james debate
james debate

Tuesday 22 December 2020

Developed by CD Projekt Red
Published by CD Projekt
Genre Action RPG
Platform PC, Xbox One, Xbox Series X/S, PS4, PS5, Stadia

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Before you say it, yes it's a bit late in the year to be posting a review, but this one concerns a release so prominent that I felt it worth taking a break from writing my end of year Debbie Awards. Had I known this would prove to be a topic of such heated emotion I may have stuck to something less controversial, like Donald Trump or Brexit. This is, of course, the review of Cyberpunk 2077, the latest release from CD Projekt Red

CD Projekt Red have spent the last several years riding high on a wave of adulation following the almost universal acclaim that has been lavished upon their previous project, The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt. Armed with new global renown and a AAA budget far beyond anything they had seen previously, the developer set its sights on adapting Cyberpunk, a somewhat known tabletop RPG whose original format dates back to the 1980s.

First teased back in 2012, this title has seen what can be charitably described as a protracted production cycle. Even when the game was finally given a release date last year, that date ended up being delayed repeatedly. A lot of people joked that this release would never come, but it has and we've played it.

Let's not mince words, the hype for this game has been stratospheric: a developer who was seen as incapable of doing wrong, a reimagining of an intellectual property with cult following, all packaged into an ambitious, grand open-world RPG package with endless possibilities. This wasn't just a new game, it was billed as a generational moment in the industry, a milestone against which future titles would be compared. Few could possibly have foreseen the shitstorm that came next. It turns out there was a reason for the frequent delays. Cyberpunk 2077 simply isn't finished. 

Let's step back a moment. Cyberpunk 2077 is an action RPG set in the dystopian near-future Night City, located on the American west coast. The world's governments have mostly collapsed, meaning that most power lies with corporations. Sophisticated, intelligent AI is a thing, and cybernetic technology has improved to such an extent that people can and do augment their bodies with regularity. These augmentations can include anything from the functional (think extra RAM or physically stronger limbs) to the superficial (like a shiny metallic gold body). 

It makes for an interesting setting as there is an awful lot to like about this future. This is a world where you can be whoever you want. The ability to completely customise one's own body has led to an explosion in self-expression, both through augmentations as well as fashion, hairstyling and gender fluidity. Then there are the obvious advances that this level of technology would offer. Ocular implants can project information within one's vision. The brain's operating system can jack directly into computer systems to transfer information. Technology may even be on the verge of digital immortality, which forms a focal point of the game's main story. In many ways, this is a technical wonderland.

But this is ultimately a dystopia, a world where corporate greed has created an unsustainable level of wealth inequality, where law enforcement and government is riddled with corruption and criminal gangs run essentially unchallenged so long as they play by the corporations' rules. Indeed, as with any good cyberpunk dystopia, it is the technical marvels that provide much of the tension in this world, with people abusing technology for their own nefarious gains, be it through the inevitable weaponisation of cybernetics, the unshackling of AI, or by direct brain hacking for various ends. 

Players will explore this world through the eyes of "V", a protagonist of the player's design who will begin from one of three starting points (nomad, street-kid or corpo) before becoming a mercenary for hire. This being an RPG, players will choose various stats for their characters that help determine their abilities going forward, but Cyberpunk 2077 never locks you into a particular path or class, allowing players a refreshing amount of freedom to vary their play-style at will.

It is worth talking about everything that Cyberpunk 2077 does right, and to be clear there are a lot of things that the game does very well indeed. 

Night City might well be one of the greatest videogame settings of all time from a design perspective. The scale and level of detail in this city is simply unparalleled. It is clear that a great deal of love has gone into crafting this city, with every nook and cranny seemingly carved by hand and dripping with atmosphere. It's absolutely stunning to look at and surprisingly diverse, with an array of different neighbourhoods and landmarks, as well as a vast expanse of wild desert beyond the city limits to explore. 

If you are playing on a high-end PC (more on that later) then this is a visually spectacular game. From the breathtaking vistas, to the textures, lighting and character models, this is a beautiful game if you have the hardware to do it justice. Some spontaneous moments are so striking that they almost look like they could have been carefully framed by a professional cinematographer. I'm not a big screenshots of videogames kind of guy, but there have been moments here that I felt moved to capture, so impressed was I by the quality and composition.

A great deal of attention has also been paid to the sound, be it the ambient sounds of the city or the excellent original score. Night City even features a line up of radio stations full of completely original music. While that last component can feel inconsistent (seriously this is cyberpunk, why so few retro or synthwave tunes?) it's all generally of a very high quality and fits the atmosphere extremely well. Voice acting is also generally very good (not so much with the protagonist's voice actor) and pairs well with the high quality of writing, although I must say I did find the romance dialogue to be a bit sophomoric, occasionally bordering on offensive.

The attention to detail here is often insane. I noticed NPCs playing guitars with accurate chord fingering, shoes making different footstep sound effects depending on the style of shoe, amongst other things.

Between the audio and visuals, I don't think a game has ever nailed the atmosphere of a setting quite as well as Cyberpunk 2077. Both elements are put to excellent use in the game's story and questing system, resulting in certainly one of the better story campaigns I can recall in recent years. The quests in general are very good: well written, incredibly directed, and full of different player decisions and variants that create the strong sense of player agency that you want from an RPG. The main campaign, it has to be said, was disappointingly short, but the real star is in the many and varied side quests. Some of these have stories that are at least as good, if not better, than the main campaign and most will in some way affect the ending you ultimately achieve. For this reason it is well worth not rushing the main campaign and taking your time to complete all of these side quests.

