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‘Cyberpunk 2077,’ three months later

(The Washington Post illustration; CD Projekt Red)

Just over three months ago, CD Projekt Red delivered an incomplete game in “Cyberpunk 2077.” Speaking for myself, it’s fair to say my initial impressions were also incomplete.

In my review, I called the game an “intoxicating virtual reality” after about 19 hours with it, focusing only on the main story missions. But 19 hours was not enough time. After having completed the entire game three times in a total of 150 hours, I now regret submitting an incomplete review that focused only on the critical story path. I wish I had the chance to test the game’s boundaries as an open-world experience.

It’s fair to say that CD Projekt Red tried to pull a fast one on players, restricting journalists (including The Washington Post) from posting any footage during the game’s unusually short review period, and not allowing anyone to see the product on PlayStation 4 or Xbox One consoles, where the game was at worst, unplayable, and at best, embarrassing. Since launch, developer CD Projekt Red has been working to update the game to a more acceptable state. The company’s executives have issued more than one apology.

‘Cyberpunk 2077′s’ messy launch, explained

So three months later, I submit this second piece — a patch, if you will — as a companion to my initial impressions. Much of what I initially said still holds, and improvements are on the way, which is encouraging, considering the studio’s past work in patching up its landmark title, “The Witcher 3: The Wild Hunt.”

Here are some of my additional observations, from somewhat troubling and fixable to egregious, that highlight how “Cyberpunk 2077” failed to deliver on its promise.

The perspective

Consider this infamous shot of V, the game’s protagonist, suddenly standing up on their motorcycle and T-posing without pants. The game is constantly at odds with itself as it transitions from first-person to third-person, because the character you control behind the camera is a pretzel-version of a human body, contorted to fit to player movements. When the game shifts to the player driving, or tries to do anything quickly in the third-person, “Cyberpunk” seems to have a hard time catching up. From reporting by Jason Schreier at Bloomberg, we know that “Cyberpunk 2077” was originally planned as a third-person adventure, which has been the studio’s staple format.

In a completed game, the transitions between perspectives are supposed to be seamless, but “Cyberpunk” struggles with this at almost every turn. The first-person camera technically sits in a space different from where your actual eyes would be, and the game struggles to portray which “model” of the player should be shown. Sometimes these incidents end with a view from behind the character’s eyeballs, or like this player who ended up in a gunfight trying to shoot while seeing the inside of their mouth.

There are also the prevalent cases of a player’s clothes disappearing once they look into the mirror — another case of the game failing to catch up with these perspective transitions. Wardrobe malfunctions are common, with private parts dangling out of pants because clothing is layered on top of your freakish computer model of a character.

None of this is to say that this game fails as a first-person experience. Quite the contrary — and as I stated in my initial review — the game’s story does a tremendous job of making use of the perspective. It is strongest in moments like when you go diving with love interest Judy Alvarez, a serene, immersive experience meant to literally wash over you with emotions and nostalgia. The sex scene with your other possible love interest, Panam Palmer, offers a level of intimacy that’s rarely seen in games, high budget or not, all the while using cerebral science fiction imagery and concepts. In these quieter moments, the game is experiential “Cyberpunk” pulp at its finest.

‘Cyberpunk 2077’ is a thrill ride through an ugly, unexamined world

And I stand by my statement that CDPR’s shooting mechanics are top notch. For a developer known only for third-person, slow-burn adventure games, “Cyberpunk 2077” is a surprisingly muscular shooting experience. Once properly adjusted to your preferences, the shooting controls are tight and responsive, and protagonist V has a surprising number of tools of cyberpunk disposal. Dashing between enemies who have been sliced or shot is still a visceral thrill. Even if “Cyberpunk” didn’t move the needle for open-world games, the prospect of visceral first-person action set against the backdrop of a driving, futuristic narrative would be enough. But that’s when the second issue arises.

The pace

CDPR rose to fame on the strength of its storytelling, so it’s little surprise that the story and character work in “Cyberpunk” is the game’s brightest spot. The player’s two potential female love interests, Judy and Panam, are well-rounded characters with clear, defined character arcs, that run both separate from and intertwined with the player’s. The journeys players take with both are likely to stay with them long after the game’s disastrous launch fades from memory.

But “Cyberpunk” is constantly in a tangled conflict between its slow-burn, compelling character arcs and the main plot’s urgency — a literal fight for your life — driven largely by setpieces and story beats. The plot assigns the player a ticking time bomb in the form of Johnny Silverhand (Keanu Reeves), a digital ghost who will eventually take over your body. The game drops this fatal news on you with grim urgency.

“You don’t have time left, much … life,” says Viktor, a doctor and old confidante. “A few weeks tops.”

