“You cannot conceive, nor can I, the appalling strangeness of the mercy of God.” So wrote Graham Greene in Brighton Rock or- more importantly- so said Jed Bartlett in an episode of The West Wing. In light of recent developments, someone really oughta paint those words ten feet high in CD Projekt’s Warsaw offices. These guys went from plucky code dweebs to absolute rock stars over the course of one and a half games, starting from the almost unplayable Witcher to the pretentious but solidly-built Witcher 2 and culminating in the jaw-dropping Witcher 3. The more astute among you might be noticing a pattern here and so you might say to yourself that obviously they were just getting better with practice. Well, here’s CD Projekt’s latest opus, Cyberpunk 2077 to prove you wrong.
Now, I come to bury Caesar so I won’t wax poetic about his forebears but upon playing this game it really does seem as though CD Projekt’s magnum opus was deposited on someone’s desk by space aliens. I went into Cyberpunk assuming the company’s track record indicated a baseline of quality below which they couldn’t possibly fall if they just put in the effort. But fall they did, and into the same primordial ooze that gave us Spore, Fable, or any other game that failed to rise to its developer’s reputation. Indeed CyberPunk may just go down as one of the most disappointing Icarus flights in gaming’s history. That is why I also take no shame in taking Sony up on the offer of a refund. By the time my hard drive had been cleansed and exorcised, I’d already played as much of this heap as I was ever going to stomach. Reader, trust me when I say that mess also contained more than enough abuse to draft this review.
Now, if you’ve glanced at Youtube or Reddit or, gods forbid, a gaming publication, you’re up to speed on the game-breaking glitches and poor optimization that already plague this release. Therefore let me be quite clear that this review will be true to its title. Here in this safe space we will accept the game for the fetid cesspool of technical snafus it is and judge it instead on its story and gameplay which are a cesspool all their own. Having to grow up in the shadow of Witcher 3 without borrowing directly from it was clearly stressful and, since comparisons to that game are inevitable, let’s get them out of the way here.
It’s roughly as big as Witcher 3 or at least feels as such. I haven’t gotten out the surveying equipment to really check but it’s certainly big enough to justify the “mega” part of megalopolis. More varied, too, with distinct neighborhoods and posh highrises a few minutes drive from Mad Max-style badlands. That being said, it’s also shallower. The cardboard and spray paint city blocks are just huge chunks of map you don’t get to go into. It’s hard for me to say if that aspect damages my immersion as I don’t typically pop in and out of every storefront on my way from point A to point B in the real world. It certainly would have felt more as advertised, however, if starting a gunfight with a gang of street toughs led to a multi-colored neon shoot-em-up and not just a protracted game of tiddlywinks in a back alley.
Upon further reflection, maybe it’s for the best you can’t go into most of the storefronts because you’d only find more sex shops and sushi bars. The stores in Night City only seem to sell cylindrical objects that go inside you i.e dildos, bullets and California rolls. By the way, I know we’re trying to have an edge here but the density of sex shops, gun stores, and street food vendors in this city would have you think that the entire population is 90% perverts and 10% player character.
Meanwhile, the confetti of tasks that is liberally sprinkled all over the map is repetitive and only serves to make sure you’re properly leveled. It’s like in Saint’s Row 2 where you had to complete a certain number of mini games to access the story quest but whereas those were inventive new takes on sewage treatment or police brutality, these are all different versions of shooting hipster punks in the face and stealing their half-eaten vending machine burritos.
That’s where the first major gameplay hangup comes in. When it came to developing Witcher 3’s combat a lot of work went into making the swordplay feel smooth and intuitive and integrating the potions and oils in a way that felt clever but not obtuse like in previous games. And so, confronted with first-person perspective gunplay AND driving mechanics CDP was stepping outside their comfort zone and it shows. The movement is boxy and awkward, the driving is more ungainly than Grand Theft Auto 4 and the shooting mechanics rival Fallout 3 for awkwardness and shoddy implementation. However, whereas Fallout has always had a varied pool of dangers to explain the difficulty curve (humans- easy, Deathclaws- hard is a pretty intuitive distinction to make) your enemies in Cyberpunk are almost always people with little more protecting them than a Member’s Only jacket and a tacky haircut.
I made the mistake of starting out on hard difficulty thinking my shooter chops would see me through and mid-way into the intro chapter I was standing in the open pouring magazine after magazine worth of bullets into a ballsy hotel porter while taking no damage myself. It was then that I realized that instead of tweaking the AI behavior or giving them better guns or more polish for their brass balls the devs simply adjusted the difficulty by ratcheting up the enemy health which was ok enough when Oblivion did it but now seems more than a little lazy.
Granted, there’s more than one way to skin a human being and replace their living flesh with silicone and titanium. This game is all about immersive roleplaying so let’s roleplay! If you identify as someone who thinks running and gunning is for the lesser-evolved you can amp up your stealth or hacking in a way that really makes a difference in a way I haven’t seen since Deus Ex. And if you’re asking “which Deus Ex?” stop there, you’ve already gone too far. Yes, indeed you can channel your inner ninja and outfox your enemies, leaving them unconscious and stuffed in dumpsters and shipping containers. That is until you’re forced into direct conflict with a boss or a group of ambushing thugs. But even then you can still go full Carrie on your enemies and light them on fire with your mind… until you run out of RAM for your brain and have to sit in the corner and fend off an ice cream headache, which is usually about two moves in, even if you’ve really invested yourself.
