Replaying Cyberpunk 2077 Made Me Realise How Bad Games Have Become

October 18, 2023


Also on:
Xbox One

Like many of you, I imagine, I’ve spent the past few weeks totally engrossed in Cyberpunk 2077’s narrative. Although I played the game when it launched in 2020, and was quite fond of it at the time, I haven’t touched it since, as there have been scores of other titles that I’ve needed to review or otherwise wanted to complete. However, as the good games journalist I am, I decided I may as well replay a bit of its main story before covering Phantom Liberty at the start of the month so I could understand what was going on in Night City. And then I decided I may as well finish up some of its side quests while I had the title installed. And then I decided that I wouldn’t be doing anything else with my life for the better part of a month besides playing just enough of Payday 3 to give it a mediocre score, because it (Cyberpunk, definitely not Payday) is far and away the best role-playing game I’ve ever booted up, and now I’m honestly not sure how I’ll ever enjoy another one.

If you spend a lot of your time with Steam open on your computer, or with a controller in your hand, you know how easy it is to forget the details of certain video games. At a certain point, even the very best titles all start to blend together in your brain, and the only things you can remember are important plot points or the vague concepts of their gameplay loops. I mean, I’ve spent literally thousands of hours in Arma 3, and after not touching it since my weird “I’m a virtual war photographer” phase that coincided with the release of S.O.G. Prairie Fire, I honestly couldn’t tell you anything about it besides that it’s a realistic first-person shooter that’s usually played by either combat veterans or kids who want to be combat veterans in the near future. Before reinstalling Cyberpunk 2077, then, all I recalled about it is that it had an interesting story that didn’t involve saving the world and that I really enjoyed it for one reason or another. 

What I forgot, however, is…well, everything else, but now that I’ve spent over 50 hours in the title over the span of 14 days, I doubt I’ll actually be able to play another role-playing game without thinking about how Cyberpunk is just kind of better. Just so we’re clear, I’m not exclusively referencing the recent trendy take that relates to how Cyberpunk 2077’s character animations puts Starfield’s to shame. I mean, they absolutely do; NPCs in CD Projekt Red’s latest title move around environments while you’re talking with them, and do things like smoke or drink as you converse about plot points. Compared to Bethesda’s space RPG, wherein dialogue involves little more than staring at a character’s face after pressing a button, every NPC in Cyberpunk actually feels like more than a glorified mission board with a voice. The game has plenty of exposition dumps, but because of how the people doling out the details of your next assignment actually act like human beings with realistic clothing choices and voice actors/actresses who have normal speech patterns, it’s easy to become immersed in the narrative. You, while presumably not an AI, are interacting with the closest any open world game has ever had to actual characters that seem like they have a soul, which means that any shortcomings Cyberpunk 2077’s narrative have are easily overlooked. 

This random NPC has more charisma than any side character in Skyrim

But, like, Cyberpunk 2077’s narrative doesn’t actually have any shortcomings. The default story for role-playing games has always, and likely will always, involve somehow saving the world from an omnipresent threat that’s rarely explained properly. To do this, you always team up with a team of archetypes who all have unique skills and a relation to whatever is about to screw the planet over, and need to do little more than kill a big baddie to ensure humanity can continue doing whatever it is that you’re tasked with doing in the game’s setting. I’m not sure about you, but I’ve never actually been asked to ensure the future of mankind, and that’s one of the biggest problems with role-playing games. It’s always hard to become immersed in a far-fetched story regardless of a game’s other mechanics, but Cyberpunk 2077 doesn’t ask you to complete some MacGuffin-based adventure. You need to get a hallucination of Keanu Reeves out of your head, because if you don’t, you’ll die. That’s it, that’s the game’s narrative; you don’t need to make nice with any deities or demigods, nor do you need to ally yourself with the military or some guild. You just need to become friends with enough NPCs so that you can blow up not-Amazon’s headquarters and survive a weird encounter in cyberspace. Although I’ve never had to do the former (not today, NSA!), the latter is something I’m doing as I type up this feature article and will continue to do until I decide to buy a cabin in the woods and become a lumberjack, or do whatever it is that people who are sick of society do.

