'Cyberpunk 2077' Is a Crime Epic With Lots of Good Stories and Big Problems

Despite the cynical, transgressive edge Cyberpunk 2077 tries to pull off, it's a very straight and strait-laced game.

Dec 7 2020, 5:00pmSnap

Cyberpunk 2077 is a game of the past and its forgotten futures. Its setting is a pastiche that was overtaken by history and technology. It is a piece of software that is a throwback to PC gaming of the 1990s and early 2000s in every possible way, and its aesthetic and narrative sensibilities of a teenage boy's bedroom in the 1980s. Yet its lavish and utterly sincere devotion to its influences recalls what has made these dated visions so alluring and enduring. Cyberpunk is too tacky and graceless to be cool, but it's very big, and very loud, and sometimes that's all it takes to be awesome.

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Cyberpunk 2077 is a new RPG from CD Projekt Red, the developers of mega-hit fantasy role-playing game The Witcher 3. The success of The Witcher 3 has tended to eclipse the fact that the entire franchise had an unlikely arc: it was based on a series of stories and novels that enjoyed merely cult-status outside Poland, and CDPR's first Witcher game was a masterpiece of what's sometimes called eurojank, where very high levels of technical competence are contrasted against obvious resource constraints and over-ambition. By the time mainstream audiences came to The Witcher 3, CDPR had gotten so good at making RPGs that it looked like any open-world epic from Bioware or Ubisoft, but with the darker sensibilities of its source material that was perfectly aligned with pop culture's growing appetite for edginess and grit. 

Cyberpunk 2077 represents a return to CD Projekt's development roots: it's a faithful adaptation of a relatively obscure work—R. Talsorian’s Cyberpunk tabletop RPG series, in this case—executed without restraint and with wildly varying levels of success and competence. Cyberpunk 2077 rarely crashed for me, but parts of it broke all the time. I got in the habit of saving frequently not just as a hedge against dying, but just because I never know when I might have to exit the game and reload in the hopes that the character models will be animated when I load back in, and will stop skating around each scene like table-hockey figurines.

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Supposedly many of these technical issues I encountered on PC—I cannot speak to console performance—will be solved with a "day one" patch, but the build I played was in a shocking state, and when you consider that the developer admitted back in January of 2020 that they would need to start extending workers' hours, the ubiquity of bugs and glitches testify to Cyberpunk 2077's troubled and ongoing development. After five years in development, almost a decade since the project was announced, and multiple delays (including a last minute retreat from its original fall release date), Cyberpunk 2077 still arrives as a game that feels like it is being held together with duct tape. 

Except of course, in software development, the duct tape is made out of people. That makes the in-game allusions to "mandatory overtime" read more as a rhetorical ploy than any kind of self-reflection or internal dissent. Cyberpunk 2077 is a game that borrows the language and concepts of radicals and leftists, and tries to tap into growing, pervasive cynicism about the ability of labor under capitalism to deliver dignity, comfort, and security. But it's also a game that even after months of overtime work still requires an epic last-minute patch to pass for a modern mainstream release. 

Though “modern” might be a stretch. At first glance Cyberpunk 2077 is an almost grating homage to familiar touchstones of 80s cyberpunk and dystopian fiction, throwing together premises and aesthetics that don't even really complement each other in a game whose ugliness only seems partly intentional. In my first 30 minutes with the game, I'd taken a flying car across the California megalopolis of Night City to a VR dance club, been thrown out of my job with sinister Japanese megacorp Arasaka for meddling in Machiavellian internal politics, rescued a woman from kidnappers who were harvesting organs and cybernetic implants from their victims, and gotten a new apartment in a colossal tenement building straight out of Dredd's Megacity One, where the bathroom had the three seashells of Demolition Man next to the toilet. Where The Witcher 3 transcended or subverted familiar genre tropes, Cyberpunk 2077 seems like it wants to drown you in them.

Thankfully, the corny references of the game's opening are a feint. It turns out that for all Cyberpunk's 80s cinematic trappings, the core of its identity is noir crime fiction. At times it feels almost more like a hard-boiled fiction anthology as it pivots from Gothic murder mystery to political thriller to heist movie, with the cyberunk setting providing a twist on each of these sturdy plots.

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As you might expect, you play an archetypical hard case who somehow fits all these stories. At the very outset of the game your character, V, experiences a sudden fall from power and prestige that would end in an early gutter or the grave if not for the intervention of V's closest friend in the world, Jackie. Through Jackie and his friends, V gets back on their feet and together the two characters begin rising through the mercenary ranks of Night City. In fact, they've risen just high enough to have dangerous dreams, and to have come to the attention of powerful people looking for people whose hunger outweighs their judgment, which is where the game, and the trouble, both really begin.

