Cyberpunk 2077’s biggest problem isn’t bugs, glitches or crashes: it’s how it balances difficulty with progression.
I’ve spent more than 50 hours over the past week-and-a-bit playing the absolute utter living crap out of Cyberpunk 2077, and I’ve only just scratched the surface of what is objectively a mind-numbingly lengthy virtual offering. And yet, it’s been only the past day or so where I’ve really started to ponder what I actually think of the game, and my reaction is somewhat mixed. I am basically a living, breathing meme at this point.
At a very high level, I think the unequivocally fool-proof metric of quality — which, yes, I know, is an objective analysis of a subjective interpretation — is whether or not I would actually recommend a game to a friend. My answer for Cyberpunk 2077 is “yes … with caveats”. Those caveats don’t lean on the game’s well-publicised bugs, nor its performance relative to hardware, but rather on the game’s rather high ceiling for potential.
That potential ironically leans on the aforementioned bugs and performance issues, although not exclusively: there’s a deeply ingrained design philosophy that is not being talked enough by the games media, maybe because it doesn’t generate as much interest (read: clicks) as a hit piece fixated on performance issues. That’s not to dismiss the game’s dismal launch nor the concerns of a large cross section of the gaming community: I just feel that there simply isn’t enough constructive discourse about the actual game that is Cyberpunk 2077.
What is the game trying to do? What does it stand for? What is truly at the heart of Night City? I’ve tried to answer these questions for myself, and sometimes I come away with a fairly generic response, not all that different to what I’d expect from any other open-world RPG on the market. Other times, I can see Cyberpunk 2077 for what it wants to be and can be, and that makes me a little sad, because I realise I’m not actually playing the game I should be playing.
At face value, Cyberpunk 2077 is admittedly, objectively, undeniably a bit of a mess. It is brimming with polish in some areas, and yet looks completely unfinished, bordering broken in others. Playing Cyberpunk 2077 is a bit like watching Blade Runner and Johnny Mnemonic simultaneously on two screens right next to each other, the former being the absolute pinnacle of a genre, the other hitching a ride off the back of another’s success. When it shines, it glows something amazing — it has some genuine “Tears In The Rain” moments — but when it falters, it’s either mindless and forgettable, or infuriatingly glitchy.
There’s a single standout issue for me when it comes to Cyberpunk 2077, though, and it’s where the game’s potential for me is best on display. It’s in how the game handles progression and difficulty, and CD Projekt RED has a bit of work to do in this area to establish the perfect balancing act. If anyone at the studio is reading this, as a firm believer in this game I hope you can truly appreciate and understand what I am about to describe.
Of the 50-ish hours I’ve spent playing Cyberpunk 2077, I’ve spent a large chunk of that battling story-less free roam crimes in an effort to boost my character rating and skills. It didn’t take long — relative to the game’s length, of course — to max out my Street Cred at 50. I’m only now really digging into the story and gigs, and there was one moment in particular that really stood out for me, and I feel is the best reflection yet of the game’s biggest problem.
In the side mission “Violence”, you’re tasked with helping a woman name Lizzy, who is suspicious of her boyfriend and asks you to investigate his whereabouts. Directed to visit a nightclub on behalf of the woman, I venture out, arriving at about 2pm, Night City time. Unfortunately, the club is closed.
“But I’m looking for someone,” I tell the bouncer.
“Don’t care,” he barks back. “We’re closed.”
All of the usual attempts to get in side fail me. I can’t kill the bouncer because the club is a designated “Safe Area”, ironic for a mission named “Violence”. I try multiple side doors, but everything’s locked. Eventually, I bump into some bartenders having a cigarette out the back. I ask them about the man. “I’m not at liberty to say,” one says.
Taking advantage of my large bank balance, I slip them 2000 credits, one of a few dialogue options available to me. “He’ll be in the VIP room. Come back when we’re open.” I skip time a few hours, and as the sun is setting, a line is building outside the club. But the bouncer won’t have a bar of me: I’m still locked out.
I give the side doors another shot, and thankfully, my skill set at this point allows me to hack my way through the now-activated albeit locked door. Inside, I find an empty room and a computer. There’s also an employee pass, which I mindlessly pick up. I sit down at the computer, and immediately turn off the cameras so as to avoid detection.
