Cyberpunk 2077

This post contains full spoilers for Cyberpunk 2077, and I recommend playing before reading.

A lot of “Triple A” games launch with controversy, but CD Projekt Red’s Cyberpunk 2077 launched with a litany of technical issues and even life-threatening features. Before I get to a proper look at the game, I’d like to address this side of the issue. I played the game on a launch Playstation 4, and had very few issues with the game technically, aside from the occasional crash (maybe twice in the game), and some slight input lag where buttons became unresponsive. The graphics of the game were clearly underperforming on PS4, with large amounts of pop-in and character models sometimes taking time to load in, but it was mostly not enough to ruin the experience of playing. Only once did a technical issue really hinder my ability to enjoy the game as intended, where a short battle music track was stuck playing on loop during an emotionally important moment.

I’m getting this boring stuff out of the way first as a disclaimer, because although I think CD Projekt Red has clearly tanked the success of their own project by overworking their employees and underestimating the time it would take to finish a game of this scale, none of this matters too much to the overall game design. As unfortunate as it is, games nowadays often launch as a work in progress, so if I were to focus too much of my review on talking about technical issues, this would date the critique to the point of irrelevance in about a month or so, when patches slowly start to change the things I’m pointing out. Once the game gets ported to PS5 and consoles beyond that, history will not remember the buggy launch beyond a footnote. It’s even possible that some of the underlying game design problems can be changed after the game’s release, so what I’m writing can still be dated, but for now I’ll have to take that risk.

Cyberpunk 2077 is a troubled game. The plot follows a mercenary named V, who can come from multiple different player chosen backgrounds (mine was a former corporate drone) but ultimately ends up at the same place – during a raid gone wrong, a microchip is inserted into their brain and starts to slowly kill them. The microchip contains the data of a dead rockstar terrorist named Johnny Silverhand, and together the two of them start to work to find a way to save V’s life before they are consumed by Silverhand’s personality and die.

The first thing to note about Cyberpunk 2077 is that it’s an RPG. This is one of a couple of the game’s fundamental design decisions that I think is worth questioning. Now, there’s actually nothing wrong with the game being an RPG – it obviously helps you truly inhabit the world of Night City, the megalopolis in which the game takes place. The RPG mechanics are also pretty well fleshed out, with meaningful choices offered about what direction you want to take in terms of how you approach mission situations. For example, I opted for a mainly gun-based approach, but I was careful to build my V with enough intelligence that I could sneak around before I was spotted, disabling cameras and generally making things easier for myself.

However, the problem is that Cyberpunk tries to have it both ways with regards to V. You can choose V’s body type, genitalia, facial features and voice, but V is not you. V is a character in their own right, and this is where it becomes slightly confusing. The game is desperate to try and walk the line between V being a stand-in for the player, and between them being a written, independent character, but this ends up being detrimental to the game overall. The kind of V I want my character to be isn’t necessarily the one CD Projekt Red wants them to be, and a lot of the time I felt like I wanted to see more of a scripted, characterful V.

This becomes especially important once Silverhand is introduced into the game’s plot. Before this, you know relatively little about V’s life, save that they’re a mercenary with a friend named Jackie – who is likeable enough that any player can easily project a friendship onto him (it also means he’s boringly written and littered with death flags, but I suppose that doesn’t matter too much given his limited screen time). At this point, it’s pretty easy for the player to roleplay as V, because the story is playing out around the character.

Once Johnny Silverhand enters V’s head, the position of the story switches to being about V. Not only that, it becomes about V’s head, and their very internal struggles. However, the game is still aware that you control V and their choices, so is reluctant to give V too much character of their own. As such, when Anders Hellman, creator of the chip that is killing V, tells them that Silverhand may end up slowly replacing their personality, it simply cannot land because V does not have a personality to speak of.

This is the game’s first internal contradiction, and it makes it difficult to understand why CD Projekt Red, whose previous games had a set defined character, would make the choice to give the player more direct control over V’s character. And, once that choice had been made, it makes even less sense why they would give the game a story that is so introspective for a character that has nothing going on inside.

