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V stands with their back to the camera in Cyberpunk 2077 Patch 1.5

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Cyberpunk 2077: a 2022 re-review

Re-examining CD Projekt’s Achilles heel after patch 1.5

Image: CD Projekt Red

Cyberpunk 2077 was one of the most anticipated releases of 2020.

The newest project from The Witcher developer CD Projekt Red, it was promoted as a sea change in video games that would merge the deep history of R. Talsorian Games’ sprawling cyberpunk Night City with storytelling chops that made Geralt’s adventures in The Witcher so compelling for so many of us. It was all portrayed in first-person perspective, to really sell us on our protagonist V’s embodied relationship with the world around them.

But in a move typical for the cyberpunk genre, there was a stark difference between the hype and the actual thing. The game landed with a dull thud, the stark reality of which could be blamed on any number of factors called out by reviewers and players: plodding cyberpunk gameplay, the general emptiness of the world, and a lack of compelling narrative. Over all of this loomed a series of technical problems that quickly transformed Cyberpunk 2077 into a generator of glitchy memes and exposed a rushed game produced under distressing crunch conditions. Substantial performance errors prompted its removal from Sony’s PlayStation Store, and the intervening months have been a slow crawl of CD Projekt fixing, adding, and tweaking the game in incremental updates — an extensive bid to bring it in line with its marketing promises.

Now, 16 months later, the prevailing question I am still regularly asked is, “Is Cyberpunk 2077 ‘good’ now?”

An NPC gazes out over Night City Image: CD Projekt Red

In February 2022, CD Projekt released a substantial patch, version 1.5, for Cyberpunk 2077. It contains a large number of tweaks and fixes, some new content, and native support for PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X. Reading the patch notes is a lengthy time commitment, but the general gist is that CD Projekt has overhauled some part of nearly every game system in Cyberpunk 2077, from combat AI, to player stat functions, to the economy, to the way that vehicles work.

These big post-release swings are not unfamiliar to the developer, since it performed similar system and world overhauls with the second and third Witcher games. However, this is the first time that a single patch has had the weight of “fixing” an entire game on its back. It is a heavy weight, and I’d be lying if I said that having to evaluate how “fixed” the game is did not weigh on me heavily as I booted the game up on Playstation 5 once it was re-launched back in February.

In the weeks since, I have leisurely played through Cyberpunk 2077 for the first time. My eyes are as fresh as they can be, since I skipped the initial game to wait for the inevitable second swing. My verdict, put shortly, if you’re looking for the soundbite: Cyberpunk 2077 is now a pretty good game.

It works. It takes place in a world that seems to be the one that everyone anticipated at launch. People are living their lives in the massive Night City, and the player character V is just another character caught up in a process of trying to get a little bit higher in the hierarchy. You can wander from dirty streets to perfect skyline suites in the megatowers without much fuss, and the various missions thread V like a needle through these political realities rendered into spatial forms, the same way that any other piece of cyberpunk media does (thanks, Fredric Jameson).

V talks to a Fixer in Cyberpunk 2077 Image: CD Projekt Red

Based on reading reviews of the original Cyberpunk 2077and comparing it to my experience of completing the new Cyberpunk 2077 over the past few days, it seems that a key difference between pre- and post-1.5 is one of intensity. At launch, CD Projekt seemed to nail scale, in that the world was massive and appropriately futuristic. What it fumbled was a sense of density, a feeling that this big world contained functioning people — other than the player character — going about their business. The game world lacked a sense of weight, as if everything existed merely for the illusion of there being a city here rather than an evocation of a real metropolis, with shops and stalls and cyberpunk criminals and their entire network of economic relations.

