SAMURAI Are Fucking Dead
Reviewed (well, written about) on PC, via Steam—specs detailed in the piece.
(Pretty hefty spoilers follow.)
You ever listen to Refused? They were pretty good. Shouty, angsty, and raw—which feels a little strange to say, as their breakthrough record The Shape of Punk to Come was polished to a glistening shine. Sequenced drums and squelchy synths made interesting bedfellows with sharp riffs and shrieked screeds.
It’s entirely appropriate, then, that a couple of decades after my heart first opened to that band, they returned to provide great and simple images to Cyberpunk 2077. I can’t think of anyone more fitting to play the part of SAMURAI, the late (maybe not), great (definitely not) Johnny Silverhand’s riders on the storm.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. And while I could spend a few thousand words marvelling at how, somehow, Refused still sound like a chimerical bombination after all this time, I’ve got a game to write about.
Cyberpunk—both with a big ‘C’ and a small ‘c’—means a lot to me. Hard scifi was an escape, while growing up in Scumbria. A kid with an imagination needs more than endless fields and rusting tractors to stay sane, and the library provided. Stephenson, Gibson, Stross—the usual.
And then a couple of chooms and I discovered Cyberpunk 2020.
I’ve still got my sourcebook, somewhere—a battered copy of V2.01, covered in annotations and bomb burns. I built my own worlds in Night City, and burned them to the ground over hours and hours of dice rolls and bad decisions. I owe Mike Pondsmith a lot, because that book—more than D&D, more than Warhammer, more than anything on my borrowed Amiga—taught me how to shape a game, play a role, and live whatever life I wanted.
So when CD Projekt announced Cyberpunk 2077, I was thrilled. I’m not a huge fan of their other work—Witcher 3 doesn’t do it for me at all—but I knew they were capable. And from the initial teaser, with the MAX-TAC crew taking down a cyberpsycho in a neon-lit alley, it looked like their vision of Night City was the same as the one my rockerboy avatar stumbled through in the late 90s. This, I thought, is going to be good.
Let’s not get caught up in specs and tech, here. In brief: I began the game on a computer I thought was up to the task, but the GTX 1080 within began to complain. Loudly. So, after selling a kidney, I jammed an RTX 3070 into my deck, and was ready to go.
Visually, Cyberpunk 2077 is incredible. Even with the settings set to low, I can happily wander about just looking at the city. After upgrading, I could turn it up a bit and play at 32:9—and really, what a wonderful world Night City is. It’s a brash, vulgar slap in the face, a dense neon hellhole that sings and screams and cajoles and threatens, often all at the same time. It’s a brightly-lit monument to darkness. Look up at the gleaming megastructures that pierce the sky, and you can almost ignore the poverty at your feet. Night City feels like the kind of place I would be desperate to escape, but once out, just as desperate to return. It feels like the Night City I remember.
In part, this is due to the noise. Cities in games rarely feel this suffocating, aurally—but here dense traffic, snatches of conversation, buzzing neon and distant (sometimes close) gunfire pile on top of each other in the most horrendous and glorious way.
Clearly this noise, this density and this overload affect the characters, too. They’re more than just actors in a scene, as it often felt like in The Witcher—they’re neurotic, jumpy and tense, paranoid about their paths, but eager to chase after the action. When the city you live in bombards you with so much aggressive, plastic hedonism, it’s not hard to imagine that a Friday night firefight is the only way to feel anything anymore.
V—your protagonist—is a bit of a wreck. It’s easy to see why. Each of the three ‘life paths’ necessarily funnel you toward disaster. This is a shame, as there’s very little actual role-playing ‘meat’ here. A Corpo and a Solo might have a different opening hour, but after that, you’re playing CDPR’s story. Make no mistake, this is a linear action game with some skill trees.
And gosh, what terribly linear action it is.
