I’ve been playing a lot of Cyberpunk 2077, and I…am very much enjoying it. More on that later, but I’ve also discovered the existence of Steam Link, which is going to completely change how I game at home. Much like how I really love the iOS remote play functionality paired with the Backbone controller, I love how it works, and I’ve put in about 10 hours of Cyberpunk gameplay…on my phone. I usually game toward the end of the day, and Steam Link is actually insanely good, though somewhat janky - primarily with Cyberpunk, because when you load it from Steam it loads a second menu that requires you to click “play,” which you have to do on the actual machine…it’s a pain in the ass at first, but works.
This is also going to probably move a section of my gaming back to the PC, because I do so much gaming at night while watching TV. Which rocks! But it also sucks because now I have to find an Nvidia 3080 which is even harder to find than a PS5 or an Xbox Series X. But it also sounds like the console version of this game may stink like doodoo, which is expected but also…sucks? Really badly? It feels as if perhaps you don’t say stuff like “it runs surprisingly well” and then ship a product that barely works on PS4 and Xbox. I dunno.
I am really enjoying Cyberpunk. A lot of people have said it’s a game that feels like it was made for a previous generation, which is 100% true - it is, at its heart, an old school game that requires you to do things for experience. It’s visually interesting but full of tricks circa 2014 for making a world feel big - full of empty drones that wander around in the same way that you’re never meant to focus on, just peripherally see and feel like you’re immersed. If you put it in front of me and told me it was a Bethesda game, from the team that brought you Skyrim, I’d absolutely believe you - it has the same sort of progression, the same sort of controls, the same sort of everything - and I love it because, well, that’s what I expected.
I think the Cyberpunk issue is one that comes from the nature of PR around games. You want to announce and build hype for something, and you want people to get excited enough to preorder it. It reminds me of when Destiny 2 previews an expansion - Forsaken being the most egregious. Game Informer had a huge splashy preview that had all of these marvelous, grand changes to the game, puffed up to cover 4-10 pages of content, written specifically to make it sound as epic as possible because that’s what previews are apparently for, and then it came out and…yeah, it was a disappointing mess, in particular the storyline, which was a huge part of the preview.
Cyberpunk had…a lot of previews. It was announced in May 2012, more than a year before the PS4 was released, then a full six years later it was announced for PS4 and Xbox One. It won over a hundred awards at E3 2018 (they should not do awards for unreleased games, it is insane to me), and showed an incredibly slick video that runs a hundred times better than the game does on any PC I’ve seen.
Sidenote, this PCGamer article has one of the most brutal burns on William Gibson I’ve ever seen:
Anyway, the core issue is that this game had 8 years of hype. They wouldn’t talk about it at first - which rocks, I wish they’d have kept that up. Then they wouldn’t shut the fuck up about it, and kept hyping, kept talking about it, kept sharing footage that made it look like it’d actually run well, kept making grand promises, pushed their developers to the limit, and let the press run wild talking about the various gangs in the game that really don’t mean anything, describing fluid customization - an entire press campaign built on lies of omission.
The blame is on both the developer and the press. On the developer’s side, I get it, you can’t go and email reporters and say “hey FYI, the game is not really that crazy. It’s not going to be as good as we said because it’s been in development forever and shit has changed.” But you can also not make statements saying that the game needs to be “even bigger, even more revolutionary” than the Witcher 3. You can set the scene better than they did. And you can not make statements about performance that don’t matter. I get that there’s also the pressure of the higher ups saying that the game has to come out, but…I don’t know. They overpromised and underdelivered because they announced the game 6 or 7 years too early.
But I’d argue the press also has a part to play in overpromising for them. The Verge, a site that I generally associate with being open-minded but critical, wrote about the preview hands-on as if it was Open World Jesus:
After playing a small slice of Cyberpunk 2077 — approximately four hours, including the opening character customization and the in-game combat tutorials — that’s my big takeaway: this game has an almost preposterous amount of freedom of choice and customization. You can look however you want, talk and act however you want, and pretty much handle any situation in a half-dozen different ways, to the point that making any one decision can feel very overwhelming.
Now, how much of this was him being led by the hand and, frankly, lied to? How much of this was him filling in the gaps and believing that the Cyberpunk developers weren’t simply…lying?
I don’t know, but this definitely feels like a mixture of both:
Cyberpunk 2077 refers to these as cyberware, and there’s a deep customization system separate from your attributes that lets you augment everything from your eyes to your circulatory system. You can also turn your body itself into a deadly weapon, filling your arms with blades that fly out or attaching a fiber optic wire that can be swung like a whip to slice through metal and flesh.
I definitely have been guilty of writing previews like this - you’re excited, and you want people to be excited for the game you’re looking at because you assume the developers will do right by the customer. But I also find it offensive to say the game has “preposterous amount of freedom” while saying that “…just as my demo time was wrapping up, I had hit the more open-world section of the game’s intro.”
But that’s the thing - previews are generally where you write more flowery, excited stuff…for some reason. And The Verge wasn’t the worst - take this Gamesradar piece that spent 16 hours in the game, and constantly talks about how effectual your decisions are, how many layers there are, about how important your actions are, and that it’s “utterly absorbing and utterly beautiful.” To be fair, they then gave the game 5 stars in their review.
Perhaps the most important one to dig into is the preview from Gamespot, who ended up giving the game a 7/10 and upsetting a bunch of people because gamers are like that. It’s vast, with a lot of editorializing around missions that are, frankly, mostly shooting guys and going places. They spend entire paragraphs talking about singular characters that have roughly 5 lines of dialogue, or about moments in the game that take minutes to pass. The writer adds layers of meaning and intrigue to a game that, at best, is somewhat cinematic. The writer calls characters “fascinating” that barely say anything, he spends paragraphs talking about how deep and meaningful Keanu Reeves’ Johnny Silverhand is - you would be forgiven for believing that this game had a deep narrative quality to everything you do, and might even believe that it’s “bursting with moments that raise [questions around your actions with Johnny].” You might even believe Cyberpunk has “fascinating characters” and that “the best part of Cyberpunk 2077 is feeling like a small part of the huge world of Night City.”
Now, would you not feel a little short-changed if around two weeks later someone went ahead and described that very same game’s world as “superficial” in a 7/10 review? Would you not feel like you were misled if you read that “there are instances where the game does start to do more with an initially superficial choice, but these threads are often dropped quickly,” from the same publication that said “…you're making decisions so constantly that enough of them pile up, making you feel like you're carving a unique path through the world”?
The review does end up somewhat edifying the preview’s love of Judy Alvarez. But it also says that the game left her feeling empty at the end.
What I’m meandering toward here is that previews of games as a whole are a problem, both in the way that they’re delivered and the entirely different headspace that previewers (myself included in a previous life) enter. We don’t really acknowledge that the games press experiences a form of amnesia between preview and review, where developers aren’t directly brought up on charges of what was promised previously. Previews are not seen as a point of criticism, with excuses made for “oh it’s still in development,” and they are inherently nice when, in fact, I’d argue that criticism in previews is almost more important than the review. For a product that’s $60 or $70, you should be wary of anything you play beforehand. Sure, you should be excited, but I feel as if the nature of previews needs to change to attune to the bullshit you’re undoubtably fed, and, frankly, need to be seen as opportunities to warn people about a game.
I get that websites need clicks and reads and all that, and I get that people want to learn about stuff and get excited for it. But considering that Cyberpunk had many, many people preview it mere weeks before it came out, we should have had warning signs popping up way earlier. I don’t know. Not my job anymore.