Freedom? ’77 | Cyberpunk 2077 Review

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There is one thing that distinguishes videogames from every other type of art. One thing videogames can utilize that no other medium can — one thing that is simultaneously the gift and the curse of this medium.

Freedom.

Freedom is the mysterious, magical spark at the heart of every videogame. Designing a videogame is really a process of sculpting an experience around the freedom the player has, and playing a videogame is about exploring the freedom a developer has given you.

The history of videogames is a history of players getting more and more freedom. What started with the simple freedom of either going up or down with a Pong paddle became the freedom of exploring wide open 2-D spaces in The Legend of Zelda which, in the 90s, became the freedom of traversing full 3-D spaces in Doom.

In 2001, freedom in videogames transformed when Grand Theft Auto 3 was released. GTA3 seemed to offer a boundless type of freedom where you could “go anywhere” and “do anything” within a semi-realistic 3-D world. This freedom was, of course, an illusion — you couldn’t go anywhere or do anything in GTA3 — but the feeling was real. The way GTA3 worked made you feel like anything was possible. It made you feel free.

In the years after 2001, many games took the 3-D open world foundation of GTA3 and expanded it in different ways. Ubisoft began creating games like Assassin’s Creed that sprinkled simple tasks throughout an open world. Bethesda’s Fallout 3 and 4 as well as The Elder Scrolls games brought RPG elements into their open worlds. CD Projekt Red’s The Witcher 3 populated their open world with fascinating characters you could have detailed conversations with. And, of course, Rockstar expanded the scope and detail of their open worlds with later iterations of Grand Theft Auto and Red Dead Redemption.

But while these games offered the same fundamental “go anywhere/do anything” mechanics that GTA3 did, as time went on, the feeling of freedom these games offered contracted instead of expanding. The structure of these games was the same, but the gameplay became rote and inflexible. The best overview of this is a video from Jake Christensen aka Nakey Jakey called Rockstar’s Game Design Is Outdated, where he walks through how recent games like Red Dead Redemption 2 force you to play in a very specific way, giving you far less flexibility than Grand Theft Auto 3 offered and reducing the feeling of freedom the player has.

Other games, however, have expanded on the feeling of freedom that GTA3 sparked. In 2008, Far Cry 2 offered a brutally realistic open world where the player is given very little instruction and lots of leeway in accomplishing their tasks. 2015’s Metal Gear Solid V went down a similar path, dropping you in an open world and letting you approach your objectives from any angle.

But the crowning achievements when it comes to expanding the feeling of freedom in videogames are recent games like The Legend of Zelda: Breath of The Wild and Outer Wilds, both of which offer a shocking, awe-inspiring feeling of freedom thanks to the very flexible ways their systems and worlds are structured.

As Skill Up’s Ralph Panebianco describes in his 2020 game of the year video, open world has been the dominant genre during this previous generation of videogames, but that genre is split into map-marker driven Ubisoft-style games that offer only the mere suggestion of freedom and curiosity-driven games like Breath of The Wild and Outer Wilds that offer a much broader sense of limitless freedom.

This is the world that Cyberpunk 2077 was born into.

In the run up to its release, Cyberpunk 2077 claimed to offer an unprecedented level of freedom. The trailer chanted the mantra “your cyberpunk, your way.”, which whipped fans into a frenzy with many echoing a sentiment that Noah Caldwell Gervais heard from a friend: that this game was going to unequivocally be the best game of all time.

Before the game was released, early reviews from professional critics came out and were generally positive. But after the game was released, player reviews came out and were almost universally negative.

Much of the conversation in the weeks after Cyberpunk 2077’s release focused on the fact that the game was buggy, especially on the PS4/XboxOne generation of consoles. Characters T-Posed, graphics popped in and out, placeholder models were still in the game, and most devastatingly, crashes often halted the game in it’s tracks and some missions were bugged in a way that prevented the story from proceeding.

All this crystallized a general consensus around the game: Cyberpunk 2077 is a buggy, glitchy, broken mess. End of story.

But there’s much more to Cyberpunk 2077 than just bugginess. In many ways, those early reviews are correct, this game is a success. But at the same time those who are disappointed are also correct, not only are there the bugs, this game is also often frustratingly rote, linear, and inflexible.

To use the two terms I hate using, Cyberpunk 2077 is both a good game and a bad game. Both sides are right. And after weeks of trying to parse this out and get to the bottom of this dichotomy, that Skill Up video I mentioned earlier that discussed the two kinds of open world games made me realize something fundamental about Cyberpunk 2077: it succeeds at its explicit objective while still failing at its implicit objective.

