I am sitting on a motorcycle parked behind a cab that is being controlled by a sentient AI run amok. It is one of many such AI that I have tracked down as part of a long term sidequest involving a sentient AI cab company trying to bring its “children” back into the fold.
The Delamain AI is subjecting me to an endless litany of warmed-over Portal jokes, using the same kind of voice modulation that GladOS did in that game, over a decade ago. There’s a line about cake, references to testing, it is absolutely awful and I sigh out loud while I wait for it to finally be over.
Eventually, the car summons a bunch of cultists from the surrounding area, who attack me. I hop off my bike and quickly jog around, chopping their heads off one by one with a katana. Unfortunately, the car AI is still talking, and I have to wait another couple minutes before its dialog is finished.
The popup for one of the weapons I picked up from the AI cultists is stuck on the screen, and remains there until I hop off my bike again and pick up another item. Then, the sidequest just ends, as the primary Delamain AI takes control of the car and drives it on home.
This moment is indicative of a large part of my experience with Cyberpunk 2077. The gameplay is… fine, and the writing has some interesting ideas, but falls apart any time it tries to be funny. The bugs and glitches tend to be more along the lines of minor annoyances with things not quite working right than the game breaking in a way that prevents progress.
A Game Out of Time
One would thing that Cyberpunk 2077 is a game that is perfectly positioned to comment on the current moment. A game set in capitalistic hellscape, where corporation run rampant over all humanity, as the rich abandon everyone else to a pandemic all around us in 2020.
But it doesn’t. Instead, it feels like a game about the ’80s. Not only is it drenched in the aesthetic of the ’80s, but it is firmly entrenched in that era’s cultural mindset as well. The most powerful megacorporations are Japanese, and this is supposed to be vaguely threatening. The gangs are dangerous because they are more powerful than the cops. Mindless consumerism is everywhere… in the form of vending machines.
It reminds me a lot of Fallout, where culture stopped development in the 1950s, but with the ’80s instead. Except, the writers of Fallout did that intentionally, whereas the writers of this game feel like they’re doing it accidentally. It is not making a comment on the fact that the culture stopped changing in the ’80s, it’s just a fact of life.
The treatment of Japanese characters is the thing that first struck me as incredibly off. Maybe it’s because I’m coming hot off of playing (and greatly enjoying) Yakuza: Like a Dragon, but they all struck me as horrendous orientalist caricatures. Always dropping cryptic aphorisms like an offensive stereotype from an ’80s action movie, and being generally mysterious and untrustworthy.
This is not something that would fly in 2020, but it is something that is right at home in something from the 1980s. This kind of casual racism and dismissal of minority groups is par for the course in this game. It paints everyone and everything with an extremely broad brush.
A Clash of Tones
Which isn’t to say that the writing is all bad, actually. There’s a fun noir-ish crime story at the heart of this game, involving the brain of a long-dead terrorist and the son of the founder of one of the megacorps who successfully takes over his father’s company.
There is a clear separation between characters who matter, and those who don’t. The ones we’re supposed to care about, who are treated like human beings, and those who are just jokes to be written off. This game is from the writers of The Witcher 3, so they know how to do good character writing, and how to tug on heartstrings when they want to.
However, it doesn’t work as well here, for many reasons. The primary one being that the difference in tones is simply too great. There were some dumb jokes in some of the side quests in Witcher 3, including one where you investigate the vault of a cheese wizard, but nothing that felt as meanspirited as the ones in Cyberpunk.
The jokes that Geralt makes feel like they could come from that character, and mostly serve to add to the feeling that world is lived-in. The riffs on fairy tales feel like the developers having fun with a fantasy world, not trying to make jokes at the expense of it.
A Lack of Distance
Both of these games are effectively set in fantasy worlds, but the world of The Witcher is far more fantastical. There are not actual peasants or elves who are going to be offended by their portrayal in these games. The edge of the cynicism is one step further removed from real human beings.
Cyberpunk is set in a world much more similar to ours. The biggest difference is the existence of copious amounts of cybernetic enhancements for literally everyone, and corporations being maybe 10% more powerful and evil. The streets look like contemporary city streets. The characters are all humans and are more closely related to real humans that you could actually meet.
So, when it presents maybe the most horrific stereotype of a queer man I’ve seen in many decades, skinny, balding and lisping while he leers at my character, it is a lot more shocking. It disrupts the experience more, and it makes it hard to ever take it seriously again.
Again, it’s something that you would expect of a movie or TV show made in the ’80s, not about the ’80s. When you write a period piece set in a different time, you usually try not to take the extra step of adopting the moral and cultural values of that time. You want to make it palatable to a modern audience, after all.
Cyberpunk doesn’t do that at all. It feels like it was transcribed from some lost action movie script. Which in some ways is impressive, but mostly in a way where you say “why would you put so much effort into this?”
A Thick Stew of Gameplay
Anyway, enough about the weird tone, how does it play? It is a very odd mixture of different systems which don’t quite gel together into a satisfying experience. It’s… fine, for the most part, but there are some frustrations that never quite go away.
The combat is very dense with RPG mechanics, but they aren’t surfaced very well. Because it’s first person, everything is more frenetic. I chose to dig deep into the blades skill tree, which allows me to basically just run around and chop off heads with a single swing and shrug off damage. I have not had to engage with the RPG mechanics besides swapping out my armor and weapons for ones with bigger numbers when I get them.
By going deep with damage numbers, it leads to a situation where you can’t kill enemies quickly in ways that makes sense, but can do it in ways that don’t. I can pull out an assault rifle and plink away at a gang member wearing a basketball jersey for a 30 seconds before they go down. But if I pull out a katana, they go down in one blow.
