(Review) Cyberpunk 2077: This Isn’t the Future I Ordered

[I started to write this review back in mid-January, but I got distracted by life events and other writing projects and have only now come back around to finishing it.]

[WARNING: SPOILERS INCLUDED IN THIS ARTICLE.]

I waited a few weeks before I picked up my copy of Cyberpunk 2077. My brother had been playing since release day on a stock Xbox One and swore up and down he wasn’t having massive crashes or game-breaking bugs. So, about the start of the new year, I plunked my creds down and unlocked that deluge of bytes and bits that, a short time later, coalesced into the game on my Xbox One X. It seems only fitting to get the game through such a method, though I didn’t manage to find a way that I could download the game straight into my brain. Some of the things I was promised by the Cyberpunk of my youth are yet to come to fruition.

I played through most of the available content, having fewer than half-a-dozen side missions left and about as many of the available NCPD gigs. In that time, the game hard crashed fewer than tens times and, between the system’s assertive autosaving and my own constant backups, I never lost more than five minutes of playtime when a crash happened. I lost much larger chunks of play when AC: Valhalla crashed on me, which happened with less frequency than Cyberpunk crashes, but not by much.

I only noticed one other major glitch while playing, and that was that, once I equipped the Mantis Blades, they would never retract, even when I switched weapons, and continued to take up a good half of the screen. The issue resolved when I switched back to the monowire cyberweapon instead and I didn’t try the Mantis Blades again during my playthrough. There were a few minor visual bugs or errors–such as being unable to pick up certain (very low value) items that had been marked as pick-upable. Overall, the game played smoothly, was pretty to look at on an few-years-old Samsung HD flat screen, and didn’t suffer from the litany of problems I’d been led to expect. The game actually convinced me that upgrading to the Xbox Series X might not be as imminent a necessity as I’d previously thought. Your mileage may vary.

A subsequent second full playthrough (and about half of a third) had me see most of the rest of the game’s side missions, with fewer crashes or issues each time–thanks to consistent updates by CD Projekt Red.

Let’s Talk About Sex

Let’s talk about the ugly first; get it out of the way: Cyberpunk 2077 decided to resort to gimmick and shock value in its treatment of sexual issues. The range of gender presentations that had been promised in the character builder was lacking at best. Instead, you can pick your penis size, or have a vagina. None of the choices matters, and there’s really no purpose to them. I don’t mind sex and romance relationships being part of the story lines of video games–I’m a generally hard person to offend, so those things merely being there don’t incite me to anger. That said, I’m not sure that I’ve ever come across a romance system (or dialogue) or a “sex scene” in a video game that didn’t make me feel awkward and uncomfortable. You can find elsewhere a deep discussion of some of the sexualized gimmicks and mistakes made by the game designers. For my part, what I really want to comment on is the missed opportunity here, with the clumsiness of the shock-value choices made by the developers underscoring the lack of thought given to their approach. I’m not interested in the debate of whether sexual topics should have been omitted from the game altogether; with regard to such issues, my first question is always “what does the inclusion accomplish for the story” and, while the answer in Western media is often that it’s included only to pique the prurient interests of the audience, I also stand amazed, like G.R.R. Martin and others, that American society in general is simultaneously so uncomfortable with sexual issues and so comfortable with the graphic depiction of violence.

Cyberpunk, as a genre, provides us with warnings not just about technology used without regard for ethical considerations, but also the commodification of everything human by ultra-capitalist systems. While the former is certainly an increasing worry for modern society, the latter is the far more pressing issue in my mind–after making it through the widespread disaster that was Texas’s (lack of) preparedness for winter storms last week, which to my mind clearly demonstrates the problem with allowing profit-driven private interests to trump public welfare (as does the system of pharmaceutical development in the U.S. and its effects on the current pandemic)–the increasing dangers of a society caught in a death-spiral propelled by the veneration of capitalism above all other ideologies feels close to home. So, when Cyberpunk resorts to using sex and nudity only as window dressings, instead of commenting on the increasing commodification of sex and human desire, I honestly feel a little cheated about what could be meaningful narrative that could pull Cyberpunk 2077 from entertaining game into the realm of participatory literature. Even the plotline with Evelyn and her fate does little more than provide plot points without much consideration of what it means to be a “doll” sacrificing personal identity to satisfy the needs of others (sexual or not) and the plots that revolve around Clouds likewise use the profound sexual issues as a backdrop without making profound use of narrative potential.

You Get What You Give

I read another review of Cyberpunk 2077 that criticized the lack of defined personality for V, complaining that The Witcher had you play a character with a defined personality for whom you still had meaningful choices to make and further lamenting that V’s personality can swing psychopathically based on the whims of the player. I’d like to respond to that evaluation and, since it’s my blog, I will. My kneejerk reaction to this sentiment is that the critic needs to play more roleplaying games (pen and paper, preferably) to appreciate a video game in which you have the opportunity to create a personality for your character without having that personality defined for you. I, for one, would rather play a protagonist I get to design for myself rather than playing someone else’s character in a story. If the character comes across as inconsistent, that’s on the player more than the designers, because you have opportunities in Cyberpunk to make consistent character choices. If, on the other hand, you approach every dialogue option from the perspective of yourself staring at a screen where you have an avatar to wonder around in making choices according to your every whim, of course you’re going to end up with an inconsistent character. Feature, not bug, in my book.

