Review: Cyberpunk 2077 (PS4) – The Nomad Path

My parents named me Vincent. It’s a perfectly serviceable name. Not flashy, not boring, but not memorable unless there’s something really incredible attached to it. Big film star, Mafia don, something like that. But I didn’t really grow into it. I liked exactly one letter out of my name, so people took to calling me “V.” It stuck.

The Bakkers weren’t going anywhere I wanted to be seeing, and weren’t planning anything that I felt was worth doing. I wanted out. I needed out. It hurt me a little, pulling that patch off my cut, but it was that or die inside every day ’till someone flatlined my body.

I left behind the Nomad life to take a chance in Night City. I’m going to make a life of my own, grab it by the throat with both hands till it coughs up, or die trying.”

“And I’ll do it riding my motorcycle without a helmet and wearing my sunglasses at night.”

From the first moment the teaser trailer dropped, people were excited about how CD Projekt RED decided to follow up their smash hit The Witcher 3. After a moment’s confusion about whether this was based off Mike Pondsmith’s TTRPG or not, we sat with bated breath for Cyberpunk 2077. And now that it’s out, there’s an overwhelming sense that our faith and our patience has not been completely rewarded.

I’m not going to get into the behind-the-scenes drama surrounding Cyberpunk 2077. This is supposed to be a review of the game and it will be primarily centered on that topic. That being said, there are issues with the game which are almost certainly related to those events, if only because the reasonable expectation that they’d be fixed before release seems to have been ignored.

It’s not a stretch to call Cyberpunk 2077 ambitious. Despite being set in one very large city and some outlying geography, it’s definitely got a feeling of density to it. Back alleys, rooftop parkour, street vendors, random encounters, there is something happening in front of you virtually every second. Yet that feeling of density doesn’t seem to hold true past a certain point. There’s no denying there’s a lot to do, and a lot of you as a player to stumble across. But once it’s done, when you’ve completed the main story, cleared all the gigs and side jobs, what then? The array of stuff you can see, you very often can’t touch. That cool video arcade? Can’t play the cabinets. The pachinko parlor one of your Fixer contacts runs? Can’t play those either. The stalls at some of the night markets? One actual vendor, the rest are for show. The restaurants? You just buy food items that go into your inventory rather sitting down to a meal, and they’re often not even related to the style of restaurant you’re visiting. People have described other open world type games as “ocean wide and puddle deep,” but Cyberpunk 2077 barely raises a meniscus.

Rolling With The Pack

“Unfortunately, nobody can be told what the game is–“
“Oh shut up!”

For my playthrough, I decided to take the Nomad Lifepath. In the original tabletop game, Nomads were the 21st Century’s “Okies,” driven to wandering by the twin catastrophes of economic decline and ecological collapse. Often farmers and outcasts, they quickly morphed into roaming bands of tight knit families where blood and adoption were equally valued. By the time of Cyberpunk 2077, the Nomads have gained and lost prestige, their earlier utility as logistics carriers in the aftermath of “The Time of The Red” now diminished as the megacorporations start relying more on internal transportation methods. They’re still wandering the highways and byways of North America, roaming caravaneers beholden to none, but their future looks grim.

I figured I’d try to take a more conversational approach, smooth talking, as charming a rogue as ever you could meet. Moreover, I was going to try and keep my implants down to the bare minimum. No purchased cybernetics, only using what the game gave me as part of the main story or as a quest reward. At the time of this writing, I’d mostly kept to that, but did purchase one upgraded version of cybernetic eyes and some improved cyberdecks. Unfortunately, the conversational approach is highly contextual, based very much on skills, Lifepath, and how quickly you can read a timed dialogue piece. And while there were a number of dialog prompts which were Lifepath-specific, I never quite got the feeling that I was looked at any differently. There was no sense of being the outsider, or the bumpkin, or the barbarian. Just another nameless gonk in Night City, even after maxing out the Street Cred level.

Character creation proved to be somewhat disappointing. In some respects, there were a lot of options, but they revolved around presets, without any ability to tweak the meshes at all. For those who’ve fine tuned their appearance in games like Skyrim or Fallout 4, it’s oddly restrictive. Fun fact: the news article our intrepid writer Kate put out regarding the customization potential of the character’s genitals was one of the most read pieces a couple of days before launch. I can only imagine how many disappointed people looked at that article and demanded to know what the hell happened. Worse yet, those options are set in stone. Regretting that hair style? Maybe thinking about some biosculpt to redo those cheekbones? Feeling like you want be the next Sorayama pinup? Sucks to be you, choomba.

Style Over Substance

“V, mi choom, we all love you. But this is a fashion intervention.”