It's not long before Jackie and V are pulled into a classic noir plot. A femme fatale brings them a heist that positively screams "to good to be true." They're forced to do business with a powerful fixer who facilitates business in and around the underworld in exchange for an extortionate cut of the action. The entire job puts them on a collision course with the most powerful corporation in the world, stuck with an item as priceless as it is dangerous. It also pulls another treasure into the story: Keanu Reeves, playing a revolutionary figure from Night City's past who is as disappointed in his legacy as he is vain about his legend. Far from being stunt-casting, Reeves ends up being the most critical companion for V's adventures.

The only way out of all this trouble is to get even more deeply enmeshed in the underworld, getting involved in the criminal politics of the city. And here is where the similarities to The Witcher 3 are probably most pronounced: most of these quests and side-quests get ample room to breathe. The setup for the opening heist of the game involves almost an hour of table-setting as you meet the key characters, learn the context for the score, and research the target (which involves some very cool Strange Days-meets-Tacoma detective work). Even some of the second-tier sidequests tend to feel more like episodes of a good detective show than the kinds of chores and errands that round out an Ubisoft open-world game.

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How V goes about this dirty work is largely up to you. Cyberpunk 2077 has much of the structure of an open-world RPG or action game but it owes much of its design to games like the Deus Ex series. You can approach almost every situation with tactics on a spectrum from direct, bloody assault to sneaky, highly technical Mission Impossible-style trickery. At these extremes, you'll likely have to create a character who is similarly extreme and specialized. Alternately, you can develop your character to a mix of skills and attributes that allow more flexible approaches. I built a character around the Cool and Intelligence attributes, and dumped perk points into abilities and bonuses around hacking and stealth (Cool in this case meaning sangfroid, useful both for stealth and assault-styles of play). I could hack anyone or anything, and as long as I was still hidden, could deal devastating surprise attacks.

The trade off with this kind of game has always been that it invites unflattering comparisons to games that specialize in any of these styles of play, and Cyberpunk 2077 is no exception. However, it distinguishes itself by being a very good jack-of-all-trades. It's not a great shooter when the bullets start to fly, but it's decent. It's not as ingenious as Hitman or Dishonored as you break into hidden areas and get the drop on oblivious guards, but stealth is still satisfying and tense when you've put yourself in a dangerous position and need to think fast. 

This is true, most surprisingly, even in the small encounters that don't tie to any of the major plot threads. My most satisfying encounter was just a throwaway battle with some mercenary goons who had slaughtered some crooks on behalf of a corporation. They'd cordoned off a small park in Night City, and while I could have ignored the prompt on my map, I decided to intervene.

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I posted up near one of their armored cars and switched to the "scanner" vision mode, which highlights hackable objects and lets you tag visible enemies so you can keep track of them. I spotted a security camera and hacked the feed. It was part of a network of four or five cameras that had eyes on almost the entire area, so I just started… fucking with these guys. 

I had a "cyberdeck" (basically a spellbook) with four abilities. I could "reboot optics" to temporarily blind enemies, I could "memory wipe" them to cause them to forget anything that had caused them to go into an alert state. I could send a power surge to their systems and fry them. Or I could cause their weapons to glitch. Crucially, I could use just about all of these abilities through the cameras.

Setting aside the absurdity of this cyberpunk setting, where somehow people have adopted cybernetic eyes en masse for the convenience of having the zoom functionality of an old smartphone in exchange for the risk that any random script-kiddy could render them blind, using these tools in tandem can be pretty fun. I used power surges to knock out the guard robots, but then to prevent one of the human guards from noticing the exploded robot all over the ground, I had to keep turning off his optics as he walked past. Eventually, however, enough of the mercs were suspicious that they started conducting wide sweeps of the area and I got a split-second of warning when I noticed one of them rounding the corner on my position through one of my hacked security cameras. I was out of the RAM that powered my cyberattacks, but I had a sweet knife so I just charged the guy and gutted him before he could sound the alarm. However, while i was doing that, my curious guard finally saw the robot corpse and sounded the full alarm, at which point the enemy's netrunner started launching cyberattacks against me. He was sending electrical jolts all through my system, taking huge chunks of hit points and uploading viruses that made me more vulnerable to special types of weapon damage, basically leaving me extremely vulnerable to getting killed by any random shot.

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My own cyberdeck highlighted the netrunner in my vision, causing him to glow orange in the middle of the surviving squad. I chucked a flashbang at him, stunning him and knocking him on his back while disrupting his attack. While he lay supine on the ground, I sprinted behind cover with my precision rifle, and thanks to one of my few Rifle perks, I did extra damage when firing from cover. Before the netrunner could get back to his feet, I'd put a volley of charged shots through his visor. After a few more minutes of suppressing fire and cyberattacks, I finally cleared the rest of the squad and stood alone over an urban warzone as the first streaks of sunlight broke over the city. This loop of recon-plan-action-reaction is a hard thing for most stealth-action games to get right, but Cyberpunk 2077 hits more often than it misses.

