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Cyberpunk 2077 Review: Do nomads dream of organic hearts?

A few words on the buzz

This is sort of an editorial note. Please skip it if you just want the review.

Cyberpunk 2077 is, as of the date of writing this, the first single-player game to reach 1 million concurrent players on Steam, as well as the first game to ever get that achievement on the same day it got released. It is, by and large, the biggest single-player game in Steam history to date, and that’s not even counting consoles, GOG, and the Epic Games Store. The amount of expectations and engagement leading up to the game’s release is immense; but besides the crazy sales numbers that brings, there are also slightly more nefarious consequences.

As with any popular product, some people feel compelled to dislike it simply because of its popularity, as if contrarianism is a way of self-affirmation. I am not one of those people.

As with any popular product, some people use the swirl of negativity as a way to dismiss valid criticism of the game as it stands. I am also not one of those people.

We’ve been through this before. In March 2017, Mass Effect: Andromeda got released, carrying on its shoulders the weight of the entire Mass Effect series. From reading online discussion at the time, I was convinced people had decided to hate the game before it ever came out. In the months that followed the release, the game was demolished by critics and the public alike, to an extent that, no matter what your final opinion on Andromeda is, wasn’t warranted. Whatever the game got wrong, it also got a lot of things right; and nowadays, with some distance between players and the release buzz, it tends to be much better received.

Why do I bring up all of this? Simply to give some context to the review below. I pre-ordered Cyberpunk 2077 because I knew I would play it even if the reviews were horrible. I played through the entirety of the main story and a large majority of the side content at my own pace, on my Playstation 5, and didn’t partake in any discussion of the game until I was done with it. What I know about the buzz surrounding it, I know from talking to friends. Much like with Mass Effect: Andromeda, I did my best to solidify my thoughts on the game before I wrote about it. Frankly, I didn’t even know if I wanted to write about it until after I’d finished. Now, however, I feel like I’ve got a good enough grasp on what I think of the game to analyze it with some productivity.

A crisis of identity

It’s quite interesting to me that the central conflict of Cyberpunk 2077 happens around V’s fading identity and its progressive replacement with Johnny Silverhand’s engram, because in a way the ways one can criticize the game the most come from a similar crisis of identity. In Cyberpunk, two different games are at odds with each other, and I would like to review each of them separately.

Cyberpunk the open-world game isn’t particularly good. The NPCs that populate the world are, by and large, uninteresting. While the first ten hours had me gawking at their designs, finding out everything I could about their implants, seeing all the cool ways in which people modified themselves in this new world, and scanning them for every bit of extra info, that’s about all that you get out of them. Their dialogue is repetitive and bland, and often, completely inappropriate for the situation around them (for instance, NPCs inside areas that I’d been explicitly invited to enter were oddly insistent on telling me to fuck off or asking me who I was in a very hostile tone). You’ll hear the same voice line repeated by nameless characters on opposite sides of the map, and you’ll count yourself lucky if a different voice actor is doing the saying.

The nameless NPC routines are also not very good. Characters spawn just outside of your range of vision and, on more than one occasion, inside it. They walk very clearly predefined loops and handle deviation poorly, which is to say, not at all. To top it all off, their design seems to influence their lives in no discernible way; I saw NPCs decked out in chrome prowling the seediest neighborhoods in Night City like they lived there, and roughed up looking children hanging out around Arasaka Tower like it was their home. As far as I can tell, there is no clear division that determines what nameless characters in each area, beyond some very obvious delimitation like “you will see Voodoo Boys in Voodoo Boys turf and not some other gang.”

Additionally, there are no mini-games, and most of the world is beyond your capacity for interaction. I will admit I think the complaint that there are no mini-games is a bit silly – not every game needs to be Yakuza – but, as someone who put over 1000 hours into Witcher 3’s Gwent standalone, I understand the appeal. Mostly, the issue is that Night City often feels just beyond your reach. Especially for the first few hours after you’re dropped right in the middle of it, there is a clear loop of seeing something cool, attempting to interact with it, and discovering there’s no interaction available besides just witnessing the something cool. This repeated effect can at times get a bit frustrating and give you a sense of missed opportunity. A great example of this would be braindances. It seems clear that braindances were supposed to be in the game to a greater extent. You can buy them from vendors, they’re not categorized as junk, and you have the ability to consume them on the fly. Yet none of them are actually in the game for you to experience; instead, you buy the braindance and have a disappointing “oh, I guess I can’t do that” moment. Many of these little moments compound into making the world feel less deep and immersive than other open-world experiences, like Red Dead Redemption 2.

Then you get to the other Cyberpunk - the roleplaying game Cyberpunk, the narratively driven experience Cyberpunk, the character-focused Cyberpunk, and this is where the game shines.

