Cyberpunk 2077 has a Witcher III Problem
Even with the bugs and optimisation ironed out, I doubt Cyberpunk 2077 will ever be the magnum opus that CD Projekt Red were hoping for. That is because, despite all its pretences to the contrary, it is too busy imitating the design philosophy of CDPR’s real magnum opus: The Witcher III. And, as with many imitations, a lot of the tricks that worked well for the original do not work for the imitator.
The Witcher III tells the story of Geralt of Rivia, a professional monster hunter for hire and frequent meddler in socio-political issues. Geralt has a rich character and backstory defined by Andrzej Sapkowski’s series of books and by the first two games. That means that, while The Witcher III offers the player significant leeway in how to approach gameplay, decisions, and character customisation, these are within boundaries prescribed by the existing fiction. The entire game is designed in service of this fantasy: rather than role-play anyone they wish, the player must role-play their interpretation of Geralt.
In contrast, Cyberpunk is billed as a game where you can “choose who you wish to become”. The problem is that, with the exception of light platforming and stealth mechanics and a bunch of vehicles that go more or less well around corners, the core design philosophy feels very similar to The Witcher III. As such, Cyberpunk inherits many of its predecessor’s constraints without finding a suitable justification for them in the narrative or game world.
Arguably the most significant similarity is character progression. Levelling up in The Witcher III took a long time and many of the benefits gained at each level felt incremental – a fractional increase to attack effectiveness, or a small boost to armour. While levelling seems to work much quicker in Cyberpunk, the benefits it yields are likewise incremental: percentile increase in handgun power, a chance to get more money from hacking, and so on. After beating the game with over 70 hours on the clock, I unlocked only a few perks that make any perceptible difference to gameplay mechanics.
Cyberpunk has a body augmentation mechanic, where multiple augmentations can be inserted into different body parts to yield different benefits, but they also function much like The Witcher III’s abilities. They can be slotted in and out and stacked for increasing effects, but few alter the core gameplay in a meaningful way.
However frustrating, these limitations made narrative sense in The Witcher III – you play a seasoned witcher trained by a particular school, after all, so it stands to reason that you improve only incrementally. But these limitations make little narrative sense in Cyberpunk, where you start as a blank slate: a rookie merc with no skills, money or reputation.
Similar design philosophies are also obvious in the way the two games deliver their narrative content. In The Witcher III a lot of content was accessed through points of interest on the world map, which Geralt usually engaged with by first “scanning” them with his witcher senses to trigger a monologue or witty remark. Cyberpunk attempts something similar by peppering the world with various optional markers and encouraging the player to stop and scan the environment with their eye implant or wait until a phone call from a fixer is triggered. The trouble is that, while this feels natural in The Witcher III, it makes little sense in Cyberpunk.
The Witcher III is medieval fantasy. Granted, Geralt is supposed to be in a race against time to find his adopted daughter, but the pre-modern world and Sapkowski’s fiction lend themselves to a slow pace. Geralt moves on foot or horseback, gathers clues and prepares potions and oils before attempting to kill a monster.
Cyberpunk, on the other hand, is a maximalist clutter of screaming adverts, blaring lights, crowded streets, and fast cars. It’s a deliberate assault on the senses that discourages investigating a question mark plonked on the mini-map the way London or New York discourage wandering down side alleys. At the same time, Cyberpunk’s main story premise encourages you to work through the main missions as quickly as possible. In other words, the story works in tandem with the steroid aggressiveness of the game world to speed you through the game, even as the plethora of side activities tries to distract you.
The aggressive pacing extends to some of the secondary systems. Like The Witcher III, Cyberpunk features gear modification and crafting. However, whereas one can easily imagine that a thrifty witcher would take time to find, craft, and modify the best gear, it’s difficult to imagine that a cash-rich merc in a consumerist society where guns can be bought at vending machines would bother. Indeed, Cyberpunk showers you with increasingly better clothes and equipment, providing little incentive to modify, craft, or upgrade anything.
There are more subtle parallels too. The Witcher III didn’t have guns, but its combination of swordplay and the use of bombs and magical signs has a similar rhythm to alternating between Cyberpunk’s gunplay and hacking. The parallel is particularly striking given how limited the hacking is: fewer than twenty hacking skills are available compared to the five signs, their five variations, and their intensity modifiers in The Witcher III.
Once again, the narrative props up The Witcher III here. The books and games are explicit that witchers are not wizards, and have only a handful of magical techniques at their disposal. In contrast, there is little to explain why most hacks in Cyberpunk just seem to turn appliances on and off or incapacitate people.
In case these criticisms seem overly reductive, contrast Cyberpunk’s approach with some of the other games it borrows heavily from. In Deus Ex each new augmentation offered an instantly perceptible difference to gameplay mechanics (we don’t talk about swimming, of course). In Grand Theft Auto V most side activities fed back into the big heists that progressed the main narrative. In Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla Ubisoft finally understood how to balance crafting against new loot drops.
In short, Cyberpunk 2077 has a Witcher III problem: it tries to apply many of the design choices that made the latter successful, but in the process seems to forget that it is supposed to offer a very different world and a very different power fantasy.