I walk through to the VIP room thanks to the pass I’d just collected, and confront the man. He panics at being caught out with another woman, and calls over security. I rush back through the office, before an on-screen prompt reminds me that I need security footage to show my employer and receive my reward. I jack into the computer to extract the footage, but realise that, as I’d turned the cameras off earlier, our interaction hasn’t been filmed filmed. I take control of the cameras remotely, film the man, send it to the woman, and get paid.
On the face of it, all of what I mentioned above was completely inconsequential given I could still jack into the computer, turn the cameras back on, and record the guy without even having engaged him. Yet the game didn’t tell me that, nor should it need to. The only reminder I received was the subtle “no footage found” error from my Cyberware when I had initially tried to extract the data.
In the grander scheme of things of Night City, Violence was a small, fairly pointless mission, with no immediately identifiable impact on the wider Cyberpunk 2077 experience. Violence was impossible (the game blocked it completely), and I had quickly became a victim of my own over-complication and skill. Something so simple had become complicated because I tried to outsmart the environment when it wasn’t even necessary. And therein lies the issue: I’ve reached a point in the game where my skill and character level vastly out-muscles the rest of the game world. The Violence mission is not an exception: it’s the norm.
Interestingly, it’s not that I’m a “good” Cyberpunk 2077 player. I’m committed, admittedly a little obsessed, but your “skill” is really only dictated by your level of commitment: your skill level increases organically as a product of your personal progression through the game world. It’s just that my character is a relentless beast at this point, rarely challenged by what is thrown my way. The Violence mission wasn’t the first time I had taken unnecessary steps towards a goal, but it stood out such was the simplicity of its task. That simplicity isn’t the issue: rather, in a world so flexible in how you approach it, there’s no reasonable adjustment to how that world reacts to your presence relative to your level and loadout.
This is where I see an incredibly high ceiling of potential for Cyberpunk 2077, because there absolutely must be new content and refinements that address this. It’s not the glitches, bugs or crashes that make me think this game is unfinished. It’s actually the balancing: Cyberpunk 2077 is shockingly unbalanced at this point. Missions, Reported Crimes, and other open-world shenanigans went from “Very High” to “Very Low” danger within a few hours. I now actively seek out “high” danger gigs simply for a bit of challenge, but even then I waltz through them, even on the Very Hard difficulty.
I’ll approach an organised crime syndication, complete a Breach Protocol on a few enemies, and then try a variety of hacks to basically enact chaos and watch from a distance. The issue is that I don’t need to do that to clear the area, and the approach itself is massive overkill. I could stroll in, one-hit every enemy, and clear the area within seconds. Hacking them from a distance was fun when I wasn’t yet at the level to one-man an entire area of enemies, but now it’s pointless.
Don’t get me wrong: I actually love Cyberpunk 2077 at this point. I’m enjoying it for the most part, but I’m basically in completionist mode now. There’s a balancing element here that the developer needs to look at, because there’s a point in time where, if you play your cards right, you basically become an invincible superhero. And this isn’t once you reach the end-game, as I’m maybe only 30% through everything the game has to offer. If Cyberpunk 2077 could bring Destiny-level balancing to the table, by introducing crimes and gigs that literally adjust in difficult dynamically relative to your skill level (as opposed to remaining static), then the weight of significance for so many of the game’s core systems increases substantially.
As I’ve already touched on, I don’t want this to be seen as a dismissal of the game’s technical and performance issues. However, I look forward to a time when the gaming community and developer start talking constructively about ways to genuinely improve the core gameplay philosophy of the game world. Cyberpunk 2077 sometimes seems to want to be something grand, but the way it reacts to my character gives it a fairly definitive end point to my enjoyment.
Do I feel I’ve received my monies worth? Of course! I’m 50 hours in, after all. But at only 30% complete, there’s a discrepancy there in maintaining my interest for its full duration, which would be disastrous for what Cyberpunk 2077 sets out to be. With time I know CD Projekt RED will come to the table with more content. I just hope that it comes with more challenge to keep me engaged.
What are your thoughts on Cyberpunk 2077‘s progression and difficulty? Sound off in the comments below!