Discover more from Stoic Observations
It sucks. It's great.
I had already played 3 hours and found myself in the penthouse of the corporate bastard. My homie was with me to help heist some magnificent tech that I got through the assistance of two women who deal in brain memories. We were all ready to grab the loot, but my homie kept responding to questions I asked him 20 minutes ago in the car. At the critical moment when the flying security vehicles arrived on the scene and he was supposed to check to see if the goods were legit, he disappeared. What?
I replayed the scenario five times. Each time he walked behind a panel out of my sightline he left the universe. Gone. I was stuck in videogame limbo. It was the most frustrating thing I think I had ever encountered in a virtual world. I walked back my gameplay several different saves. Nope. It was the entire chapter. I had to quit the game, restart from scratch and create a new character. The first time I went Streetkid. This time I went Corpo. I got past that heist scene which was even more remarkable for how much interaction was actually lost the first buggy times through. Afterwards, I put in another 6 hours. I was hooked.
Cyberpunk 2077 is the buggiest videogame I have ever played. It is also one whose awesomness is pretty undeniable. That didn’t stop me from demanding a refund, which I promptly got within 2 hours of my request. There was a monumental list of bugs the authors had to acknowledge. A patch had already been published for Playstation and PC. The one for XBox, which I play, was ‘coming soon’. Studios, gamers, the entire videogame planet was up in arms, as this was the single most anticipated and hyped game of the Christmas season. That award might have been Halo Infinite but its creators pushed the release date back to 2021. Nevertheless this disappointment felt like the letdown of the infamous WatchDogs from 2014. It seemed impossible that this game was designed by the same people who built the impeccable Witcher III. That is, until I got the itch.
12 hours is really not a lot of effort to put into a videogame. The full campaign promised to be about 64 hours, so I heard. When I realized that the opening title of the game didn’t even happen until an hour after that first heist (the second time, with my Corpo avatar) I had a good idea how massive the story might be. In the end, it haunted my imagination. I gave in and spent the 60 bucks a second time. It has been worth it.
Cyberpunk offers the most serious near future dystopian sandbox I’ve ever played. Night City, despite the completely unimaginative name, feels more like a city than that of any other game except perhaps Grand Theft Auto 5’s Los Angeles. But it differs from GTA5 in three significant ways. Firstly to its advantage, GTA5 worked. It was legendarily difficult getting into the interactive part of the game on day one, but once you were in, you were in.
Secondly, Cyberpunk’s city is wildly crowded. There are fascinating sorts people everywhere, lots of them. You are not driving on long empty roads that emphasize the world builder’s ability to make something ‘massive’. It’s packed. And they’ve got the right balance of interesting people that you stop and make you gawk and those you bump into without over-escalating the chance encounter. It keeps you focused on your current mission while the spectators remain engaging. The city is futuristic in both clean and dirty ways. It has some of the sick sense of humor of Saint’s Row without overdoing it. It’s never too campy, but also never too serious. It has you escalating in skill and power without becoming a juggernaut. People’s reactions to you are what you expect in a big city. I readily admit that I’m a great fan of the degenerate rock fiction of Richard Kadrey, but I have never been attracted to the whole glam-punk rockstar genre. Everything about this game seems to make it that kind of wasted, pierced, shaved, leathered, spiked, drunk and tattooed paradise.
This is by far, the best multilingual game I’ve ever played. There is excellent Spanglish that is genuine in every way. There is excellent voice acting in Japanese and Haitian Creole. They have done something that is so obvious, you wonder why everyone doesn’t. They caption all languages in the original idiom as it is spoken, then translate it to English right in front of your eyes. Brilliant.
Thirdly, which is important to me, is that you don’t necessarily work against the police. You are not engaged petty violent scuffles that disturb the peace of an otherwise bucolic town with stereotypical NPCs. Instead, you are a bipolar badass in a fully functional and murderous metropolis. In such a city, there is no illusion of suburban neutrality, of altruistic politics or of a bridgeable gap between the haves and the have-nots. Even using the worn out cliches of ‘haves’ or ‘income inequality’ takes a powder. In that way, Cyberpunk is not anywhere close to an American creation, even though Night City is presumably San Francisco 50 odd years into the future. I know it was written by Europeans and it has a taste of that kind of self-deprecating and enigmatic rebellion of people who know how deep and dark the rabbit hole goes.
The point is that the police don’t count and the wealthy don’t count. There are the uber-capitalists and all the junior players attached to ‘fixers’ and turf lords. Everyone struggles to keep their head down amidst the riot of conspiracy theories, tarot symbolism, crime syndicates and the most self-consciously crass commercial assault on the senses since Robocop. But if you’re going to jack some civilian you had better do it quietly, because the police do their work. In fact, you can help them through violent suppression of gang predators and pick up a small bit of loot in the process.
Cyberpunk has created an extra large urban sandbox whose art direction and realization rivals the visions of Ridley Scott’s Los Angeles futurescape of Blade Runner. It offers every possible way to interact of practical use and gaming interest. There is crafting, there are skill trees, there are role-playing interactions with multi-phase adventures. There are mysteries and secrets, quests of all dimensions and durations. And of course there is acquisition, violence and romance - the triumvirate of western entertainment.
Cyberpunk is not revolutionary, and although I find that it breaks new ground, there are only a few things that are outright surprising besides its buggy and inauspicious debut. As a character in this game, you always feel your vulnerability and you are never quite the hero and never quite the villain, relatively speaking. It is not a horror show you are simply trying to survive like Dead Space, nor is it a glorious romp of single minded revenge and destruction like Crackdown or Saints Row. It is not massive like Skyrim where you spend an extended childhood fighting rodents and crafting primitive bows & arrows. I must say that there are a couple fantastic weapons that rival the giddy destructive force of those in Broderlands. One of them would have been a great deal more fun if it didn’t invert my vertical preference - but them’s the breaks. The special sauce in this game comes from two phenomena. The first is that you are inhabited by a second soul who may ultimately take over your body. The second is that you are given the ability on occasion to walk in the bodies of others and experience their memories. Both of these abilities are excellently merged with the graphical presentation of the game, which is extraordinarily rendered even on my $200 television.
I will probably always be attracted to any game that can manage to put Miles Davis into its soundtrack. There are occasions in the game when I note that the sound and music is exceptionally well chosen for the tension or release of the moment without ever being overbearing or banal. There is nothing catchy, it all just works. This subtle craftsmanship shows through, even when the music is hard. The cars work better than most non-driving games and you don’t waste time getting killed by casual missteps off the curb into traffic or falling into a glitch. Like with Skyrim, I find myself wanting to play the campaign through again as another character with a different set of skills.
It is that last charm, with the anticipation of future DLC, that makes Night City a place to play in for the foreseeable future. A grim future that, but one with hope for those who manage to love the player and not hate the game.