For all the shallowness of its open world, Cyberpunk has none of it in its narrative efforts. Quests appear organically in your journal through a very elegant system where finishing jobs increases your reputation, which in turn makes people trust you more, which in turn makes both clients and fixers give you better, more dangerous, and more frequent jobs. On top of this, many of the game’s cooler quests show up organically on your map if you take the time to explore Night City. For instance, one quest had me talking to a sentient soda-dispenser machine in a back alley as it guided its assorted clients through the issues in their life in a weird, unexpected AI-therapy session. I could’ve missed that quest entirely had I not gone into that particular alley. Yet Cyberpunk’s world is chock-full of interesting little tidbits and assignments like these that make traveling in it a delight.

This brings me to a different point: Night City is, on all counts, a delight. If I had to pick one thing from this game that felt truly next-gen and trailblazing for other games to come, it is the sheer level of detail, care, and craftsmanship put into the city itself. For the first five hours of my playthrough, I stood in awe as I explored every nook and cranny of every bathroom and found in it something new every time: from thinly veiled references to Ex Machina and other sci-fi staples to a random phone call you can overhear if you stand at just the right spot, and including the sheer beauty of the environments around you. Night City oozes atmosphere, and more than once I walked (yes, walked - driving doesn’t do the city justice, and fast traveling bypasses it entirely) to a quest only to stop multiple times on the way there simply to admire the aesthetic sense and composition of what I was looking at. In that sense, Cyberpunk is a game to be experienced slowly, with care and attention. You’ll get as much out of the city as you put into exploring it.

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In the narrative sense, Night City is a full-blown character, and one of the best in the game. Everyone you meet is clearly and explicitly influenced by it. It weighs on the mind of everyone, and exists far beyond its architecture, instead giving body to everyone’s sense of identity. In the same way that American identity has long been tied to the land itself, the identity of Night City inhabitants is predicated largely on being a part of it. There is no passive living in this town, no “I’m from Velen but I could just as well be from Novigrad”, and certainly no “what I do here, I could do anywhere else in the world”. For the people who live there, Night City is the central axis around which their life revolves – either by trying to get something from it or by trying to get away from it.

Funnily enough, one of the endings (the one I got, but more on that later) specifically moves the characters away from this. Panam introspectively comments that she came to Night City looking for something that was missing from her life, and now she finds herself leaving again, and once again hoping that the move will allow her to find the missing piece. V then comments that “(…) you thought Night City was the answer. Everything would change there. (…) Might be the same place on the other side [of the border], same space. But you’re different, totally different.” Night City is overwhelmingly resistant to meaningful change, but it does act as a catalyst for change in those that live in it. It’s no small irony that the move away from having the physical space be a central part of your identity comes to V and Panam only when they’re forced to leave it. The megalopolis’ tendrils are so strong that even the refusal of the importance of place, of physical space, when compared to the people in it, is a direct consequence of the realities of a particular physical space. Anyone who’s ever been an ex-pat will find familiarity here: it’s not the place that makes the experience, but it sure as hell sets it up.

Oh, the humanity

In Sam Mendes’ 1999 motion picture American Beauty, the main character, Lester Burnham, comments: “I have lost something. I’m not exactly sure what it is, but I know I didn’t always feel this… sedated.” Pinpointing the exact cause for this disenfranchisement is difficult. N. Katherine Hayles comments that “contemporary technology (…) has given us the sense that we can transcend these [bodily] limitations and live a disembodied, free-floating existence.” Like Hayles, plenty of others attribute to technology, and man’s evolving relationship with it, the particular brand of problems of the mind that afflict current times. We feel disconnected from things around us, surrounded by people but deeply alone, alienated by cold neon signs and faceless, ethereal corporations that determine our quality of life.

Cyberpunk (the movement, not the game) gives expression to this disenfranchisement, but it’s a hard genre to get right. Someone too invested in the problem, or suffering too markedly from it, might commit the mistake of overdoing the cynicism. Like many art pieces in recent years, Cyberpunk could’ve been unabashedly gloom, revel in its own hopelessness. Games (and really, any sort of media) attempting to cover the cold detachment of ultra-tech and its worlds run the risk of producing the same sense of coldness, detachment, and lonesomeness in whoever plays them. This, for me, isn’t the point. It’s too easy – it feels like a copout, a defeatist throwing of the towel and a catharsis coming from giving up the responsibility to do better by, instead, simply going: “Yup, we’re all fucked.” The monumental challenges of a cyberpunk world wouldn’t feel genuine if they didn’t feel overwhelming. Yet to simply let yourself be overwhelmed by them is cheap and uninspired.

