I don't want to say how many other things I'm doing simultaneously while writing this paragraph. That immersiveness does sometimes get in the way of experiencing the game, though, most notably when you overhear multiple overlapping real-world conversations and can't focus on the right one.


There isn't much roleplaying choice in the game: no major branching paths through the story, and often not even any choices in dialogue, just a mandatory reply to continue. There does seem to be a few more minor character-defining choices later on, though that might have been because I kept story missions for last.



That isn't an unusual situation for this developer. The Witcher games usually offered a dialogue choice between "be a sarcastic asshole" or "be a mean asshole". Cyberpunk often feels similar: your "choice" is "I'll do it" or "I'll think about doing it". Which feels disappointing. The Witcher had the excuse of being based on an existing series of novels, with you playing as the novels' protagonist, and thus inhabiting a pre-defined character; knowing that wasn't fun, but did explain the lack of choice. I'd kind of just assumed that we'd magically get more character freedom and a rich array of roleplaying opportunities once CD Projekt moved to another franchise, but I now think that this is just the way they like to tell stories.


That said, one idea I've come to like is that CB 2077 actually does have a predefined character: V is the same person, no matter how you design him or her. Your "character creator" is more of a "character sculptor", down to your genitalia. This sort of body modification is absolutely canon in-world. Thinking of it that way helps me reduce some of my frustrations with the limited role-playing opportunities. If Cyberpunk is more like, say, Planescape: Torment, then I'm playing a character with their own personality, not one that I control. (But, that theory does make it all the more frustrating that you can't edit your character in-game! C'mon, what are ripperdocs for?!)


My enjoyment of the game has shot up drastically since I finished the NCPD Scanner Hustle side-quests. Those are so insanely boring and repetitive, and if it wasn't for my OCD I would have gladly skipped them all. I've also finished the "Gig" missions, which are one step above the NCPD hustles. These have at least some unique objective or flavor to them, beyond "Kill everyone and take their stuff." You might need to upload a virus onto a corp mainframe, or extract a key employee from an office, or assassinate a gang leader. Your fixer will sometimes give a bonus condition, like completing the mission without being spotted, or without inflicting any casualties... or, occasionally, for inflicting maximum casualties. There's enough variation here to be a bit enjoyable.


And finally there's the broader category of "Side Job", which covers a whole lot of ground, from main-plot-adjacent work to romance-related encounters to major side-stories of their own. Most of the rest of the post will focus on these.


Some side jobs have different story outcomes based on whether you kill or disable your target, but it doesn't really feel any different in-game: you just have to attach a mod to your gun to make damage non-lethal, or press F instead of R to snap an opponent's neck. So it feels odd to have someone effusively thank you for showing mercy, when you're like... "But I did totally shoot him in the back of the skull with my shotgun, I mean you saw that, right?" But, maybe it is for the best, it is kind of nice that your bloodthirsty-or-not persona is independent of the style of combat you want to use.  


Both the side jobs and the main quest will occasionally put you into the "Braindance" interface. This reminds me a lot of the "Memory Remix" mechanic of Remember Me: you drop into another person's point-of-view and play time backwards and forwards. Memory Remix was inherently more interesting since you could actually modify the memories, while in Braindances you can only scan the existing information. But it's interesting to think that, like, Judy might be doing a Memory Remix that you then experience as a Braindance. 



I can't help comparing a lot of stuff in Cyberpunk to Shadowrun. Braindances seem to kind of be analogues to BTLs (better-than-lifes), although BTLs are always shown as negative while Braindances may or may not be. Cyberpunk also has "Virtu"s, or virtual-reality entertainment, which seems roughly comparable to but not exactly the same as a Shadowrun "Trideo". I get the sense that Virtus are interactive while Trideos are not, but I may be mistaken about that.


I'll probably write about the proper romances in my next and almost certainly final post, but I did want to call out Claire real quick. I'd assumed that she would be a romance option, since she has a very detailed and well-designed character model, a lot of dialogue and a personal quest line. It turns out that she isn't romanceable. Her quest line is kind of interesting in that it sort of inverts the relationship you typically have with NPCs. Claire is also trans, and I thought her presentation was good. I'd known her for a while, then eventually noticed a trans pride flag on the back of her truck. She had struck me as a butch lesbian, and when she talked about her deceased husband that kind of threw me a little, but much later in her storyline I learned some personal history. Her being trans was cool; what wasn't cool was how she would offer me a ride home, I'd say "Yes" expecting to have a nice getting-to-know-you chat, and then we would both sit in DEAD SILENCE for the ENTIRE DRIVE ACROSS ALL NIGHT CITY. (Except for the final car ride, when her radio was blaring so loudly that I couldn't hear what she was saying. Immersion strikes again!)


There are way too many subplots to write about, and honestly most of them are pretty forgettable one-offs. One that isn't very forgettable is detective Rivers' child abduction subplot, which is really horrifying: you track a man who has groomed, abducted, and abused dozens of young boys; it also features braindances of childhood trauma and a deeply disturbing animated cartoon. I'm surprised to see something like that in a AAA game, and am morbidly curious what thought process led them to including it. It also seems a bit bizarre that this quest does have a love interest associated with it. I can't think of anything that would put me less in the mood for romance.


I wasn't expecting something like that in this game: it strikes me as more of a World of Darkness type of plot. There is a little bit of affinity between the two franchises. An earlier side job revolves around a Death's-Head Moth XBD, which reminded me a lot of the "horror tape" subplot in Vampire: The Masquerade: Bloodlines. While playing the mission I thought it was a direct homage, but after further research I realized that the label on the tape in VTMB is "Death Mask Production" (DMP), so it may or may not be an intentional reference. But the overall arc feels very similar in how it was originally filmed, then picked up for distribution, and you eventually peruse it for clues.


XBDs are a recurring element in Cyberpunk, sort of the snuff films of the 2070s. Regular braindances come from people equipped with braindance recorders: they record everything that person sees, hears, smells, feels, tastes, etc. When you play back the BD, you experience everything the original person did. If you play back, say, an erotic sex BD, you'd feel like you were having sex, down to the adrenaline rush and everything. An XBD is recorded the same way, but the subject is going through an eXtreme situation like torture. XBDs (always?) end with the death of the subject, so you the viewer actually feel the sensation of dying. It's messed up! Within this world, some people develop a fetish for this sort of experience and compulsively seek them out, spawning a whole black market around producing and distributing them.


Overall, Cyberpunk 2077 is much less of a horror game than VTMB was, but it does have some great ideas about horror. Early on you hear about the "Secure Your Soul" product, where a corporation will digitize your entire engram: all of your memories, personality, feelings, etc, are backed up shortly before the moment of death (somewhat like in Fall; or, Dodge in Hell). This essentially grants a form of eternal life, which sounds great; but that also opens up the possibility of eternal torture! You can subject that consciousness to unending agony, and unlike traditional torture, there will never be any relief from death, because you're already dead, and your digital bits can continue to burn in hell forever. It's a really scary idea, and one that naturally arises from the posthumanist themes of cyberpunk literature.


I just reached the Point of No Return in the game. There are a couple of achievements I want to nab first, like purchasing all the vehicles in the game, but it looks like I'm closing in on the home stretch. Gotta delta, choom.

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