Content Type: Gaming News
Date: February 17, 2021
It’s hard to recall a game that had more hype built up around it than Cyberpunk 2077. Between the TV commercials, Times Square ads, and Reddit posts fawning over Judy, there’s no denying it was the most highly anticipated game of the year. Add in internet darling Keanu Reeves with a major role in the game, and you had a recipe for the biggest gaming release of the newly minted decade — and it was only 2020.
Excitement had been building since 2012, when the game was first announced. In the 8 years that passed between then and the game’s release, Polish publisher and developer CD Projekt RED titillated media and fans alike with what felt like a never-ending list of incredible features. The game was to be set in a massive, open world. Players would have essentially unlimited freedom to be whatever kind of character they could imagine, modifying their inventory and their body alike. There would be cars! There would be fashion! There would be customizable genitals!(!!) There would be over a 1000 NPCs all over the city going about their business! The list goes on.
Getting swept up in the hype was easy, and myself and the other contributors here at EiP were certainly no exception: everyone here truly believed we were preparing to play possibly the greatest RPG ever made. Looking back, it always sounded a little too good to be true. While some of the hyped up features did end up being in the game, many were very different from what was promised, and quite a few weren’t really there at all. Why Cyberpunk 2077 ended up falling so short can be simplified by saying CDPR overreached, but the truth — as always — is more complex.
CDPR — Crunch, Delays, Public Relations
The argument “everybody’s doing it” has never been a strong one, and that certainly holds true when it’s applied to poor working conditions. It’s what you’ll hear if you ask most software developers about their schedule, however. Getting into the games industry is hard, and it doesn’t get any easier once you get in; game devs often work grueling schedules, and that only intensifies as release dates approach. In October of 2020, it was revealed that CDPR would be requiring the Cyberpunk 2077 team to work a weekend day in the leadup to release. Additionally, many of the devs had already been working long hours for over a year; “crunching”, in industry terms. This wouldn’t have been major news, except that CDPR’s CEO Marcin Iwiński had previously promised that he wouldn’t make crunch mandatory for his developers. The first of many CDPR apologies was soon to follow, but it did little to dissuade detractors.
The reason for the crunch soon became apparent. After having already been delayed twice (with the original April 2020 release date being moved to September and then November), the game’s release was again pushed back, this time to December. It was becoming clear that something was happening inside CDPR, and it didn’t look good. The game simply wasn’t ready.
It’s hard to get an exact number, but if you count from the very first announcement, Cyberpunk 2077 was in development from October of 2012 to December 2020, a span of over 8 years. Some people will argue it’s been in development since before the 2012 tease, while others might say that it’s unlikely there was substantial development occurring until after The Witcher 3 was released in 2014. Either way, by the time 2020 rolled around, fans had been waiting on Cyberpunk 2077 for nearly a decade. The pressure from both investors and fans to get the game released was, understandably, mounting on CDPR. The decision to make overtime mandatory in the months leading up to release may not be defensible, but it is understandable. However, the backpedaling on crunch dramatically shifted public opinion against CDPR.
Despite this, CDPR’s marketing was constant and upbeat. The frequent Night City Wire previews promised the moon, showing off everything from fashion options to Night City’s gangs, and hyping all manner of gameplay features. The official Cyberpunk 2077 Twitter was also very active, posting a constant stream of screenshots, info, and jokes. With The Witcher 3, CDPR had cemented their place as the gamer’s game developers, and until the news starting leaking about internal troubles, it had really seemed like CDPR could do no wrong. Their marketing team was working hard to maintain that positive image, but the veneer was cracking.
The first hints that things may not have been all sunshine and roses at CDPR came much earlier than even the first delays, but they were subtle. The removal of wall-running may have been a sign that perhaps CDPR weren’t going to be able to deliver all of their promised features, but the designers gave a perfectly reasonable explanation (level design difficulties) for its removal. Same with the removal of the Techie class, and the ability to use the spider-bot throughout the game: CDPR said decided to remove the Techie class and their spider-bot as an upgrade path because it overlapped too much with the Netrunner playstyle, which on the surface seems another good explanation.
