Last week, after seven long years, Cd Projekt Red released Cyberpunk 2077, and chaos ensued. On Friday, Sony ripped the game down from its Playstation Store, as players endured hundreds of bugs, scores of graphical glitches, and one epileptic fit.
Even for an industry where products are often fixed after their release, the takedown is unprecedented. That it should happen to the most hyped game of the decade, perhaps of all time, is a scandal of some magnitude. Questions are being asked about crunch times, about non-disclosure agreements, about corporate greed; and about why nearly four million console players were misled over the state of the game they preordered.
The fallout from the game’s release seems certain to have a bigger impact on the industry than the game itself. Because Cyberpunk is not the game of the decade, or even the game of the year, and not a game that you should buy unless you own a next-gen console or a jacked-up PC. It is an entertaining yet generic experience that will improve as its creators are press-ganged into finishing it.
You play as V, a protagonist whose journey begins in one of three ways – as a street kid, fighting through the bars and back alleys of Night City; as a nomad, scratching a living as a mechanic on the city’s fringes; or as a corp, a martini-sipping, American Psycho type working at the Arasaka Corporation, a dystopian megacorp vying for control of the world. These storylines converge in a heist against Arasaka, and Keanu Reeves pops up to accompany the player and generally act like Keanu Reeves. You can choose to follow this storyline or ignore it entirely in favour of fighting gangs, fraternising with politicians and causing general mayhem in an open world metropolis.
So how cyberpunk is Cyberpunk? The answer is generically, tiresomely so. Back in June 2018, William Gibson, one of the fathers of the genre, tweeted” “The trailer for Cyberpunk 2077 strikes me as GTA skinned-over with a generic 80s retro-future, but hey, that’s just me.”
It wasn’t just him. This imagining takes its cues from a pen and paper board game, Cyberpunk, created by Mike Pondsmith, in 1988. Classics of the genre, such as Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner or Gibson’s Neuromancer, concocted visions of the future steeped in the Reaganite eighties: a world in which you could jack into a matrix called “cyberspace” then flee a knife-wielding member of the Village People. It’s a world filled with people hooked on technology, their very selfhood commodified by all-seeing corporations. Is the genre’s traction surprising?
Though it may be visually compelling to battle gang members sporting sequined jackets, Cyberpunk the game has little to say about 2020. There is no serious engagement with climate change, for instance, in a world where pollution seems unrestricted. The game is an anachronism – a genre pastiche, not a prophecy.
Nevertheless, as far as pastiche goes, this is a competent effort. Though Pondsmith had not read Neuromancer when he created his game, CD Projekt Red seem intimately familiar with the book. Lines from it echoed through my head as I played. Night City is a grid of sprawl and decay, gaudy neon and hectic skyscrapers, with a populace on the “wavelength of amphetamine”, in Gibson’s words. (Though, away from the PC version, this important overcrowding suffers from Night City’s often empty streets.) The heist at the game’s heart also mirrors Neuromancer’s. Every character you meet has the same “cold intensity of hustling fresh capital” and speaks in the same mix of neologism and noir-ish patter, stuff like “she’s a girl with a gold plated brain” or “this one’s packing black market zeta tech repos!”
The sense of familiarity extends to the gameplay. Players level up via a mix of perks and experience gained by the player’s actions. Stabbing people improves proficiency with blades; shooting improves the relevant gun. You’ve seen it in Skyrim, and it’s a fine system, shallower than a true role-playing game like Divinity, yet deep enough to lure you back for another playthrough. Quests boil down to a cycle of “go here, meet this person, kill or charm them.” You can decide whether to stealth or go all guns blazing. Hacking is arduous at first, but grows on you. Guns feel weighty and firefights are chaotically fun.
I played an Xbox One version of Cyberpunk on an Xbox Series X, and had a mostly smooth yet unattractive experience. Glitches are indeed rampant. During one hotel shootout, for instance, my friend Jackie kept repeating “I’m leaking a little bit, homes” as a giant Robocop-esque enforcement droid pounded bullet after bullet into his ass. As I waited for him to limp over, the ragdoll bodies of the SWAT team I had wasted came alive, doing handstands around the plants in the hotel reception. Then the walls shimmered and shook and the screen went white for five seconds.
Games are uniquely reliant on hype (Cyberpunk had already turned a profit even before launch). As a child, I used to hang on the words of Peter Molyneux, creator of the Fable series, as he spun endearing yarns about acorns growing into trees.
As an adult, the hype train appears more sinister. Yet some big-budget games, like the Last of Us 2, or Red Dead Redemption 2, deserve the attention they generate (even if I did not personally enjoy them). They are produced by artists that pull the medium in new directions, and who make games from which other artists cannot escape. Cyberpunk is not one of those games – the dystopia it constructs pales in comparison to the one it emerged from, an industry of perverse incentives and corporate smokescreens.
Will Bedingfield is a staff writer for WIRED. He tweets from @WillBedingfield
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