Cyberpunk 2077 may not be generically reviewable.
When I’ve mentioned I’ve been playing it, and I’ve been asked what I think, I’ve tended to refer people to Kieron Gillen’s 2005 review of Boiling Point: Road To Hell, a game whose ambition was obscured by its execution (and a review that entertainingly breaks the Eurogamer site every time they update something on the back end). It reminds me a lot of Boiling Point.
Cyberpunk 2077, Hereinafter CP, is a game where you have to work out your context before you can work out your opinion, because it’s a lot. To start from the real world and work inwards:
Level Z: The Real World
Cyberpunk 2077 is a new roleplaying game from CD Projekt Red. CDPR is the development arm of CD Projekt, one of the most successful european games companies, most famous for their DRM-free store GOG.com, and their previous game The Witcher 3, now available for most things you can play Skyrim on. While they’ve generally had a good rep as a gaming company – opposing DRM, profit share, a non-fleasing attitude to DLC releases – their last few games have relied heavily on Crunch – forced overtime in the time leading up to release – and their public irreverent communication style was far more appropriate for a small scrappy dev studio than its current status as a global corporation in its own right.
A lot of their corporate communications read like they’ve been written by and for 90s edgelords, and have an “if you care about things you’re the loser” subtext that has earned them tens of thousands of fans from the darker and ranker side of the hobby.
Recently CD Projekt, via their GOG arm, announced they were releasing “Devotion”, a decent horror game now more famous for being banned from Steam for poking fun for Chinese president Xi Jinping. This would have been a brave and impressive thing to do, defending the freedom of speech for a game that the Chinese Government would prefer not to exist. More in keeping with their current character is the recent announcement that they are no longer doing so, because “many gamers” objected. Now, I respect this kind of move when I agree with the reasons – there have been various “Kill the whores” Steam games I’ve publically petitioned or the removal of, and this is the equivalent for the legions of chinese gamers brought up to believe that disrespect of Jinping is disrespect of China and their heritage, so I don’t doubt that the “Many gamers” thing is actually true; I can see where the lines blur, but I do not think it should have affected the western release.
Cyberpunk, the RPG.
Cyberpunk is an RPG system that originated in 1988, set in the kind of technological dystopia publically popularised by the film Blade Runner, which Cyberpunk 2077 strongly aesthetically resembles. It has a lot of lore, and I know little of it, but it is important in the bits that follow. I’ve read the Jumpstart of the new Cyberpunk RED edition, and I’ve read some summaries of lore of the 90s edition.
Cyberpunk, the genre
Cyberpunk as a genre is about a near-future dystopia where cybernetics technology – and tech in general – has massively advanced, but corporate power has grown out of control. It has a lot of its roots in the technological boom of the late 70s / early 80s, though elements have existed for longer than that, but as all genres it evolves with the times it’s in, and modern cyberpunk – whose near future has advanced as we’ve reached the years of the “near future” of the early works – has shifted to new aspects and takes on the standards of corporate overreach and technological immorality to reflect what of the original premise came true, and what that means.
CP was announced in 2012, scheduled for release in April 2020, then delayed to September, November, and finally December. It released to wild applause from the people who had already pledged aspects of their personality to its concept, and widely panned for not being release ready. Over the summer, stories appeared in the technical press about how despite CDPR’s commitment to not Crunch as much as they did for Witcher 3, they had actually done more so. These three things – the poor quality, the poor work conditions and the repeated delays – resulted in CDPR’s management being widely criticized for managing to miss every aspect of the project management triangle. This isn’t strictly new either, The Witcher 3 was likewise incredibly buggy on release, and took a number of heavy patches to attain the reliability and classic status it enjoys now.
In addition, the marketing campaign – including the widely publicized casting of Keanu Reeves and various “provocative” adverts along the lines of the CD Projekt section above – threw the release into the wider public consciousness, especially with Cyberpunk’s easy compatibility with the current state of the world.
The performance problems were particularly pronounced on 8th Gen consoles – PS4 & Xbox One – as had been expected when no media outlets were given console copies to review pre-release, nor were any screenshots of those platforms ever released.
Possibly worst of all, during the obligatory “Enter Cyberspace” sections – BrainDances – inspiration for the device that is stimulating your brain into seeing these things was taken from real world devices that stimulate brain functions, but in the real world case these were used to trigger seizures for documentation and analysis. The replication in the game world is good enough that the game caused seizures in exactly the same way. A triumph of technological recreation, but a bad look nonetheless. CDPR patched out the flashing lights aspect of the BrainDance entry sequence in a day 2 patch, but the “Deliberately causes seizures” discussion isn’t going away any time soon.
