The RPG Greetings, traveller, and welcome back to The Register Plays Games, our monthly gaming column. Merry Christmas? Maybe not if you found Cyberpunk 2077 in your stocking.
Only a month ago we were poking gentle fun at the state in which Ubisoft games often land, and triggering Assassin's Creed fanbois with a balanced criticism of the long-running series' latest entry, Valhalla. Two weeks later Cyberpunk 2077 arrived, the most anticipated release of the year. In comparison, Ubisoft looks like the gold standard for big-budget games development – things are that bad.
It didn't have to be this way. Polish powerhouse CD Projekt Red (CDPR) announced it was working on new IP in 2012, and started pre-production in 2016 once the final expansion had been completed for The Witcher 3, based on the novels by Andrzej Sapkowski and one of the finest fantasy roleplaying games (RPG) ever made.
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Early trailers for Cyberpunk 2077 whipped the hype into a frenzy by showing off clear influence from Neuromancer, Blade Runner, Ghost In The Shell… y'know, cyberpunk stuff. But the excitement has proven to be a millstone around CDPR's neck because the game is janky as hell, and we've been left wondering what they were doing for eight years.
Trouble during development was plain to see. The initial release date of 16 April 2020 was first pushed back to 17 September. Then 19 November. Then 10 December. As we reported, the final delay was said to be down to preparing the game for so many platforms – PC and the next-gen consoles but also the current-gen set – despite Cyberpunk 2077 having been certified "finished".
Seeing how owners on the Xbox One and PlayStation 4 have responded to its substandard performance, there is still much work to be done. CDPR offered refunds and apologised for not being transparent enough about how the game ran on the outgoing consoles – though we did note during our review of the Xbox Series S that its predecessor was barely capable of running titles released years ago, which should have been a red flag for anything as demanding as Cyberpunk 2077. Little more than a week after release, Sony stripped the title from the PlayStation store. Microsoft later began offering refunds too.
On a reasonably high-end PC, the game is tolerable. However, it could have done with at the very least another six months in the oven, such is the volume of jarring bugs and design kludge. That isn't to say that Cyberpunk 2077 is "a bad game", but it plays more like it should be in open beta or even alpha at half the price with frequent updates until hitting 1.0. That way, participants could have submitted feedback and concerns without the expectation of a finished product – like how Larian is handling Baldur's Gate 3. Instead the media had to do it in a rather more public and embarrassing fashion.
Now CDPR has the arduous task of fixing things up to the standards of the studio that made The Witcher 3, which admittedly had problems of its own at launch. A hotfix the day after release addressed some of Cyberpunk 2077's most pressing issues – not least a scene that caused an epileptic journalist to have a fit. Another followed on 19 December, and another on 23 December. So all eyes will be on the dev to see if Cyberpunk 2077 actually reaches its full potential at some point in 2021. Lawyers and investors are already probing the situation to see if a crime has been committed with talk of "misrepresentation in order to obtain financial benefits".
At the game-breaking end, it has also transpired that if your save file exceeds 8MB, it becomes corrupted and cannot be opened, leading to articles like this. The advice seems to be not to carry too much in your inventory – which is a big ask in an RPG where the instinct is to pick up everything not nailed down – so selling often and not excessively crafting items. However, this is an interim measure as the save file will grow regardless as you progress through the game. A patch for this is critical, and CDPR knows all about it. Striked-out was fixed on 23 December. Despite everything, Cyberpunk 2077 has already sold more than 13 million copies in less than two weeks.
You can probably tell we've been hurt, but let's scrape away the muck, and look at what Cyberpunk 2077 is trying to be. The game is based on a 32-year-old table-top RPG written by Mike Pondsmith that features all the William Gibson-derived tropes – megacities, corrupt corporations, human augmentation, cybernetics, netrunners, designer drugs, and organised crime.
The story centres on V, a small-time hustler from Night City in the Free State of Northern California who finds himself with the "engram" of soldier-cum-rockstar-cum-terrorist Johnny Silverhand lodged in a chip in his skull. Silverhand, played by Hollywood nice guy Keanu Reeves, was thought to have perished in an attack against Arasaka Corporation decades earlier, and the two realise that their fates are intertwined – both will die if the chip is removed from V's head, but if left alone Silverhand's presence will eventually overwrite V's personality entirely.
Like any RPG worth its salt, things kick off with in-depth character creation and customisation including the distribution of skill points. V can be female, male, both or neither thanks to Cyberpunk 2077's novel genitalia options. In this ultimate test of self-moderation, the size and look of the character's penis can be tweaked (though not the vagina), as can breasts. You can also forgo genitals altogether or just turn them off, rendering V in underwear for any nude scenes. There's also a glitch where the character's package can pop through their clothing.
There are three origins to choose from – nomad, street kid, or corpo – each one granting a different opening that eventually feeds into a unified main quest, which seems to work fairly well in the game's current state but is a five-day march from perfect. Where the scenes are heavily scripted, tensions run high and there's genuine concern for the characters you meet. That is until your mate turns towards you on the backseat of a taxi and appears to have his pistol holstered in his head. Or Silverhand's spectre pushes you into the wall of your apartment, making you clip through it, and then appears to have no head at all.