About half an hour later, another character in the story tells you that you need to meet with him urgently about your life-or-death matter. “Don’t keep me waiting,” sneers Takemura, sitting in a burger diner.

But given how most people approach open-world games, Takemura could be waiting at that diner for the in-game equivalent of weeks, maybe long after the player’s supposed expiration date. It’s an old game narrative problem: trying to handle the dissonance between what the player wants to do and the story the game wants to tell.

Nothing illustrates this tension more sharply than the constant phone calls players get as they try to navigate Night City. Yes, the game is choked with things to do, but the game lacks any good way to communicate these missions to you outside of phone calls. (Nevermind that it’s 2077.) Anyone who’s played “Cyberpunk” has experienced driving through the city, picking up calls from Panam who is breathlessly explaining a life-or-death situation, alongside the phone calls from the city’s cab driver artificial intelligence informing you of a nearby broken car, and phone calls from a mercenary informing you of nearby bounty hits.

A journalist had a seizure while playing ‘Cyberpunk 2077.’ Then she helped change the game.

It’s a shame, because there are genuinely beautifully-written and provocative stories here. But missions in the game aren’t distinguished from one another. Sometimes you’ll find a fun quest involving a talking pistol, but more often than not, you’ll find flavorless crime-busting missions or an ugly car to buy.

There’s one mission called “Sinnerman” that is the game’s most shocking, vulgar, and simultaneously its most thought provoking. It asks the player to participate in the consensual crucifixion of a convicted murderer who rose to fame as an aspirational moral icon, willing to die for his sins to inspire others. The sequence is a quiet, meditative and ominous non sequitur about the tragedy of humanity’s longing for meaning or direction. It’s also the first quest to directly address the nature of Johnny Silverhand, and whether he’s a ghost or merely a digitized reproduction of a life long extinguished.

Later in the “Sinnerman” narrative, the game features yet another scene that makes excellent use of the first-person camera, using your eyes and hands to partake in this macabre, sacrilegious act of violence and media. Of course, the convict’s death throes and the sensation of dying would be recorded and streamed for the cynical entertainment consumption of millions. And yet, I didn’t find this mission until after I had finished the main story — and well after the review period. There are incredible stories to be found in “Cyberpunk.” It’s just that the game does a terrible job of surfacing them.

The game’s layers of narrative — the mundane and the life-or-death — simply can’t live comfortably side by side. That’s an age-old game narrative problem. But also, purely in terms of user experience, “Cyberpunk 2077” offers so much content, narrative, and information that navigating it all in a fulfilling way is virtually impossible.

The promises

“The city streets are bustling with crowds of people from all facets of life, all living their lives within a full day and night cycle.”

This is a critical line from a 2018 trailer of “Cyberpunk 2077,” 48 minutes that promised a “seamless open world, with no loading screens … to create the most believable city in any open-world game to date.” Therein lies the beginning of the game’s undoing, when developer CD Projekt Red used wordplay to stoke excitement about features in a game that would never come to pass.

Night City bustles with people, but it’s a stretch to say they’re “living their lives.” It’s more that they’re stumbling through the city. The game’s curtain is pulled back further once you realize that no one in the entire city is actually driving their car; rather, every car moves as if it’s on invisible, electronic rails. The wheels turn, but there’s no weight. The vehicles simply glide down the street. And no one else in Night City drives a motorcycle except for yourself and a handful of marquee characters, once again driving home the point that no one in Night City is real.

Yes, the game has a day and night cycle, but it’s only an environmental trick. In the final game, when you switch the game from day to night, you can see the exact same people in front of you listening to the same song playing on the radio supposedly 10 hours ago. There is a day and night cycle only as it pertains to the placement of the sun, and almost nothing else, though the two concepts — time and NPC routines — were strung together in one sentence. Whether misdirection or miscommunication, it contributed to the heightened expectations placed on the final product.

Much of CDPR’s marketing appears embarrassing in retrospect. A 25-minute-long video from August last year promised the “Lifepaths” feature, a pretentious name for what ended up becoming 15-minute introductions that barely changed the game’s story in any meaningful way. Whether you were a corporate suit, a street punk or a desert nomad, you just end up as a street punk in the long run, meeting the same people and going through the same motions, sounding the same way and only occasionally dropping some flavor text that reflects your “life path.”

It’s March, and “Cyberpunk 2077” is still not available in the PlayStation digital store after being pulled for failing to meet Sony’s quality standards. CDPR also recently faced a cyber attack, which has only made things worse.

Three months out from the game’s release, it’s safe to say that the legacy of “Cyberpunk 2077” is tainted. There are good adventures and narratives awaiting players across “Cyberpunk’s” futuristic landscapes. They’re just buried underneath a glut of features that never crystallize, and promises that fail to materialize.

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