From an artistic perspective, Cyberpunk 2077 definitely has the look of the genre nailed down, though it’s a look that is most notable for its extremes. City streets are appropriately grimy even lit by neon and dominated by soaring skyscrapers. Vehicles are either swoopy and slick or four wheel crapboxes held together by chewing gum and good intentions, with some “perfectly ordinary cars” filling in the middle. Clothes either look flamboyantly colorful or painfully drab in their utilitarianism. The developers seem to be following the style guides they laid out for players prior to launch quite well. Yet for all that, there’s an odd sense of sameness in a lot of the gear. It’s vaguely surprising when you’ve found a “branded” piece of gear from one of the game’s manufacturers. Unfortunately, there don’t seem to be a lot of manufacturers around, and there’s not any functional difference in most of the gear, which in turn diminishes the immersion. Worse, the fine details on the game’s “iconic” weapons seem to fall victim to that same sense of extremes: either over-the-top aesthetics or basic finishes.

The final insult is that we have no control as such over the creation of our own personal style. We can’t preview how pieces of gear would look on us. Nor can we modify the colors or markings of the gear, which sounds a little petty, yet it’s something which would have gone a long way towards helping the player feel less like a murderous hobo clown.

The only thing worse than a gun to your head is a gun through your head.

But moving onto the substance, the game’s performance on PlayStation has been abysmal. Even as recently as patch 1.05, I’m still seeing texture pop, rendering issues, long load times (especially from checkpoints), and horrendous slowdown when trying to access menus or overlay elements like answering messages or even changing the radio station while driving. Complicating matters is an annoying habit of enemies (or any other character or object models, really) “popping in” after it looks like an area has been cleared. Pedestrians might appear about half a second before you run them over with your vehicle. Landmines suddenly start whining prior to detonation despite you looking over the area thoroughly. It’s a considerable source of aggravation that seems to straddle both performance and implementation.

I know there are people who are going to cry, “What do you expect? It’s old hardware!” It’s a disingenuous claim, considering that it was the hardware which was available for the entire development process. And simply dropping support for the PS4 (or the Xbox One) isn’t like flicking a switch. It should have been optimized because they had committed to using the platform, and the fact it has not been properly optimized is deeply disappointing.

Bright Lights, Big Empty

And when Takemura-san is disappointed, heads start rolling, choomba.

It’s understandable that in trying to translate a tabletop setting to a video game, there’s going to be a certain degree of divergence from the source material. That we’re going to see systems which are unique to the video game which would be incredibly cumbersome in a tabletop environment. And being fair, Cyberpunk 2077 is trying to translate from a setting which came out with an updated version (and updated lore) while the video game was being built. With that said, the path which CDPR has taken is clunky at best. The tabletop game’s stats have either been folded into each other or just flat out dropped. Skills have likewise been smushed into a few specific containers or dropped entirely. Cyberpsychosis is something that happens to NPCs, not to you, so there’s no sense of risk going full-on metal. We already knew about the three Lifepaths, but seeing how they’ve played out now, they’re a faint echo of what the tabletop game tried to define. We’re left wondering what might have been if designs had tried to flesh out the Lifepaths further and given us more options.

There wasn’t a particularly well established crafting system in the tabletop version, and more’s the pity. The crafting system we’ve been presented is actually worse than The Witcher 3, despite seemingly being lifted right from that game. To complicate things, you have to be a major hoarder of parts to do any sort of serious upgrades or construction. You will burn through loads of parts to craft a single piece, and that’s about as much fun as a root canal. Consumable crafting is a special little hell, since you can’t craft in batches, but have to do it one item at a time.

Fold a thousand paper cranes, you’re granted a wish. Make a thousand paper lanterns and nobody gives a damn.

For all the potential quests, side gigs, and other things one can do in Night City, there’s some deeply disappointing flaws which completely break immersion. One of these is the AI. If you’re in visual range of an AI opponent, they’ll detect you and ultimately engage you. The caveat here is that you’re staying within roughly visual range. If you should go outside of the enemy’s visual range, they will not pursue you. They will not attempt to engage you from extreme long range. If you break free of a kill box, nobody’s going to follow, which makes it ridiculously easy to saunter back and pick them off with a sniper rifle. Even if you suck with sniper rifles.

Another problem, arguably game breaking, deals with the way money is handled or rather not handled. You’re being asked to risk life and limb for the promise of money. And all too often, the rewards are not commensurate with the risk. You aren’t quite a two-bit mercenary, but you’re not too far off. And what makes this irritating as hell is that you’re reasonably certain it’s just crappy implementation and not a clever meta-commentary on unchecked capitalism. If you pick the right perks, you can skim more money by hacking access points, but not that much more. And one perk which seems like it’d be helpful for crafting, by automatically breaking down any junk you pick up for parts, has an unintentional downside by destroying “junk” which is reasonably valuable in stores. It would have been helpful if CDPR had drawn a sharp line between trash and treasure, and allowed us to capitalize on it.