It is a strange marker of current video game culture that this is the thing that we most desire, since by definition the entirety of a video game environment is a technical illusion to make a player feel important. The people on the sidewalk in any given game are not there to be full people. They are there to give context, and a certain aesthetic feeling, to a player speeding by them in a souped-up future car. If there is a key maneuver in patch 1.5, it is that these fantasies seem to be fulfilled. NPCs interact minimally with their environment, and they panic when gunfire starts nearby. They behave “realistically,” and like most of the non-player content in the game, seem to be a drastic leap forward from the videos you might remember from the disturbingly gleeful “look at this shit” responses that highlighted technical problems in 2020.

The combat also seems markedly different from the initial release. I played as a very technical boy, infecting enemies with powered-up hacks into their vital organs while I stalked around the combat zone. It was very clear to me how my strategy differed from the others on offer, giving me a feeling of being a razor blade tactically working through groups of foes. When my more elegant skills weren’t up to the task, I could always go at my cybernetic enemies with a baseball bat.

The gunplay, which often feels inevitable at many junctures, has more of the flavor of a warmed-over Far Cry with some weapon concepts, like assault rifles with tracking bullets, that felt lifted directly out of 2012’s Syndicate. While there is an entire weapon upgrade system, with a large number of materials to gather and source, the game’s content is paced in such a way that another, better weapon is always dropping off an enemy corpse, trivializing the entire system. As a scavenger lord who enjoyed playing that way, I value this as an excellent way to experience a lot of weapon types. I can imagine a more tactical gamer finding this frustrating.

A trauma team treats a patient in Cyberpunk 2077 Image: CD Projekt Red

One of the big hopes that I, and many others, had for Cyberpunk 2077 rested in how it might approach storytelling in its science-fictional universe. The Witcher games are successful at building up its core cast of characters and putting them in positions where we get a sense of them as three-dimensional humans, with thoughts and feelings and complications that are rarely represented within video games. The decision to make this cyberpunk game within the Cyberpunk brand identity meant that this game could build on the deep history of this world developed by Mike Pondsmith in the R. Talsorian Games Cyberpunk setting for more than 30 years.

CD Projekt’s promotional material took pains to tell you about Night City and all of that history, locating V within this nest of relationships before players even got their hands on the product. This world history, and the players in it, are what give context to the open world and its various zones and factions. It matters that you understand that Night City is sliced up by a dozen different groups, each with their own desires for the future and traditions that they keep alive. In turn, those groups provide a backdrop against which we understand the game’s primary characters like Johnny Silverhand, Panam Palmer, or the Arasaka corporate family. As a genre, cyberpunk is often exploring questions of who is constrained by what, and novels like Bruce Sterling’s Islands in the Net or William Gibson’s Neuromancer operate partially on the thrill of watching their characters break through the social, economic, and technical walls that have captured them.

The mode here is (unsurprisingly) just like that of The Witcher: The main character, V, is shaped by how the player interacts with the other characters in various situations, where difficult decisions have to be made in a nightmarish world of violence where the lights are bright and life is cheap.

However, the created-character nature of V, and the various backgrounds that V can be from (like a Nomad or a Corporate stooge) give Cyberpunk 2077 more of a Mass Effect vibe. The other characters are strongly drawn, with their own questlines, and when V enters their orbit, everyone’s life changes in some tangible, notable way.

From a broad perspective, this works in that Mass Effect mode where my understanding of V allowed me to make decisions from their perspective, but there is something lost in the “player-created” nature of V. While Night City has a big cast of characters with their own history with the place, the unwillingness to locate V firmly within that place means that everything sort of washes over me as a player. When Geralt met a new character or visited a new location in The Witcher 3, he always knew a little something about the context he was entering into, and my work as a player was to guide him through it and learn what I could. V, without a firm history, glides from mission to mission and place to place without much connection, knowing only what a questgiver tells them. For such a specific place and a specific time, so many of the things I did in the game ended up feeling generic. This is, frankly, astonishing to me.

