I keep seeing the phrase “smoke and mirrors” repeated across Cyberpunk 2077 coverage. I’m not actually sure how fair that is, given all games are “smoke and mirrors” to some degree, but it certainly feels correct in this case. Beyond the myriad glitches, racism, transphobia, and other issues that have been reported at length elsewhere Cyberpunk 2077 feels almost intentionally shallow at every opportunity. Combined with the godawful performance (not just on older consoles, like developer CD Projekt Red’s apology letter specifically points out, attempting to sweep away other criticisms with a minor concession) it reminds me of another game. Cyberpunk 2077 is just Fallout 76 without the multiplayer. Though that might not always be the case.
I don’t just mean the bugs. I’m talking about how Cyberpunk 2077 cordons off its garish open-world of Night City. It lacks all the branching dialogue and small, personal stories that made The Witcher 3 excel. Instead it dishes out endless waves of prefabricated quests. Each feels ready to be discarded as quickly as it’s acquired — as if it fell from any of the thousand vending machines littering the world. Put another way, they feel a lot like the open-world game cruft players have been slurping down for years.
That might be fine, too. It’s me; I’m slurpy! I honestly love a good checklist game from time to time. I enjoyed Ghost of Tsushima earlier this year and mean to get back to Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla. Even the endless “go here and kill 2-5 dudes” quests of Cyberpunk 2077 tickle the right parts of my brain after a fashion. It’s just that the smoke and mirrors surrounding them are so damn thin. There’s next to no artifice hiding the fact that all I’m doing is busywork. There’s no plot reward to make it all feel worthwhile.
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The “fixers” are the worst offenders. These mission dispensers aren’t literally robots, but feel as synthetic as the automated mission-givers of Fallout 76. They pop onto your screen periodically to bombard you with identical quests and… offers to sell cars.
Even if these rapid-fire assignments were interesting I wouldn’t have time to process them. More often than not, the fixers’ messages contradict or ignore whatever they just told me. The first I ever “met” introduced herself over the phone. She then instantly sent a follow-up text introducing herself again as if we’d never spoke. Then she sent a mission. Then she sent a car deal. Then a notification directed me to my journal where there were even more messages dumped into my lap to peruse all at once.
That useless quest log only details what I’m supposed to do about half the time. Otherwise it sports some snarky, off-topic musings that have nothing to do with reminding me who I’m killing or why. I can only follow the yellow line to my objective — ignoring the unresponsive locals more than I already was. They have nothing to say to me anyway. Even when I can speak, my dialogue choices don’t much matter. Most of my first eight hours of the game, for instance, revolved around which major characters I would help or betray. Despite the to-do, everything plays out the same no matter what you pick. Only the kill quests and the yellow lines matter. Night City itself is a corpse.
This was literally the case in Fallout 76 at launch. Though Bethesda at least offered a narrative excuse. The West Virginia wasteland in that infamous multiplayer game was dead: a victim of nuclear war and a zombie plague. It wasn’t the setup players wanted from a Fallout game, in the end, but it was something. Cyberpunk 2077 purports to be more while offering less. Fallout 76 dished out context-free missions via quest robots, just like this game, but did so in the service of a multiplayer platform. It was lifeless because players were meant to revivify it. Some of them did; many others did not. That was the gamble Bethesda took to chase the money-making machine that is GTA Online.
My pet theory is that Cyberpunk 2077 feels so stiff for exactly the same reason. Remember the multiplayer spinoff? It’s easy to forget amidst all the more immediate revelations about the game. But it’s being made by the same team and is based on the existing Cyberpunk 2077. Though CDPR is treating it like a standalone product. That’s directly the same model as GTA Online, which also felt like the impetus for Fallout 76 at the time. The bland, unswerving quest design and lack of story choices make a lot more sense viewed as the framework for a multiplayer game.
There are a few bright spots. Specifically, the brighter characters sparkle against the confused, faux edginess of it all. Delamain — a polite taxicab A.I. — ironically has one of the most organic introductions in the game (before dumping you with more fetch quests). People seem mixed on the gruffness of Johnny Silverhand, the recurring Keanu Reeves character, but the actor’s performance doesn’t feel phoned in like so many Hollywood types appearing in video games. Plus he actually has opinions, not just an archetype. The same goes for your levelheaded allies Misty and Dr. Vector.
A few bright spots just aren’t what I want or expect from this developer. Single-player or otherwise. I loved The Witcher 3 for making my choices feel like they mattered — for letting me haggle prices and poke around monster hunts for clues that would open new doors.
Night City is full of doors. Most of them say “locked,” hinting that you may be able to open them one day, discovering new depths. You can’t. I tried to haggle with a vendor when my stats were high enough to do so. He told me to fuck off and the conversation proceeded exactly as if I had never said anything at all.
All games rely on smoke and mirrors. I wish those in Cyberpunk 2077 were better.