Night City Blues: Cyberpunk 2077

>> startup // >> breaching // >> initiate_quickhacks // >> triangulating .txt file… // >> 1 match found. Unknown user… Encryption key? // >> run_icebreaker // >> ICE security systems coming online… // >> Calculating shortest path… // >> Countdown logged… 23… 22… 21… // >> send_package // >> … 18… 17… // >> Chance of flatline at 86.3782 % // >> … 14… 13… 12… // >> Breach overloaded. Cyberware RAM expended. Please wait for cooldow- // >> search_and_destroy // >> … 7… 6… 5… // >> Arasaka security systems logged. System purge in 2… 1… // >> System error. Your cyberdeck has encountered a fatal error and needs to clo- // >> Rebooting… // >> 1 message received. // >> Autoplaying… // >> wake_up_samurai.mp3

>> Playing…

First of all, the elephant in the room. On December 10th 2020, Cyberpunk 2077, the much anticipated action RPG from CD Projekt-can-do-no-wrong-Red, following its announcement way back in 2012, was released to abysmal quality on the eighth generation of consoles. The game suffered from numerous bugs, glitches and crashes, ranging from the hilarious to the downright unplayable. On PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series S|X, however, the game runs adequately, with optimum behaviour visible on high-end PC rigs. I won’t get into the meat of the matter, but it’s been a debacle to say the least: from fan outrage, to confusing refunds, to Sony pulling the game from their digital storefront, to blunt apologies from the publisher arm of CDPR.

I was lucky enough to play the game on PS5, with some minor issues, but nothing to stop me playing. Over the course of 36 hours I successfully completed the story with maybe a dozen or so crashes, some odd or missing animations, a few wardrobe malfunctions, and the occasional exploding car. Generally, the game ran well at 60fps at (to my eyes at least) 1080p, with the most consistent crashing happening when driving rapidly into Night City; the epicentre of the narrative. I completed all the romance side missions, with my female “V” deciding to fall hopelessly in love with “braindance” connoisseur, Judy Alvarez. I also did several gigs (side-side missions), found some very cool cars, found a pistol that spoke to me called Skippy, and played a Samurai comeback gig as Keanu Reeves. Overall, I had a great time. Yes, that is the adjective I’m going with.

The problem with overhyping

Cyberpunk is not a religious experience. Nor is it anything other than a video game, lest any video gamer prior to its launch would tell you otherwise. Declarations of Cyberpunk becoming their favourite game of all time, or their GOTY, etc., without having played it, only having experienced heavily curated and edited marketing materials is baffling. In fact, the whole concept of pre-ordering a video game sans external critique is rather illogical (*preorders all the games*). Demand for the “thing”, whatever it may be, is an artificial illusion. Marketing serves its purpose when you think that you must have “thing” now, and your life will be incomplete without “thing”. I’m on a tangent, but my point is, Cyberpunk is probably the only game, barring a Hideo Kojima tease, that has convinced the gaming community of it being a new form of crack. It did not live up to the hype. It didn’t even come close, launching on last-gen systems in its broken state, but imagine for a second if it ran fine. Read the reviews of the PC version (the only kind of review that was out there prior to launch), and you will find that Cyberpunk is a great video game, a solid 8 or maybe a 9/10 experience. And that’s it. It does not redefine video games. It does not redefine your life. It is not the greatest video game of all time, no matter how many times Keanu Reeves curses. Cyberpunk deserved better from its marketing.

Therein lies the problem. I had a great experience with Cyberpunk, and yet it often had me feeling hollow and wanting more. Why? I often thought. It had a great story, with all the traditional Cyberpunk trope aesthetics, really good dialogue, enjoyable gunplay, and a wonderful riff on Batman’s detective mode called a ‘braindance’ where you could experience someone else’s memories playing out like a VR game, pausing, playing and moving around phantom-like, to uncover hidden information, at least for a merc. For the common man, a braindance can also be a pornographic escapade, or a murder-simulator. The driving was fun and arcadey; loading up the game, getting in my Quadra and feeling its roar as I blazed through Night City, the radio screaming dark sci-fi beats is a wonderful memento I will keep from Cyberpunk. The hacking was brilliant, in a very different style to Watch Dogs: Legion, which I actually prefered here; holding L1 (on PS5) brings up hacking vision, and a string of quickhacks to use, whether it was distracting enemies, switching off cameras, a contagious cyberware virus, preventing enemies’ cyberware from working, a synaptic burnout, or any other quickhack based on what cyberdeck you’re rolling, they all did something to distract or kill, while you jumped in with a melee or long-range weapon. I barely touched the melee side of things, preferring to put points into reflexes, allowing me to move faster, and increasing weapon damage. The weapons themselves were very cool, split up into different classes like power, which required a high number of points in Body to be effective (I’ll explain in a minute), or tech weapons (Reflex), or my personal fave, smart weapons, allowing you to shoot around corners. The RPG-ness of it manifested in the beginning of the game as a set of points you can drop into various attributes like Body (strength, carrying capacity, health), Intelligence (quickhacking, cyberware useage) and Cool (dialogue options, stealth, something called ‘cold blood’ that stacks stealth damage kills). It would be cool to go back and respec my character into something else, and the game encourages that, with several different lifepaths (origin stories), albeit they will all end up in the same-ish place by the end I suspect. Speaking of character, I spent a good hour creating my V, from the colour of my lipstick to deciding how I wanted my private parts to look.

Clearly the game was not the problem, it was everything the internet and CDPR had told me about the game that was the issue. My expectations were elevated more than normal for a great game, not a God of War, or a Celeste, or a Breath of the Wild level of game. I would describe Cyberpunk as The Witcher 3 meets GTA V made by the Fallout 4 guys, who had read William Gibson’s Neuromancer 47 times. And that makes a fun game. Really fun, in fact. But the internet had poisoned me.