Once we look at how strange this central decision is, we can also see how the effect of it has spilled into other areas of the game. Take, for example, the game’s perspective – Cyberpunk is a first-person shooter, perhaps because this is meant to more fully immerse the player into the world of Night City and allow for this more roleplaying-focused approach. However, this never really quite works as well as I think it should. Night City looks imposing from a first-person view, but I could never really appreciate it, because it’s simply too vertical. I got more out of the city looking at it while driving around in third-person, because I could better see a more panoramic look at the architecture, signage and crowds of Night City.

I actually don’t tend to play many first-person games, because they aren’t often in the genres I enjoy, but first-person does work well for games like Call of Duty, because shooting is often more fun and accurate from that perspective; that’s why third-person shooters such as Splatoon often compensate for this in other ways, or how games like Metal Gear Solid allow you to switch into first-person when you use a gun. Horror games like Resident Evil 7 also work well in first-person, because the limited viewpoint increases the claustrophobia of a situation and forces you to move your character to look around corners or into rooms without the safety of a detached camera.

For a game like Cyberpunk, however, you generally tend to want a better look at what is going on around you, because the city itself is so gorgeous and amazing. Perhaps the decision was made because of the game’s frequent use of gunplay, but there is no reason that, with more time, a mode for both first-person and third-person couldn’t have been made. Besides, the game is generous at giving enough options for combat outside of guns that they aren’t the most crucial element of the game – certainly not enough to build the whole camera system around.

The main draw of this game is its story, though, so let’s talk about that. The prologue of the game is mainly concerned with the heist that Jackie and V pull off to rob Arasaka, the game’s evil Japanese megacorp, of a secret chip that is being sought after by various parties willing to pay and kill to get their hands on it. Before that specific plotline comes into place, however, there’s an even shorter mini-prologue that sets up V’s backstory. As a “Corpo” (a word that is one of just many slightly cringy attempts at coming up with Night City slang), my job involved deciding whether I should kill my boss’ boss after he orders me to. However, before any meaningful decision is made about this, you get fired and your friend Jackie Welles decides to help you out by making you into a mercenary in a short montage.

The problem with this Corpo introduction is that the life-path system is mostly pointless. There is one other extremely short side quest that is linked to your choice to start the game as a Corpo, and a couple of unique dialogue choices that never really seem to impact the game’s direction. In a way, this is fine, because it means you aren’t locked out of too much content, but it also makes the choice seem completely meaningless. Because of the horribly poor pacing of the game’s short opening act, followed by the Jackie montage, I would say that this choice actually detracts from the game, forcing it into having a much weaker opening than it would otherwise.

The heist storyline is a much stronger opening, although it still falls slightly short at properly explaining a lot of the way the world of Cyberpunk 2077 actually works. It’s normal for a science fiction story to introduce a lot of new concepts to the viewer, but Cyberpunk doesn’t handle them very gracefully, using weird terminology to further obscure what is already a slightly complicated set of characters and interweaving corporations and gangs with their own individual desires.

Still, breaking into Arasaka to steal the mysterious chip is fun, and the game gives you a good sense of what is probably the most important factor in the “theming” of Cyberpunk 2077’s story, which is the untrustworthiness of everyone in Night City. We’ll talk a little bit more about this when we get to the end, but basically Cyberpunk concerns itself a lot with making you choose who you can really trust. Both Evelyn, the woman who gives you the assignment to steal the chip from Yorinobu Arasaka, and Dexter Deshawn, the fixer who helps you organize the heist, both try and screw you or each other over in different ways, giving the player a good sense that Night City takes more after the Wild West than anything else – you have to be careful who you trust, because everyone has their own agenda.