So Cyberpunk 2077 contains an incredibly presented game world with quests that are excellently designed and produced. It is clear that the developers were building something truly remarkable here. But as we so often see, sometimes the interests of the shareholders can run against the interests of the creatives (somewhat fittingly considering the themes of the game) and it is clear that after many years in development and several delays, CD Projekt was simply not willing to give the developers more time to realise this vision. The result is a game that in many places feels half-finished, poorly tested, or filled with obvious gaps from where content has been cut at the last minute. 

This includes some obvious cut content such as ostensibly useless items left in-game which have had their apparent functions removed as well as defunct locations like an unused subway system that can still be accessed through glitches. It also includes some explicitly developer-confirmed cut content such as the ability to upgrade player apartments, rideable public transport and a third person camera view (seriously what is the point of all that character customisation if you never see it?).

It includes features that are still in-game but clearly half finished or unpolished, most notably the police/wanted system. Whereas previously police were intended to chase you in police cars and increase in intensity depending on the severity of your crimes, this all appears to have been replaced late on by a very rudimentary system. Police now spawn on foot right behind you as soon as you commit a crime, sometimes literally appearing out of thin air. If you hop in a car you're basically free because the police AI can't drive - strangely police driving AI does still appear to be in the game, it's just not used for some reason. Another example is the relationship system. Originally the plan was for V to be able to meet and enter into romantic relationships with characters, but at some point this was scaled down to just a single option per gender and orientation and is now entirely quest-based - ie, there is no actual relationship system, it's just an optional part of the quest line with no interactivity outside of these quests.

Perhaps the most egregious example of missing content is the lack of player customisation after the start of the game. A huge part of the hype over this game has been the extent to which you can customise your character (hair, tattoos, cybernetics, etc), yet for some reason you can only do this right at the start of the game. That's right, you can't change your hair style or colour, you can't get additional tattoos, and even though you can augment your body with cybernetics it doesn't actually affect your appearance at all.

Then there's the bugs, oh lord the bugs. Let me say this up front: if you are planning on playing this on console, don't! The console versions are just broken,  unplayable to such an extent that the game has actually been pulled from the Sony game store. I can not stress this enough: if you have a good gaming PC, play it there, if not, then wait until they patch the current problems.

Even on the relatively stable PC build, this is a buggy game. This can range from the mildly irritating; lips not moving in cutscenes, invisible clothes, janky physics, people/vehicles spawning inside of things or falling through the floor; to the infuriating; on-screen notifications that won't go away, things exploding for no reason; to the downright game-breaking; missions getting stuck, unreachable objectives, save corruption. Often, things just don't work in this game and it's not like these bugs are hard to reproduce. There's no good reason for them to have not been patched out in development other than that it was rushed to market.

But I can forgive most of these issues. The quantity of cut content is disappointing when compared to what had been promised in the lead up to release, however I ultimately tend to think that what is in the game is more important than what is not. Many of these missing/cut features will no doubt be added post-launch anyway. I can even forgive the bugs (except for the broken console port, seriously DO NOT play this on a console), after all I've played and enjoyed many notoriously buggy RPGs over the years (the Bethesda RPGs come to mind) and these will surely be patched in due course.

Instead, the biggest issue for me lies in what is otherwise its greatest strength: the game world. While Night City may be absolutely beautiful to look at and listen to, it is a dead place, a piece of beautiful window-dressing with nothing behind the curtain. Right now, Night City serves mainly as a backdrop as you move from quest marker to quest marker, with little else to do. There are no activities, no games, no social life, no bars, very few shops. You can come across some repeatable "crimes in progress" events that basically amount to a bland shootout with cookie cutter badguys, but otherwise there really isn't much reason to explore this incredible place and that's a pity. 

If anything, playing Cyberpunk 2077 makes you really appreciate the incredible work that developers like Rockstar (Grand Theft Auto and Red Dead Redemption) have been doing when it comes to open world gaming. Those games have living, breathing, dynamic worlds and have done for years.

This brings me to a very surprising core criticism of this game. Far from the cutting edge revolutionary title it was tipped to be, Cyberpunk 2077 feels strangely dated in a number of ways. From the disappointingly lifeless open world, to the lack of avatar or vehicle customisation, to the poor AI (drivers in particular are very basic, just following a set path and unable to navigate around obstacles), to the rudimentary police system, to the bullet-spongy enemies, this just feels like a weirdly outdated game for something that was supposed to be so cutting edge. Production on Cyberpunk 2077 began seven years ago and it shows. 

Yet despite all these issues, I am loving this game. It's a mess in so many ways and a shadow of what was expected, but what is here is so engrossing and the RPG elements very satisfying. I think ultimately while this may be a poor open-world game, it is still a very good action RPG. If you are willing to appreciate this game for what it is instead of what it is not, then you can lose yourself in this world and get your money's worth (but only on PC).

So this is a difficult game to evaluate. It's clear that more time was needed, at least another year, in order to realise the developers' original grander vision. It may well be that this vision can still be realised post launch. For now, though, we are left wondering at what might have been.

At its core, cyberpunk 2077 has the feel of a game with high ambitions that has simply not been finished. Where the game shines is through its superlative setting, storytelling and quest design, but in just about every other aspect there are other games that have done the same thing but better. The end result is, on the balance, a very solid game that nevertheless fails to be the generational milestone it was tipped to be.

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