After years of hype, Cyberpunk 2077’s release on December 10 2020 was disappointing, to say the least. Were fans a little too harsh with their criticisms when the game failed to live up to their lofty expectations? Or when it proved to be nothing but a mediocre mess rather than the game to end all games? Perhaps. But their vitriol wasn’t totally unwarranted.
Cyberpunk 2077 was poised to take the gaming world by storm, promising unprecedented levels of choice and customization, but it landed with something more akin to a pathetic splash than a tidal wave of success. Oh, it made waves – only not the waves fans or developer CD Projekt Red expected.
So, what went wrong? What sent Cyberpunk 2077 from one of the most anticipated and praised games of all time to something no one would touch with a ten-foot pole? After years of delays and warnings, what was the final straw that broke the camel’s back? And how, against all logic and reason, has Cyberpunk 2077 managed to claw its way back out of the boneyard to become one of the most-played games on Steam this year?
It all began back in January 2013 with the release of the Cyberpunk 2077 announcement trailer. Work on the game had started long before then, and CD Projekt Red had officially announced that they would be adapting Mike Pondsmith’s famous tabletop RPG back in May 2012, but it was this trailer that really got the hype train moving.
And it was a stunning trailer, depicting a MaxTac team (the special forces of the Cyberpunk world) responding to a cyberpyscho attack in which a woman with wickedly sharp Mantis blades had killed a number of innocent civilians. While it didn’t show any of the kind of gameplay players could expect to get their hands on, it perfectly realized the dark dystopian future the game would be set in. And, most tantalizingly of all, it ended with the promise that it would release “when it’s ready”. A simple phrase, but one that got new fans immediately excited. This was a big game, and it seemed CDPR were not about to rush it to meet an arbitrary deadline. How wrong we all were.
Thus began almost eight full years of hype. Hype that built Cyberpunk up into something that existed only in the minds of fans, something it could never truly be. But the higher-ups at CDPR were more than happy to keep adding fuel to this fire, they wanted as many people as possible to pre-order the game when it became available and did all they could to keep the hype going.
They were coy at first. They gave out very little information while they were finishing up with The Witcher 3 and its final expansion Blood and Wine, but that only served to make Cyberpunk 2077 more mysterious and exciting. A wild and tenebrous thing, a unicorn that fans were dying to see just a little bit more of.
But then things were kicked into overdrive at E3 2018, when CDPR finally released a brand-new trailer. One that claimed to be made of “in-engine” footage and which properly showed off the neon-drenched wonders of Night City. While not showing any actual gameplay, this trailer gave a lot of clues as to what fans could expect – namely: chrome, gangs, guns, and violence. And then, just a couple of months later, CDPR released a full 48-minute gameplay presentation. And it looked fantastic. It showed off an early mission in the game, one in which main character V and their friend Jackie infiltrated a scavenger den to rescue a woman the scavs had kidnapped and planned to strip for cyberware.
Looking back, the gameplay shown off in this demo proved remarkably close to what fans got their hands on in the finished game, with its fast gunplay, witty character interactions, and use of cybernetic implants in combat. However, a closer inspection shows sacrifices clearly had to be made. Graphics and texture quality are much higher in this demo than in the finished game. There are more animations and they are pulled off far more smoothly and realistically. The environments are more detailed and include destructible elements like pillars and walls. But fans didn’t know any of this back then.
The hype hit an all-time high when, during E3 2019, Keanu Reeves took to the stage. Keanu announced that he was to play Johnny Silverhand, a legend from the tabletop RPG, and fans went wild for it. Alongside his announcement came a new deep dive into Cyberpunk 2077’s gameplay. This footage was almost final, and while there was a slight graphical downgrade from E3 2018, it essentially demoed what fans could expect to see when they booted the game up on launch day. At least, what they should have seen.
