About a month ago, I started playing “Cyberpunk 2077” because I was curious. It had been 14 months since the New York Times called the game “one of the most visible disasters in the history of video games.” Having never played the game before, I wanted to know whether “Cyberpunk 2077” was still as broken as it was before.
In February, CD Projekt Red, the Polish developer behind “Cyberpunk 2077,” released its fourth major update since the game’s release in December 2020, a sweeping collection of bug fixes and improvements. I downloaded it. At the very least, I thought, if nothing had improved, I wanted to drive by the crash and see the wreckage for myself. And the optimistic part of me wondered whether CD Projekt Red could, in fact, right the ship and leave “Cyberpunk 2077” better than it once was.
After 20 hours of playing, here’s my review: The main storyline in “Cyberpunk 2077” is an electric joyride, but the game still isn’t the immersive, open-world adventure CD Projekt Red once promised. “Cyberpunk 2077” was supposed to be far more complex than the studio’s previous blockbuster “The Witcher 3″: a living, breathing world in which the player charted a unique storyline, the culmination of all their decisions within the game. I’m not confident “Cyberpunk 2077” will ever become that game, no mater how many post-launch updates CD Projekt Red pushes out.
“Cyberpunk 2077″ suffers from fundamental gameplay issues that no amount of additional polish can fix. To me, the best open-world games consist of three key parts. The first element is a cliche, but it’s true: It’s never just about the destination in these games. It’s about the journey. Traveling from point A to point B should be part of the fun. Secondly, open-world games should give you reasons to stray from the main path. These games are about encouraging a player’s free will. And finally, they should ease players into the larger world, with mechanics introduced intentionally so the story can unfold around them.
The campaign in “Cyberpunk 2077” consists of a series of narrative arcs. Smaller tasks, such as gathering information and chasing down leads, build into climatic gunfights. With the music pumping and bullets flying, “Cyberpunk 2077” hits peak form. The heist toward the beginning of the game, in particular, stuck with me. When you’re on the rails of the ride CD Projekt Red has built, it’s a blast. But none of these moments are deft expressions of open-world gameplay.
Night City, the metropolis CD Projekt Red built for “Cyberpunk 2077,” is gorgeous. You’re driving through a cityscape that looks like it belongs in a “Blade Runner” sequel. But unless you’re driving in a straight line, it can feel like you’re skating on ice. The handling is all over the place, and the car will often appear as if it’s floating over the asphalt. I was surprised to learn that the latest patch to “Cyberpunk 2077” was slated to upgrade the driving experience. These improvements were not apparent to me. In “Cyberpunk 2077,” driving only ever feels like a means to get to the next mission in the main story. I never took a joyride around town. I never drove for longer than was required.
There was also not much incentive to do so. You don’t really stumble upon tasks to complete in “Cyberpunk 2077.” It’s not like “The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt,” CD Projekt Red’s previous game, where you may, for example, run into an old woman begging for help on the side of the road as you ride to the next town. Unless you pull up the map to consult all the missions currently available, you never really change course to investigate some lead or act as a good Samaritan to NPCs you meet in passing. There are random gunfights that pop up on the police scanner as you drive by, but I never felt the need to pull over and investigate. I actually never ran into Night City’s police, despite crashing into plenty of cars, speeding and often (accidentally) running into pedestrians.
CD Projekt Red knows how to seamlessly introduce gameplay mechanics and ease players into a world; at the very least, they’ve done it before. In “The Witcher 3,” players are required to learn alchemy to hunt down some of the game’s earliest monsters. After you do, it’s up to you to decide whether you want to continue to make new potions.
“Cyberpunk 2077” features a slew of mechanics that work similarly in its world. In Night City, everyone exists in a gray area between humanity and computer processing power. Your bones, muscles and organs are just parts, and they can be swapped for modifications. Plus, there are software programs that players can buy to hack into their enemies. But after one optional tutorial, it took me hours of experimentation — and YouTube tutorials — to understand the ways I could upgrade my character. The game doesn’t take the time to explain how to make use of all these enhancements the way “The Witcher 3” did, and the world doesn’t feel any richer for all its auxiliary mechanics.
I’m happy to report that there don’t appear to be nearly as many bugs in “Cyberpunk 2077” as there used to be, though I did have the game crash on me once, and I had to restart the game a few times. Once, on a lark through an industrial park, I stumbled upon a cybernetic blood ritual (which sounds as bad as it looked). Voices started to whisper in my head and my teeth began to chatter, as if my character stood steps away from death’s door. Creepy? Yes. Immersive? Sure. Eventually, I solved the mystery and walked away from the gory spectacle — but the voices stayed with me long after I was done. They weren’t in my head, they were actually continuing to play in my headset. I had to reset the game to stop the audio from endlessly looping. Annoying? Yes. Immersive? No.
Some 15 or so hours into the game, I found myself sneaking up to an aircraft carrier that had just crashed on the outskirts of Night City in a tumbleweed-laden region of the map called the Badlands. A set of combat drones formed a perimeter around the wreck. Carefully, I scooted behind boulders and bushes to try to keep the element of surprise. Meanwhile, my “choomba” — what they call a friend in “Cyberpunk 2077” — started screaming battle cries from behind me, moments after she had pointed out I needed to approach quietly. None of the enemies noticed, because they weren’t programmed to notice.
Here’s one thing I noticed, though. You have to sit a lot in “Cyberpunk 2077.” It feels like you have to sit down for every choomba or crime lord in Night City. As you take a seat, the game momentarily takes control of your point of view. And, whenever you’re forced to look in the direction that CD Projekt Red wants you to look, you find a grimy, engrossing world. Every piece of cybernetic trash sits in its right place. If you stay on the tracks to beat the game’s main storyline, you’ll likely enjoy the painstakingly orchestrated fun.
But don’t expect an open-world worth devoting countless hours to exploring. Because once you look away, once you break free of the frame CD Projekt Red forces you into, the world of “Cyberpunk 2077” can feel totally empty. City blocks whiz on by as you drive aimlessly through Night City. In those moments, with nothing to do, I wasn’t really sure why I was still playing.