This is always a fun kind of plot to explore, especially as the number of factions involved ramps up throughout the game, and you’re asked at the ending who you really want to trust. There’s a problem with this though, which is that although there are lots of morally dubious characters inhabiting Night City, there’s only ever one real bad guy, which is the large corporation Arasaka. Now, I’m as anti-large corporation as the next online guy, but in a story like this it becomes less interesting when there is one so explicitly fixed villainous entity. Arasaka’s place in the narrative might have been fine were it more morally neutral, but even the Arasaka agents that you do meet, like Hanako Arasaka, daughter of the CEO, end up basically being evil – even in the ways in which they help you.

The other, more cyberpunk specific elements of the game’s story and themes also fail to properly exploit what could be a much more interesting kind of plot. This isn’t trying to criticize a game for what it’s not, but instead to say that the game introduces a lot of sci-fi elements that could help make its vision of the future a lot more unique; body modification, artificial constructs of human souls, two people occupying the same body, large multinational corporations thriving while ordinary people suffer in poverty – but then doesn’t ever really do anything with them.

I talked about how the Silverhand subplot never quite lives up to expectations because V isn’t enough of a defined character to feel them slipping away, but other cyberpunk plot lines are just as shallow. Body modification could have been made interesting, but basically just amounts to an upgrade system. The corporations are too stupidly evil-seeming to ever allow for complex examinations of the pervasive roles they play in people’s lives. A lot of interesting concepts are added and brushed on in Cyberpunk 2077, but rarely really expanded upon. 

Take braindances, for example. These are a sort of enhanced VR experience where people film from their eyes while also capturing their bodily experience into a short video they can sell. Viewing a braindance not only puts you in someone else’s eyes but allows you to feel what they were feeling. This is an extremely interesting concept, and it’s occasionally mentioned how people use them for porn or even to experience something like getting shot or dying. But once it has been mentioned, braindances just become a tool for V to investigate places in the same way as viewing security camera footage in an Ace Attorney game. Time and time again, Cyberpunk 2077 toys with something fascinating, only to waste the opportunity.

Once the heist reaches its climax, you discover that the chip you were meant to steal contains the ‘engram’ of Johnny Silverhand, an old punk rocker turned terrorist who was killed by the Arasaka corporation after he tried to blow up one of their towers. Along the way, you witness Saburo Arasaka, CEO of the corporation, strangled by his son Yorinobu while Jackie is killed escaping from the building. V is left for dead by Dexter Deshawn, and meets Silverhand, now living in their head.

Johnny Silverhand is played by film actor Keanu Reeves, whose performance I have seen criticized by some as low-effort. On the contrary, I think that Reeves puts in a career highlight in this game, which came as some surprise. I’ve liked Reeves in certain past roles, but I’ve never quite seen the hype. In Cyberpunk 2077, however, Reeves manages to make Silverhand into one of the more memorable video game characters in my recent memory.

What makes Silverhand interesting is that his morality is nicely frustrating. On the one hand, he’s a principled terrorist who hates corporations like Arasaka and was willing to take life-threatening action in order to stand up for his beliefs. On the other hand, he’s an absolute asshole – a misogynistic, self-important rockstar who thinks that his legacy, both musical and societal, makes him the most valuable man in the world. Reeves expertly balances both sides of Silverhand in a way that makes every conversation with him – or random interjection from him – of real interest. It’s impressive to see such a well-written and well-acted character in a game like this, and I wouldn’t be surprised if Johnny Silverhand was the highlight of the game for a lot of players.

With Johnny introduced and V on the path to death, the open world of Night City becomes fully available to players. Perhaps the first thing any player will do is go and get their car from the garage, at which point a rogue self-driving AI car known as Delamain will smash into it. Speaking to the AI behind Delamain gives you a series of quests to track down the auto-driving taxis that have gone rogue.

This series of quests shows one of the big problems with Cyberpunk 2077’s open world, because Delamain will call you constantly, whenever you pass one of his cabs. He’s not the only one – calls come into V’s phone at a near constant rate, enough to make me feel bad about the lack of notifications on my own phone. Side jobs are always being added, but the rate at which they come in makes it unlikely that you’ll ever be able to keep on top of them. Given that calls come in so often – sometimes even when you’re doing other things – there becomes a problem of forgetting the backstory or reason for some of the side jobs and gigs, as you’ll only end up getting to them hours after receiving the initial call. This also ties to a problem of urgency, where some calls will request you to come immediately, even though you can actually put them off for hours without facing any repercussions.

