Cyberpunk 2077: An ugly thrill ride
By ELISE FAVIS | The Washington Post | Published: December 18, 2020
Cyberpunk 2077 is an impressive realization of a futuristic world, but it comes at a great cost. An exciting story and detailed world are overshadowed by an abundance of bugs, misogynistic writing and all-too-familiar game mechanics. Some of these problems run deep and are too difficult to ignore, despite the engaging crime-drama thrill ride on the surface.
Like the greats in the cyberpunk genre, Cyberpunk 2077 asks what it means to be human and ponders the effects of a society run by mega corporations that have far too much control. However, the biggest failure of Cyberpunk is never taking these ideas far enough, making them feel shallow in a superficial setting that asks interesting questions, but fails to answer them thoughtfully.
Objectification, for example, is a tool of corporate greed, and you see it everywhere you turn: in the chatter of passersby, on television adverts and in emails you read. Nearly every NPC you chat with is rude, spitting insults your way. I imagined it stemmed from frustration in a world with a disenfranchised populace; but class differences, race, poverty, or any related issues, really, aren't given the spotlight. The implications of the cyberpunk setting are rarely meaningfully examined. The result is a dystopian world that is cruel just to be cruel. It is simply taken as fact that this is the way things are - and they're not going to change.
To paint how grimy this metropolis is, Cyberpunk relies on the suffering of minorities, particularly women, to embellish the seedy underworld of Night City. Often, I came across feminine characters on the street that walked with an exaggerated animation, hips swaying as though they were models, sauntering down a catwalk. Other times, I'd come across men holding back women that were drugged or drunk, feeling confused as to what the game's intent was, and disgusted when I couldn't interfere.
Night City is equal parts ugly and impressive. Dimly-lit bars brim with life, though an uncomfortably loud, orgasmic moan - originating from a television ad nearby - may interrupt your experience. One futuristic brothel surprised me with a graceful, platonic moment with a sex worker. Upon leaving the room, I overheard two men speaking about how consent is no longer necessary when free will can be switched off with a biochip. Even as I drove around the intricately detailed city, I felt frustrated when a billboard fetishized a transgender woman just to sell cans of soda.
Of all the wonderful moments I had in Cyberpunk 2077, they were often undermined by uncomfortable moments like these, where women are demeaned for arbitrary reasons that never fold into the main narrative. Philosophical questions are raised and immediately dropped.
At its best, cyberpunk fiction can be a lens through which we examine our own world; A dystopian society is meant to be ugly. “Cyberpunk is a warning, not an aspiration,” said Mike Pondsmith, the creator of the tabletop game of which the video game is based from, in an interview with NME Magazine. But Night City doesn’t feel like a warning or an aspiration. Its fairly apolitical nature does little to encourage players to reflect on real-world problems upon completing the game.
Even well-written female characters, like Judy, a hotheaded but sharp woman, live under the shadow of men who have wronged her. When you're given the chance to fight back against those inequalities, it often just ends with violence: a cheap, vengeful tactic, rather than systemic change that can alter this fictional city's regressive views. The answer, all too often, is merely gunning down the enemy. It boils down to juvenile noise rather than thoughtful commentary.
A plethora of bugs were distracting as well, taking me out of the experience too often (sometimes literally, with game crashes or missions that couldn't be completed, requiring me to reload a save). Weapons hang in the air rather than laying on the ground, NPC voices are abruptly silenced and glitchy lighting makes shadows and lights flicker even in the most serene moments. Sometimes these bugs are funny, like when a character continuously shifts between standing on and sitting in a chair in quick succession. Mostly, it just breaks immersion.
Bugs and thematic issues aside, yes, there are good moments. There's humanity to be found in this world as long as you look for it - especially within the meaty side missions.
Cyberpunk 2077 is exciting, often dialing up the action as high as possible during fun set pieces, like when you infiltrate a swanky hotel or a crowded parade. Gunplay feels sharp and snappy, with your regular assortment of SMGs, shotguns and assault rifles. Stealth is a little more janky, and at times frustrating, especially since there's no way to escape combat when spotted (aside from an upgrade that lets you disengage in a limited fashion, one enemy at a time). Each mission offers plenty of flexibility, which is great, but that feels like a bare minimum expectation for modern open-world role-playing games at this point.
You can create your own build that focuses on stealth, action or hacking. At first, I was impressed at the sheer depth to these systems, but the more I played and leveled up, the more I wished for cooler, more dynamic powers. Unfortunately, most upgrades are passive. Gameplay mechanics like hacking cameras to scope out an area, or even the "braindance" sequences which involve scrubbing through interactive videos for evidence, all feel like games I've played before, including Watch Dogs or Batman: Arkham Knight. This doesn't make them bad; these parts are still entertaining. They're just not as groundbreaking as I anticipated from the much-hyped Cyberpunk 2077.
The best moments are when you get to know those around you. In one mission, I was scoping out a building from afar with Takemura, a distant man who puts honor above all. As we scouted, he finally let his guard down, confiding in me about his difficult past. Hanging out with Panam, a nomad who needs to prove herself to her clan, is always a thrill. We bonded while stealing heavy artillery and blowing things up.
Decisions bring both big and small consequences. Your chosen origin story changes the introductory missions and gives you new dialogue options, but the biggest impact to decision-making relies on how you spend your time. Depending on which side missions you complete, for example, more options become available for the end game. Even within those final moments, branching paths offer impressive flexibility that lead you to wildly different endings.
If you play your cards right, some characters become more than friends. The one relationship I saw through culminated in a sex scene that was among the most tasteful I've seen in a video game, never feeling gratuitous, as such scenes often do. Intimate scenes with sex workers, on the other hand, are absolutely objectifying, as they're likely meant to be. These are also awkward, especially as the controller rumbles and stiff, first-person camera angles make for an uneasy experience.
Johnny Silverhand, played by Keanu Reeves, has a significant role in the story as a co-protagonist. He plays the part well, giving the flawed character a believable redemptive arc in one of the many substantial side missions. As genuine as that arc may be, I still had a hard time warming up to him. In one instance, where you set him up on a date, I didn't feel compelled to help him, only because of how poorly and selfishly he had treated women in his past. It makes for a complicated relationship.
As for others, some wonderful characters never get enough time to shine, either being killed off early in the game, or reduced to plot devices surrounding sexual assault and human trafficking. This is a shame. When Cyberpunk wants to, it brings incredible depth to its varied cast.
Cyberpunk 2077 is a game that's difficult to recommend; one that I both appreciate and dislike at the same time. The scope of the world is ambitious, with detail and content galore even in the briefest of interactions. For a world that has a progressive veneer, where transhumanism and body modifications are the norm, I wish more time was taken to constructively examine sex and gender in the main threads of the story.
Platforms: PC, Stadia, Xbox One, PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5