Once you look at the release version of Cyberpunk 2077, however, and examine all the other missing pieces, a different story begins to take shape. Not one of rational design decisions, but of a game so chock-full of planned and promised features that there was never any way CDPR was going to complete them all in time for release.
One feature that was clearly planned, then scrapped, was the NCART rail line. Not only did it feature in the opening of the 2018 E3 trailer, but the NCART line runs throughout the city, and there are a plethora of NCART stations dotting Night City. A reddit user managed to find their way into one station, and you can tell that it looks like someone started modelling it, but then stopped. In fact, they didn’t even finish putting collision in around the whole building, which is why you can still find your way in through a wall.
Many of the buildings, small shops, and vendors seem to have gotten the same treatment. One apparently unfinished element that stands out are the 25h/7 STUFF shops that litter Night City. Despite them being everywhere, and being a shop open at all hours, you can’t actually buy anything in them. Some of them have vendors inside, but they function like the background NPCs on the street, and you can’t talk to them. Others sit completely abandoned.
There’s a lot of other shops that have “OPEN” signs, but you can’t get into any of them. It’s possible that the level designers just used the signs willy-nilly without consideration, but it seems more likely that you were originally supposed to be able to go into these places. Why else would the designers draw attention to them?
Most of the food vendors you see in the city also aren’t really vendors. They sit behind the counter of a food shop, or in front of some records you can’t buy a record player for, and you can watch other customers walk up and sort of pretend to interact with the shop. You can’t do anything except press E on the vendor and get a weird generic NPC dialogue line.
Many items in the game also point to bigger plans that had to be abandoned, the most obvious one being the Braindances you can find and purchase. You’re given Braindance gear by Judy early on in the game, but you can only use it during scripted sections of certain missions. Yet, your inventory can become cluttered with all sorts of Braindance items, and you can even buy them in shops — they’re essentially junk though, as you can’t use them. It’s clear you were originally supposed to be able to view BDs outside of the context of missions. This is also the case with records — you can find rare Johnny Silverhand records and clothes at one vendor, but why let the player buy records if you can’t listen to them?
The 1000+ NPCs with their own routine also seems to have been a bridge too far for CDPR. It’s hard to imagine most of the NPCs I’ve seen in Night City are doing anything other than following very simple pathing scripts. While the crowds of people look incredible from a distance, once you look closer…
CDPR proved with their Witcher series that they are skilled developers, and so it’s hard to believe that feature creep alone caused Cyberpunk 2077 to be released in such an unfinished state that it had to be removed from the PlayStation store. Last minute changes thanks to a well-intentioned internet fan favorite likely played a big role as well.
A Tale of Two Protagonists
The 2018 gameplay reveal of Cyberpunk 2077 is, in retrospect, notable for its lack of Keanu Reeves. At that point, the game was supposedly playable from start to finish, which means that the main story must have been relatively complete, development-wise. Keanu was approached in July of 2018 for the role of Silverhand, just a month before the interview where CDPR said the main story was playable. But then, in 2019, we learned Keanu reportedly asked to have his character’s screen-time doubled.
Given how heavily Johnny Silverhand features in the final version of the game, that means an absolutely incredible amount of extra work had to have been done to fulfill his request. It also means that in order for the game’s story to avoid becoming bloated, other characters (including the player character V) would have to lose screen-time. We need look no further than the infamous montage with Jackie Welles that takes place in the beginning of Cyberpunk 2077 to see what ended up on the cutting room floor.
While CDPR hasn’t confirmed that it removed the early missions with Jackie, the speed at which you go from a nobody in Night City to working with Dexter DeShawn doesn’t really work in terms of narrative flow. If you had actually been able to play through those early missions, and build your rep alongside Jackie, not only would it feel like more of an accomplishment to get tapped by Dexter for a job, but Jackie’s fate would be all the more impactful.