There are two main types of side quests – side jobs and gigs. Gigs are small little jobs you do for fixers to get some extra cash, but this also means they’re often not very interesting or worth talking about. It’s mainly fetch-quests or shootouts. These are necessary for the game to work because you need to give the player a way to increase their cash but they aren’t actually all that interesting.

Side-quests are actually where much of the meat of the game lies. The main story missions required to see the end of the game until the credits are quite slender, only taking up around 20 hours of playtime. This is why the side-quests are needed, in order to fill out the world of Cyberpunk 2077. Their success in this respect is mixed, but I think it’s worth evaluating them on two different scales.

The first is just their raw quality. Some of these quests are really good and well-written; my particular favourites were the River Ward missions, which deal with you helping a detective track down a serial killer by using braindances to see inside his dreams for clues. It’s full of interesting details about the way braindances can work in the Cyberpunk universe, has a lot of fun visual effects, and some good character work with regards to River and his family. In many ways, I see this as the ideal for a side-story in Cyberpunk – character-based stories that also naturally inform the player about the way the world of 2077 might work.

Another great example involves helping out a rich, influential politician. He hires you to investigate a break-in in his high-rise apartment, but investigating the apartment shows that he is being brainwashed by a mysterious group that is manipulating his behaviour to control him when he wins the election on his populist anti-corporation campaign promises. Once again, this side quest exposes something interesting about the world and a specific character within it. Even better, the quest ends with the player having to make a difficult choice about whether to tell the politician about the fact that he’s being controlled or not.

Still, for every interesting side quest, there’s a lot of far less engaging ones – even one of the central quest lines I took on, which had the ability to change the game’s ending and offered a romanceable character in the form of Panam Palmer, was a bit of a disappointment. This isn’t to say that Panam isn’t a well-written character, but the quests themselves are all pretty dull in terms of their actual design. It also shares a common problem with much of the game – it’s simply too short. Panam’s actual dialogue works, but the arc of her character seems rushed; in one mission she’ll tell you she wants to take it slow, but jump to the next and she’ll fuck you in a tank and agree to a relationship.

What’s more, very little in Panam’s questline is at all illuminating about the world of Cyberpunk itself. Beyond her introduction during the main story quest to capture the Arasaka engineer Hellman, you don’t learn that much about the nomads or their lifestyle during Panam’s questline besides her personal squabbles with them. This is where the second scale of evaluating the side stories comes in – that is, what do they teach the player about the world of Cyberpunk? This is a slightly more contentious scale, because it’s certainly more interesting to learn about characters than just the world itself, but it’s also undeniable that much of the appeal of Cyberpunk 2077 comes from its highly-detailed locale, so the best quests are the ones that combine character-based stories with Night City-specific intrigue. 

Let’s get broad for a minute here. Character-based storytelling is obviously the most human-kind – people tend to get more emotionally invested in characters than they can in worlds. As such, most games, even those set in fictional universes, tend to be character-focused. For example, The Last of Us, which is set in a dystopic future, remains character-fronted. Games as a medium, however, are uniquely positioned for environmental and world-based storytelling – a story like the one in Dark Souls could not work in any other medium, because it does not follow any characters. The middle ground that a game like Cyberpunk 2077 tends to strive for is to balance both of these kinds of narrative into a singular experience, and while in some side plots it works, in a lot of others it falls short in one or another of those goals.

Let’s talk a bit about the world of Night City itself, because it was one of the most hyped-up elements of the game before launch. Of course, the open world doesn’t quite meet the expectations set on it, but it does excel in some elements. For one thing, as a vision of the future, it’s certainly impressive, capturing the imposing skyscrapers and the slums of the city in a way that paints a picture of wealth inequality without having to explicitly spell it out. The ultra-capitalist dystopia of 2077 is clear just from driving around the city for a few minutes.

