It’s been exactly a year since Cyberpunk 2077 launched to critical derision, so I thought it would be a good opportunity to take a look at the game’s progress, lack of progress, and future prospects. On the 10th of December 2020, after several delays, Cyberpunk 2077 was released by CD Projekt Red – but that really isn’t the beginning of the story, and we should briefly step back and consider the absolutely ridiculous hype bubble that had grown around the game.
Here’s my two cents: no matter what state Cyberpunk 2077 had been in a year ago today, an awful lot of players would still have found it to be a disappointing experience. CD Projekt Red’s marketing team didn’t just passively sit by and allow the game’s hype to get out of control in the weeks and months before its launch, but they actively contributed to the problem.
For a bit of background, I worked for a time in the video games industry, specifically on the marketing side of things. While it’s natural for a publisher to want to see excitement around a title, care must be taken at an early stage not to allow the hype to get out of control. In the case of Cyberpunk 2077, CD Projekt Red’s marketing team seemed incapable of saying “no” – they weren’t doing a good job of managing players’ expectations, and the result was that many players built up a vision in their minds of a once-in-a-lifetime experience; a “perfect” video game. Cyberpunk 2077 was never going to live up to the hype that had been built up, no matter how good it might’ve been. At the end of the day, it’s just another video game.
I could see this hype bubble inflating, growing ever larger and slipping far out of CD Projekt Red’s control. In October 2020, a couple of months before the game’s launch, I wrote an article here on the website titled Cyberpunk 2077 and the dangers of hype in which I expressed exactly this opinion. No matter how good the game might ultimately be, I argued, CD Projekt Red had allowed the game’s hype bubble to get far too big. By allowing prospective players to set incredibly high expectations and refusing to lift a finger to rein in those expectations, the game’s publisher was setting up players for disappointment – as well as setting up the game for negative reviews.
I couldn’t have known then, of course, how bad Cyberpunk 2077 was lining up to be. A last-second delay from November to December should’ve rung alarm bells, but with the pandemic causing all kinds of disruptions last year it wasn’t a huge shock. CD Projekt Red had a great reputation as being a player-friendly company, so if they said they needed a few extra weeks to give the game a final spit and polish, most players were willing to believe that that’s all it was.
Despite my scepticism of Cyberpunk 2077 being everything it was hyped up to be, I was still expecting to see a decent game in December 2020. When the dust settled, I felt sure there’d be a rock-solid role-playing first-person shooter under the hood, even if the game’s loftier promises of redefining what a single-player game could look like didn’t come to pass. To say that I was stunned by the state of the game at launch, and the reaction to it from players, would be an understatement!
In early December 2020, CD Projekt Red could do no wrong in the eyes of players. The Polish studio’s previous title had been the critically-acclaimed The Witcher 3 in 2015, a game widely hailed as one of the best titles of the generation. With policies and practices that many folks felt were player-friendly, and a good social media team to boot, the company had one of the best reputations in the industry. That evaporated overnight, and a year later the company’s reputation remains in the toilet.
Players will put up with a lot of things – many scandals in the games industry, even very serious ones, usually end up disappearing without a trace by the time a publisher has the next AAA title ready to go. But one thing players can’t abide is being lied to – and CD Projekt Red lied about Cyberpunk 2077.
The game was not fit for purpose on Xbox One and PlayStation 4 – and even today, a full year later, it still performs far worse on those machines than it does on high-end PCs and the newer generation of consoles. CD Projekt Red knew this – because at some point during Cyberpunk 2077′s development, a decision was clearly made to prioritise next-gen consoles over what were then the current-generation machines.
CD Projekt Red had a choice during development: scrap the current-gen version and go all-in on next-gen and PC, or scale the game back so that performance on older hardware would improve. They chose to do neither, doggedly (and stupidly) pushing ahead with a plan to release the game on hardware that, even under the best possible conditions, can’t really handle it. This problem has been lessened by the extra year of development time since release, but it hasn’t gone away. Bugs and glitches remain on Xbox One and PlayStation 4, and actions taken to mitigate the game’s performance issues have meant that players see things like fewer pedestrians, less traffic, and get shorter draw distances. Xbox One and PlayStation 4 players have ended up with a worse version of the game no matter how you look at things.
