Thursday, 26 May 2011

The Top 10 Best Cyberpunk Games


The altogether post-modern phenomenon of cyberpunk is defined by these key concepts; its infatuation with technology, its occurrence in a dystopian future (or at least some bleak parallel universe) and its ironic perspective; embodied by the central protagonist . . . your typical anti-hero. Rising to prominence in the 1980's and heavily influencing the movies and science fiction literature of that period: it became an established counter-culture movement. It was of course during this time that computer games were becoming an established form of entertainment: you could say the two grew up together. It is then no surprise that the general ideas, themes and situations suggested by cyberpunk found arguably their most relevant host in the technologically fuelled and suitably ironic medium of computer games. 

*****

10: Syndicate Wars - PC / Playstation


Syndicate Wars - essentially a real-time squad based strategy game - presents a highly evocative urban dystopia; where thugs, brain addled junkers, religious zealots and amoral law enforcers all prowl the streets in a desperate power struggle for the hearts, minds and credits of  a soma-sodden public. Pulling the strings are the ominous Syndicates - with the money to invest in superhuman cybernetically enhanced agents - tools to carry out their often unscrupulous objectives. You control a crack squad of these agents and must manage their affairs as they traverse the major cities of Earth in a bid to quash the Church of the New Epoch (or visa-versa). Not relying purely on RTS the game offers a research tree, resource management, engrossing geo-political plot and a non linear approach to completing missions . . . as well as some truly mind-boggling weaponry. A cyberpunk classic in every sense (the original game Syndicate is also highly recommended).

When just one Robocop just isn't enough!
9: Snatcher - Mega CD


Something of a paean to the film Blade Runner, Snatcher manages to articulate what is a very similar story in a manner that is both fresh and immensely enjoyable. Play switches from standard point and click adventure to Virtual Cop style shoot outs (a Menasor light gun is necessary to extract the complete experience), which certainly helps maintain a sense of urgency (unsurprisingly rare in point-and click-adventures). The graphics and characters are in the anime style of the late 1980's, reminiscent of cyberpunk shows such as Bubblegum Crisis and Cybercity OEDO 808. Expertly developed by Hideo Kojima, who would later continue his cyberpunk trend with hugely successful Metal Gear Solid, this game is also noticeable for one of the best computer game soundtracks of the era. There is a spiritual successor (of sorts) entitled Policenauts for the Sega Saturn which riffs from the film Lethal Weapon (not such illustrious source material) and maintains a distinct tech-noir feel.

Has it comes to this? Nights out in fantasy bars with Sparkster the Possum?!
8: Shadowrun - SNES


Although something of a lightweight thematically this action RPG, based on the ever popular FASA pen and paper campaign setting, is certainly fun. Not concerned with just your typical cyberpunk fare: Shadowrun lumps in the whole of Tolkien as well. Ancient dragons are in charge of conglomerates and elves seem to make great computer hackers. You start off as your typical RPG amnesiac who needs to get his life back together; with nothing better to do you soon become a runner, hacking his way through cyberspace and failing that, blasting your way through a sprawling megalopolis in search of your lost identity. There was a game of the same name on the Megadrive which is somewhat truer to the original role playing system and offers a more substantial RPG experience; I have been meaning to play it for a while but have never found the time; although deep I would be surprised if it was as enjoyable as this.

As my Gran always said "just run it under a cold tap".

Epic Article at Hardcore Gaming 101
Shrine at RPG Classics
Download from Edge Emulation
Compilation of FASA Publications

7: I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream - PC / Mac

 
In what is usually a child friendly genre there are few point-and-click adventures which deal with such dolorous subject matter: albeit not in any great depth. Based on a short story by Harlen Ellison (who plays the main vocal role in a feat of supreme hamminess), the plot revolves around the rogue A.I theme (a la Cyberdyne, Tron et al) but this time it succeeds in its mission and exterminates all human life (one may ask: "where the hell was Arnie?"): save for five emotionally complicated individuals. These last vestiges of humanity are taken beneath the Earth to the nexus of the artificial intelligence and subjected to 109 years of physical and psychological torture. Eventually the ennui plagued mainframe tells them of a way to end this suffering: by each completing a simple test of character . . . and so our story begins. There are five quests and each is unique to the protagonist; each one a voyage of self overcoming, forcing the survivors to face their own deepest fears or forever live in torment. This is a reasonably-intelligent and relentlessly-gloomy adventure that leaves an indelible impression long after it has been completed.