The explicit objective of Cyberpunk 2077 was that it was going to let you play the game however you wanted to play it. Like the trailer said “your cyberpunk, your way.” This game promised to be the evolution of the go anywhere/do game genre by mixing into one package all the elements from games like Fallout, Grand Theft Auto and, of course, The Witcher 3.

But the implicit promise, the promise players deduced from the previous promise, was also that this game was going to offer that feeling of limitless freedom that Breath of the Wild and Outer Wilds offered. This game was going to do both, it was going to have everything from all the go anywhere/do anything games of the past, AND it was going to feel more free than any open world game before it.

Cyberpunk 2077 succeeds at the former while failing at the latter. Cyberpunk 2077 succeeds at letting you play the game however you want to play it and including everything from all the go anywhere/do anything games of the past. But it doesn’t feel free. It doesn’t even feel half as free as Breath of the Wild or Outer Wilds.

This is how you get the split between the early critic’s review and the early player’s reviews. When judged as a Ubisoft-style open world game, Cyberpunk 2077 is a success. It’s got a large, detailed world, an interesting story, and a wealth of different mechanics to sink your teeth into. But as a game that makes you feel free, a game that feels open and loose and flexible? When judged from that perspective, the game is a failure.

And the thing is, this dichotomy is exactly what defines Cyberpunk 2077 as an experience. You can feel that this game wanted to offer both the Ubisoft-style open world, and the Breath of the Wild style freedom. And I think at one point in development, the game may have been on track to deliver that. But it seems that as time pressed on and the scope of the game expanded and the pressure to release intensified, the designers had to make tough choices, and those choices all involved retreating back to tried-and-true strategies from map-marker driven, Ubisoft-style open world games.

Now that we’re a couple months removed from the game’s release, some stories are bearing out that perspective. And it’s beginning to become more clear that perhaps CD Projekt Red bit off more than it could chew.

And while I do believe that this iteration of Cyberpunk 2077 could’ve been made more cohesive by doing less instead of more, this game still deserves credit for what it tried to do — it deserves credit for trying to be the most free open world game ever created. Even though, as a whole, Cyberpunk 2077 lands well short of that goal, there are still a few moments in this game that demonstrate what that future might look like

Cyberpunk 2077 begins with choices.

As soon as you start a new game, the first thing you do is select a difficulty level. Then, a life path. Then you launch into character customization. Then you level up your character’s attributes before finally confirming your choices and jumping into the game.

Once you’re actually in the game, you make a lot of dialogue choices during an introductory section that differs based on the life path you choose, before much later getting to a tutorial that explains all of your combat and hacking options and a mission that lets you practice those techniques in the “real world.”

After that first mission, when you’re finally released into the open world, it feels like you’ve just gotten off the game’s introductory linear on-ramp. Your screen is now cluttered with icons indicating all the things you can do, and your brain is still processing the explanations of the game’s many attributes and systems. You’re now able to explore one part of the city, find side missions, and do whatever you want.

I decided to ignore most of those icons and start making headway on the main story line. This part of the game, Act 1, focuses on the lead up to a big heist. You begin by meeting a crime boss who gives you two tasks. One, meet with Evelyn Parker, the mastermind of the heist, and two acquire a spider robot called a flathead from a dangerous gang.

The meeting with Evelyn focuses mainly on fleshing out the details of the heist, but the flathead acquisition task is much more complex and loaded with intertwining and sometimes invisible choices.

First, you can meet with Meredith Stout, a manager at a military corporation called Millitech who was in charge of transporting the flathead, or you can skip that interaction all together. If you do meet with Meredith, she’ll offer you a credchip with 10,000 eurodollars on it that you can use to buy the flathead from the gang that stole it, an offer you can either accept or refuse. If you take the credchip AND you selected the corpo life path, you can vocalize your assumption that there’s malware on the chip that will harm the gang that stole the flathead, but if you selected another life path, you aren’t aware of that concern. Then, when you go into the meeting with the gang that has the flathead, you can choose to use the credchip, hack the credchip to remove the malware then use it, use your own money, or just fight the gang.

The best way to visualize all these choices is this chart that PowerPyx put together, but even that is an oversimplification of this mission’s depth. This mission requires juggling a lot of competing interests. Do you do something that will make Meredith happy and therefore win yourself an ally at a powerful corporation? Or do you try to avoid angering the gang you’re negotiating with in an attempt to avoid a shoot out? The moment when the gang’s leader asks you for payment is a beautifully tense moment where you have to consider all your options as they appear, just as you would in a real-world negotiation.