I don’t believe for a second that CD Projekt Red’s management was blissfully unaware of the game’s impending problems this time last year. Their excuse that most developers were working on PCs so no one knew about the bugs and performance issues on home consoles is ludicrous in the extreme – and if anyone out there believes it, I’ve got a bridge to sell you. No, they knew full well that the game was not in a fit state for launch, but they went ahead and launched it anyway. And then, when things understandably went sideways, instead of coming clean and admitting they made a mistake, CD Projekt Red lied about it.
Cyberpunk 2077 is barely ready for release today, let alone a year ago. It needed many more months of development time to even get to this point, and I would argue that if it had been released today it would still have received criticism for its bugs, glitches, and other issues – especially on those older consoles. Not to mention that the overinflated hype bubble we discussed would have burst as players came to find a game that has some decidedly mediocre gameplay elements; things that other titles did better years ago.
To me, that’s Cyberpunk 2077′s most egregious fault. Sure, the lies on the corporate side of things are pretty crappy. It was definitely an overhyped game, too. And the bugs and glitches will forever define Cyberpunk 2077 for a great many people. But for me, I see so many gameplay elements and features underneath the bugs, performance issues, and scandals surrounding the game that just aren’t that good, or aren’t handled well within the game world. Despite its ambitions, Cyberpunk 2077 is, even on its very best day, an okay video game.
An engrossing, exciting story holds players’ interest, and I fully agree that a good story can redeem even the most mediocre of titles. But underneath that story is a game that just isn’t all that good. Its first-person shooting is okay… but hardly spectacular. I can point to many modern titles that do shooting better and in more fun ways than Cyberpunk 2077: Doom Eternal and Halo: The Master Chief Collection are two just within the single-player realm.
Open-world gameplay is likewise something other titles do better. Grand Theft Auto V is still the definitive city-based open world game, and it gets so many things right that Cyberpunk 2077 gets wrong: driving, traffic, pedestrian/civilian NPC behaviour, traffic AI, mini-map/radar, police… the list goes on. Some of Cyberpunk 2077′s open-world elements feel so incredibly outdated when compared even to lesser games in a similar space – police AI and police spawning, for example, work far better and feel more intuitive in games like Saints Row 2, which came out in 2008.
I’d argue that the bugs, glitches, and performance issues actually ended up shielding Cyberpunk 2077 from some serious gripes about the way the game really works. The overnight bursting of the hype bubble surrounding the game a year ago mostly came about as a result of the bugs and the lies – players wanted to play the game they’d built up in their heads, and were angry with CD Projekt Red for releasing it before it was ready. It’s only as the game’s development continued that we’ve come to see how Cyberpunk 2077 might’ve looked had it been launched in a better state – and for a lot of folks, these gameplay elements just aren’t particularly well-made or fun. They’re certainly not innovative, meaning that despite bold claims in the run-up to the game’s release, Cyberpunk 2077 was never going to be the once-in-a-lifetime experience that many players had hoped for.
Now that we’ve had a year to see the game in all its glory, it’s my firm belief that Cyberpunk 2077′s problems don’t begin and end with its incredibly bad launch. That launch will, justifiably, go on to define the game for the rest of its days. Very few titles before or since have seen such a spectacular implosion, and CD Projekt Red will be scrambling for years to recover from this self-inflicted wound. But as the dust settled and as the game’s development has continued, with bug fixes and patches having been rolled out over the course of this first year, we’ve seen what Cyberpunk 2077 could have been – or at least we’ve seen glimpses of that.
A strong, engaging story with some well-written dialogue and clever world-building keeps Cyberpunk 2077 interesting. Had it not been for the bugs and glitches, that might’ve been good enough to see it pick up better-than-average reviews: seven or seven-and-a-half out of ten, that kind of thing. But underneath that story, gameplay remains shallow. The game is comprised entirely of systems that other titles have done before – and in many cases have done far better. There was never anything new or innovative about Cyberpunk 2077, and the things that could’ve made it seem better than it was – such as its densely-packed open world or sense of scale – were completely ruined by the bugs and launch issues.
It’s possible that 2022 will see more updates for Cyberpunk 2077 that start to change the narrative. A next-gen console version is already on the cards for the first half of next year, for example, and there are more free updates to come in the months ahead. But as things stand, I can’t see a way to turn Cyberpunk 2077 into the game that CD Projekt Red spent eight years hyping to oblivion. It has the potential, once all the bugs are fixed, to be a decent game. But it will never be a great one.
Cyberpunk 2077 is out now for PC, PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Xbox One, and Xbox Series S/X. Cyberpunk 2077 is the copyright of CD Projekt Red. Some promotional artwork courtesy of IGDB. This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.