That E3 presentation ended with a planned April 2020 release date. Cyberpunk was finally on its way. Only, that wasn’t quite true. The game was then delayed to September 2020 to “iron out the rough patches and bugs”. And then it was delayed again, to November 2020. Again, this was due to bug fixing. Then, around a month before this new release date, the game went gold – meaning all work was done and the game was ready for launch. But of course, that didn’t happen; the game was delayed one final time to December 10, 2020.
By this point, fans were starting to worry. After so many delays and so many broken promises, many started to lose hope, worried that Cyberpunk 2077 might never launch. And if it did, it wouldn’t be what they expected. Even so, nothing could have prepared them for what awaited on launch day.
Initially, reviews looked promising. No, the game wasn’t revolutionary, and it wasn’t going to change the way we play games forever, but it was fun, well-realized, and well-written. The problem was, these reviewers were only allowed to review on high-end PCs and could only show pre-approved footage of the game. This meant that when players finally got their hands on the game, they were in for a big surprise.
Cyberpunk 2077 had perhaps the most disastrous launch of any game in history. Simply put, the game was a broken, buggy mess. Characters and items didn’t load, textures were missing, the framerate was abysmal and pop-in was rampant. Animations were outright broken, and many promised game systems were either missing (like wall running) or simply broken (like the police). Bugs prevented missions from starting or finishing properly, and above all, the game constantly crashed. Of course, the degree of brokenness all depended on the system the player was running it on – high-spec PCs fared far better than the rest, but even they weren’t spared from the bugs and the crashes, whereas on last-gen consoles (PS4s and Xbox Ones) the game was downright unplayable. Sony even removed the game from the PlayStation Store less than a week after launch in an effort to protect consumers.
I was lucky enough to be one of the few people in the world to own a PS5 at the time, and I remember playing the game for the first time on Christmas Day. I enjoyed it, I will admit to that. I loved the darkness of the world-building, and the nuanced characters. I thought Night City was fantastically designed – architecturally, it felt like a real, lived-in place. It was just a shame that no one seemed to live there. NPCs failed to spawn and vehicles disappeared randomly as I explored, and any that did spawn in and stick around behaved so bizarrely that it broke all sense of immersion. Parts of the city failed to load, objects floated in the air, and important cutscenes lost all emotional weight as characters froze in place or failed to speak on cue. And it crashed. A lot. In fact, I was never able to play for more than an hour without it crashing at least once, and usually, two or three times.
But, I persevered. And although it was not the game I had hoped for, I played it all the way through to the end. And I thoroughly enjoyed my time with it. Others, unfortunately, weren’t so lucky.
Despite turning a profit on pre-orders alone, things started to fall apart for CD Projekt Red. Thousands upon thousands of players demanded refunds, rightly believing they had been lied to by pre-release footage, and CDPR promised to pay them all back. Company stocks plummeted and people began to get angry. Investors sued, believing they too had been lied to, and despite fighting back, CDPR eventually had to settle out of court for at least $1.8 million.
Things looked bad for the company. Very bad. A company that was once praised the world over for its honest and open approach to game development was now reviled and outright hated by many. But CDPR did not give up. Instead of cutting their losses and moving on to something new, they vowed to do right by their fans and turn Cyberpunk 2077 into the game it was always supposed to be.
They postponed all planned DLCs and expansions and got to work on extensive fixes. But even after patch, after patch, after patch, it seemed pretty clear that it was hopeless. Cyberpunk was dead, and the fans moved on, never really expecting anything good to come out of such a catastrophic disaster.
Which is what made its recent, astronomical comeback all the more outstanding.
In February this year, after countless delays and fixes, CDPR released the Next-Gen update. This brought PS5 and Xbox Series S/X versions more in line with the PC version, and closer to what they should have been at launch.
The update (patch 1.5) added so much that had been missing. This included ray-tracing support, higher resolution graphics and more balanced HDR, updated controls, more immersive AI (both in combat and crowd NPCs), as well as improved cyberware and weapons, and a whole host of bug fixes. It even added new apartments to purchase in-game and the ability to change your character’s appearance. All in all, this update was a massive improvement over the original version, so much so that it could almost be considered an entirely new game.