CD Projekt Red’s writers, however, are very aware of the danger here, and the result is a game that accurately reflects the sense of alienation one would get from an ultra-tech world, without ever letting go of the sense of intimacy and low scale human problems that make stories engaging. In many ways, the sense of humanity is enlarged because of the contrast with the cyberpunk setting; pretty much every major named NPC you encounter in your story missions is yearning for some human connection, and Night City is packed with communities of people trying to survive the disenfranchisement by banding together over something. That something might not always be the best or noblest reason, and the outcomes are often less than ideal, but the drive is there, the fundamental human need for a sense of kinship; even in the highest embodiment of the corporate world that the game presents to you, Yorinobu Arasaka. Let no one tell you Yorinobu commits patricide out of a lust for power – he does so because his father denies him the human solace he so desperately craves. It makes sense that the yearning is more acute the deeper into the corpo world you dive into.

With that being said, the writing in the game is unfortunately inconsistent. While none of the side quests are particularly boring, and a clear separation exists between side quests and gigs (which are more in the vein of radiant and fetch quests with slight story additions, as opposed to the bulkier, better thought-out side quests), the truth is most of them aren’t particularly memorable either. A lot of them feel like they deserved further exploration. In one particular example, a quest about helping a family of high-ranking politicians turned out to be an exploration of the role of memories in personal identity; yet it ends abruptly, and without giving you the chance to pursue it any further. The world’s most interesting cab-driving AI gives you a delicious side-quest full of AI-centric references to other sci-fi classics, yet after your final decision, you never hear from it again. Many of the side quests feel like very satisfying Act 1s, begging for calls that never came, for a continuation later in the game that wraps everything up with a bowtie. There are some exceptions, of course, mainly revolving around the central named characters of Judy, Panam, and River; but I can’t help but wish all of these other interesting quests also got similar continuations in the later acts. Even though the writing in the bits that are there feels very strong, and any side quest you do here will have a more engaging storyline than anything you’ll find in something like Grand Theft Auto, they do feel a bit unfinished.

The (not so) Badlands

Time to talk about what was possibly my favorite part of the entire game: the Badlands, and the central Panam questline revolving around them.

The first time I visited the Badlands was in the course of the main story, in a Panam-related quest that had me attempting to bring down an AV containing a VIP important for progressing the main plot. Before the inevitable shooting sequence, Panam stops her car on a cliff overlooking Night City and V comments on how quiet it is here. Panam laughs, and comments on how the picture is ruined by the smell of the coyotes.

The Badlands feel completely out of place in Night City, and for good reason. The concrete and neon skyscrapers of the megalopolis are replaced by what is mostly desert, poor roads, and abandoned gas stations. You can actually see the ground here, and there’s natural vegetation, bushes, and trees everywhere. It wasn’t until I ventured out into the Badlands that I realized just how oppressive Night City had been to walk; walking here felt freeing, wide, empty, and welcoming in its serenity. Sure, there are nasty sandstorms and a gang of rapists and murderers waiting to jump on you if you venture too far away from safety; but the world out there feels anachronistic, definitively slower, and decidedly more human than the bustling city.

Panam herself bothered me at first. I refused to help her murder an entire clan of people just because they’d stolen her car, and the fact that she’d asked me to made her look like an immature, hotheaded bother. For the most part, that judgment was accurate. Yet as the game progresses and pits Panam and the Aldecaldos against increasingly dangerous, city-folk foes (Rogue to begin with, then Militech, and then Arasaka at the culmination), she not only matures but also demonstrates that her head is in the right place. The Aldecaldos are a pocket of family in the world of Cyberpunk 2077, one you got an inkling of when Jackie mentioned his bout with the Valentinos; but that disappeared with him. They’re tribal to a fault, and they are willing to do anything for one of their own - even breaking into Arasaka against very unfavorable odds. They are, themselves, anachronistic in a lot of different ways. Cassidy, the cowboy old-timer, refuses to wear cybernetic enhancements (he doesn’t trust chrome); Carol serves as the cool matriarch-like aunt who gives you romantic advice about her protegé; and Mitch is the decorated war vet who hasn’t gotten over things, even though he has a good heart to him. Their leader, Saul, is stuck in the old ways as well, attempting to survive by doing jobs for corporations, refusing to acknowledge that the strategy will only work as long as the corps don’t feel the inexplicable urge to crush them. Panam is too far removed in the opposite direction, filled by the same fire for action Johnny exhibits, but she shows some surprising self-awareness of her own limitations, more than once explaining that she needs Saul to temper her if she’s to not lead everyone into their deaths. In a world where every other outdoor you see on the street is for porn, Panam rejected my advances at first because she was too guarded to get involved. Family, for the Aldecaldos, is something much more serious than for most of Night City, in every aspect of it.