Finally, the greatest sin Cyberpunk 2077 seems to commit is that it is almost hostile to information which the player can utilize. How many rounds to a box of rifle ammo compared to a box of pistol ammo? Which clothes vendors specialize in what styles? Where have you bought crafting blueprints? You have no way to mark up the map, or have the map update with pertinent information about specific points of interest. You could scan an NPC, but that information isn’t saved anywhere for future reference. Information overlays are non-existent. It’s an act of ludonarrative dissonance that utterly baffles me. Our fictional avatar, despite having all sorts of highly advanced technology stuffed into their carcass, is somehow less capable than a real-world smartphone.

Tales Of The City

“It’s called a Sweatshop. Rumplemintz, creme de menthe and bear mace, garnished with bitters in a glass rimmed with human tears.”

All right, so we’ve got terrible performance out of CDPR’s in-house game engine, atrociously bad game systems, and insultingly stupid AI. Is there anything redeemable about Cyberpunk 2077? Maybe not “redeemable,” as such, but enjoyable to an extent.

It could be argued that Cyberpunk 2077‘s shooter mechanics are not entirely terrible. They’re not quite up at the level of a title like Destiny, but they’re decent enough to get by. I would have liked more variety and distinctiveness in the weapons, but when it comes time to put steel on target, it gets the job done and doesn’t make me feel like a ham-fisted klutz. By the same token, the driving mechanics are equally decent. Not Forza or Gran Turismo levels of detail, to be sure, but pretty good.

There’s a sharp, almost jagged, break in the quality of storylines. The main plotline is wildly uneven, filled with cool moments and stretches of dullness. Yet the smaller one-off gig missions and some of the side job quest chains are as well written as anything in The Witcher 3. It’s like dealing with a well known writer who puts out mediocre novels but absolutely kickass short stories. What makes it all the more frustrating is that the quality in both the main plot and the side missions sometimes veers between decent fan fiction and crappy tie-in novel. It’s also frustrating in the sense that you get the feeling they could have done a much better job. While Cyberpunk 2077 may have prompted Mike Pondsmith to develop and release Cyberpunk RED, it’s clear that whatever communication was happening between the two companies was distinctly one-sided, since there’s damn all in the video game that can be traced to the new tabletop game.

Truer words were never spoken.

Ludonarrative dissonance and continuity errors can hit in the weirdest of places (like seeing Militech equipment crates all around an Arasaka compound). You can almost see where more interesting stories could have been written, and how the existing storylines could have been tightened up. Even the missions based off short stories which appeared in the tabletop game (such as “Never Fade Away”) feel more like a crappy Hollywood film adaptation from the 1990s, where some coked out studio exec said, “Don’t worry, it’ll be great. Trust us. We know what we’re doing.” Oddly enough, playing those missions brings the movie Johnny Mnemonic forcibly to mind. An equally egregious offense comes in the form of montages. We’re treated to a couple of them over the course of the game, and it would have been a lot more interesting if we’d had more control in those sequences.

As with the writing, so too with the voice acting. There’s times where the cast nails their lines really well and brings their particular character to life. And there’s times where the actors have all the delivery presence of a lump of concrete. And while Keanu Reeves is clearly the big name draw, even his performance is somewhat uneven. It almost feels like the lines we’ve seen performed previously in trailers and Night City Wire presentations were the ones that were “super edgy” but not necessarily the most impactful. Towards the end, Reeves’ Johnny Silverhand does have some serious feeling to him, but it’s almost like CDPR deliberately obscured the good performances, trying to play up what their idea of the “canonical” Johnny Silverhand should be.

End of File

“I know exactly where he is, and I would love to kick his ass out.”

In writing up this review, it became obvious in short order that I could not unequivocally recommend Cyberpunk 2077. By the same token, I felt like I couldn’t quite insist that it be disregarded, though it was a very near thing. Beneath all the bugs and poorly implemented systems, there is a game here which might very well have the potential to become an amazing title. It shows us just enough to tantalize, to say, “This is going to be so awesome.” It seems like the management types at CD Projekt RED were counting on the positive response of The Witcher 3 to smooth over irregularities which seem like they were duplicated (and ultimately magnified) from that game’s launch. Their actions, more than anything else, have done a grave disservice to their product, to their fans, and ultimately to their reputation as a company. And as any Fixer in Night City will tell you, without a reputation, you’re nothing.

Six months from now, Cyberpunk 2077 might be closer to what it should be. If you’re willing to put up with the crap that exists now, you’ll probably appreciate how things change between now and then. But if you’re not that patient, or that understanding, maybe hold off for the time being.

This review was based off a PlayStation 4 copy purchased by the reviewer, because CD Projekt RED decided to screw anybody who tried to review for consoles before release.

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