A Comprehensive Guide to Budget Cyberpunk Gaming – Part 6

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At first, I was hesitant to make a full, standalone article based on online multiplayer games that you can get for free (or next to it) for a few reasons. The first of which involves the conditions under which players can actually play the game: some of these games are mods, which means you’ll have to buy copies of Half-Life 2 and Counter-Strike: Source, respectively, if you don’t already. Furthermore, each of the listed games are restricted to Windows operating systems, and the fickle nature of online multiplayer games will leave them dead sometimes only after a few months–for a couple of them, the only way a player can actually engage in an online match is if they organize it themselves amongst a group of friends.

But more disconcerting to me is the very nature of arena shooters–something about the militant, us-versus-them mentality of team sports as a whole is fairly counter-intuitive to punk culture in general, not just cyberpunk. And uh, attempts to apply storytelling to sets of team-based death-matches more often than not seem to be rather gratuitous and pointless. That said, I’ll go into detail as to why each is worth mentioning below.


Pay to Download

Blade Symphony

blade symphony cover promo art

Find on Steam and Humble for $4.99

Since Blade Symphony is a bit of a black sheep on this list, it might be advantageous to cover it first. While not specifically advertised as cyberpunk, there are elements of Puny Human‘s debut swordfighter that are in line with the aesthetic of the genre as a whole. Blade Symphony’s backstory is simple: it’s the future, and you’re training to be the best swordfighter in the world. Why swords are making a comeback when they must be impossibly outmatched by firearms is beyond me, but there is just something so undeniably cyberpunk about a cyborg brandishing a katana in the middle of a neon-lit, Asian city street. Other arenas have the players fighting in esoteric locales like a Buddhist-style temple, a Western-looking monastery, and a village on the slopes of a Japanese mountain, which kind of muddles the imagery, but there is also a training room that has a holodeck-ish vibe.

The player also has the freedom to customize the look of four classes of character, each which has choices between more traditional garb and futuristic accessories. One can even choose between classic claymores befitting a fantasy novel and swords that have a distinctly sci-fi edge to their designs. The combat system requires focus and a little bit of learning to conquer and feels rewarding once this is achieved. Unlike hack-and-slash games, Blade Symphony requires lightning-quick strategy and an understanding of each character and sword’s play style. However, despite its attempts to brand itself as a realistic swordplay simulator, the combat just a little too fantastic for me to take this as anything other than a fun cyberpunk romp. The animations lack polish on occasion, but for $5, this is a game that is well worth it.

Blade Symphony – 7/10


Dystopia

dystopia half life 2 mod logo

Requires Half-Life 2 prior to download through Steam.

Released by Puny Human Games prior to the development of Blade Symphony, Dystopia is an arena shooter that takes heavy inspiration from ’80s and ’90s cyberpunk. Players choose a side in a war between punk rocker mercenaries and heavily-armored corporate security, engaging in skirmishes in decaying urban environments or secret, metallic facilities. One of the things that makes this game stand apart from your garden variety shooter is the heavy involvement of cyberspace; battles are fought not only in meatspace, but on the digital plane as well, and the inclusion of hacking terminals is heavily featured in the game. Of course, since this is all rendered on the infamous Source engine, the graphics are a bit unkind to the eye. Also, when I last jacked in there were no online games running, and I, myself, am unable to comment on the actual gameplay since my game crashed every time I attempted to start a match.

Dystopia – x/10


NeoTokyo°

neotokyo counter strike mod promo

Requires Counter-Strike: Source prior to download through Steam

Neotokyo° by Studio Radi-8 takes place in a sociopolitically-tumultuous version of Japan roughly 50 years down the line. The national identity of Japan is constantly changing with the rapidly changing world and appears to be suffering economically. In an attempt to force the government’s hand into military action, Japan’s armed forces attempt a coup of the government, which fails and results in guerilla warfare between Japan’s armies and the Interior Ministry’s own special forces unit, Group Six. As far as backstory goes, this is a much more subtle and realistic attempt at creating a sociological cyberpunk narrative, rife with political ambiguity in a world gone wrong.

