Tuesday, 28 Mar 2023

What Do We Actually Want From A Cyberpunk 2077 Sequel?

The Witcher 3 and Cyberpunk 2077 are getting sequels. That isn't surprising. But the sheer amount of sequels CD Projekt Red announced is a bit of a shock.

This week, the developer outlined its plans for what is almost certainly the next ten years or more of its output. That list included a game in a new series, codenamed Hadar, plus a new Witcher trilogy, a separate triple-A Witcher game developed outside CDPR, and the previously announced Witcher spin-off from Molasses Flood. The announcement also included confirmation that the next Cyberpunk game, codenamed Orion, is in the works.

I've written previously that it's a mistake for CDPR to abandon Cyberpunk 2077 after just one expansion. I still think that's true and I hope that the success of Edgerunners pushes the developer to reconsider. But, assuming it doesn't, Orion will be the next major game in the series. Whatever happens, the announcement has me beginning to think about what I would want to see in the next game in the Cyberpunk series. The answer to that is surprisingly simple: I want what 2077 promised.

In the lead-up to launch, CDPR pitched Cyberpunk 2077 as a choice-driven RPG in which you could determine your own destiny. In practice, that wasn't really true. The player character, V, had a set personality that only changed slightly depending on your decisions. There weren't many opportunities to actually roleplay in dialogue and when those decisions did arise, they were rarely consequential. Though the game did offer a ton of different endings, your choices rarely made much of a difference during the actual playthrough. Choices that only have consequences when you're about to roll credits aren't choices you will have to live with.

What I love most about Western RPGs is the ability — through the character sheet, through play style, and through dialogue choices — to determine who your character is. As much as Cyberpunk 2077 gestures at this kind of choice, it just doesn't do a good job of actually supporting it. Stealth and hacking are unsatisfying, V will always be basically the same character, and the origin story you pick (ostensibly, the game's biggest nod to the consequential choice) just doesn't matter much. If CDPR is going to return to this universe again, I hope its approach to character creation and role-play is significantly more open-ended than it is in the first game.

Cyberpunk 2077 often feels like it's pushing back against the player's desire for self-expression and that's especially true while attempting to explore its open-world. As I've written about before, the city is a glittering shell. Strolling down the streets is an often gorgeous, sense-overloading experience. But nearly every door you see on the street is locked (even if it has a neon open sign shining next to it). It remains to be seen how much CDPR has really learned from Cyberpunk 2077's botched launch (and announcing that its going to release a full trilogy of triple-A RPGs in six years suggests not enough), but I hope the studio has internalized the idea that it's better to have a smaller, more detailed, more playable game, than one with a giant, buggy, and empty world.

When CDPR was first showing off Cyberpunk 2077 gameplay behind closed doors at E3 2018, one of the most exciting features was the inclusion of the ability to wall run and climb on buildings using mantis blades. That got cut en route to hitting the 2020 deadline, but it would be wonderful to see these traversal options (and the openness of design that they suggest) return in the sequel.

Cyberpunk 2077 never turned out to be what CDPR had promised. But the good news is that the second game in a series has, historically, been an opportunity for studios to right the ship. Uncharted 2, Assassin's Creed 2, Mass Effect 2, Half-Life 2 — the history of video games is full of sequels where the developers took everything they learned on the first game and used it as a foundation to build something truly special. I hope the next Cyberpunk is no exception.

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