Should you play it?

Yes, but you should wait. Probably by the end of 2021 Cyberpunk will run perfectly smooth and deliver the experience it was meant to back in December. It is unfortunate that a wonderful video game was ruined by a failed launch. They really should have delayed it (again) *shrug emoji*.

Why is it not a 10/10? Because as detailed as Night City is, with immense levels of immersion, a huge number of activities, gigs, things to do, the cyberpunk veneer is only skin-deep. Cyberpunk is missing part of its soul. Firstly, though, it’s missing part of its body: on numerous occasions I was broken out of immersion, whether it was due to a bug, or due to poor animations. Several times during a crowd sequence I would turn around and see the same NPC face dressed up in a few different outfits. Or perhaps the city streets would be utterly empty. Maybe the rain just looked like an instagram filter, or waypoints would be ambiguous and I would get lost trying to find Takemura 80 million times before googling to find out that where he actually spawned was somewhere completely different.

Ignoring the bugs, Cyberpunk feels like an excellent depiction of the tabletop roleplaying game Cyberpunk 2020, on which it is based. However, Cyberpunk is not a masterful cyberpunk story. It is clichéd, traditional and a little bit like finding one of your dad’s old sci-fi books in the attic; it is derivative, and doesn’t really add anything to the genre. It’s a love letter to the cyberpunk genre, but at the same time, seems to hold it on a pedestal of ‘cool’ that maybe isn’t relevant any more in real-life 2020. Cyberpunk tries so hard to convince you of its coolness and can end up negating the point entirely. Perhaps a critique of the cyberpunk genre is beyond the scope of this review, but in our present day, it’s obvious it’s been done to death. So much so that the best cyberpunk stories don’t focus on the aesthetic, or the surface, but on the oddities, on the nuanced stories. Philip K. Dick’s unique spin on drugs, reality and what it means to be human is the real nugget, told on the backdrop of a sci-fi world, be it Do Androids… or Ubik or A Scanner, Darkly. Neuromancer’s frenetic pace and novel depiction of cyberspace sets it apart. Even the recent second season of Netflix’s adaptation of Altered Carbon discards the usual cyberpunk themes of sex and ultraviolence by turning it into a rumination on human atrocities and the effect of war on the mind. The Matrix is a brilliant meditation on the desire for transformation, with heavy transgender symbolism, whereby Neo (played by Keanu Reeves funnily enough) breaks free of unreality, becoming the master of his life. What elevates these stories is that they start somewhere cyberpunky, using the tech, the noir, the heists, the sex, the violence, to deliver the atmosphere, and then into that they weave something special, a story that transcends time, but one we can empathise with. Cyberpunk 2077 fails in this regard, as it focuses too much on style, appearance, and on its setting, without sharing anything worthwhile.

Stories and endings

A good open world game is defined by the quality of its side missions. In that respect, Cyberpunk delivers. I was far more invested in Judy’s fight to take back control of the Moxes club from corporate management. Or in Kerry’s efforts to finally grow outside of Johnny Silverhand’s shadow. River Ward’s questline hit me in the feels, about a city cop trying to deal with family and keep emotionally distant from the job. Maybe if was the weird mind overwriting theme that wound its way around a few side missions involving political gain. Or the booksmart-flawed car A.I. that made me search for his weirdo car pals that had gone rogue. Was it Rogue’s reticence to reignite her flame with Johnny. Or maybe Panam’s conflict of being frustrated with the rules of the Aldelcaldo gang but fearing becoming a leader. All these stories were excellent. They had good character writing and had me invested. My own story however? Not so much. After a botched heist, V is basically trying to find a way to fix herself before cyberdeath ensues. I don’t feel like V changed at all over the course of the story; any character development was minimal. Her relationship with Johnny changed only because he seemed to mellow a bit and embrace mortality. At the end I rode off into the sunset with Panam and Judy in tow, arguably the best ending, with a ticking clock over my life. The stakes of the main story were surprisingly selfish, close to the ground, and were superceded by an excellent ensemble cast. In the end, my V was a side character that mutually helped out everyone else’s more interesting stories. For the DLC, can I please play as Judy, taking over the Moxes, making braindance porn? Great, thanks.

I feel like this is coming off as a negative review, but it shouldn’t. Cyberpunk 2077 is a joy to play, just don’t expect anything life-altering. I suppose this comes back to the overhyping. Maybe I’m holding Cyberpunk to a higher standard than I would for say, Miles Morales, or Assassin’s Creed Valhalla. It’s as good as those games. Not every game needs to change the landscape, it just needs to deliver on its promises. Cyberpunk didn’t, and then some. And yet, I loved my time with this janky yarn. I loved Judy. I loved the cars, the weapons, V, my nomad buddies, the tense heists, the Johnny Silverhand concerts, the randos, the weirdos, the fixers, the corpos, the cult fanatics, the mantis blades, all of it. But, on the whole, it suffers from a lack of direction, a meaning, something to takeaway; it weighs heavily on its story without a transcendent endpoint. Not that story is the end all and be all; look at GTA V, which flourished in its political satire, in its reflection of the ridiculousness of the law. Cyberpunk does nothing to reflect the world it’s in. Maybe a lack of direction is endemic to all open world games. Maybe that’s the point. Chaos begets chaos in Cyberpunk 2077, and it’s a wild trip, but I’m left with Night City blues.

P.S. At no point did I burn the city. In fact, I left it behind fully intact. See you, Night City.

>> End transmission.