Interlude: The Player
This is where we move from trying to be impartial, towards addressing criticism and providing opinion. So, to start: I haven’t completed this game. I’m about 23 hours in a week after launch, I’m maybe 30% though the main campaign, and I’m heavily at the “pottering around doing side quests that interest me, occasionally doing main quest things as their nearby” point of an open world game. I may never complete it – I frequently don’t, even games I thoroughly enjoy – but if after a full day worth of play I don’t have enough to judge the game, that’s a failure of the game, not of me. I pre-ordered this game in 2019, based on my opinion of Witcher 3. I probably wouldn’t have bought it at launch if I hadn’t.
Level B: The World
CP is a adaptation of the RPG Cyberpunk. Specifically, it is based on 50 years after the last major edition of the RPG, Cyberpunk 2020. It was written alongside the new version of the RPG’s ruleset – Cyberpunk RED – which I haven’t gone into in detail (I have it, too, on preorder), but key to my take on the world is this: This isn’t a modern built cyberpunk world. There’s no reboot here, the game explicitly is a half century advancement of the Cyberpunk RPG of the 90s. There’s a few disconnects here, mostly in how the Corps intersect with government and media. In the game – and in most 80s/90s takes on Capitalist Dystopia – the government and media are objects that are controlled by the corporations, and it’s an open secret that that is the case. In more modern dystopia, the government and media are Corps, and are puppeting faceless corporations. This has an effect on things like the attitude to the police, as well. In CP, the police are very much “Just Another Gang”, who have their own fixers, their own jobs they’ll hire you for, their own good folks and bad, they’re unable to do their jobs due to Corp control. In CP, to do jobs for the police is to work against the corporations, in modern dystopia the police are the gang-bangers of the government corp.
This same lack of advancement extends to romance. There are, that I have seen, four possible romance options: Straight (M), Straight (F), Gay and Lesbian. Your ability to “advance” with them is based on your presented gender (I’ll talk about this more below). It’s not a game that is interested in the complexities of relationships, bisexuality, or whatever. You have two people you can bone, one straight, one gay. Choose one, choose both. There are many sex workers (“Joytoys”) on the streets who will give you a sex cut-scene for virtual currency, again two male presenting, two female presenting, one each of cheap and expensive. I’ve no reason to believe the dialog or cut-scenes change depending on player gender. The Joytoys are all bisexual, because the game doesn’t care.
There are three origins, which change the first half hour of the game and then give you dialog options and the occasional side-quest going forward. I don’t believe either the dialog or the side-quests have any effect on anything in the game at all.
I’m finding the main story interesting. It’s a nice genre-tropey tale of corporate over-reach, things technology should and shouldn’t do, betrayal, costs of civilisation. The game is at its most focused during the main story quests, where you’re taking down corporations, dealing with the aftermath of your own actions. Here, it knows what it wants to be, and tells the story it’s trying to tell.
The side quests are where the game lets loose around its world, a wide variety of extreme characters and pop-culture references, wild shoot-outs and careful tracking. This is standard open-world fair – chase things, find things, click things, gather things – but a great source of self-contained stories that can build your stats, finances and connections to characters in the world, all of which can affect the “main” quest.
Level 42: The Game
…and so we hit the actual implementation. CP uses a number of tricks that GTA has used for decades now, including culling traffic you’re not looking at, half-arsing NPCs not near you, generalising motion scripts and attempting to adapt them to the world. All these are necessary while we don’t have the processing power to keep track of the full population of a city and their cars in real time, but the aggressive nature of some of this culling and generalising falls way short of the mark.
The game also frequently just… doesn’t load everything it needs for each thing. Textures and objects are missing, Characters don’t load their pose data and stand in T-pose on top of motorbikes, lose track of which voice pack their using and switch mid-sentence from american to chinese accents, forget they’re in combat and sit in their cars until you shoot them. Motion scripts don’t account for whether doors are open, so characters will just clip through them, or twenty feet up; cars, characters, trash objects all spawn on top of each other to create waving frankenstein objects caught in each others collision detection.
My gaming PC – Cyclone – is fairly tricked out as of last year. Intel i9-9820X (Skylake), GeForce RTX 2080, 32Gb memory. The game defaulted me to High Raytrace settings, which gave me a range of 14-32 FPS at 4k. Enabling DLSS, removing all the post-processing (Film grain, lens flare & simulation, et. al) and dropping raytracing gives me a steady 60 FPS, but there’s no excuse for the PS4 and Xbox One release being as shoddy as it was.
The inventory is dogshit, the UI navigation is chaotic (escape goes back one screen, except where it doesn’t, and once in a secondary screen all UI context goes away), the cars handle like roller skates or concrete blocks, sometimes you’ll vault though a window and end up exactly 150 feet behind you.