This mission feels like it delivers on everything Cyberpunk 2077 promised. It gives you all the options you’d be able to think of, it lets you choose who you want to befriend and who you want to betray, it makes you feel like you have freedom within the story. And, most excitingly, this mission feels like just a small sampling of what the rest of the game is going to be like.

Unfortunately, it’s not. This is the last main storyline mission that works this way.

After you get the flathead, you plan and execute the heist, which spirals out of control at the end, ultimately forcing you to take the thing you were stealing, a microchip, and slot it into your head. When you meet up with the crime boss from earlier, he kills you, but the microchip in your head, which happens to contain the digitized soul of Johnny Silverhand — a rockstar/terrorist/rebel who died 50 years ago — was able to reboot your body.

That’s the good news. The bad news is that you’re now dying again, just slower. Johnny’s chip is not only making Johnny appear to you as a hallucination, but it’s also slowly taking over your brain. If you don’t remove the chip, your personality will slowly be supplanted with Johnny’s, but simply ripping the chip out would kill you. Your only option is to find an elite expert on this technology and convince them to perform a delicate operation to remove the chip.

When I got to this point, it felt like I had gotten off another, longer linear on-ramp. I thought, “oh, ok, THIS is the actual beginning of the game. Now, I’m truly free and the options here are going to be like the interesting choices I had in that mission with Meredith but on a massive scale.”

But a few hours into Act II, I realized that wasn’t the case. I was simply locked in a familiar gameplay loop. I was clicking on missions in my journal, going to their starting point, following their instructions, completing the mission, and then getting dumped back out into the open world. Instead of getting off an on-ramp, I realized that this entire game is on-ramps, just elevated highways that take me in a straight line from one story point to the next.

But I also realized that, at the same time, this game was succeeding at its explicit mission of letting me play the game however I wanted to play it.

My choices were plentiful: If I wanted to be stealthy and complete a mission without engaging a single enemy, I could do that. If I wanted to go in guns blazing and treat the entire game like it’s Call of Duty, I could do that. If I wanted to upgrade items I could do that, if I just wanted to wait and pick up better weapons off the ground I could do that. If I wanted to trick out V’s body with enhancements, I could do that. If I wanted to stick with the default cybernetic setup, I could do that. If I wanted to pursue side missions, I could do that. If I wanted to stick to the main storyline, I could do that.

But these choices weren’t making me feel free because almost all of them are hollow. Few choices seemed to meaningfully change anything that happened in the story. I was pushing my character down different roads, but always arriving at the same destination.

It didn’t really matter if I chose to go into a mission stealthily or guns blazing because the result of successfully accomplishing the missions was the same. It didn’t matter if I upgraded weapons or just picked up better ones because they all got the job done. It didn’t matter if I tricked out my cybernetic setup or not because I didn’t need to make any changes to progress in the story.

Similarly, it almost never mattered what dialogue options I selected since those rarely affect how characters think of you. What life path I selected didn’t matter outside of occasionally having a single additional dialogue choice, which again, usually didn’t change anything. I occasionally encountered a door that couldn’t be opened because my body stat or technical knowledge level wasn’t high enough, but that was the only time my attributes came into play. And even something as trivial as my appearance didn’t matter since I rarely saw it again after the opening menu.

When I eventually completed Cyberpunk 2077’s main storyline, I realized that only one decision actually matters in this game, and it’s whether or not you complete a select few side missions that unlock different endings. These missions are extremely important — they enable different characters to help you in the final missions — but they’re hidden amongst truly inconsequential content in the side missions section of your journal. It seems like this was meant to make selecting who you wanted to work with in the end feel natural and organic, but, at least in my experience, it just felt obfuscated to the point where I wasn’t actually making a choice. It just felt like one of those things I’d only know about if I Googled it.

This final decision is the perfect encapsulation of how Cyberpunk 2077 so often feels like it was meant to be so much more than it is. It feels like if you mapped out Cyberpunk 2077’s main storyline, it would be a simple string of pearls design: there are a few paths to different story beats, and a few different endings, but the overall experience is mostly linear. That’s all well and good, but it also feels like there were meant to be so many more lines connecting these dots. It feels like there were so many more roads that, instead of getting completed, were simply turned into cul-de-sacs, forcing you to turn around and go back to the main road once you’re done exploring them.

For example, take that mission from earlier with Meredith Stout. It seems like that mission was meant to be the beginning of a path that could’ve been important throughout the rest of the game. It seems like that relationship could’ve been critical for future decisions. But instead, it only results in a random sex scene — a cul-de-sac that doesn’t go anywhere.

