“Cyberpunk 2077”: style over substance, not always the cool way

The story of the release of “Cyberpunk 2077” should probably serve as a cautionary tale in many ways.

Because it tells the story of an indie company turned big (the Polish software house CD Project Red), that struggles under the pressures of the AAA game, between stock market fluctuations, expectations from a huge and increasingly diverse customer base, and the media attention that follows naturally.

But it’s also an example of how game development is a creative process as much as it is an industrial one, and it’s made by people. The game had been initially announced for release in the Summer of 2019, but as technical problems emerged, it has been delayed multiple times. Employees simply cannot work miracles, no matter how much pressure they receive, and the finished result actually suffers from the process because even more mistakes are made. So maybe this can serve also to widen the conversation on how consumer products are created and distributed at the expense of many other people. For a leisure object like a videogame, this starts to feel really wrong. Doesn’t it?

Any maybe, finally, this can be a story of how hubris always leads to a fall. I see a huge game, beautiful without a doubt, but so narcissistically centered on itself, it apparently failed to learn a few important lessons from the last, let’s say, five-to-ten years in the industry. Arrogance is a fatal flaw in storytelling, no matter on which medium, and it leads to fall. For now, the company’s shares have certainly taken a plunge, losing more than 30% of their value since October 2020 (-7.5% since the game release: that’s an Icarus drop).

This is my experience with the game so far, but before I go on I gotta say I put around 6 (edit: 8) hours into it – not enough for a full review, but certainly enough for a technical hot take.

So keep in mind that my experience is limited, but at the moment the game is not making my life easy and I have to plan sessions carefully because they feel more like hard work rather than “fun”. Also, I don’t know if it’s the general pacing of the game, or it’s just a slow burn that needs so much time to finally kick into gear – but if that’s the case, what the hell, even gamers have a life, sometimes.

A one-hour session should be enough to be fun and gratifying. Right now I don’t feel that the experience rewards the time I am investing in it, and this feels strangely at odds with a game all about “live fast, die fast”.

Anyway, let’s see some positive notes.

Visually, it is beautiful, but nothing like the trailers and demos we have been seeing for years now. And I am testing it on a high-end machine (Ryzen 7 3700X and GeForce 2070) with all settings on ultra. The chromed, ultra-fluid experience you have seen in the announcement videos? Not here. This is twisted as it borders on false advertising.

The best parts are without a doubt the interactions with meaningful NPCs and the dialogue scenes, all very carefully directed, acted and designed. They seriously keep me on the edge of my seat and I can’t wait to see what else this world can offer me. GREAT. The soundtrack is also incredible (in-game sounds, not so much, in particular gunshots seem off somehow).

And I love Keanu Reeves to a fault, even if his acting feels a little bit stitched together here, but you can’t have too much of a good thing, can you?

The investigation scenes (braindance), the cutscenes, the main encounters, are all extremely atmospheric, coherent with the narrative universe and curated in all detail. They are reminiscent of the genre classics, from “Blade Runner” to “Strange Days” but with an unique twist, and this can only be a good thing.

But all in all, I can’t shake the feeling of a beautiful movie that whenever is asking for my interaction, ends up generating frustrating or annoying episodes.

For a game that focuses on immersion and roleplaying it’s astounding how many design choices were made (or not made) in order to disrupt exactly those things. Compared to Los Santos from Grand Theft Auto V or even the most remote outpost area in Red Dead Redemption 2, Night City feels hollow and empty. Forget also the realistic activities of the latest Assassin’s Creed episodes. This is a very beautiful backdrop that barely shows any ripples as you interact with it.

There are very few “real” shops (you can sell your inventory by dumping it into a machine – weird); NPCs will greet you with generic one-liners like it’s 1996; no random dynamic events except shootouts you better not mess with (police response is brutal and erratic – I understand the game is set in America, but this is not fun at all); no interaction with environmental elements (hell, give me the chance to buy a drink from a vending machine if I want to); no in-game character customization options (hairstyles, tattoos, piercing) – baffling, in a game centered on body modification.

Also, you can choose details like the color of your hair or the size of your penis (yes, but also WHY), but not model aspects like body size, frame, height, or muscle mass. Your body type is given. Which is like a 15-years step back in game design. I ended up playing with an out-of-shape David Beckham lookalike and I cannot care less about him since I wanted to be a big guy. It’s very different from playing Adam Jensen or Geralt of Rivia – they were also given, but at least they had history and charisma. Your guy is a nobody and you should at least be given the option to care about their physical identity. Big mistake.

True, you can choose male or female genitals, or choose not to display any, and this will not affect the gender of your character (which is determined by your voice – also super problematic in ways the devs probably couldn’t see), but the game doesn’t seem to take this into consideration later on. It just skips on this element entirely. As well as any other political aspect. And that’s a pity, because the Cyberpunk genre is completely political. Whether this was done not to upset gamers on either side of the political spectrum, or just because of lack of interest or time, I guess we will never know.

