William Gibson’s sci-fi classic Neuromancer is generally credited with creating the “cyberpunk” genre. These are tales often seen in anime, where technology and biotechnology is absolutely everywhere, corporations rule the world, and poor, down-on-their-luck cybercriminals try to make big scores by risking their lives to hack dangerous corporate and government computers. It is obvious to say that the book influenced the game, and you play as a typical cyber anti-hero looking to make ends meet, but who will ultimately uncover something sinister going down deep in Chiba City’s information matrix.
The “hacking” game is one theme that never really took off with adventure gamers, which seems quite odd, as it is a natural inclusion to the sci-fi worlds many of these adventures looked to create. Certainly computers and technology played a major role in these games, but only a handful focused as completely on hacking as Neuromancer does. In fact, it’s the majority of what you do in the game, and anything you’ll do outside of computers only serves to further your later exploits in cyberspace.
This is not a terrible thing. It actually lends greatly to the tone of the game’s universe, which is split evenly into the “real world” and cyberspace. The game’s reality is a pretty harsh place, with corrupt corporations, seedy hotels, illegal technology, and lawbots ready to drag you before a cyberjudge if you so much as talk to a hooker.
The world is set up pretty well, and looks like 1930s Chicago with elements of futuristic technology placed intermittently. It’s an interesting blend, and the game’s true strength is the atmosphere. You cannot carry a weapon in the game, and no one will ever attack you in the real world, but it still feels like a dangerous and degenerate place. People will try to con you at every turn, the very act of hacking could kill you, and you can even sell parts of your body for instant cash, to be replaced by plastic ones that lower your resistance to cyberspace damage. It’s a gritty place that both lends to the character – you can see why he wants to get out of there – and to the story.
The other major player in Neuromancer is the computer world. When you begin the game, you can only access public kiosks that act as combination of bulletin boards and ATMs. You’ve been making some friends though, so you’ll quickly acquire a deck (the cyberpunk idea of a portable computer) which will allow you direct computer access. This text-based system is your first interface with cyberspace, and operates quite similarly to the early Internet. Through your inquiries in the real and virtual world, you will gather a long list of servers you can connect to. All servers then require a password that you are either given, find out on your own, or can crack if you have the needed software on your deck. From here you can access the services of the given server, which range from common message boards and corporate press releases, to private software download areas, to far more interesting abilities unique to the company or server you’ve accessed.
When you make enough money, and you will need a shitload of it, you can purchase a deck with true cyberspace capabilities. These take the very same text setup you’ve been using, and create a virtual grid of servers for you to traverse. Hacking these servers now becomes a visual battle as you launch streams of force-cracking information at firewalls, and defend yourself against counterattacks. These battles really just consist of launching the right programs before your own energy is drained, but it allows for far more complex hacking that you could do from the text interface. If you win the battle, you’ll gain access to the highest functions of the server, which are only available from cyberspace, as well as have the ability to access many corporate and government servers which can only be seen from cyberspace. This is also the area where you will encounter the creepy AIs that start to have an impact on the plot.
What makes all of this work is the connection between the real and virtual worlds. Many things you do in cyberspace do have an effect on the game’s reality. Some of these just mean you’ll read a humorous news story about yourself, but often it’s the only way to open new areas. The reverse of this is also true. Cyberspace input jacks have a limited range, which means you’ll have to be at a certain one in the real world to access its corresponding virtual grid. Also, cyberspace costs money, like a long-distance phone charge, at the rate of $1 a second. This means you’ll have to work fast and keep your account heavily padded with real-world dollars.
Neuromancer does a pretty decent job of letting you roam the city at your leisure, tapping servers and talking to the major faces in the information underground. Unfortunately, this is also its biggest problem – it shows ghosts of non-linearity here and there, making you pine for more freedom, but this ultimately only serves to highlight how linear your quest actually is. The coolest things you can do in cyberspace; arresting someone, for example, only have an effect when used on a certain person to further a certain point in the plot. You can write messages on the message board all day long, but they’ll never be “accepted” and show up unless you send one to the right person, saying the right things. Getting income by tricking a company into putting you on their payroll is deliciously clever – it’s too bad you’ll never be able to do something similar on your own. You’re also never told specifically what to do next, but you’ll always have only three or so new servers to explore when a progress block comes along, and the answer will always conveniently lie in one, or a combination thereof.
The other issue is that the game is entirely a quest for information, and nothing more. All of your hacking will ultimately only open up new servers for you to hack, so that you afford better equipment to reach additional servers. A huge portion of this information is accessible to you right from the start, provided you know where to look. The game simply doesn’t track what you’ve discovered through the course of your investigations, and therefore doesn’t limit or penalize “advanced knowledge.”
There’s nothing particularly wrong with this system, except that it is easily open to abuse. Walkthroughs can provide you with names of servers and passwords, cutting your exploration in half. A more apparent temptation is to save your game before entering a server, write down the information you need from it, then reload your game and refund all the money you lost to cyberspace charges. Some may consider this a benefit more than a hindrance, that’s up to you, but one universally troublesome point is that this system extends into character conversations. None of the characters you meet will ever change what they have to say, you will simply discover new things to ask them about. This means you’ll be visiting every character repeatedly, once you learn of a new topic to try on them, to see if that character is the one who will actually respond.
Neuromancer’s graphics are above average, sporting the sometimes odd pastels of EGA. I’m always impressed with what can be managed with only 16 colors, and Neuromancer’s artists prove that nicely. You’ll never question what anything on screen is, and with a few leaps of imagination, you can get right into the atmosphere of the world. The choice to go with a slightly anachronistic future city, where old brick buildings and worn wooden fences share the screen with floating robots and wall computers, is an interesting one. I was originally disappointed that the radical social problems cyberpunk wraps itself in were not mirrored by the usual radical Blade Runner style architecture. However, it almost lends a sense of believability to the tale, as if this world where new technology is incrementally bolted on is one we could plausibly find ourselves in some day. Yet since the real world is basically just a place to buy cyber equipment, the look of it almost doesn’t matter. Cyberspace itself is nothing fancy, just a 3-D grid with occasional polygon shapes, but is strange enough to get the point across.
Sound consists of a reasonably good MIDI theme, and sparse beeps of the kiosks and strange “zowiee” style laser sounds during the cyber battles. Controls are appropriate, though limited. You can move your character across the screen, but this is only required to navigate to the different buildings. Once inside, all available options can be triggered from anywhere, and these are always your skills, inventory, talking, or using the ATM terminals if they’re available. These can be selected and navigated through using either a keyboard or the mouse. Cyberspace is just a 3-D arena moved through with the arrow keys and controlled through menus. The only other point worth noting is that you will occasionally get a dialogue option to “ASK ABOUT ___.” These are the areas where you are meant to use information found buried in the servers to ask about the proper topic or item. However, the text parser here is amazingly unforgiving, and you must hit the word exactly to have any effect.
Overall, these are small complaints considering how good the game itself is. Though you’ll wish you have more freedom in cyberspace, the plot-related things you can do keep your quest fresh and interesting. Though the scope of the game is somewhat small and definitely limited, it allows for a richer, less confusing, and very addictive experience. Bring a notepad – mine is currently filled with about two pages of server names and passwords, and the game doesn’t store any info for you. It helps to have an interest in the concepts of hacking – changing the world through computer programs, breaking into places you shouldn’t, uncovering info no one else is mean to see, etc – but Neuromancer is also a fair game in its own right. It’s worth checking out if you’re a fan of cyberpunk, adventure games, or ideally, both.
One of the best “hacking” games ever devised.
Free-roaming elements only call attention to its overall non-linearity.