Cyberpunk 2077 presents a few different ways to get stuck in—straight-up kill-everyone-now shooting, amateurish stealthy takedowns, and quickhacking. Quickhacking sounds like it should be the most exciting of the lot, but it’s effectively just a system of magic—different items of software which, when invoked, cause damage to enemies or make you harder to detect. It’s a system which feels unfinished and not quite up to potential, and I’ve mostly ignored it in favour of a ruddy great sniper rifle which shoots through walls. Again, something I did with the old books—-and again, it feels like something I remember.
This combat, as solid as it might feel at first, gets repetitive fairly quickly. Different gangs all seem to fight in much the same way (with the exception of Animals, whose tendency to just run screaming at you with a hammer is startling), and once you’ve figured out that hiding around the corner makes fights much easier, they’re rather trivial.
Hacking features heavily, with a system of skill upgrades and a weird grid-based click-the-numbers minigame—but like Watch Dogs, it doesn’t amount to a lot more than clicking on an object to turn it off, as if hacking is essentially just manipulating Amazon Smart Plugs to the bafflement of NPCs.
The game part of the game, then, is shallow, repetitive and lacking finesse. There’s a crafting system, but it’s ill-explained and frustrating. There’s an armour system, but often the clothes with the best stats look ridiculous (which is antithetical to the sourcebooks!) There are cars, but they appear to have lard rubbed on their tyres—and everyone I’ve met in this game has immediately tried to sell me at least two cars, even legendary fixers and ruthless gang bosses.
All this sounds damning. And it should, because the actual game part of the game is disappointing. But it’s rescued for me because of the world, and the story, and the writing. Man, the writing.
At face value, Cyberpunk 2077’s story isn’t all that. Your character gets contracted to steal a MacGuffin, and the heist goes all wrong. But it’s the way things go wrong which makes it interesting. V, spoilers, is dying, and she knows this. She’s trapped in a dying shell, trapped in a dying city, and terrified of what comes next.
Characters in games seem rarely aware of the inevitability of death. V is aware of little else, and there’s a fury and vulnerability to her character that seems almost out of place—especially when presented against a backdrop as loud, as bright and as uncaring as Night City. Death is everywhere there, and one more corpse on a pile doesn’t matter. When V realises that she’s destined for that pile, and that when she’s tossed onto it she might as well never have existed in the first place, it gets heavy.
Played against this is Johnny Silverhand, a long-dead anarchoterrorist arsehole rockerboy who now lives in V’s head for important plot reasons. He doesn’t care about death—his own, or anyone else’s. While V is trying to come to terms with mortality, her fear of death, and a struggle to make sense of the world’s indifference, Silverhand acts as a constant, sneering avatar for her fear.
Spirituality and intimacy play surprisingly large roles in this game, with technology-averse monks occasionally engaging you in chats about what it means to be human in a transhuman world. And there’s a scene in a brothel which, far from the embarrassing sex scene I expected, takes V’s psyche apart completely and leaves her whimpering and afraid on an unfamiliar bed, even if you choose to safeword out of any actual nudey time. Even Silverhand seems a little taken aback by this.
Bit of a shame that Keanu Reeves’ performance as Silverhand sounds like a pitchshifted William Shatner hosting a Zoom call for California Antifa, then—very little gravitas at all, in stark contrast to Cherami Leigh’s turn as V. Her performance is fragile, afraid and lonely, and makes the character far more interesting than Silverhands impressive unmentionables ever could.
All in all, Cyberpunk 2077 feels a bit at odds with itself. It’s a surprisingly nuanced story about mortality, fear, and loneliness, which is drowned out by Keanu Reeves talking about his willy. That might be the point, and it might be trying to distract you from the horror of death’s inevitability, like an educational film about the process of decomposition presented by Lee Evans with a kazoo.
I’ll come back to this game, once the fixable flaws are ironed out. It’s fantastically paced, reasonably engaging to play, and infused with unexpected subtlety. Just don’t expect a ‘mature RPG,’ and you’ll be reet.