Another huge letdown: the third-person view is not possible. This not only wastes potential (IF I created a cool looking character – I didn’t – I still wouldn’t get to see it much), it also creates a lot of problems as I get stuck into objects and can’t face enemies properly.

And while driving feels ok for now – not great, not terrible – vehicle customization has completely been left out of the game. What? I cannot punk my own car? Besides, seven years after GTA5, this just feels like a criminal offense.

Role-playing game elements also feel… Not there? The quests I tried so far follow this pattern rigidly: big-shot guy gives you a quest – you can sound smart about it or not – you accept the quest – you execute the quest. There are different approaches possible but – as far as I have seen – no real option to challenge the frame or be inventive about it. The Fallout series or Deus Ex had many “meaningful choices” moments from the very beginning, and here they are missing.

Back to your own character, you can choose between three different backgrounds, but apart from the first hour of play or so, this seems to reflect only on a few minor dialogue options. After the prologue, all storylines are railroaded to converge into one – of all things, with a quick montage sequence! (which really screams “I didn’t have enough time, sorryyyy“). I felt a pang of nostalgia thinking about Dragon Age.

Also, roleplaying should be about shaping the personality of your alter ego. This doesn’t happen here. The smartass, streetwise samurai is a given and it can be really annoying if it doesn’t align with the way you are, or how you want to play.

In Red Dead Redemption 2, Arthur Morgan could be a heartless criminal or a compassionate rebel without a cause. All the world, including the voice acting, reacted to this choice. In Cyberpunk 2077, your choices are pretty much limited to assigning different numerical bonuses when you level up, choosing the right gear or cyberware, besides of course deciding what sidequests to make and in which order. I still don’t know if there are “factions” in town that you can pledge allegiance to, and if this affects the balance of power in the city.

Stealth is repetitive and not as rewarding or exciting as an Assassin’s Creed game. There is only one animation for a stealth kill, a banal grapple which gets boring really quickly. Remember planting your hatchet into a nazi cyborg’s skull in Wolfenstein: The New Order? Yeah, no, nothing like that.

Also, hacking is watered down and very derivative: you can sabotage furniture, machines or implants and use them against your enemies, but I stopped even caring as it seems to require even more micromanaging. Also, proper Netrunner work or the virtual-reality of Cyberspace are absent, so far. Maybe later in the game? Huge miss, as they are such an important part of the setting. William Gibson won’t be pleased about it.

It’s almost as if they wanted to put so many things in the game, but in the end they didn’t manage to blend them in a convincing way, or to make it excellent under a single, specific point of view. Other than the looks. And I understand that “style is all that matters” is a basic pillar of the Cyberpunk aesthetics, but a good open world game needs more than that.

And did I mention the one-thousand in-game ebooks I have to read in order to learn about the world and the setting? Another chore that is left on the player, rather than letting details emerge from exploration or interaction. And if only they were creative or attractive in any way. You know, like the beautiful e-magazines you could find in Detroit: Becoming Human. But nope, here you get hardcore text walls to read, like it’s Morrowind all over again. Boring, I’ll pass. Also, surfing the web in 2077 will be all about static images and reading small text.

Who would have thought, but also, not at all interesting.

Lastly, there are so many quality-of-life improvements that are badly needed and urgent. To be more specific: managing the inventory is a busywork job of managing too many objects almost identical to one other: at some point, I had in my backpack 10 assault rifles and several pistols, and it was so immersion-breaking I really had to laugh.

Combat still feels messy and unsatisfying, and I try to avoid it as much as I can – it could be fun, but enemies are mostly faceless entities who don’t show much of an AI, and no cover system means that everything (including your character) becomes a cartoonish sponge bullet like in Borderlands; the “aim assist” feature works in mysterious ways (maybe intentional? Bugged? Who knows) and it’s really painful to play with a controller.

Looting is annoying as hell as I have to individually find and pick up tons of junk items, a myriad of power-ups I will never use, and weapons that differ by 0.1 DPS from each other. Even leveling up feels like a boring chore where I basically have to compare a lot of marginal numerical bonuses before I can finally choose one and immediately forget about, since it doesn’t feel “epic” at all and it has no visible effect on gameplay. Crafting seems also abstruse and for now I casually do what I can, without real motivation to learn more.

Between all these half-baked mechanics I am also trying to play a game here, if I can, thank you very much.

And I am not even mentioning bugs – I know they will be fixed eventually, but from what I read there are many and they can break quests. So far, I only experienced a few minor glitches, and as annoying as they are, nothing crashed my game. But maybe I am just lucky.

In conclusion, this certainly is a massive game with an ambitious story to tell, and I so would like to play it! But it gives me much less freedom than it seems, and it’s making it really, really hard for me to get anything done.