It might not look it, but this is probably the least bleak screenshot in the game.

The Short Story - Available Online

6: Neuromancer - PC / Mac / Amiga


Based on the quintessential cyberpunk novel by William H. Gibson, Neuromancer is a graphical adventure in which you play the role of an everyday sort'a hacker who unwittingly uncovers the overtures to a sinister cyberplot. The game mechanics are smooth, the locations evocative and the juxtaposition between the real world and cyberspace has never been bettered. The future cityscapes are superbly detailed with; information, tip-offs, hints, clues and leads coming at you in abundance. With no electronic journal or notepad to keep track of them - keeping your own memos become essential (making the detective work seem all the more satisfying). Garnishing the cake is a soundtrack by DEVO - a band ideally at home in a 1980's interpretation of the future. Of all the games on this list Neuromancer is arguably the truest conceptually to the cyberpunk genre.

I remember when Body Shop used to sell loofahs and bath oils . . .
5: Beneath a Steel Sky - PC / Amiga

 
This is another classic of the point-and-click genre. The eponymous steel skies are in fact the roofs of self contained cities under which the majority of the human population is crammed. Serving an uber-totalitarian robot master-brain, life beneath a steel sky is unsurprisingly gloomy. Luckily your character, Robert Foster, grew up in the wastelands (colloquially known as the Gap) outside of the states civilizing influence. At the games onset you are abducted by the military and sent back to a life in the city; however your flight is hijacked by an unknown terrorist group and lo much adventuring ensues. What is essentially a typical cyberpunk / dystopian setting is made more engaging by the superb interface, good sense of humour (provided mostly by his sardonic robot sidekick Joey) and all round excellent scripting, pacing and plot.

In the year 3000 they finally decided to remake Frasier.

Download the ScummVM Version
Detailed Walkthough
Dedicated Page at Abandonia
Writer Dave Gibbons' Website

4: A Mind Forever Voyaging - PC / Mac / Amiga


The antechapel where the statue stood
Of Newton with his prism and silent face,
The marble index of a mind for ever
Voyaging through strange seas of Thought, alone.
(Book III, The Prelude, William Wordsworth)

Perhaps Infocoms finest text adventure, AMFV presents a techno-political chiller as seen through the PRISM of the worlds first sentient computer. Circa 2031, the United States is a technocratic republican hell-hole where teens are dying of over-stimulation and nuclear weapons the size of a deck of playing cards are making things just a little unstable. Your role as PRISM (aka Perry Simm) is to gather local data for an experimental political simulation: where outmoded cold-war values are to be replaced with new and improved cold-war values. Your research takes place in the small town of Rockvil, South Dakota, where the wealth of data uncovered as you explore town is used to extrapolate ever more sinister totalitarian futures with the aid of your powerful on-board CPU. As with most Infocom adventures a trove of feelies were included with the original game (advertisements, a local Rockvil publication, a corporate pen etc): an experience too bloated for the miserly, famished, DVD cases of today. Superbly written, realised and produced: A Mind Forever Voyaging achieves in three megabytes what few games can achieve in three thousand.

>Insert< Generic joke about graphics.

Download from Abandonia
Full Short Story and More at The Infocom Gallery
Excellent Walkthrough
Interview with Writer Steve Meretzky

3: System Shock - PC


While most ninnies were happily careening their way through hordes of Martian daemons in Doom, an elite few dined at an inconceivably richer table (as a flee bitten roadside burger-bar is to the Restaurant at the End of the Universe). These lucky few were amongst the first to play System Shock by Looking Glass Studios a game light-years ahead of its time. Containing a superabundance of features (for what the less alert might deem a shoot'em'up) it transcended the genre in a myriad directions : improving combat dynamics, plot construction, atmosphere, interface and more besides - its only comparison was the inordinately brilliant Ultima Underworld - also developed by LGS. Indeed System Shock plays much like a cybperpunk version of UU: a game where interface and a deeply realised game-world promote a higher level of immersion. Imprisoned aboard a space-station and engaged in a brutal battle of wills, wits and resources against the megalomaniacal A.I. Shodan, System Shock offered an experience that has become the stuff of computer game legend. A contender for the greatest of all time, Shock's legacy is such, that without it, the only two games to rate (marginally) higher on this list would not exist.