The problems with the city, however, become apparent soon afterwards. I think my biggest issue with Night City is that it lacks variety. This might seem a bit facetious given that areas such as Pacifica or Heywood are clearly visually distinct from each other, but in general there is too much focus on the “cyberpunk” of Cyberpunk 2077. What I mean is this – the vision of the future that Cyberpunk 2077 wants to sell is this grimy, crime ridden, sex-obsessed city and in trying to sell that, it overcompensates and forgets to put anything else in that might be expected in a real living breathing city. There’s a park in Cyberpunk 2077, but only one, and it’s pretty standard. There’s no airport, no big tourist attractions, nothing for the people of Night City to do except go to work and visit sex shops. Occasional scripted sequences like the parade are some of the few times I felt like I could really buy into Night City as a place people live. This might be the point of the game, but it doesn’t really feel like it. Instead, it feels like an oversight by a developer too committed to selling one specific image to think how the rest of it will work.

There’s also a problem with the other inhabitants of Night City, such as the poor AI of other cars on the road or the pedestrians, but I imagine some of this could be fixed. However, it would need quite a different kind of fix to make up for some of the lack of content – reused dialogue being overheard becomes common, and continued playing of the game makes the asset reuse occasionally glaringly apparent. This is especially frustrating in a game that comes seven years after Grand Theft Auto V, which created a much more believable city on more restrictive hardware and two years after Red Dead Redemption 2, which admittedly has a smaller and emptier world to create, but does so with an incredible level of polish.

I think this leads to another big question, which is whether this game needed to be open world at all. Open world game design naturally lends itself better to the kind of worldbuilding that Cyberpunk 2077 strives to achieve. However, Cyberpunk 2077 never quite convinces with the way it uses that open world nature.

The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild is widely regarded as one of the best games to use the format, and while it certainly doesn’t do some things as well as Cyberpunk 2077, it’s one of the few games to perfectly capitalise on the format of the open world by allowing complete freedom in how to approach things, and in what order to do them. Because of this, the open world in Breath of the Wild feels more than justified – the whole game is built around it. But in Cyberpunk, it often feels like the world is a hindrance to the game’s main point. Yes, it wants to immerse the player in a world, but it’s far more successful in doing that with its scripted sequences than with its driving around a city that is often more lifeless than lively. The world of Hyrule, with its constantly interweaving systems, always feels like a living, breathing world, but Night City only comes together occasionally, and mostly in story sequences.

So, three of the main decisions that the game makes – to be in first-person, to allow the player to customise V and to have Night City be an open world, all seem like double-edged swords. It isn’t the job of the critic to look at what could have been, and I don’t want to be misunderstood as suggesting that all of these things would make the game better if changed. However, each of them still manages to hinder the game in the way they are implemented, creating a game whose own structure seems to be fighting its intentions – a game with a split personality.

The game’s narrative arc reaches a climax once V has exhausted most of the options in trying to remove the chip. Finding the Arasaka engineer who designed the chip proves fruitless, but V does eventually manage to make some progress on two fronts. The first is finding the soul of Johnny’s ex-girlfriend, Alt Cunningham, who developed the Soulkiller program that imprisoned Johnny within the chip. Their relationship is as well-handled as anything with Silverhand, with even a small glimpse of their relationship making the troubled dynamics of it clear to the player. The other way in which V makes headway into fixing her problem is managing to kidnap Hanako with the help of a former Arasaka bodyguard called Goro Takemura.

The eagle-eyed reader or player will notice a surplus of Japanese names within the world of Cyberpunk 2077. Although Night City is billed as multicultural, there are only really ever a couple of nationalities that play any big role in Cyberpunk’s storyline; there are Latino and Haitian gangs and large American corporations, but most of the main players of Night City – much like the the non-English language you see most plastered over the streets – are Japanese.