It seems like Cyberpunk 2077’s thinking was that this game could be a web that is so intricate and interconnected that it would actually cease to feel like a web. This game thought that if you just built enough elevated highways, they would eventually just sort of bleed together into one big concrete patch that would allow you to move around in any direction.

It’s tough to say whether this strategy of creating the illusion of freedom through hardcoding hundreds of choices will ever be viable, but what could’ve been done to make Cyberpunk 2077 feel more free at this stage in the history of videogame technology was to simply do less instead of more. In fact, that is essentially what many of the game’s side missions do.

Take one throwaway mission called “Flight of The Cheetah” in which you must escort a wanted gang member named Hwangbo to a meeting. The mission brief says he’s holed up in a hotel, so you must search that area to find him. When you do discover him, you share a quick, humanizing quip with him, and head out the door. But, of course, a rival gang shows up just as you’re leaving to take him out. Now, I could go fight these people. But instead, because I explored much of the hotel before finding Hwangbo’s room, I knew that there was a door down the hall I could open that would lead us right to the street. We took that route, I called up my car, and drove him safely to the meeting.

This experience does feel like the evolution of the “go anywhere/do anything” genre. It featured all the loose flexibility of a GTA3 mission, while also including detailed characters and a rich interactive setting.

And there are other side missions that are an even better example of this — missions that put even more emphasis on character and plot while maintaining that same high degree of flexibility.

Take “Violence,” for example, a mission where you must get into a nightclub via various means, spy on a pop star’s boyfriend/manager, and then decide whether or not to tell that pop star that her boyfriend/manager isn’t cheating on her but trying to make a duplicate of her soul using the same technology that put Johnny Silverhand in your head.

Or “Happy Together,” where you must simply listen to a neighbor’s troubles, and if you don’t the consequences can be fatal.

I wish all of Cyberpunk 2077 could’ve felt like these side missions, but that would’ve required an entirely different approach to this game from the very beginning. That would’ve required doing the opposite of the game’s “play however you want to play” ethos. It would’ve required choosing some things from other open world games while rejecting others. It would’ve required scaling back the ambitions of the main storyline, while focusing more on creating simple, self-contained missions that center around interesting characters. Ultimately it would’ve meant doing less instead of doing more.

But, in the end, “this game should’ve done less instead of more” isn’t really my main takeaway from Cyberpunk 2077.

I’m disappointed that the general consensus around this game still seems to be that it’s only a glitchy, broken mess because that’s simply not true — this game does still have glitches, but it is functional, especially on more modern hardware. It’s fair to say that this game is a competent Ubisoft-style open world game that would have been a smoother experience if it had tried to do less instead of more — that’s a completely accurate assessment. But the most accurate way of summing up this game is acknowledging that this is a wildly ambitious attempt at making the most free-feeling open world game ever created with some moments where that potential still shines through.

About a week ago, Cyberpunk 2077’s Lead Quest Designer, Paweł Sasko, was streaming the game on Twitch, and one of the comments he made during that stream got clipped out, put on Reddit and I’ve been thinking about it ever since.

“I saw some people asking, like, “what happened?” You know? That the company that did The Witcher 3 did Cyberpunk and so on. And I’m, like, “what happened was we have reached for new IP, we have tried to learn as much as we can, we…Our goals have been super ambitious. You know? And I don’t really feel that you — the players and journalists — don’t fully completely understand how difficult it was to make this game. I don’t really feel…And, you know, I’m not saying that you guys should be giving us more credit for it because you should demand a fully functional, well done game. And that’s your right. The thing that I’m talking about is more of an acknowledgement, you know? “That was a very difficult game to make. A very ambitious one. And we have tried to pull off as much as we could on all the fronts.”

I agree, I think Cyberpunk 2077 deserves that recognition. It deserves recognition for trying to push the boundaries of freedom in videogames. And while the final game doesn’t fully accomplish its goals, there are aspects of this game that demonstrate what might work in the future and what might not.

Whether you consider this game a success or a failure, whether you enjoyed it or hated it, Cyberpunk 2077 is a stepping stone to the future of open world videogames. It’s just not the stepping stone that many expected.

If you enjoyed this review, consider following me on Twitter @chrisonvidgames, or subscribing to my YouTube channel, ChrisOnVideogames.

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Chris On Videogames

Chris On Videogames

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Videogame criticism that’s short, sharp, and insightful. New reviews every other Friday.