A desert stretches into the horizon outside of Night City Image: CD Projekt Red

Even the design elements CD Projekt has deployed to check this dislocated feeling work in strange ways. I chose the Corporate background, which meant the game began with my firing from Arasaka corp, and I had some additional dialogue options whenever corporate politics became the focus. However, early in the game, that merely unlocked sarcastic or manipulative dialogue responses, allowing me to get deeper into a convo with my corporate-speak; by the end of the game, those same Corpo dialogue choices became almost entirely about obedience and pro-corporate approaches. This switch midstream of what a game mechanic does ultimately produces a situation where I could not make assumptions or assertions about V to give them a role-playing grounding on my own terms. This robbed many late-game moments of the gravity they might have had.

If there is a strength to be found in this narrative form, it lies in its characters and the struggles you help them through, including Johnny Silverhand, a construct that is trapped in V’s head. The entire plot of the game revolves around trying to eject Johnny, since the chip that trapped him there is slowly killing V. While there are some truly compelling gameplay moments that happen around this mixed-up biopsyche, such as segments where Silverhand controls V’s body and gets involved in rock and roll shenanigans, Silverhand (and Keanu Reeves’ performance) are eclipsed by more marginal characters like the idealist detective River or the aging fixer Rogue. There’s not a single character in Cyberpunk 2077 that isn’t a cyberpunk genre stereotype that has been picked over for 50 years to the point of triteness. But both the writing and performances for these characters had me engaged enough that I was always waiting for another of their missions to unlock.

As I finished four of the game’s endings, I told a friend that Cyberpunk 2077 felt weirdly like a holdover from another era of game design. At its core, it feels like a well executed Mass Effect welded onto a Far Cry; the narrative designs of the former feel layered on top of the hostile encounter, open-world nodes of the latter. Where The Witcher 3 was synthesizing a lot of pre-existing game ideas to make something unique, Cyberpunk 2077 is less coherent as an object on its own. You can play at the seams and feel the staples holding it all together. At this point, post-1.5, the most notable points of friction no longer feel like the result of development foibles or a lack of time. Instead, they feel like part of the game’s DNA — the faults that were there before any problems in final execution.

NPCs gather in a lab in Cyberpunk 2077 Image: Cd Projekt Red

It is worth thinking here about the decisions behind a major patch like this, which focuses almost entirely on the technical and gameplay sides of the game. There’s been no attempt to soften or explore the cyberpunk genre’s deployment of techno-orientalism in its treatment of Asian culture and characters, which is a huge missed opportunity in a game that spends so much time ruminating on the mistakes of the past, and how one might repair them. A transphobic ad is still plastered across nearly every surface in the game, monopolizing vision in a way that does not even line up with real-world advertising practices. With this game’s long tail of updates, there are seemingly infinite chances to go deeper, to rethink some assumptions, and to engage with the genre at least as fully as its founding texts did. Yet none of these things were deemed patch-worthy. It is more substantive, apparently, to make sure there are new apartments and cars and guns.

While patch 1.5 works, and it brings Cyberpunk 2077 up to whatever minimum standard people thought it should have been up to at launch. Playing the game for the first time now makes it clear that that high watermark is merely serviceable, and that the basic ideas in Cyberpunk 2077 are good enough to pass the time, but not enough to be truly great, or even a substantive look at the genre the game clings to. From pre-release hype to abysmal release to pretty good a year post-release, it’s a cyberpunk story for sure.

But it is impossible for me to play the game after this patch and not think about how so many other games, with so many more interesting ideas and takes on the genre, are not going to get the second swing that Cyberpunk 2077 is going to get over the next year. Years of dev time to produce a standard and familiar 1980s dystopia in a pretty good frame. Just another day in Night City.

Cyberpunk 2077 patch 1.5 was released on Feb. 15 on PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Windows PC, Xbox One, and Xbox Series X. The game was reviewed on PlayStation 5 using a pre-release download code provided by CD Projekt Red. Vox Media has affiliate partnerships. These do not influence editorial content, though Vox Media may earn commissions for products purchased via affiliate links. You can find additional information about Polygon’s ethics policy here.

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