To finally “breach” it (ah, ah) you have to play strictly by its rules and overlook A LOT of annoying features that try to get in the way of fun. It’s entirely up to you how tolerant or generous you will feel about it, but for me, all this is unnecessarily hard and frustrating, especially since it apparently failed (or refused) to learn many good lessons from the last 10 years of industry developments.

Last night I spent the better part of an hour trying to tweak game controls, because “aim assist” is there but doesn’t work and playing with a controller is a total pain. Luckily, gamers are helping each other out, but then it’s no surprise that frustration is rising and mixed reviews appear everywhere. At the moment it sits at 3.8 out of 5 on gog.com and I have to say, I agree with the community. It’s not a bad game, but certainly far from being great.

Accessibility options are also not there, as well as key binding (weird), so even playing as a left-handed seems to be harder than it should be. In a supposed next-gen title.

“Cyberpunk 2077” is not only unfinished, it’s also plagued by design choices that make little or no sense, maybe because they were rushed, or because of short-sightedness. I am afraid these cannot or will not be addressed by patches. Buyers beware, watch a good amount of gameplay videos to understand if it’s for you. And then probably, wait another 6 months.

I don’t normally criticize or write negative opinions about things. I think life is too short to hold grudges. But the fact is, this really annoyed me. Not only because of the anticipation and the false expectations (I received the game as a present one year and a half ago!), but because of the emotional attachment I have with the genre and the source material. With my buddies, we spent countless hours playing the original pen-and-paper “Cyberpunk 2020” RPG by Mike Pondsmith. This deserved much better.

Edit. Some thoughts a couple of days later. pouring more hours into the experience, it started growing on me. It was expectable. Part must be some form of Stockholm Syndrome (I am going to spend 100 hours here, maybe I should just try and appreciate it); but it’s also true that when this game shines, it really excels. The scripted events are so good, they leave me with my mouth open. The problem, as I mentioned earlier on, is that there is a lot of filler between them that is so far below this incredible level of quality, it feels disappointing. And the obsolete interface makes the whole experience harder and more time-consuming than it should really be.

It will be interesting to see how CD Project Red reacts to this failure. They could furiously try to patch everything they can, squeezing their poor developers even worse, then release the game at a reduced price, trying to capitalize on what’s done and hoping that customers will forget. (Spoiler: they won’t, ever).

Or they could go the Hello Games way doing what they did with No Man’s Sky: to humbly learn from criticism, to devote all their resources into fixing one issue after another, listen to the players’ base and keep polishing the game, until it finally becomes what it was supposed to be from the beginning. Provided they have a clear vision for it.

Only time will tell. After all, Cyberpunk is now.

3 thoughts on ““Cyberpunk 2077”: style over substance, not always the cool way

  1. Oof a bit of a let down! I’ve come to trust your opinion on these things as we share a lot of reasons for why we play, and I’ve heard many similar things from friends about Cyberpunk. I personally don’t own it yet… I’m certain I will at some point, but I was never part of the “must have it on day 1” crowd when it came to video games.

    I’m not surprised, though. CDPR weren’t particularly great at storytelling and I actually didn’t think The Witcher 3 was as genre-defining as many people did. The towns all seemed lifeless and empty, there (similarly to Cyberpunk from what I’ve read) wasn’t much of a roleplaying element. That could be down to the magic system in The Witcher franchise not being conducive to much customization.

    I’m sure it’s a “good” game. It’s not hard to make a good game, honestly. But I doubt it lives up to its far too inflated hype. Lol

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you for your input. Let me be even more clear, when this game shines, it really does. Maybe not “the best”, but top league.
      The problem is that it’s not homogeneous.
      And Night City doesn’t seem to come to life due to the superficial interaction with people and locations.
      But most of all, the characters. In TW3 you controlled Geralt, Ciri, you got to meet all these iconic characters with a lot of established background. It’s like when in a Star Wars game, you meet Han Solo or Boba Fett.
      While here it’s all brand new and rather anonymous, and one needs better storytelling tricks to develop an emotional attachment with a random, predefined dude with a horrible fashion sense.
      One of the best character creation interfaces i have ever tried was Saints Row. You could even choose the voice and accent. GTA online gets close, but not there.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. After all the hype about the game it is pretty safe to say that it has been disastrous receptions in its first couple of weeks, especially from players playing the game on PS4 and Xbox One as many of these players have already opted for the refund. PC players aren’t very happy with the game as in order to run the game smoothly one must have a pretty high-end PC which wasn’t suggested when CDPR announced the system requirements a couple of months back. Even though CDPR has fixed a lot of bugs with three hotfixes already released but there is still a lot more work needs to be done in order to make a game a great success like The Witcher 3.

    Liked by 1 person

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