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Review: Cyberpunk 2077 Is an Immersive but Too Familiar Vision of a Future Past

To criticize Cyberpunk 2077 for being hypocritical and conservative feels almost beside the point.

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Steven Scaife

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Cyberpunk 2077
Photo: CD Projekt

Sinister Asian corporations, cybernetic eyeballs, robot body parts, neon as far as the eye can see—every trope of the cyberpunk genre has been accounted for in Cyberpunk 2077, the messily launched new title from Witcher developer CD Projekt Red. Though based on a tabletop RPG made to echo the genre’s ‘80s heyday, the game functions as even more of a nostalgic catch-all, with the physical design of its expansive Night City setting made to evoke memories of Blade Runner, Akira, Neuromancer, and many more. Not for nothing is Cyberpunk 2077 doggedly devoted to a first-person perspective, as it understands that its appeal resides in that you-are-there feeling of exploring an intricate yet vaguely familiar sci-fi world.

In the game, you can inhabit the skin of a mercenary who goes only by “V” and takes any job that drops a handy icon on the open-world map of Night City, California. There are places to drive to with people to shoot, items to collect, and objects to remotely hack, which can allow you to, say, play vending machine jingles to distract guards or reboot their eyes so you may sneak forward undisturbed. Think of first-person quest-takers like Bethesda’s Fallout games, only with combat that feels a little more crunchy and gratifying. Think, too, of immersive sims like Deus Ex that build missions to accommodate multiple playstyles—only don’t think about them too hard because the comparisons don’t quite work out in Cyberpunk’s favor.

On consoles, the game’s launch has been so disastrous that companies have started to offer refunds. On PC, the game is still buggy but significantly more stable, the degree of its busted-ness reminiscent of myriad Eastern European projects whose ambition far outstripped their technical prowess. But Cyberpunk 2077 sits at a curious crossroads, because its design isn’t so wildly ambitious that it practically demands credit for trying something weird and new; much of the game checks off the usual hallmarks of big-budget open-world design. If the resulting work has buckled beneath an attempt to marry immersive sim interaction to a more traditional open world, there’s a sense that it still hasn’t gone far enough. You can choose to sneak or hack your way through a mission rather than shoot, but these options aren’t much more robust than the gunfights due to fairly restrictive level layouts and dim-witted AI guards that nevertheless go on high alert all at once.

Cyberpunk 2077 breaks progression up with the intent of keeping things satisfying for the long haul, but in practice leaves much of the early parts of the game feeling thin and basic. It will be many an hour before your hacking tools expand beyond a distressingly limited set of abilities. There’s not enough weapon variety to make the prospect of new loot a particularly enticing one, and the level-up screen is such a headache to navigate for so little payoff that there’s little satisfaction to watching the numbers get bigger as you get stronger.

Oddly, though, these deficiencies can work in Cyberpunk’s favor. A game like Obsidian’s The Outer Worlds struggles to meaningfully indict corporations in no small part because its mechanics are tied so firmly to the consumerist lust for more. In its comparative ineffectiveness, Cyberpunk 2077 avoids the traditional gratification that might blunt its dystopic atmosphere by leaving you to happily hop between reward screens. You never really aspire to hang out in Night City, as it’s crowded and dirty, choked with vending machines for synthetic burritos, uncomfortably hyper-sexualized billboards, and characters constantly pestering you about used cars. You can’t even dress well if you’re paying attention to your defense statistics, because adhering to the various clothing’s nonsensical armor stats inevitably leads to a gaudy mismatch. The only thing that seems to feel conventionally “good” is the thrill of the kill, for which you never seem to be paid enough anyway.

Cyberpunk 2077

Keanu Reeves as Johnny Silverhand in Cyberpunk 2077. © CD Projekt

If none of these shortcomings are intentional (and they certainly do not seem to be), they at least work to foreground Cyberpunk 2077’s storytelling, ensuring that the digital carrot on a stick is less the promise of a new toy than the next stage of some planned heist or the next development in your relationship with some of its better characters. For a game with such an in-your-face aesthetic that so insistently funnels you into bombastic shooting segments, Cyberpunk 2077 leaves a surprising amount of space for small, human details provided by characters who are allowed to be adversarial and hard to like. Keanu Reeves lets his inherent affability ground the unchecked asshole narcissism of his character, the rocker-turned-terrorist Johnny Silverhand, while player character V tends to be an opportunist whose hedonism and aspirations toward grandeur emerge from the setting’s distinct hopelessness. And many of the side quests and plot developments don’t necessarily lead to combat at all. Indeed, the parts of the game that work best are those that leave you to soak in CD Projekt Red’s grimy future vision, while characters take smoke breaks or kick up their feet.

The relevance of that vision, though, is another matter entirely. Like any genre that enters the realm of instantly recognizable set dressing, a lot of modern cyberpunk is as much about reflecting societal ills as it is simply about referencing itself. If many of the genre’s hallmarks emerged out of at-the-time anxieties, they have persisted due to the tendency of further cyberpunk works to pay homage, asserting their place in a fashionable genre rather than reinvent the wheel for continued relevance. The expected “yellow peril” element, for example, is rooted in the racist fear of a booming ‘80s Japan subsuming America through increasingly prevalent technology, despite the fact that so many of the present-day corporations to fuck the American people sideways are distinctly homegrown. Themes of corporate exploitation feel similarly perfunctory, an expression of genre fealty rather than a genuine point of view. Certainly, the game’s existence is darkly, deeply ironic, an ostensible cry against corporations made on the back of widely reported worker exploitation and deceptive marketing, only the latter of which a campaign of growing backlash has deigned to really fixate on.

But to criticize Cyberpunk 2077 for being hypocritical and conservative feels almost beside the point; its very existence is an argument against its radicalism, speaking to a wider societal comfort with its themes and aesthetics, if not a tendency to appreciate them only on a superficial level. It’s an extravagant, big-budget game realized through the resources of a corporation that rightly believes, as many other corporations believe, that large-scale anticorporate art is more likely to spur people to spend money than to sever ties with the companies that have become inextricable from their lives. To demand better representation from the machine is to ultimately ask for an alternative use of corporate resources, a way for us to feel momentarily better about handing over our money for a distraction that will affirm what we already know to be true about the world.

For better and worse, Cyberpunk 2077 is what it was always going to be: less a work of intensely relevant speculative fiction than a nostalgia piece for yesteryear’s vision of tomorrow. Sometimes, it even works.

The game was reviewed using a review code provided by Evolve PR.

Developer: CD Projekt Red Publisher: CD Projekt Platform: PC Release Date: December 10, 2020 ESRB: M ESRB Descriptions: Blood and Gore, Intense Violence, Nudity, Strong Language, Strong Sexual Content, Use of Drugs and Alcohol Buy: Game

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