Cyberpunk 2077 has raised a lot of interesting social talking points in the circles of the internet where I hang out, mostly in its sporadic and inconsistent portrayal of transgender people. However, the issue that interests me most (perhaps because of my background in East Asian Studies), is the game’s unapologetic techno-orientalism. Cyberpunk as a genre was born at the height of Japan’s bubble economy, when it was expected to maintain its status as an economic powerhouse that would surpass American industry – something perhaps equivalent to the way China is currently viewed by the American right. Because of this, visions of the future in the 1980s were often dominated by Japanese supremacy, with films such as Blade Runner including a lot of Japanese signage in its futuristic L.A. However, when making a modern-day cyberpunk story, it’s worth assessing why those decisions were made then, and whether they should be made now.

Arasaka as the game’s main villain may have made some sense in the 1980s, although it was still rooted in a misguided and racist fear of Japanese supremacy. But in using these stereotypical visions of Japan now, with the country having experienced a sharp recession after the bubble burst, it makes it clearer to see that behind the fear of Japanese business supremacy was a misunderstanding and a villainization of Japan that shines through in the game’s portrayal of the Arasaka corporation, in particular its CEO Saburo Arasaka, who pulls the strings behind many of the game’s key plot points, even after his supposed death.

When the time for the game’s ending rolls around, the player is presented with a couple of key choices based on their playthrough of the game. The simplest, and the one I chose, is to trust Hanako Arasaka, who promises to help you remove the chip if you help her bring down her brother Yorinobu, who has taken control of Arasaka. After doing so, Hanako reveals she has preserved a digital copy of Saburo’s consciousness and uses Yorinobu’s body as the host in order to restore Saburo to the position of Arasaka CEO. V has the chip removed, and either continues to live life without Johnny until dying at home, or can have their consciousness uploaded into Arasaka’s database, to likely be forgotten inside a computer.

Yorinobu’s arc is another way in which the whole storyline of Cyberpunk just feels rushed. Yorinobu is gunning to destroy Arasaka from the inside, which is why he kills his father and takes control of the company, but once you help Hanako he’s there lying on the floor about to commit suicide. It’s maybe natural that you can’t spend a lot of time with Yorinobu given his status in Night City, but he’s forgotten for a lot of the game, and so seeing him curled up on the ground in his admittedly impressive kimono contemplating suicide just feels unearned, as do any twists about Hanako and the Saburo engram, which I found myself finding difficult to care about.

Of course, that’s the ‘bad’ ending – the other ending I was able to complete showed V leaving Johnny in cyberspace with Alt and living out the rest of their life with Panam. It’s a pretty satisfying ending – although V still ends up on death’s door, the rest of their life will at least be a happy one. Silverhand also gets a chance at a brighter future. Even Arasaka is taken over by Yorinobu, with Hanako being killed.

Still, there’s one thing about this ending that really stuck with me. At a certain point, while driving away from Night City with Panam, she says this;

“There’s one thing I will miss about Night City. The food. The Thai on Seventh and Heywood, the pierogis down by the docks…”

In this brief aside, Panam injects some life into the city that I never felt it had. Night City, and Cyberpunk 2077 in general, are too caught up in the big broad strokes of the genre. It all feels like pastiche with no substance. Both in the plot, which barrels along at a surprisingly fast pace, and in the City itself which is all sex shops and gang fights, there is very little time to breathe, to make things feel like they’re actually grounded in some kind of reality.

This all makes Cyberpunk 2077 enjoyable to experience in the moment. It has a fast pace, both in its main and side stories, and introduces a lot of cool ideas and characters. But it’s too impatient, too rushed. Combine this with central elements of its game design that feel unsuitable and at odds with each other and you’re left with a slightly sour taste. The more I write about Cyberpunk the less I seem to like it, but as a played experience it’s perfectly fine. Looking back though, it’s impossible to think of what could have been, even divorced from the pre-release hype.

Thanks for reading, and I hope you enjoyed. As always, you can follow me on twitter or donate on patreon.

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