But all of that is just the tip of Cyberpunk 2077’s greatness iceberg. Its gameplay, unlike the vast majority of games on the market, is properly balanced and consistently enjoyable. Thanks to the game’s Update 2.0, it feels properly fun to be a futuristic mercenary badass who has more enhancements than a WWE wrestler. You can double-jump, slow time, use quickhacks and use all manner of meaningful abilities to cut your enemies into almost-literal ribbons. There are no “+.03% damage with double barreled shotguns if your character is wearing plaid socks'' improvements to waste your time with, either, and instead, as you level up more and more, you’re able to unlock skills that actually impact gameplay. By the time you reach Cyberpunk 2077’s level cap of 40 (or 60, if you purchased the expansion pack), your character has just enough competencies to make you seemingly unstoppable in combat, but very vulnerable in boss fights.

No, I don’t think I will

And all of this is only really possible because Cyberpunk 2077 doesn’t make you waste time doing anything. If you want to cobble together a new gun, for example, you don’t need to spend hours scouring the map to find a random piece of junk that somehow can turn into a trigger, but instead use tiered crafting components you receive en-masse when you kill baddies with the game’s great combat. On a different note, fast travel points are everywhere in the title’s large map, and dialogue can be skipped with the press of a button that visually fast-forwards time. You can also almost always buy quest-essential items or oddities that make your character model look cooler, and so the only thing you need to worry about is the minute-to-minute slaughtering of your foes and interacting with the aforementioned amazing NPCs in realistic quests that are just in-depth enough to be interesting but never divulge into the nonsense of, say, Skyrim. 

It’s hard to explain why Cyberpunk 2077 is better than its contemporaries without naming names and having hot takes about those names, however, so I’m just going to be blunt for a second. Mass Effect, for all the series does right, lacks interesting shooting mechanics and its relationships feel like quests instead of actual human interactions. Baldur’s Gate 3’s narrative is overly convoluted and generally generic if you aren’t heavily invested in Dungeons and Dragons. Bethesda’s RPGs (save for Starfield and Fallout: New Vegas) are only enjoyable if you’re willing to overlook serious design issues or install tens of gigabytes worth of mods. The Witcher 3: The Wild Hunt has lacklustre combat, and is remembered as one of the best RPGs of all time largely because of how low of a bar that was. Deus Ex: Mankind Divided just kind of sucks. Disco Elysium is the second best video game ever created, and no I don’t have anything edgy to say about it but just want to remind you that you should play it again. All of these games, save for Disco Elysium and The Witcher 3, are filled to the brim with archetypal NPCs that are rarely fun to chat with because they lack human qualities except when you’re doing the quests that allow you to bone them, and have other issues that range from minor to major depending on who you you ask.

Actually, I think I’ll stick around for a while

Don’t get me wrong, Cyberpunk 2077 isn’t completely flawless. Its disastrous release will forever taint CD Projekt Red’s reputation, a few of its quests leave something to be desired, and its gameplay is a few steps away from being as objectively amazing as Titanfall 2. But it has NPCs that are relatable and universally well-written, cutscenes that are engaging enough for you to stop staring at your phone as they play on your monitor, a narrative that is filled with nuance and empathy, and it doesn’t have any elements that require a guide to understand. Believe it or not, I wasn’t paid to write this glorified shill piece for my favourite game of all time, but because great video game design needs to be commended. Obviously it’s not ideal that Cyberpunk 2077 only became genuinely great almost three years after its initial launch, but the gaming industry is far from ideal, and waiting a large handful of months to experience a title that’s so wonderful that it’s changed this specific games journalist’s opinions of his favourite genre was a small price to pay. After spending more time playing Cyberpunk than I did doing my graduate school readings this month (sorry professors!), I’m left wondering where the medium goes from here, and more importantly, where do I go from here? Well, the answer to the former is back into Night City, and as for the latter…I guess we’ll just have to see, but it won’t be anywhere better than Cyberpunk, probably. 

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Derek Johnson

Somebody once told me the world was going to roll me, and they were right. I love games that let me take good-looking screenshots and ones that make me depressed, so long as the game doesn't overstay its welcome.