This was an almost unprecedented step in the right direction for the company, as by then, many had given up hope of ever seeing a competent next-gen upgrade and had moved on to other games. But as much as the update improved the game, it failed to stir enough interest to bring old players back into its arms. No, it needed something big for that.
Enter the Cyberpunk Edgerunners anime on Netflix. Releasing just last month on September 13 to overwhelmingly positive reviews, the anime took the world by storm. Its fast-paced action, complex characters, and gorgeous visuals gripped the imaginations of a whole new audience and dragged them down into the seedy, neon-drenched streets of Night City. Suddenly, people loved Cyberpunk and simply had to get their hands on more.
CD Projekt Red doubled down on this new hype with patch 1.6, otherwise known as the Edgerunners update. This added new weapons and gear lifted straight from the anime, such as David’s iconic yellow jacket and Rebecca’s shotgun, as well as a whole host of other secrets and improvements.
Suddenly, players new and old were flocking back to Cyberpunk 2077 in their droves, and were surprised to find that not only was the game good now, but they were enjoying it. In the first week after Cyberpunk Edgerunners released on Netflix, Cyberpunk 2077 became the highest-selling game on Steam and reached over one million concurrent players daily. Cyberpunk was back, and it was better than ever.
I, too, was one of the millions who returned to the game after watching the anime. And, after so long away from Night City, I was surprised by how much I had missed it. Yet, at the same time, because of all the updates and improvements, it felt like a brand-new game. Cyberpunk 2077 was always something special. Its world, characters, and story have been created with such care and attention, and weave together so perfectly that it’s clear that the developers loved this game and must have been just as heartbroken as the fans were when it launched. Only now, the game has the gameplay to match its vibrant world. Combat is now fluid and weighty, updated cyberware gives players the freedom to experiment and shake things up, driving (while still a little floaty) is much more responsive, crowds are denser, and the whole world feels so much more alive. And best of all, in the fifteen or so hours I’ve played so far, I haven’t encountered a single bug and it hasn’t crashed once!
This is the Cyberpunk players were hoping for on day one.
But CD Projekt Red aren’t resting on their laurels yet. They still have many more updates to come.
The most important of the ongoing free updates is the long-awaited overhaul of the police system. Still mostly unfixed from launch, police materialize out of thin air when a crime is committed, even when out in the desert, and it’s currently impossible to get into any form of car chase. Not so when this update drops, as not only will the police system be completely rebuilt from the ground up (bringing it closer to something like GTA’s Wanted system) but brand-new car-to-car combat will also be implemented. This means that not only will the police try to chase down antisocial players, but so will rival gangs, if provoked.
Alongside this update, CDPR is also working on an expansion called Phantom Liberty. Like The Witcher 3’s Blood and Wine DLC, this paid expansion will take players to a brand-new area, never before seen in Night City, and allow them to interact with a whole new cast of characters. Labeled as a “spy thriller”, it will see the player teaming up with the government of the New United States of America to solve a mysterious plot. But best of all, Keanu Reeves is set to return as Johnny Silverhand. While Phantom Liberty will now be the only paid expansion to the base game, it’s shaping up to be a substantial one.
And looking even further ahead, CDPR has recently announced that they are working on a direct sequel to Cyberpunk 2077. Currently dubbed “Project Orion”, very little is actually known about the future title. Here’s hoping the developers have learned from their mistakes and have the time to implement all of their ideas properly. Because a repeat of Cyberpunk 2077’s launch would be a disaster they could never recover from.
But, coming back to the present, there has never been a better time to lose yourself in Cyberpunk 2077. The game as it is right now is as close to what was initially promised as we are likely to get. And, deep down, while it might not be a game-changer, it is an experience like no other, and its story and world demand your attention. So, join me, if you would, and let’s go burn Night City to the ground.