There are stealth mechanics, but they’re very basic. You can blind guards temporarily with cyber attacks, or turn off cameras, or distract guards by turning on random machinery that is strewn about every location. It is very unchallenging, and feels like it is designed to be worked around in an incomplete state.
For instance, enemies don’t notice you instantly, they have a meter that fills up. So, if you get seen in some way that doesn’t feel right, you can easily correct your position. It’s so forgiving that it feels like it doesn’t reward paying attention to it, so I generally don’t even bother sneaking around.
The driving is terrible. All the cars handle like shit and can’t take a corner without fishtailing wildly. I get around on a motorcycle because it’s easier to avoid crashes, but the game does require you to drive for some missions, and it always sucks.
The conversation mechanics are actually pretty good, and feel like the most polished part of the game. Talking to someone is not an exclusive action in this game, it doesn’t shift you into another mode where you are only talking and doing nothing else. You can look around and still choose dialog options!
This is very basic, but it feels like a revelation. So many games, including past games from this studio, lock you into conversations in a way that is very artificial and game-y. In this one, it feels more realistic, where you can chat with people in person or on the phone while doing other things. And it uses the systems of skill- and background-based answers that feel rewarding and customized to your particular character.
In general, it feels like an RPG with some incomplete open-world mechanics bolted on. A third-person RPG, specifically; never has a game felt more like it’s being played from the wrong perspective. Something about the spaces just feels wrong for a first-person perspective, and not being able to see your character when you can customize your appearance so much is very strange.
To me, it feels like CD Projekt Red kept their general design philosophies exactly the same from the Witcher series. The problem comes with the fact that the protagonist of this game is not a Witcher, so some of the, like, explanations for why people treat the main character the way they do, and the things that he can do, don’t quite hold up as well.
In the Witcher series, most of your sidequests involved killing monsters, or bandits. Some sort of threat to the general populace that would drive them to hire a professional monster hunter. So, all the violence you inflicted was justified and normalized by it, well, being a job. This is what Witchers do, and you’re one of those, so you do it, and nobody minds.
In Cyberpunk, you’re a kind of… generalized mercenary, working for a variety of “fixers”, who hire you for different types of jobs. You go around and murder gangsters and corporate goons with impunity, and nobody bats an eyelash. If you accidentally kill a civilian, the police will attack you… unless you run two blocks away, then they give up.
I really cannot overstate just how many people you are slaughtering in this game. I suppose you don’t have to kill them, there are non-lethal options that leave your enemies permanently lying on the ground writhing instead of dismembered. But they feel like a bad joke. Hitting someone with a tire iron or a kanabō is somehow inherently non-lethal. Or, just slap a “pax” mod on any gun! Now that gun is non-lethal, somehow.
Anyway, it makes the world feel absurd, and like your character is a bizarre monster instead of a real person. Instead of communicating some notion that “life is cheap”, it just feels like V, in particular, is bloodthirsty.
I think you can get away with using normal people as enemies in an RPG, it’s been done plenty of times before. But there is a critical ironic and comedic distance in those games, be they Earthbound or Yakuza. But there is none of that here, these seem to be just regular people, no different from V or anyone else, and you end up just slaughtering them like animals, constantly.
A Whole New World
A lot of the problems with the tone and the gameplay, I think, come down to this being the first non-Witcher game that CD Projekt Red has ever made. The first Witcher started life as a total conversion mod for Neverwinter Nights 2, and they just kept expanding from there. Cyberpunk is their first foray into any other setting, or mode of game.
As a result, they are trying new things, and some of them are falling flat. Things that felt like savvy decisions for good worldbuilding are thrown away for convenience, or to chase trends.
My go-to example of that is crafting. In the Witcher games, Geralt knows how to brew special Witcher potions and bombs, but not how to make anything else. If he needs a new sword, he goes to a blacksmith. In Cyberpunk, crafting is just a menu, and you can make whatever. There’s no consideration for coherence, no rational explanation for why you can do this. They just threw it in, because crafting is popular these days
Without the guardrails of the characters and world of the Witcher novels, CD Projekt was free to try something new and different. It’s only natural that they stumbled somewhat. Nobody in this game is as likable, or as well-realized, as any of the main characters from Witcher 3. But why should they be? They don’t have thousands of pages of novel to work from.
Overall, Cyberpunk is a totally unremarkable open-world RPG with a bit of extra euro-jank thrown in. If this game were made by Piranha Bites or some other Eastern European developer, nobody would glance at it twice. It would go on the pile of interesting-but-flawed games like Elex or Risen.
However, the Witcher 3 was an absolutely gigantic hit, and a genuinely great game, so what is actually the sophomore effort from a relatively inexperienced developer is being blown wildly out of proportion. Cyberpunk 2077 could never live up to the hype that has been build up around it in the past year.
Last year, I found myself profoundly disappointed by the mediocrity of Obsidian’s The Outer Worlds. It felt like them treading old ground and not really doing anything interesting. A slightly more polished version of previous games, from a developer I normally love.
Cyberpunk is not a mediocre game, despite all of its faults. The problems it has are serious, but so are its merits. It’s a very uneven experience, but it’s mostly… fine. You can play it and have fun as long as you don’t pay too close attention to anything. It’s a good podcast game, which is something I’m always in the market for.
If you feel like you don’t want to play this game because of the developer’s severe problems with crunch, or with the problems with racism and transphobia and general nastiness, that is absolutely understandable and valid. Those are legitimate problems, though I do feel like they kind of stumbled into (some of) them accidentally.
At the same time, this game isn’t really making a strong statement about anything one way or the other. It’s not some big iconoclastic work with an important point to make. It’s just a kind of unwieldy, old-fashioned carnival ride that breaks in fun ways sometimes, and catastrophic ways other times.
I find it hard to get mad at this game, but I won’t leap to its defense either. It’s just… fine.