It wasn’t long into Microsoft’s E3 2019 press conference that Cyberpunk 2077 was showcased alongside the famously “breathtaking” Keanu Reeves. Excitement pulsed through my body and poached my brain to an internal temperature of 170 degrees Fahrenheit. All other thoughts, goals, and desires melted away like tender meat falling from the bone. Playing this game became a singular concern in my life, a climactic mountain that stood unmoving in the horizon, cloaking everything else in shadow.
After all, Cyberpunk 2077 was being developed by CD Projekt Red, the studio responsible for The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt. The Witcher 3 was appointment gaming, with its botchlings and sorceress impalement. Now came the devs’ treatment of an open-world dystopian future. With Cyberpunk, CDPR was trading a stuffed unicorn for Blade Runner’s origami unicorn. What’s more, its first-person perspective drew obvious parallels to the Bethesda RPGs occupying a permanent residence in my heart; to say I was excited would be an understatement. The ensuing string of delays left me concerned but nonetheless optimistic. And then, in December 2020, the game launched.
Cyberpunk 2077 became a punchline in the weeks that followed. Bugs were common, if not pervasive — one week after its release, it was pulled from the PlayStation Store. Despite its issues, my experience with the game at launch was generally positive. Playing on PC spared me from the debilitating performance issues that plagued the console version. I invested well over 100 hours, every mission complete except for a single bugged side job about a guy with a malfunctioning penis implant.
In December 2020, Cyberpunk 2077 felt like a phenomenal game that was still a few years away from launch. There was still the skeleton of something special, a suggestion of the revelatory experience I had anticipated since 2019. CDPR failed to meet my expectations, but I was nonetheless sated in the way that a gross quantity of cheese cubes can technically suffice as a meal.
Years passed: Returnal, Deathloop, Shin Megami Tensei 5, Elden Ring, The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom, Baldur’s Gate 3, Starfield. Meanwhile, CDPR did not abandon its botchling. Certain patch notes tempted me to return, but still, I hesitated. It wasn’t until Phantom Liberty and update 2.0 that the temptation became impossible to resist. Even after enjoying almost 150 hours of RPG-sized fun with Starfield, I sank immediately into the world of 2.0. The potential evident at launch has finally been realized, and its phoenix-like ascent makes it that much more of a triumph.
The Witcher series established CDPR as master storytellers. Cyberpunk continues the trend. Coming off of Starfield, I was struck by Cyberpunk’s immersive storytelling techniques. Its narratives are presented in a manner evocative of the Half-Life series, where players maintain control of their character while events unfold around them. This allows the game’s NPCs to chew up the scenery. Their performances are appropriately emotive, and always considerate of their surroundings as it pertains to mood and cinematography. For example, tension inside the hotel room during the main story mission “The Heist” was palpable. I can distinctly recall a sense of claustrophobia as, from a cramped hiding spot, I witnessed a tragedy unfold, unable to move for fear of being seen.
CDPR brings every mission-based interaction to life by letting the player exist, and move, within the same space as the action. Compare this to Starfield, where storytelling is mostly confined to dialogue with NPCs standing in the dead center of the screen, merely speaking, while the player is similarly tethered to the conversation. This method of plot delivery limits the type of story that can be told, and the emotional investment that results. One only has to consider the gameplay variety that emerges from Cyberpunk’s storytelling in order to recognize the shortcomings of Starfield’s.
It’s not just the presentation of Cyberpunk’s narrative that makes it so potent. The script does a lot of heavy lifting, too. The game never hesitates to dredge the depths of human depravity. Night City itself looms menacingly as a place where criminal megacorporations reign supreme. Technology has commodified human existence, and sexual and violent desires can be indulged at every whim. Yet, despite the early expectation-setting, missions still manage to shock and disgust. In one mission, a convicted murderer endeavors to capture a braindance (basically, a virtual reality recording) of his crucifixion. In another, players infiltrate a snuff braindance studio to recover footage of a child being murdered. One unassuming side gig in Phantom Liberty takes V to an academy that experiments on children, not to save the kids, but to find evidence of tax evasion. Rare is the objective that didn’t give me pause.
My initial read on Cyberpunk was that of an edgelord diatribe, but 2.0 made me realize that my perception was the problem. When the game comes across as try-hard, it is not a misstep, but the intended effect. V’s reactions and manner of speaking are those of a 23-year-old inhabiting this specific universe. Her language and actions are consistent with her background as a corporate peon, lonely outsider, or desensitized gang member. This fact became easier to appreciate in 2.0, as various improvements have given the game a pulse that didn’t exist before.
The open world is dense with sensory information in every direction: advertisements, holograms, spontaneous gun fights, crumbled ruins, the red smoke of a nearby airdrop. Different regions present distinct themes and unique threats. Despite various elements competing for attention, there is no wrong way to proceed. Curiosity is indulged with a quest, or combat, or a vignette that adds color to the universe. Improved NPC behavior adds another dimension to the player’s engagement with their surroundings. They occupy themselves with activities, discuss topics unrelated to the player’s actions, and give appropriate feedback when confronted with danger or prying eyes. Video games have conditioned us to follow deviations in patterns. Cyberpunk replaces any patterns with a wall of sound. As a result, the world feels like it would exist even in V’s absence.
2.0 has also changed the very kinetics of V’s combat options. 1.0 featured a relatively straightforward perk tree and abilities with unmitigated power, resulting in an overpowered V and unfulfilling enemy engagements. There was little reason to deviate from a combat strategy that worked. 2.0’s overhauled progression system corrects this issue. The new Skill feature increases V’s effectiveness in accordance with the player’s actions, rather than the arbitrary allocation of points alone. The result is a V that progresses organically, while players still have complete control over their specific abilities and passive buffs in the revamped perk trees. Add to this the breadth of weapons, cyberware, Quickhacks, and the depth of their potential synergies, and there emerges a near limitless array of responses to any given enemy encounter. While certain solutions result in more desirable conclusions, V is rarely given explicit instruction to behave a certain way, granting players ownership over problem solving and the potential consequences of their actions. To a certain extent, the end goal of a mission has evolved from a static objective into a moving target.
With 2.0 and the cumulative effect of the patches preceding it, Cyberpunk’s launch has gone from the defining characteristic of its legacy to a sore spot in the evolution of an RPG made by masters of the genre. It has risen from the wreckage of unfulfilled promises to the heights of an unforgettable open-world experience that is, in some ways, unrivaled by its contemporaries. The redemption story of Cyberpunk is a testament to CDPR’s underlying vision and the power of persistence. Nearly three years removed from its release, Phantom Liberty will get you in the door, and 2.0 will make you stay.