Content Type: Gaming Reviews
Date: August 5, 2021
This review has been a long time coming. Rather than release yet another review lamenting the bugs, the missed opportunities, and the broken promises, we chose to wait and see if CD Projekt Red would fix the game a la No Man’s Sky, and make it worth reassessing. You might even say we gave Cyberpunk 2077 the time it needed to become review worthy. If only CDPR had done the same.
Sadly, not much has changed, even 10 months post release. While console performance has been improved, the bugs remain, and the DLC is still nowhere to be seen — many months past when most fans expected it to arrive. Other publications have covered CDPR’s broken promises extensively, however, and so this review will try to focus on the actual game, separate from the marketing and the promises that were made about it.
Note: If you’re just here to wallow in CDPR’s failure to deliver on the game they promised, we’ve got you covered.
To Be or Not to Be (an RPG)
Cyberpunk 2077 seems to have a crisis of personality. Dialog trees, skill trees, and a breadth of factions, gangs, and NPCs threaten to overwhelm you in the first few hours of gameplay — that’s all RPG stuff, right? Yet all these systems tend to be wide and shallow.
This issue arises from the very beginning of the game, when you get to choose one of three Life Paths. One would naturally assume that this choice would have at least some consequences throughout the game, but it really doesn’t. You get a few flavor dialog options, but nothing that changes a conversation. No one treats you differently, there’s no special missions or weapons available to certain Life Paths — there’s really nothing to them once you finish the special introductory sequence each Life Path gets. Instead of being an interesting choice, the three Life Paths are nothing more than separate, 30 minute tutorials, and a handful of extra dialog options.
Unfortunately, save-scumming quickly revealed that basically all of the dialog options are a facade; with the exception of a handful of quests, you can say whatever you want, and it changes nothing. The issues with the dialog are particularly note-worthy when judging this game as an RPG. Basically every other RPG at least lets you choose between “good” and “evil” during a playthrough, even if those choices don’t affect anything other than the ending. In Cyberpunk 2077, you mostly get to choose between two snide versions of “Yes I’ll do your fetch quest”, or else “I’ll do it later”. If you’re lucky, a dialog option from your Life Path will appear, but they’re usually brief and not particularly interesting, and they almost never let you approach a quest a different way.
Despite there being ten unique gangs, there’s no reputation system. Interactions with NPCs are linear — you either help them with their personal problems, or you don’t. There are no consequences for succeeding or failing a mission, except for unlocking the next mission in a series. The way you complete a mission for a gang or NPC matters not at all.
The lack of choices extends to the quests as well. There may have been a few side-missions where you could try to talk your way past a problem, or sneak in and steal something rather than kill everyone for it, but I never found them. Instead, your only real option is to murder (or non-lethally take down) everyone that stands between you and your quest marker.
In a way, I suppose it makes sense. Given that once the prologue ends, you’ve got a ticking time-bomb in your brain, V would probably want to take the most expeditious route through the game — but that isn’t necessarily fun as a player. The fact that you’re dying would be a great motivator to keep moving in an action game, but it makes doing side quests in a game with a plot like Cyberpunk 2077’s just feel silly: would I really want to participate in a series of street races while a chip in my head is killing me?
The player’s ability to roleplay is also hampered by the way the game handles armor. Enemies and their drops scale with mission difficulty, so as you progress through the game, foes will constantly drop gear that outclasses what you’re currently using. In practice, this means that the short shorts and gas mask you find will be significant upgrades to the cool, realistic outfit you’ve curated for yourself, leaving you with a frustrating choice: Look awesome and die often, or wear the min/max clothing options and look like you let your 5-year old nephew pick your outfit?
This silliness is compounded by the fact that you can find a gas mask that has double the armor of an actual helmet, which straight up doesn’t make sense. It also would have been easy to design a better system: armor could have been tied to cyberware enhancements and/or stats, or there could have been cosmetic clothes that you could wear over your armor. Instead, we got a system where every 5 minutes, you find a new, slightly better piece of equipment, that doesn’t do anything interesting, and probably doesn’t match what you’re already wearing in the slightest.
The skill trees are pretty big, but most of the choices are boring, and it’s clear they were revamped too many times. There’s a perk that makes you undetectable underwater — but there’s only one underwater mission, and it’s optional. And so, another key element of roleplaying (speccing out your character) is generally a miss.
Lights, Ocular Cyberware, Action
Perhaps it isn’t fair to judge Cyberpunk 2077 as an RPG, however. After all, the game’s official Twitter changed the description of the game mid-2019 from “role-playing game” to “action-adventure story”. So how does it hold up as an action game?
There’s no denying the sheer spectacle of Night City. From the barren desert of the Badlands, to the mega-skyscrapers of the City Center, it’s clear the game’s world was lovingly crafted. Simply wandering around a new district and taking in the sights, you can really imagine you’re in a living, breathing, city.