Even though I went in knowing Neotokyo° is another Source engine mod, I, for some reason, thought things would be different. Of course, that isn’t to say that Neotokyo° is a bad game, but having been released in 2014, I had hoped for a game with more impressive graphics. Instead, the game is still plagued by the sharp and boxy edges, bland environments, and simplistic lighting seen in older Source games. Still, this isn’t to say that it’s not an enjoyable experience. The gameplay feels typical of modern-era shooters, although there is a definite skill curve the player must match in order to compare with the game’s seemingly exclusive pool of veteran players. And when a map was a labor of love on the part of the developers, it really shows: nt_bullet_tdm, which takes place on a maglev train rocketing down a tunnel is a definite rush; nt_dawn_ctg is certainly the most polished; and nt_redlight_ctg and nt_transit_ctg are likely the most connected with cyberpunk’s neon-drenched roots. I felt a bit let down though–the game’s promo art depicts slums and other condensed, detailed urban environments a la Chappie, which I would have been interested in seeing in the context of this game. However, where the game shines is its minimalistic art style, which seems to fit surprisingly well with the world the Neotokyo° team have created. As a bonus, there are some fairly obvious nods to Akira and Ghost in the Shellmany maps feature tachikoma-like vehicles (though none of them are operable). And to top it off, the game has a pretty great score (though, unfortunately, you won’t get to hear most of it in-game).

*Edit: one of our readers so kindly pointed out that Neotokyo was originally released in 2008 as a standalone mod, which you can download here.

Neotokyo° – 5/10


Free to Play

Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex – First Assault Online

ghost in the shell sac first assault online arena shooter dead

Download through Steam

Speaking of Ghost in the Shell, developer Neople‘s attempt at creating an FPS battle arena based on the beloved Stand Alone Complex franchise didn’t quite come out the way as was expected. In fact, by the time you read this, it’s likely that the First Assault Online servers have been dismantled, so really, its inclusion on this list is more of an honorable mention. The premise is simple: you play as members of Section 9, who are fighting combat androids linked to a terrorist organization. Of course, in reality, members of the other team are also playing as members of Section 9, and the opposing teams are re-skinned to appear as sinister murderbots, so that’s kind of like a cyberpunk twist by itself.

The game’s promotional material might have you believe that First Assault Online is straying from SAC’s comparatively lighter tone to other Ghost in the Shell properties and making a return to the dark, broody roots the animated franchise was based on. In playing the game and watching footage, I can tell you that this is not the case: very pretty, colorful environments are lovingly recreated with the series’ art style deeply ingrained in its DNA. Fans of the show would also be delighted to know that the original voice actors have been brought on board to reprise their roles for the English version. We’ve covered the game before, and while the gameplay uses a unique feature known as the SkillSync mechanic–a feature that allows players to share their abilities, such as Kusanagi’s iconic thermoptic camouflage, with teammates based on proximity–the overall negative reception of the game is better explained by players other than myself. I will say this: if you’re not a fan of microtransactions, don’t get too bummed that the game’s getting shut down.

Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex – First Assault Online – 5/10


Hawken

hawken cover art promo

Download through Steam

In my opinion, the mecha genre and cyberpunk are more often than not incompatible, and despite having been described otherwiseHawken (recently acquired by 505 Games) is close but doesn’t quite make the cut. Taking place on the planet Illal, a mining planet ruined by industrialization, the events of Hawken are jumpstarted by economic collapse and dwindling resources, leading to the conflict between three rival mining megacorporations. This conflict leads to the collapse of one of the megacorps, Crion, upon which a nanovirus known as the Giga-Structure (or Hawken virus) is released and begins slowly consuming the planet, turning everything it touches to a metal alloy. The planet’s upper classes have abandoned Illal to its own destruction, and all that’s left is a mindless war between the remaining megacorporations, Prosk and Sentium, fought by the hapless citizens of Illal piloting bipedal tanks until there’s nothing left.