That said, not all of the character choices have enough effect in the game to be meaningful. Some aspects work well without changing the storyline much or at all–the developing relationship between V and Johnny can be cathartic, dramatic and satisfying on its own (though this is undercut somewhat by having a “secret” end-mission option based on your relationship score with Johnny causing a split between immersively playing a character and meta-gaming the program). Otherwise, though, many of the choices are too limited in effects to truly be felt. Yes, some choices will open up romantic relationships, and some will allow for different end-game missions and resolutions to the main plot, and there are a very select few that will have a later result (freeing Brick in the initial confrontation with Maelstrom may have a later effect if you play through all of Johnny’s missions), many follow the pattern of “let them say whatever they want so long as they do what you want them to.”

Maybe I’m chained to my existentialist leanings, but it seems that there’s a lot of Cyberpunk’s story and main character that only bears the meaning you personally create for it. Just like the ambiguity of life in general, that could be immensely freeing and satisfying or terrifying and ennui-inducing. Or both at once.

Gameplay
I played my first playthrough on the “normal” difficulty setting, increasing the difficulty for each subsequent playthrough after I’d grokked the game’s systems and idiosyncrasies. My first character ended up as a sort of generalist, my second a street samurai foregoing any hacking for a Sandevistan and later a Berserk module, my third going full Netrunner.

The game is devastatingly easy, even on the highest difficulty setting, for netrunner characters. One reviewer compared netrunners to wizards in fantasy settings, with programs approximating spells. I think that’s relatively true, especially because the programs work in ways that are especially “gamey” and unrealistic. If you’re going to implant yourself with cyberware, you’re not going to allow that cyberware to be wirelessly-enabled for any punk with a computer to hack into, and you’re probably going to invest in a decent firewall as well. Systems aren’t going to be designed with such blatant faults in them that you can electrocute or overheat the user. So yes, the hacking in Cyberpunk is essentially magic.

The pure combat approach, even with a good deal of stealth, is much more difficult, especially on higher difficulties. Without the ability to hack cameras, you have to be especially careful. Attacks must be carefully planned so as not to be overwhelmed. I kind of think that this was the most enjoyable approach to the game, though, both for pleasure of gameplay itself and the satisfaction of achievement. There’s something thrilling about beating a machinegun-wielding punk to the punch while swinging a katana, and the gunplay in Cyberpunk 2077 is pretty good, too–and I love a good tactical shooter.

Another exploit to use or avoid is finding the Armadillo mod blueprint. I don’t think that there’s any Technical skill requirement on being able to craft the Armadillo mod at any rarity level–the rarity level of each one you make is just randomized–and few materials are required to make them. If you keep to clothes with multiple mod slots and fill them all with level-appropriate Armadillo mods, you can maintain an Armor rating sufficient at any given level to feel nearly invulnerable.

The game lacks some of the exploration elements you might expect in an open-world RPG; you’re not going to find as many of the sorts of locations that tell their own little stories like you would in Fallout or Elder Scrolls. But the side jobs are interesting–some of them more interesting than the main story, I think–and search them out, as well as the NCPD hustles, fills some of the gap.

Substance and Style
The feel of Cyberpunk 2077 is the feel of 80’s sci-fi in the setting tone and dressing. On the one hand, that’s fitting; cyberpunk was born in the 80’s. But it’s also been more than 30 years since the end of that decade. Technology and culture have changed. Our cultural fears and suppositions have evolved. World events have shown us that, while the danger of megacorporations is real, it might not be so melodramatic as we expected. We’ve had Brexit, the War on Terror, the War on Drugs, the realization (by us–often willingly–ignorant white folk) that racial injustice has never been overcome, the resurgence of far-right terror groups and white nationalists, and the shift of widespread economic fears focusing on Japan to focusing on China. But we’ve also seen some things change for the better–green energy is innovating and being taken seriously, a majority of the world (if a slight one) believes in the reality of climate change and the moral obligation to do something about, technology has provided for democratization and methods of social resistance as much as domination.

Bear in mind that the original Cyberpunk RPG setting took place in 2013; the most popular version of the game was set in 2020. Moving the timeline forward (either all the way to 2077 as in the video game or to the 2050’s as in the tabletop Cyberpunk Red) begs the question–why hasn’t anything really changed? Yes, Mike Pondsmith and the other members of the creative teams of both projects did hard work in balancing a setting that feels at once like nostalgic Cyberpunk and just a bit different. That’s a difficult line to walk, so I’ll admit that my comments here should really be applied to the cyberpunk genre in general and not to the Cyberpunk setting specifically, in any of its guises.

But I’m ready for cyberpunk as a whole to grow up, to evolve with us. It’s insufficient to continue to dwell on the cyberpunk of the early years–though we must acknowledge a debt to Pondsmith, Gibson, Stephenson and the early fathers of the genre. Where’s a cyberpunk for my middle years, one that includes all the myriad shades of gray endemic to any genre born from noir, but that also includes some dashes of color hear and there, that gives us a gritty optimism, reasons to fight the evil in the world to preserve the good, reasons to do more than only survive?

Maybe I need to read more cli-fi and other developments out of the cyberpunk genre. My own fiction writing, while fantasy in genre, takes a number of cues from cyberpunk–but that’s not quite what I’m talking about either. Where’s the wise old cyberpunk that’s introspective in new ways? I’m seriously asking–if you’ve found it before me, drop me a line!

So, while enjoying the neon retro-future that Cyberpunk 2077 offers, I’m also left wanting something more.

Conclusions
I enjoyed Cyberpunk 2077 well enough to return to play it with different character builds, and it’s definitely reminded me of my nostalgia for the cyberpunk genre. I think that it’s the gameplay, though, that did it for me more than anything. The narratives have their clever points, drama and empathy-invoking aspects, but if you’re looking for storytelling on quite the same level as The Witcher, you’re not going to find it here. Maybe it was just too much hype for its own good. Maybe too many promises that didn’t make it into the release build. Or maybe it promised us a world we’ve already left behind in our hearts and minds.

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