The illusion quickly falls apart, however, once you realize you can’t actually do anything in the city besides kill people, or buy guns to help kill said people, or cars to help you get to the people you need to kill faster. Sure, if you want to watch an awkwardly animated sex scene over and over, you can visit a Joy Toy, and there’s a handful of hidden items or quests to find. But for the most part, the city is basically a Potemkin village — a beautiful façade, with nothing underneath. You can’t enter 99% of buildings, and even most street vendors are just window-dressing.
It’s still cool to look at though, and when you’re flying through the streets at 100MPH, it doesn’t really matter that you can’t go inside the buildings. Speaking of cars, there’s quite a few of them, though there aren’t any customization options for them, not even new paint jobs. You also can’t shoot out of them except in specific mission sequences, which seems like an obvious mechanic to include, especially for a game that features hundreds of guns and cars and came out in 2020.
You can shoot guns aplenty when you’re on foot, however, and Cyberpunk 2077’s pew pew is pretty passable. You’ve got your standard FPS fare: shotguns, sniper rifles, submachine guns, etc., and there’s also a number of melee weapons to choose from. More interesting still are the cyberware implants you can give V, which include a number of upgrades for your arms, including projectile launchers and bladed weaponry. Ultimately, these end up playing like any other weapon, so while it’s more interesting visually, the cyberware weapons aren’t functionally different from your hand-held ones.
There are also three categories of ranged weapons: power, tech, and smart. Power weapons fire projectiles that ricochet, tech weapons allow you to shoot through walls, and smart weapons auto-aim. The issue I had with this system is that using a non-power weapon took all of the challenge out of the gunplay. Being able to shoot the baddies through walls, and then auto-aim at their heads when they foolishly left cover, made the gunplay mindlessly simple.
Could I have chosen to not use those weapons? Sure, and I did, for a time. After the umpteenth “go here and kill dudes” mission, however, I felt like I was just wasting my time by not using the most effective means of completing the objectives. The gunplay, passable though it may be, wasn’t so interesting that I was going to intentionally make it take longer by artificially increasing the difficulty of the game.
It feels like a missed opportunity for some interesting role-playing, too. What if the tech required to use the smart-weapons made you look scary, because the ripper-docs had to replace half your face with optical implants? What if this meant that some NPCs wouldn’t be willing to speak with you, or made it so the cybernetically obsessed gang The Maelstrom offered you more jobs? It also could have been as simple as making the tech and smart weapons do less damage (they might, but if they do it’s so negligible that I never noticed), have smaller clips, or sometimes target you instead — anything to make give them a downside. Instead, they’re clearly the superior choice 99% of the time, and their strengths lie in their ability to play the game for you.
You can choose to use these weapons in conjunction with all of the crazy abilities cyberware can give you, like slowing time, jumping really high, or dashing around at hyper-speed, which can add much-needed excitement to the combat, and probably makes you feel like the futuristic mercenary you’re supposed to be. I never explored these options, simply because they all seemed superfluous when I can equip a smart weapon and hold M1 while I look at my phone. There’s some cool combat clips on Reddit, but they’re all from people who clearly spent hours trying to get the coolest footage possible.
Night City Noir
If anything redeems Cyberpunk 2077, it’s the setting and the story. While the actual main plot is only decent, the characters do an excellent job carrying the narrative. I often cringed at male V’s voice lines, but basically every other major character impressed me with how they were written and acted. They felt like real people, with motivations, desires, and personalities, and I rarely felt the need to skip through dialog.
When combined with the impressive backdrop that is Night City, there were moments during main plot missions where I forgot the frustrations with the “RPG” systems, I forgot how bored I had been in combat, and got sucked into the story in spite of myself. The combat, dull on its own, was serviceable when it you fought alongside a likeable NPC, and when it was part of a larger mission that also involved the sights and sounds of Night City. The quests were fairly varied in their goals, if not in the way you accomplished those goals.
Despite the strength of its cast, I never ended up finishing Cyberpunk 2077. Once I learned that there were 5 endings, and that completing an NPCs side missions and then giving one line of dialog was all it took to switch from one ending to another, I lost interest. In a way, it was the perfect microcosm of my frustrations with the game: the fact that there was nothing you could do that would block a given ending was incredibly disappointing, as it confirmed that there was really no branching narrative in Cyberpunk 2077 at all. Instead, the game offers a veneer of freedom and roleplaying, with nothing of the sort underneath.
If you go into the game expecting nothing more than a decent shooter with some pretty visuals, you probably won’t be disappointed. Anyone looking for a deep or meaningful RPG experience should go replay Fallout New Vegas instead.