For better or worse, in the year of our lord two-thousand and twenty-three, video games are now seldom complete products. They grow, evolve, and change over time – and in many ways, challenge the traditional wisdom of giving out end-of-year awards. Is there a better example of this than Cyberpunk 2077?
Even Baldur’s Gate 3, as mind-bogglingly good as it was from the moment of release, has changed tremendously over the last couple of months – tweaking, changing, adding. It had several years of early access, too. My personal game of the year for 2023, Street Fighter 6, is released with the explicit understanding that it will grow in size – probably as much as double – over the course of its lifetime.
Cyberpunk 2077 originally released in 2020, and, well… you all know how that went. I was one of the people who was hoodwinked, to put it mildly, by CD Projekt’s approach to the review process. I played it on my high-spec PC and thought it was pretty great, with classic open world launch bugs that I figured would be ironed out over time. I ended up giving it a positive review on my other website.
On VG247, James was even more glowing, and gave it a 5-star rating that instantly attracted a wave of abuse once it became clear how broken it was on the console versions CD Projekt never let us see. I even ended up writing a ‘review addendum’ warning people not to conflate a positive PC score with the PlayStation and Xbox versions; something I’ve never done before.
But three years later, it’s fair to say that it’s a very different game. And, here’s the thesis of this article: I think if you look at all the games released in 2020 now, and think about which I recommend somebody play above all others… Cyberpunk 2077 is, indeed, 2020’s game of the year.
Nobody would’ve argued it back then, obviously. The bugs and problems were too apparent, even if one could see the great game behind them, keen to burst forth. But even if we put 2023’s new addition, expansion Phantom Liberty, to one side… I think this is the best game that was released in 2020. With Cyberpunk’s version 2.0, the game is finally fulfilling its full potential. That realization allows it to outstrip my 2020 game of the year Final Fantasy 7 Remake and other contenders like Streets of Rage 4, Microsoft Flight Simulator, The Last of Us Part 2, and Animal Crossing New Horizons.
None of this entirely absolves CD Projekt RED of the sins of 2020, obviously. The truth is, this game shouldn’t have been released at all on the last-generation consoles – and the company has to live in the knowledge that, had it owned that, it may have released to be one of the most beloved games around, much as The Witcher 3 did. That’s likely a bitter pill to swallow, especially when combined with the ritual humiliation that followed the game’s release. We should forgive, but not forget. It’s an important lesson for developers, publishers, and even media everywhere. It’s a cautionary tale for some fans on the dangers of hype, also.
But it is to CDPR’s credit that it didn’t just ride off into the sunset with its tail between its legs and return straight to The Witcher for a quick shot of goodwill. The company wanted to rescue its reputation, and the Cyberpunk IP – and so they put the hours in. The end result is undeniable.
In the pantheon of video game turn-arounds, this stands tall. It’s up there with Final Fantasy 14, except I don’t really think that counts, because the release of FF14: A Realm Reborn was not fixing an old game, but instead building an all-new game in record time and simply replacing the old with the new for free. The only remotely similar case of a launched game benign repaired in real time around a player base I can even think of is that of No Man’s Sky – a similarly towering achievement.
Add on the fact that expansion Phantom Liberty is legitimately one of 2023’s best video games all on its own, and the strength of Cyberpunk can no longer be denied, I think. When I look back on 2020 in the years to come, this will be its most stand-out game – but only with an understanding of what came after.