In fact, this dumb shit starts to happen almost immediately. On leaving the bar from the street kid opening, I looked to my left where some bloke was having a loud conversation on his phone. The strange thing was that even though he was holding his phone to his ear, another phone was hanging in the air and clipping through the guy's face. At any point that you have the freedom to roam the sprawling megacity – which should be the best part of the game – the façade crumbles spectacularly.
Characters might not be animated at all, appearing to stand as though they are cardboard cut-outs hung on a crucifix – the "T-pose". After rescuing a cybernetically enhanced woman from a criminal organisation that intended to harvest her hardware, my companion and I turned to go back inside from the balcony where I watched him clip through a filing cabinet that then exploded in a confetti of paperwork. Bumping a piece of trash on a motorbike can fling you 30 feet in the air, while cars driven by the world's ambient characters seem to lack even a semblance of AI as they are unable to drive around obstacles like your own inconsiderately parked vehicle.
The fact that players have observed stationary cars, spun the camera away, then looked back to find them gone or replaced with different cars has led some to speculate that these are not bugs but a feature to prevent the whole of Night City from grinding to a halt. The same can happen with pedestrians who flee or cower when guns are shot on streets. If you stand on the bonnet of a car and smash the windscreen in with a katana, the driver might not even react. And don't bother wreaking such havoc in the streets anyway – police don't chase you in vehicles, they just spawn in behind you on foot until you're dead. So steal a car and drive away.
Also, you're the only person in the city who can ride a motorbike even though you can find them all over the place. How? And why are there all these locked doors but the only lockpicking-like abilities are to either hack the doors that are secured by a computer or force them open via the strength attribute?
It's unacceptable from a studio like CDPR. Did they not have the wherewithal to implement a basic AI system, the likes of which are taken for granted in a game like Grand Theft Auto V from seven years ago? The company promised a revolutionary, living, breathing open world, but Night City's illusion is wafer-thin – impressive at a surface level as you rush towards your next objective, but which closer scrutiny reveals to be utter nonsense.
Apologies, I got sad again. Gameplay is from a first-person perspective so combat unfolds like a shooter with an enormous array of melee weapons and firearms of varying quality and properties to pick from as you strip the dead and loot locations.
It is, however, still an RPG and quite slow-paced at first, taking obvious influence from Deus Ex with stealth mechanics and the ability to hack enemies and surrounding systems to tip the odds in your favour, though sadly not quite as detailed. Body augmentations bought from a "ripperdoc" can also affect speed, jump height, and defences, all of which can alter the flow of combat. "Smart weapons", which steer bullets around corners and aim themselves once the appropriate modification has been installed, are a nice touch, as are the mantis blades – vicious swords that spring out of V's arms.
Of course, you'll always want to have the gear with the highest stats equipped. Shame, then, that most of the clothing items and combinations therein make you look like a berk. Why do these hot pants provide better protection than my military-grade trousers, for example? It can also be frustrating to find the best gear for a situation thanks to Cyberpunk 2077's clunky interface.
One of the few things Cyberpunk 2077 has going for it right now is the world design. V's home is located in a hollow, brutalist megastructure that blots out the sunlight, shrouding in darkness the seedy goings-on within the building's core. Each borough has its own vibe and culture, and it was fun rounding up a bunch of sentient but feral taxis even though the only true reward was cash and getting to see a lot of Night City during a single session. With ray tracing on, however, it is difficult to get a satisfactory and stable frame rate on higher settings when roaming the busier parts of the world. Funny thing is that the same could be said with ray tracing disabled. Gameplay that takes place indoors runs much better.
Like The Witcher 3 before it and the Elder Scrolls/Fallout games by Bethesda, Cyberpunk 2077's map is littered with objectives to investigate and can seem overwhelming at times. You'll roll up to some and find yourself vastly outmatched, at which point it's probably a good idea to plough ahead with the story because some helpful freebies and gear could be locked behind progress. Unfortunately, pretty much all of these world events seem to be about murdering everything in sight – with some optional stealth thrown in – whereas The Witcher had side quests with more plot than most AAA games.
Though the positives are mired in jank and bugs, I am enjoying Cyberpunk 2077 nonetheless at 30-plus hours. Everything seemed to improve as I played more and CDPR doled out patches. While everyone's mileage will vary when it comes to the most egregious glitches, it's clear to me that deep within is a great game screaming to get out.
All the pieces are here. The graphics, animations, atmosphere, and attention to detail are staggering, and the story and writing are pretty good too... but only as long as it works. Flawless sections of gameplay I streamed to colleagues required jaws to be scraped off the floor, and when everything slots into place Cyberpunk 2077 is a lot of fun. I just don't understand how it could be delivered in this state.
The best we can hope for is a No Man's Sky kind of scenario where a game catastrophically over-promises and under-delivers but within a year or so of patches arrives at something nearing the original vision. Yet there may be more fundamental issues. If an almost decade-old game can prop up a superior open world, I fear some rewriting could be on the cards.
CDPR said that the pandemic prevented external testing, which is understandable, but if that's the case just call the whole thing off for the time being because no one would have cared in the long run. Like V's brain chip, a much better game might one day overwrite this slap-dash mess. I sincerely hope that happens. ®