The opportunity for player choice and freedom in quests was one of the most-hyped features of Cyberpunk 2077. In interview after interview, we heard that not only could you complete quests a variety of different ways, but that the outcome of those quests, and the decisions you made, would have a meaningful impact on the game world.
As it turns out, there are a handful of side-missions that provide the option for alternate endings… and that’s it. Yellow dialogue options (the ones that represent making a decision and progressing a quest or conversation) are always the same — you can say “I’ll do it,” “That’s stupid, let’s do it” or “I’ll do it later” but you can never say “No thanks and leave me alone” in a way that would fundamentally alter your relationship with a character or faction.
As with the 25h/7 shops, you can see remnants of quest choices abandoned in development. One example is the main quest mission “The Gig”: when escaping the tower, you can make your way onto the roof and find an AV, and there’s a laptop with a quest marker on it. However, you can’t interact with the laptop or the AV at all. Players have guessed that the AV was originally an alternate escape route from the building, but one that was removed or left unfinished.
To say that the lack of opportunity for player freedom in Cyberpunk 2077 is disappointing would be a understatement. All the way up to release, we saw commercials with Keanu telling us we could become “anybody, anything“. As it turns out, all we could become was the V that CDPR created for us to play with. The life-path system ended up being a choice of introduction chapter, and a handful of meaningless dialogue options, and unlocking alternate endings has been present in games for decades now. Given how often quest designers at CDPR talked up player choice, it doesn’t seem feasible that they were only talking about the ability to unlock different endings or choose from 3 introductions.
More likely is that mounting pressure to release, combined with the need to alter the story to fit Johnny Silverhand’s new, larger role, made it impossible to also provide the player freedom that was originally promised. It’s sadly ironic that Keanu was drawn to Cyberpunk 2077 in large part because of how the medium of RPGs allows for player choice; it may have been his involvement, ultimately, that caused a lot of those choices to be dumbed down or removed. The fact that the official Cyberpunk 2077 Twitter quietly changed the description of the game from an RPG to an action-adventure game a few months after Keanu reportedly asked for more screen-time says it all.
Expectations and Reality
Let’s be clear: Cyberpunk 2077 is not a bad game. In fact, there’s a lot of fun to be had, with a huge variety of weapons and abilities, side missions that range from funny to sad, and excellent writing, music, and visual design. The problem is that it isn’t the game CDPR told us would be. Even if you ignore the issues with console performance, the fact remains that we were sold an immersive RPG, but received a fairly straightforward open-world action game. The game’s dialogue options (or lack thereof), the small amount of customization features in the character creator, the linear narrative, are all disappointing given the way CDPR marketed the game.
It’s sad, really. Wandering Night City, you can see the love and attention that went into crafting Cyberpunk 2077. You can tell that the developers really did want to make a next-gen RPG that their fans would play for years, exploring every nook and cranny of the game as they tried out different playstyles and quest paths. The city feels real (as long as you don’t look too close at what the NPCs are doing), with high rises looming over trash filled alleys while billboards flash terrifying and hilarious advertisements.
But when you get right down to it, the game just doesn’t feel finished. Unplayable console versions, 2D cars, a linear story, no interactions with Night City’s numerous gangs and factions, limited customization options for both player and accessories; the list goes on. While someone who knew nothing going in and picked up a copy of Cyberpunk 2077 might have enjoyed it just fine, many players who religiously followed the game development were left feeling burned.
Upcoming DLC and patches might mitigate some of the performance issues or add some interesting choices, but the fundamental problems will remain. Cyberpunk 2077 will likely go down in history as the turning point for CD Projekt as a company — they went from the only triple-A developer to be adored by fans, to being viewed as simply another large company releasing unfinished games, in just one release. Whether they will be able to salvage their reputation remains to be seen. Perhaps with their next game, CDPR will allow their devs to finish it before it’s released.