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Thursday, February 22, 2024

Cyberpunk 2077’s expansion will need to be beyond polished

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It’s hard to untangle my feelings about Cyberpunk 2077 from the disaster of its launch. I’m lucky, I suppose, that I never tried to play it on last-gen consoles, but even on PC it was mired in issues and disappointments, from the plethora of game-breaking bugs to wonky systems like Night City’s law enforcement. 

To be clear, I ended up having a grand old time holidaying in Night City. It’s a gargantuan RPG filled with compelling stories of crime and corruption, but that’s not its legacy. Phantom Liberty, then, is a chance for CD Projekt Red to rewrite it—but it’ll need to be something pretty special. 

This week’s reveal has at least left me cautiously optimistic. Questions about quality and polish won’t be answered until release, but the setup has certainly piqued my interest, promising to explore the dystopia’s political situation while bringing back both V and Johnny. An alleged datamine back in May suggested that Keanu wouldn’t be coming back, so that was a welcome surprise. 

Really, I’m just excited about having a better reason to return to Night City than new apartments and a cool jacket. Of course I can just jump back in whenever I want, but Night City isn’t really a sandbox. It’s not GTA Online, or Skyrim, where chaos reigns supreme. It’s a stage, and it needs a script to give it life. I still love driving beneath its spires and gaudy holograms, or taking road trips out to the desert where you get the best views, but there are only so many screenshots I can be arsed taking. It’s a city in want of some more stories. 

But it’s going to be under a lot of scrutiny. Mostly from players who just want it to be good, but also from those looking for another reason to tear into the studio. After The Witcher 3, CDPR became one of the most beloved developers around, but as soon as there was blood in the water that reputation couldn’t protect it. The gulf between the pre-release promises and the final product means there are grudges now. 

Historically, especially on PC, folks have a lot of patience for jank. Sometimes it’s even appealing. Huge companies like Bethesda have been given a significant amount of leeway, and Skyrim’s enduring popularity certainly wasn’t down to polish. But Cyberpunk 2077 crossed an invisible line and was stuck with a bad reputation that’s taken a lot of time to repair. 

Since the troubled launch in December 2020 a great deal of work has been done to improve the base game, but players are hungry for something new. The Witcher 3’s exceptional DLC set a high bar, and this is the first major opportunity for the studio to show what it’s learned from its mistakes. There’s also the context of Cyberpunk 2077’s multiplayer mode, which was at one point scheduled for this year, being cancelled entirely following the launch. Issues that could have been overlooked in another game won’t be getting a free pass here.

No doubt CD Projekt is feeling the pressure from shareholders, too. In July, the company’s stock had dropped to a quarter of what it was before Cyberpunk 2077 launched. The hit to its reputation spooked people, but public perception was far from the only issue. The last-gen console versions were in such a dire state that Sony removed Cyberpunk 2077 from the PS Store, removing millions of potential customers from the pool. That didn’t stop it from raking in the cash, of course, and development costs had already been recouped before launch, but sales still saw a dramatic decline, according to CD Projekt itself, after it came out. 

The hype was potent enough that none of the issues were enough to topple the company and it remains one of Poland’s heaviest hitters, but I doubt it can afford another stumble. Phantom Liberty is due out at some point in 2023, and hopefully this time it isn’t pushed out the door before it’s ready. It’s going to be an uphill struggle, though, and while deciding not to release the expansion on last-gen consoles absolutely seems like the right call, it does mean it’s already disappointing people again. Phantom Liberty is a chance for some measure of redemption for CDPR: but only the best will do.

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