As the game progressed, it became clear that the pull the Aldecaldos had on V - enough to make him drop any quest he was on when they called – was the same pull they had on me: they felt like a pocket of authenticity in an otherwise alienating world. Not the only one, of course; Judy and River both provide this authenticity, in their own way. Yet something about the anachronistic old-fashionedness of the nomad clan kept me coming back to them; perhaps there were other places where you could find that sort of undying loyalty in Night City, but nowhere else can you sit in the desert watching the stars while someone plays the guitar around a campfire. Night City is still there, its neon signs serving as background pollution; but around the Aldecaldos, even that doesn’t look so bad. When the time came during the end of the game to decide who to call, there was no question for me: I had to reach out to Panam. And she replied in the way I expected and valued, by going: “So you’re telling me you woke me up in the middle of the night to tell me that you need to get into Arasaka tower or you’ll die?” V replied: “That’s about it, yeah.” To which Panam replied “Okay.” No hesitation: there is a sense of unspoken respect underlying the conversation that makes it so no other question is needed. Panam trusts you to be competent, and she trusts that you know the full weight of what you’re asking for. I would’ve understood if she said no – but she never would’ve, and neither would any of the Aldecaldos. That sense of trust in your community is by all counts a bad idea; it is, in itself, anachronistic in relation to the world of Cyberpunk; there is a very strong case for how idealistic and naive it is. And yet the Aldecaldos survive, they pull off the heist on Arasaka tower, and they leave the city behind while a song straight from the 80s in mood starts playing. Perhaps that is why the Aldecaldos must exist just outside of Night City, the place that crushed that old-timey sense of community in the first place: because that is the one place where it can survive, outside of the corporate borders. And perhaps that is why Panam mellows and matures as she removes herself from her Night City life and approaches the Aldecaldos again.

Let’s talk ingenuity

When talking to one of my friends about the ending I got (I left Night City with the Aldecaldos, with Panam taking solo leadership of the clan), he mentioned how he liked it, but thought it was quite bittersweet; what with V being terminally ill and all.

I told him I disagreed: I thought the ending was fully sweet.

When Alt Cunningham told me that my body was too far gone and that, were I to return to it, I would die shortly after, I thought it was a stroke of genius by the writing team. What could have been the expression of a simple personal preference, or an extension of curiosity towards cyberspace, became a choice that reveals the general outlook of the player towards the central questions of Cyberpunk 2077. Much like the final “Help Olgierd” or “Do Nothing” encapsulated in a single question the entire Faustian debate towards redemption in Witcher 3: Hearts of Stone, here you’re asked to answer a simple, incredibly consequential question in one simple decision: “Do you hope?”

Choosing to upload yourself into cyberspace is a recognition of the fallibility of the human form, and an acceptance of the disconnection and cold detachment, personified by Alt, as an inevitability towards survival. It is, in many ways, the only decision that makes sense.

Choosing to return to your body, however, is the human choice. Much like the Aldecaldos themselves, this choice is the human sense of ingenuity expressing itself in an anachronistic way. There is no fatalism in it; the game itself recognizes multiple times that V still hopes to cure his disease in the six months that he has left. Whether he manages to do so or not is mostly inconsequential: but damned if he won’t try it. In the final decision of the game, Cyberpunk puts the genre trap in your hands and asks you: “Do you want this story to be about how much the world sucks, and people have to suck to survive in it? Or do you want it to be about how this world sucks, and people still manage to not follow suit?” I’m partial to one option, but the appreciator of narrative construction in me can’t help but be impressed by how the team at CD Projekt Red honored the roleplaying aspect of the RPG, and let you decide for yourself.

Throughout the entire game, I rebuked and admonished Johnny for his unbridled hate towards anything corp. Extremism of the sort, I thought, was equally bad. I still heavily dislike Johnny’s personality (even though he’s a well-written character). Yet where his brand of resistance failed miserably(with even the nuclear bombing of Arasaka Tower failing to cause any meaningful change), the Aldecaldos resist the corpo rule just as much. In a way, they resist it much more effectively – not by flailing around and raging at the machine, and not by sitting still and doing nothing (they still raid convoys and steal tech, and they still assault Arasaka when needed) but by grounding their resistance in principles deeply alien to the corpo world.

As we left Night City behind, V and Panam hovered over a pond where the stars were reflected. This was no accident: in The Witcher series, Vilgefortz’s most famous line is “you mistake the stars reflected in the pond for the night sky.” And perhaps that is what V and Panam were doing, along with the entirety of the Aldecaldos, by insisting in their anachronistic ways.

Yet when the night sky is this full of stars, maybe that’s not such a bad thing.

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