In this brave new future the etiolated programmer look is in vogue.

System Shock Fansite Hub
Dowload from Abandonia
System Shock Intro 
System Shock Music Collection 

2: Deus Ex - PC

 
A roller-coaster of a first-person action RPG containing; gadgets, weapons, cybernetic enhancements, plot twists, mega-corporations in bed with technocratic fundamentalists and characters in trench-coats: on top of  which is garnished sharply written dialogue and a non-linear gameworld oozing with cyberpunk detail: basically - its got it all. Though implementing a linear mission based structure, the levels or zones allow for extensive exploration and through the sheer variety of weapons, upgrades and abilities many different styles of play are encouraged. During the first mission you can opt to duke it out with guards at the main entrance, simply hack through their security systems or use your imagination to find alternative ways to enter the building; a free-form approach to gameplay that echoes throughout. Deus Ex has cyberpunk written all over it (OK, something of an emphasis on the cyber) yet asserts itself with such panache that fans of all genres (no matter how low-tech) owe it to themselves to play this masterpiece.

I wonder if she looks good without mods . . . 

Planet Deus Ex
Visual Walkthrough 
Download from SnesOrama 
Article at Cyberpunk Review 

1: System Shock 2 - PC

 
Ranking amongst the very finest computer games ever made, System Shock 2 is still heralding the future of the  medium over ten years after its initial release. Alone and in constant danger, on board a vast starship trillions of miles from Earth, you alone must thwart the sinister machinations of both a maniacal rogue artificial intelligence and an unknown alien consciousness; starting out with nothing more than a wrench. You wake to find the ship empty of human life and in a disturbing series of pre-recorded messages, journals and psychokinetic emanations (ghosts), slowly the dismal fate of your crewmates are revealed. Never in any other game has fear been made so palpable, never has the desire to survive transcended into virtual reality so distinctly. Played on the hardest difficulty setting (highly recommended) every bullet, every skill point and every ounce of cunning must be used to navigate the tortuous corridors of your interstellar prison. The groans, ominous mantras and the cold whirr of defence turrets keeps you transfixed to the edge of your seat; the use of sound has never been used to such powerful effect. This is deep and involving on a level that almost no other game can match; employing the full use of an extensive range of weaponry, abundant psychic powers, skills, research trees, exotic cybernetic upgrades and gadgets. Ultimately System Shock 2 combines the depth and involvement of the best computer RPG's with the instant immersiveness typical of games from other genres. Merely describing the mechanics does not do this landmark title justice; the complete experience is one that will live on forever in video game legend. System Shock 2 gives a taste, just a taste, of what computer games could be. There can be no greater accolade.

Cyborgs in the night, exchanging glances . . .

*****

Of the many excellent titles that didn't make it, here are some of the best that I've played through; Anachronox, Uplink, Burn:Cycle, BioForge, Blade Runner and Cyber Mage. In compiling this list I've realized that though countless hundreds of games explore facets of the cyberpunk environment, characters, technology and to some extent ethos, very few embody the spirit of cyberpunk directly. Perhaps this lack of pure cyberpunk games can be linked to the computer game medium itself; after all when engrossed in an interactive electronic art form, controlled by an artificial intelligence, with the possibility of people from all over the world beamed through cyberspace and appearing as characters on your screen, the cyberpunk setting doesn't seem such a necessary place to visit. Whatever the reason; the titles that define cyberpunk as a gaming genre are amongst the most engrossing, relevant and enjoyable I've ever played. Thanks for taking a cursory glance at this list - we may meet again somewhere in cyberspace - now it is late and I must be logging off . . .

 
 

1 comment:

  1. burn:cycle ♥ - a true classic!

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