That's also true of the game thematically, but there are some important caveats. Cyberpunk 2077 happily embraces the tropes of 80s cyberpunk, where ethnic stereotypes were often deployed to provide an air of unearned worldly sophistication. So the Japanese characters who work for Arasaka speak the language of samurai movies: it's all honor, duty, and cherry blossoms despite the fact that Arasaka is a cynical and self-interested multinational. The game nods to some of the complications of representation: the game is at pains to indicate that the tech-savvy Voodoo Boys gang are not actually practitioners or believers in voodoo, but they are proud members of a Haitian diaspora that are building a Black nationalist movement in their quarter of Night City who adopt the symbols of voodoo as an expression of heritage. Which is all well and good but then you realize that the only Haitian dudes you've met in this whole game are Voodoo Boys and you're right back at a setting where, functionally, ethnicity is identity. And that identity frequently comes with a costume and an occupation.

More complicated is how Cyberpunk 2077 approaches sex and sex work, which says a lot about the places where its imagination is detailed and specific, versus where it is vague and uncommitted. A lot of Cyberpunk 2077's story hinges on sex workers and the types of sex work and hierarchies that exist in this world. 

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The woman who pulls V and Jackie into the heist job is a high-end escort, but she ascended to that position after working as a "doll", basically a person who allows cybernetics to disassociate them from their body so that they can become the manifestation of a client's desire. In a very funny but insightful turn of events, if V makes use of a doll's services, the encounter becomes an erotically charged but deeply reflective therapy session. But of course, "dolls" are seen as toys, disposable, and the course of V's investigation eventually lead to the other side of that coin: human trafficking and profound abuse. It's dark stuff, but it's fairly well-handled. Cyberpunk 2077 approaches sexual violence like a lot of detective fiction approaches it, with a fair amount of sensitivity but also an uncomfortable level of interest that flirts with being fetishisizing. 

But while Cyberpunk has evidently given a lot of thought to how its setting would change the nature of sex and sex work, you rarely see that consideration matched with other parts of the setting. The politics of the world remain distant and hard to parse: private corporations run just about everything that used to be a public good, but how does that change daily life? You live in a world of widespread environmental devastation, but you don't get much sense of the hardship that would cause. You see people running around with all manner of augmentations, but why? The Deus Ex games at least made a point of understanding how cybernetics and enhanced prostheses would change the nature of labor, but Cyberpunk seems a bit iffy on its vision outside of the potential to turn people into living blow-up dolls.

What's profoundly strange is that, here in the final game, there is scarcely any portrayal or interrogation of how this society's understanding of gender and the human body have changed. The marketing-driven discussion around Cyberpunk for the last few years has often centered on CD Projekt Red's transphobic "edginess" and its misbegotten philosophizing about how body modification and augmentation come at a cost to one's humanity. This is a small mercy: the game at least never sinks to the lows promised by some of the terrible art that has been shown over the past few years (and which still remains in the game). But it also helps make Cyberpunk a game where race, gender, and transhumanism are reduced to background set decoration in otherwise familiar stories.

Which makes it a frequently disappointing kind of punk and sci-fi. Despite the cynical, transgressive edge Cyberpunk 2077 tries to pull off, it's a very straight and strait-laced game. V is very much a knight errant, more often than not trying to rescue a damsel or slay a dragon.

This also highlights what is most frustrating about the game's approach: it portrays a world where enormous, global problems have reduced the meaning and value of the individual to almost nothing. However, in order to let V and their friends confront that world, Cyberpunk 2077 then often reduces those problems down to individual conflicts, with personal stakes and approaches. The unholy tech conglomerate's story is told through a lens of King Lear-like court politics. Helping sex workers reclaim their bodies and labor from abusive bosses requires dealing with two feuding former friends (and somehow not the gang of militant sex workers whose origins are literally an uprising against sexual violence with shades of Stonewall). The route to helping the clan of Nomads who are caught between the tenant serfdom being offered by the corporations and the growing precarity runs through resolving the conflict between the clan's patriarch and its headstrong heroine.

If this undercuts the game's cyberpunk and noir trappings, it's simultaneously one of the game's saving graces: from beginning to end, the game pushes V toward making connections with new people and expanding their community. It's very hard to make V anything less than stand-up on their adventures. The expanding aura of decency and compassion that follows in V's wake makes Cyberpunk an unexpectedly charming game in spite of its chauvinist streaks and retro-kitsch. In the face of the thoroughly amok-machinery of techno-corporatism that has destroyed society and ruthlessly crushes any challenges and dissent that it might face, Cyberpunk 2077 wants to believe in a hero, and the promise of a neon sunset.

Tagged:

CD Projekt RED, Cyberpunk 2077

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