The game clearly reaches for an ambition it hasn’t attained.
Level 2077: The Diegetics
The integration of the world into the game, and the characters into the world, is the big actual failing. The game is buggy as all fuck, but technical errors are fixable (and CDPR have a really good record on that front). The performance problems are also bad, but again if Witcher 3 is a good template, this is going to be re-released for everything going forward, and I imagine that the 9th Gen release will look a lot prettier.
Less fixable is a lot of the base assumptions of the world. The combat AI isn’t bad, but the pedestrian AI is disconcertingly stupid. I can walk through a crowd and do nothing, and have everyone suddenly run away from me in fear. I can kill someone in cold blood and a pedestrian will knock into me and demand I get out of the way. I can accidentally sell all of my equipped clothes and weapons (see above about inventory) and not realise I’m wandering through the city entirely buck-naked until I get on a motorbike and the view shifts to first person. The game doesn’t care.
The cars are even more stupid than the pedestrians, and have the defensive driving ability of a model railway. The game doesn’t care.
Cyberpunk has a strong aesthetic as a genre, and CP does really well in dressing its NPCs within that aesthetic, but my character dresses like a toddler got the last options in the dress-up box, because the stats of the bunny ears are the best I’ve got. I can go to a ripperdoc on every street corner and upgrade my eyeballs, replace my arms with swords, and boost my immune system until I’m immune to fire, but can’t change my fucking hair cut or colour.
I have fifty health potions in my pocket, but my co-conspirator NPC has to “use an expired one” when she gets shot.
And then there’s gender. I’m not the most qualified to talk about how transgender people should be in this game, so the facts: You choose, separately: your body type (with/without hips & breasts), your genitals (Penis, Vagina, Not shown), The size of breasts & penis, and your voice. At some point I guess what flags as your “gender” to everyone else in the world was changed, because some dialogue – in the same paragraph – will switch between pronouns based on your genitals, body type, or voice. Mostly it’s voice. But to do all this and not just make gender a thing you pick just seems lazy. Voice is the thing that you actually experience, most, though. The game is almost entirely first person, and unless you’re in your inventory screen or naked on a motorbike you’re not visible. You’ll catch glimpses of yourself in first-person cutscenes and mirrors, but – absent a current bug where penis-wearers’ choice clips though your trousers – your genitals matter not in this game. And as I said, even if you wander the streets as the emperor’s own parade, the game doesn’t care.
The game’s advertising has contained transphobic images under the same nihilistic “it’s the losers who care” tone. It’s the corps in game that are bad, be angry at them in the game. Not at us for making them that way, and literally displaying those same issues as a corporation. In the RPG space, it’s the “It’s what my character would do” defense, and it has a colandrical ability to negatively hold water.
Level X: The End
The game doesn’t care.
It’s an ambitious game that doesn’t approach its potential, with a political basis that’s a decade too old to pass muster, from a company that fails to live up to its expectations of itself. There’s some amazing storytelling in here, based on some incredible worldbuilding. There’s important discussion on the nature of technology and the problems with believing your perceptions filtered through it.
The engine – when it works – can produce beauty.
But the city doesn’t work, doesn’t feel remotely real. The bugs and glitches take you out of the moment at important times, the disconnection between what it wants to be and what it is, is an impassible void.
The storytelling is compelling and interesting.
But the politics are trash, and the company producing it has abused its workers to rush it to market when it clearly needs more time, as well as capitulating immediately to political pressure.
Speeding down the highways at 170 with a good track on the radio as you rush off to find a rogue taxi AI and bring it home is a great experience.
Getting into a car with an NPC and finding yourself inside their eyeballs feels like it should have been fixable.
I’m having fun with the game. I’ve played 23 hours so far, and look forward to playing more when my partner finishes using Steam Sharing to play it. The bugs are annoying, but have rarely killed my gameplay; and my gaming rig is powerful enough to handle it at settings I appreciate.
But I can’t recommend it on release. I don’t regret buying it as such, but there’s a high chance that if you buy this in its current state you’ll find it unplayable and disturbing, and the company you’re supporting needs to be encouraged to change its perspective, and rewarding this level of quality isn’t a good way to do that. But the people who worked themselves to destruction on it also get royalties on each copy. But so do the managers who made them do that.
There’s the core of a good game within its broken structure, so is it fair to judge it on what it is now, or what it could be after the patches they promise? And none of this will fix the errors of its production, but those errors are currently endemic within the industry. The game’s sold well, so the lesson of personal boycott won’t be heard, and the solution to this problem is almost certainly unionisation as is increasingly happening in the states.
So those this is the game as I see it, and the issues as I see them. You can only make your own decisions based on what of those affect, and are important to, you. Cyberpunk 2077 may not be generically reviewable.