And don’t get me wrong, I found the general sense of hopelessness and pointlessness of war and an unstoppable plague in Hawken’s lore captivating. However, despite some very clear cyberpunk influences, especially in the design of a handful of the game’s maps, it takes a little bit more than that and the presence of megacorps to sell to me the cyberpunk bit. Still, the game does well to capture a tone of post-industrial decay, immersing the player in rusting, crumbling cities and barren, weather-stripped wastelands. Everything looks like it was patched together with scrap metal, especially the architecture, which evokes the imagery of the Colony in the 2012 reboot of Total Recall. (Sorry, I know that’s painful to think about.)

total recall 2012 colony cityscape
If only there were a way to erase this movie from my memory.

However, the game suffers from many of the same problems that players had with First Assault Online. Customization, again, is restricted only to those who have the cash to pay for upgrades or those who put ludicrous amounts of time into the game. But hey, you do have options, if not in-game: if you have a PS4 or Xbox One, console versions of the game were released last year. So at least, unlike First Assault Online, the developers behind Hawken aren’t abandoning their–oh, wait, never mind, 505 Games is sunsetting the PC version of Hawken in January.

Hawken – 4/10


Blacklight: Retribution

blacklight retribution promo cover

Download through Steam

Cobbled together from the rubble of previous property owner Zombie Studios, developer Hardsuit Labs currently runs Blacklight: Revolution’s servers, to many veteran players’ discontent. You know the score by now; like Hawken and First Assault Online, the game began as a lawless territory that devolved into a pay-to-win scenario because the evil developers decided that they needed money. And, yes, the customization features are heavily limited by heavily-inflated in-game currency, prompting players to instead just purchase new weapons, upgrades, and skins with meatspace currency. But, to a novice player like myself, I feel in this case that the common complaints are disproportionate.

An indirect sequel to Blacklight: Tango Downa game you’ve likely never heard of, Retribution takes place in the 2060s during the global outbreak of a devastating epidemic. Many urban centers are left abandoned and are used as a staging ground by corporate militaries fighting a proxy war. You play as one of the many faceless soldiers sent to fight a war that benefits the interests of opportunistic businessmen. While the premise may sound somewhat similar to Hawken, the game’s visuals are much more in line with modern cyberpunk. I have to admit, even though the graphics have aged somewhat (but not as badly as its critics might say), there is a certain faithfulness to portraying the world as it might be in this game. It presents the player with environments that are similar to what we might see today, but different, making the inclusion of mechas and think tanks seem more plausible. Hell, if you play against bots, they’re literal bots, which I thought was a nice touch. And they do well to make the maps feel distinct from one another; I was particularly impressed by the map of a desert shantytown that still felt like it was years ahead of what we might see today.

The gameplay is fine. If you don’t mind playing as a generic soldier for some time, the mechanics are similar to your typical FPS, save for two: some parts of the game enable you to “hack” consoles in order to gain access to health, ammunition, etc., but their version of “hacking” is user-friendly to the point of absurdity. The most original feature of the game, however, might be the inclusion of a visor mechanic–by activating this visor, players can see where their enemies and allies are at a given moment, making camping a much more difficult strategy. There’s a free version of the game for PS4, as well, if you’re more privy to that, but the community seems to be dwindling lately. In any case, this and Blade Symphony may be the only games on this list that are worth more than an hour of your time.

Blacklight: Retribution – 6/10


But hey, if arena shooters aren’t your thing and you want something more substantial to occupy your time, this is part 6 of a whole series of articles on the subject of cheap, fun cyberpunk games. You can find the previous articles Part 1 here, Part 2 here, Part 3 here, Part 4 here, and Part 5 here.

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