While the gameplay may seem apathetic, like a plumber with a 3-star Yelp rating it gets the job done and maybe just rifles through your bathroom trash a bit. The story and aesthetic, however, are like the guys who paid Yelp to only have the 5-star reviews show up. They’re eager to get the job, it’s just that they have no clue what they’re doing once they get in there. After only an hour or two in the gameworld it became clear to me that CDP’s writing team does not have an original bone between them. Take all of the games I’ve mentioned or referenced thus far and throw them in a blender then toss in the music video for “Party Rock Anthem” by LMFAO and drown the whole affair in Blade Runner and that’s Cyberpunk 2077. A hodgepodge of incongruous retro-futurism that all tastes vaguely familiar because it’s all been done better by someone else before.
“But wait,” I hear you cry “maybe the story is a bit uninspired but I remember… :ahem: that game about Witchers and stuff :cough: had pretty good dialogue and sidequests! Didn’t any of that transfer over?” Short answer; yes, but in a kind of “Monkey’s Paw” sense in that instead of getting what we wanted we got a mangled monstrosity dropped on our doorstep. Some of the dialogue we’ve come to expect from CDP is still there but while the lofty philosophy of a wandering warrior-poet was charming in a setting resembling 14th century Poland when it’s being spouted by what sounds like a Czech soap opera star in a near-future titty bar it doesn’t resonate as well. That reminds me, screw the two whole types of custom penis that got hyped before the game’s release, if you want a decent experience with this game, play a female character because the female voice actor at least sounds involved.
Past that the rest of the dialogue is a growly battle royale to see which character can be the least likable. Everyone you interact with will sullenly mumble insults into their shoes when they’re not verbally assaulting you for climbing the garbage heap that is their tiny kingdom to demand an audience with them. It’s a mook’s game, though, because the winner will always be the player character who makes every conversation option you choose sound simultaneously hostile and dismissive no matter the intended tone.
You’ve got to have those conversation trees, though, because what would this game be without the branching narrative they provide? As far as I can tell, pretty much the same. On numerous occasions I found myself going in circles with NPCs because I would use a skill-checked conversation option to circumvent their bidding only to be told that no, sorry, the NPCs are all wearing rhetorical “everything-proof shields” and can’t be dissuaded from anything. This becomes particularly galling later on when your small cast of supporting characters start coming to you with ideas on how to solve your conundrum (a.k.a the overarching story) and each and every one of them is completely insane and exists only for the spectacle. It’s as though a TV repairman told you he needed to fix your antenna by pole-vaulting over your house only for you to point out that it’s 2020 and you no longer have an antenna, or a tv for that matter.
The grand irony is that for a game that never misses an opportunity to flash its shiny cyber-augmented bottom at you, the whole thing feels like a comedy of missed opportunities. At one point you flashback over 60 years to get a look inside the daily life of a dead, tequila-chugging sex god anarchist action hero (in case you were wondering where Keanu fit into this whole affair) and for a millisecond you think you’re going to get a glimpse of the world before the corporations ruined everything and the common man on the street was able to sell his soul for a handful of copper wire but no, everything was exactly the same then as it is now. Nothing anyone does in this life matters and those who get a second chance just get to alienate twice as many people. There are real discussions on the nature of the soul, the reality and the impossibility of death, and what it even means to be alive and they are just beyond the reach of these characters. Every time someone gets close to something real or profound someone else brings up another heretofore unmentioned plot point and the downward spiral begins anew.
Of course, a full explanation of said spiral would be incomplete without a good hard look at the trash pit that awaits us at the bottom. The final nail in the coffin for me is the references. This may seem like me indulging a petty gripe but in truth it shines a light in all the corners of this misguided venture, combing the streets for a shred of something of their own that CDP wrote into the game. We’re already working with a borrowed story in a stolen setting and for a little side treat in between toothless story missions we get to work side jobs that are just a cavalcade of pop culture references. The Office, The Hangover, Silence Of The Lambs for some strange reason but, most irritatingly, Portal. That’s just what I can remember off the top of my head. And now let me turn your attention back to the first line of this review because THAT is how you quote someone. Twice now I’ve caught NPCs referencing famous lines from famous works and passing it off as a deep thought they were just having. Again, this may seem like small potatoes but it is in fact the event horizon of the creative black hole in which the game exists. The point of no return between thoughtful discourse A la Philip K. Dick or rushed cash-in A la EA. It may not be out and out plagiarism but it's certainly undignified. And yet, in a work bereft of originality, charm, wit, humanity, or passion perhaps to expect dignity is a bit obtuse on my part.
The autopsy report on Cyberpunk 2077 will undoubtedly note that the victim was riddled with disease from birth, barely able to move with deformed limbs and plagued with unstoppable fits. It will be remembered for its glitches, its stutters, its broken quests, mentally unstable NPCs. It will be mourned and mocked for the pain it suffered before leaving this world as quickly as it came in and the cause of death will read “Methane Asphyxiation, head firmly planted up own ass”.