There’s definitely a Syd Mead vibe to CD Project Red’s future-noir RPG Cyberpunk 2077. The typical response to the game’s visuals is to dismiss it as simply indebted to the film Blade Runner but I think it leans more towards Syd Mead’s pre-production paintings and his artwork outside the film, while magnified by inspiration from 1970s art for Judge Dredd’s Mega-City One, various Heavy Metal strips like The Long Tomorrow, and stuff like Geoff Darrow’s Hard Boiled graphic novel. Although I must confess I get an endless kick out of waiting at pedestrian crossings and the ambient audio telling me “walk/Don’t walk” straight out of Ridley’s film. But even casually describing its inspiration, one cannot fathom the mindboggling amount work and artistry in transferring it all to a videogame. Its astonishing; a relentlessly fascinating world to immerse oneself in.
What these screenshots from my initial paythrough cannot show is the HDR, the flickering neon lights and atmosphere animation, the ambient sounds of electronics, vehicular traffic, foreign voices, advertising and video that assaults the senses. The architecture and design of the streets is immensely convincing and impressive: it feels solid, thought-out. It has depth. I can imagine the game artists thinking they were designing a Ridley Scott film from his Alien/Blade Runner era- detail piled upon detail. They even have magazines at vendors, the covers all designed for me to linger and stare at, in just the same way that Ridley had mocked-up future magazines for on-set detail in Blade Runner that we never see in the actual movie, but they are there.
I’ve totalled about twelve hours play according to my stats but so much of that has just been me ignoring the main gameplay narrative and just walking around the streets, through markets and sometimes driving around, soaking it all up, the experience of it. I’m playing it wrong, obviously- or maybe not. The developers wouldn’t invest so much effort into creating this Night City if they didn’t want to distract players at every turn with its sights and sounds, to bewitch those of us attuned to it with its sheer beauty and detail. Sure, a lot of it is just surface stuff, you can’t enter every doorway and there are sometimes bugs evident in crowd behaviour but I can easily look past that and just enjoy the atmosphere of walking through this impossible city. If you were to show this to me in the 1980s, back when I was playing games on my Amiga and watching Blade Runner on VHS I would have been incredulous. These images aren’t pre-renders, these are all in-game captures during my exploration, walking around.
Cyberpunk 2077 has a pretty mixed reputation; it’s launch is still notorious all these months later – I cancelled my original pre-order when it became clear how broken it was on the then-current gen consoles. It was clearly a game whose ambitions outreached the machines most of us owned at the time, and even those lucky few with the new machines discovered it wasn’t properly coded for them yet. Late last year I finally got hold of a Series X and when the next-gen patch (so late it would be better described as the new current-gen) was released, the game received a soft relaunch and reduced to half-price. I took the plunge and haven’t looked back. I’m not sure I’m getting the most out of its finer details as an RPG regards character perks etc and to be honest many of the game mechanics zip over my head (I really miss the good old days of detailed game manuals) but as an audio-visual experience I’m just knocked out by it. There is something just too tempting about just ignoring the games prompts to continue the narrative proper or its many sub-mission diversions, and instead just take a look around that next corner. Walk down that street or alley-way, see where those staircases take me.
It isn’t a Grand Theft Auto set in the future, and much of the criticism directed at the game is just that: that the game isn’t what many/most gamers expected it to be. I recall cautioning people on forums before it was released that this would be something different, simply because CD Project Red makes RPGs (The Witcher series being extremely popular). Maybe it should have been closer to the Deus Ex series of games, maybe it would have had a happier landing. But as it stands now, with some (most?) of its launch bugs sorted out, its really pretty great, and as for its main storyline/campaign, I’m enjoying it very much, its got some interesting twists and takes on the technology and politics. Somebody will probably make a decent film out of it someday. Videogames are like comics: just waiting to be movies. I suppose the opposite is also true, movies waiting to be videogames, and yes, this does at times feel like a Blade Runner videogame cheekily without the license (if someone made a mod in which players could walk around hunting down Replicants, then Cyberpunk 2007 would probably be perfect).